James Carville


March 11, 2002

The Ragin' Cajun savages spineless Democrats, journalists who suck up to Bush and the GOP politicians who brought us Enron.

From the beginning of the Clinton presidency, James Carville was the administration's attack dog, defending the president and Hillary Clinton against their enemies in both parties, and in the media. But Sept. 11 blunted even Carville's political edge, a little. Last fall, a memo he co-authored with his consulting partners Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum urged Democrats "to support the president and set a tone that lacks a sharp partisan quality," backing Bush on the war while supporting Democratic stands on Social Security and education and health care reform. And on Chris Matthews' "Hardball" last month, he resisted criticizing Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric and his apparent plan to spread the war beyond Afghanistan, even as Matthews railed against it.

Warning Democrats away from "sharp partisan" stands seemed positively un-Carville and indeed, when he spoke to Salon last week, he'd changed his tune a little. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had just survived a scorched-earth GOP assault on his patriotism for asking mild questions about Bush's war in Afghanistan, and the experience seemed to have awakened Carville's inner partisan warrior. He talked to Salon about how Sept. 11 did and didn't change the political landscape, what Al Gore did wrong and what kind of candidate he thinks should lead the Democratic Party in 2004.

The morning of Sept. 11, just before the attacks, you were meeting with reporters to go over polling numbers. And things were looking good for the Democrats. You'd found that 43 percent of those polled thought President Bush was "in over his head" at that point. But six months later, a lot has changed -- Bush has had approval ratings between 80 and 90 percent ...

That's no longer true -- he dropped about 10 points in the last week.

That's right, I saw that yesterday. But clearly, Bush would be having a very different presidency without this war. Did Sept. 11 change everything politically?

I don't have the memo we did [before Sept. 11] in front of me, but some things are the same. I think we saw that back then, people thought Bush was just in it for the powerful, and that's what we're still urging Democrats to talk about now.

What I'm suggesting is, stand for yourself, be for something , and the hell with it. Because the hand-wringers and the editorialists and the sigh-and-pontificate crowd will be against you, whatever you do. But look, if Tom DeLay was a Democrat, we would control the House.

But is it really that simple? I have an ideological question for you. I know you're a populist, but you were a Clinton person, and there's no question that Clinton pulled the party to the center -- in ways that it probably needed to, to win the White House again. But it also cut the party off from its left-wing base. I think part of the reason the Republicans are so strong is that they're well connected to their rabid right-wing base, the zealots and the maniacs.


And the left is so dysfunctional, I'm not sure how the Democrats could connect to it, but it seems the lack of an ideological base keeps the party from drawing a line in the sand and fighting as hard as Republicans do.

Well, I don't know. Look, there are choices people have to make in politics and public policy. And when Bill Clinton had choices to make, he generally came down on the side of the working poor. He wasn't the best friend that the rich had, and he wasn't the best friend that the poorest of the poor had -- he wasn't terrible, but ... basically, more often than not, he was a very good president for people making between, say, $7,500 and $45,000 a year. The best ever probably.

I've been reading reviews of Joe Klein's book ["The Natural : The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton"], by Jonathan Yardley and Richard Cohen, saying how Clinton disappointed them. They act like the whole world is what they think. But of all the things in the world that I care about, I just don't really care if Jonathan Yardley and Richard Cohen are disappointed. I mean, they're not bad people, but what I really care about is that a woman who cleans bedpans in a hospital has health insurance, or has a better life. Now if that's what I care about, I gotta be a Clinton person.

But one of Clinton's problems was, the interest groups don't care about the working poor. The Republicans don't care about the working poor -- they don't know any. The Op-Ed writers don't care about the working poor. The editorial writers don't care about the working poor. The talking heads don't care about the working poor. Now the disabled have a lobby in Washington, the charities do, the welfare people -- they all have lobbyists. The folks who wanted to get rid of the capital gains and the estate tax certainly had a lobby. But Clinton's entire constituency -- well, there are about 30 people in Washington who care about them.

The problem wasn't so much with Clinton, though. He was mostly able to placate his left -- sure, people quit over the welfare bill, but he mostly kept folks in line. Liberals and lefties felt like he was one of them, deep down. Black people had a cultural affinity with him. He was able to convince the left that he was trying to do the right thing, even if it didn't look like it. But then you get someone like Gore, who isn't able to telegraph that he cares about that constituency and people can't get excited about him. And now there's no one who has the fire to take a leadership role and stand up to Republicans on much of anything.

Look, I agree. But we've got a lot of people in this party. And I think there's a real hunger in the party, and in the country, for someone who's gonna stand up for them, stand up and fight for something.

Who might that be? Do you have a candidate for 2004?

You know what? I'm for the person who can stand up and articulate where this party ought to go, who can do it in a tough way, who's not saying something one day and apologizing the next. I'll be for that person. But first let's give them all a chance to do it.

So you don't have a candidate yet?

No, I don't have a candidate. But hey look, it could be somebody who -- I don't care what they did in the past, I care what they're doing now. It's a new world, so let's have at it.

Why aren't Democrats standing up and saying Republicans caused it? Will the Washington Post write some mealy-mouthed story saying, "Well, you shouldn't really say that!" Of course, but who cares? Will cocktail parties decry the return of partisanship in Washington? Of course they will, but what difference does it make? None! You'll get your message out. But Democrats in Washington are completely mortified that somebody's gonna say something bad about them at a dinner party in Cleveland Park on a Saturday night. You tell them there's an Op-Ed piece coming out, with somebody saying they're being divisive, and they'll fall apart. But that's what Republicans do. Look at the way they talk about 'Clinton caused Sept. 11.' They don't have any facts -- we have facts to prove otherwise -- but they just do it anyway.

Do you think there really was a "vast right-wing conspiracy," to use Hillary Clinton's famous term?

Of course there was. Who doesn't think that?

I think the media depicted it as a crazy, over-the-top exaggeration.

They just say that. They don't think it. Who in the media could think there wasn't a vast right-wing conspiracy? Anybody with a brain knows there was, and much vaster than anyone anticipated.

You never anticipated it?

Oh, I did.

In '92 ?

I don't know about in '92, but by '93 or '94, I sat down with the Washington Post and did a chart. Look it up. I called it "the puke-funnel theory."

The what?

"The puke-funnel theory." Look it up in Lexis-Nexis. C'mon. Does anybody really think that Ken Starr wasn't part of it? Now we find out Robert Ray, his supposedly nonpartisan successor, is running for Senate in New Jersey. You know, when I pointed out all these things about Starr, the media went crazy. But I kept doing it, and you know what? I was right. And it worked. You can't let chitchat at a cocktail party determine what a major party is gonna do and not do. You can't be intimidated by cocktail chitchat.

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