James Carville is “scared to death” of the November 2020 election.
In a rant on MSNBC that went viral on Tuesday evening, the longtime Democratic strategist vented his concerns about the party’s prospects for beating Donald Trump, taking particular aim at the party’s leftward lurch.
“Eighteen percent of the population controls 52 Senate seats,” Carville said. “We’ve got to be a majoritarian party. The urban core is not gonna get it done. What we need is power! Do you understand? That’s what this is about.”
His diatribe took place against the backdrop of an Iowa caucus that had fallen into chaos and amid a rancorous ongoing debate among Democrats over the party’s direction. He took particular aim at Sen. Bernie Sanders, who he fears could lead the party to defeat in November.
Carville’s lament distills a concern among the Democratic Party’s establishment: Will ideological purity and playing to the base cost the Democrats victory in November? For Carville, at least, “We have one moral imperative, and that’s to beat Donald Trump.” That his comments went viral speaks to the sense of urgency among Democrats, even as it only fuels the debate over the direction of the party.
I spoke with Carville this week by phone. We discussed where he thinks the Democrats went wrong, what it will take to build a majoritarian party in this climate, and why he doesn’t have a lot of confidence in the current field of candidates.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Why are you “scared to death” about the 2020 election?
Look, the turnout in the Iowa caucus was below what we expected, what we wanted. Trump’s approval rating is probably as high as it’s been. This is very bad. And now it appears the party can’t even count votes. What the hell am I supposed to think?
I’ll just say it this way: The fate of the world depends on the Democrats getting their shit together and winning in November. We have to beat Trump. And so far, I don’t like what I see. And a lot of people I talk to feel the same way.
What’s gone wrong? Who’s responsible?
I don’t know. We just had an election in 2018. We did great. We talked about everything we needed to talk about, and we won. And now it’s like we’re losing our damn minds. Someone’s got to step their game up here.
What does that mean?
In 2018, Democrats recruited really strong candidates, really qualified candidates. And the party said, “This is what we’re going to talk about and we’re going to keep talking about it.” And you know what happened? We fucking won. We didn’t get distracted, we didn’t get deflected.
“The purpose of a political party is to acquire power. All right? Without power, nothing matters.”
Give me an example of what you mean by distractions.
We have candidates on the debate stage talking about open borders and decriminalizing illegal immigration. They’re talking about doing away with nuclear energy and fracking. You’ve got Bernie Sanders talking about letting criminals and terrorists vote from jail cells. It doesn’t matter what you think about any of that, or if there are good arguments — talking about that is not how you win a national election. It’s not how you become a majoritarian party.
For fuck’s sake, we’ve got Trump at Davos talking about cutting Medicare and no one in the party has the sense to plaster a picture of him up there sucking up to the global elites, talking about cutting taxes for them while he’s talking about cutting Medicare back home. Jesus, this is so obvious and so easy and I don’t see any of the candidates taking advantage of it.
The Republicans have destroyed their party and turned it into a personality cult, but if anyone thinks they can’t win, they’re out of their damn minds.
I wouldn’t endorse everything every Democrat is doing or saying, but are they really destroying the party? What does that even mean?
Look, Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat. He’s never been a Democrat. He’s an ideologue. And I’ve been clear about this: If Bernie is the nominee, I’ll vote for him. No question. I’ll take an ideological fanatic over a career criminal any day. But he’s not a Democrat.Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Milford, New Hampshire, on February 4, 2020. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
You know people are going to read this and say, “Carville backed Clinton in 2016. So did the Democratic establishment. They blew it in 2016. Why should I care what any of them think now?”
People will say anything. And first of all, Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million. And secondly, the Russians put Jill Stein in front of Clinton’s campaign to depress votes. And thirdly, the New York Times a week before an election, assured its readers that the Russians were not even trying to help Trump. And then they wrote 15,000 stories about Hillary’s emails.
But back to Sanders — what I’m saying is the Democratic Party isn’t Bernie Sanders, whatever you think about Sanders.
A lot of threads there. First, a lot of people don’t trust the Democratic Party, don’t believe in the party, for reasons you’ve already mentioned, and so they just don’t care about that. They want change. And I guess the other thing I’d say is, 2016 scrambled our understanding of what’s possible in American politics.
Are we really sure Sanders can’t win?
Who the hell knows? But here’s what I do know: Sanders might get 280 electoral votes and win the presidency and maybe we keep the House. But there’s no chance in hell we’ll ever win the Senate with Sanders at the top of the party defining it for the public. Eighteen percent of the country elects more than half of our senators. That’s the deal, fair or not.
So long as [Mitch] McConnell runs the Senate, it’s game over. There’s no chance we’ll change the courts, and nothing will happen, and he’ll just be sitting up there screaming in the microphone about the revolution.
The purpose of a political party is to acquire power. All right? Without power, nothing matters.
What’s the answer?
By framing, repeating, and delivering a coherent, meaningful message that is relevant to people’s lives and having the political skill not to be sucked into every rabbit hole that somebody puts in front of you.
The Democratic Party is the party of African Americans. It’s becoming a party of educated suburbanites, particularly women. It’s the party of Latinos. We’re a party of immigrants. Most of the people aren’t into all this distracting shit about open borders and letting prisoners vote. They don’t care. They have lives to lead. They have kids. They have parents that are sick. That’s what we have to talk about. That’s all we should talk about.
It’s not that this stuff doesn’t matter. And it’s not that we shouldn’t talk about race. We have to talk about race. It’s about how you deliver and frame the message. I thought Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” plan was great and the kind of thing the party could connect to people’s actual lives.
We have one moral imperative here, and that’s beating Trump. Nothing else matters.
“The fate of the world depends on the Democratic Party getting its shit together and winning in November”
So your complaint is basically that the party has tacked too far to the left?
They’ve tacked off the damn radar screen. And look, I don’t consider myself a moderate or a centrist. I’m a liberal. But not everything has to be on the left-right continuum. I love Warren’s day care plan just like I love Booker’s baby bonds. That’s the kind of stuff our candidates should explain and define clearly and repeatedly for voters and not get diverted by whatever the hell is in the air that day.
Here’s another stupid thing: Democrats talking about free college tuition or debt forgiveness. I’m not here to debate the idea. What I can tell you is that people all over this country worked their way through school, sent their kids to school, paid off student loans. They don’t want to hear this shit. And you saw Warren confronted by an angry voter over this. It’s just not a winning message.
The real argument here is that some people think there’s a real yearning for a left-wing revolution in this country, and if we just appeal to the people who feel that, we’ll grow and excite them and we’ll win. But there’s a word a lot of people hate that I love: politics. It means building coalitions to win elections. It means sometimes having to sit back and listen to what people think and framing your message accordingly.
That’s all I care about. Right now the most important thing is getting this career criminal who’s stealing everything that isn’t nailed down out of the White House. We can’t do anything for anyone if we don’t start there and then acquire more power.
Can I say one more thing about the cultural disconnect?
I want to give you an example of the problem here. A few weeks ago, Binyamin Appelbaum, an economics writer for the New York Times, posted a snarky tweet about how LSU canceled classes for the National Championship game. And then he said, do the “Warren/Sanders free public college proposals include LSU, or would it only apply to actual schools?”
You know how fucking patronizing that is to people in the South or in the middle of the country? First, LSU has an unusually high graduation rate, but that’s not the point. It’s the goddamn smugness. This is from a guy who lives in New York and serves on the Times editorial board and there’s not a single person he knows that doesn’t pat him on the back for that kind of tweet. He’s so fucking smart.
Appelbaum doesn’t speak for the Democratic Party, but he does represent the urbanist mindset. We can’t win the Senate by looking down at people. The Democratic Party has to drive a narrative that doesn’t give off vapors that we’re smarter than everyone or culturally arrogant.
A lot of Democratic candidates don’t talk like that. Warren doesn’t talk like that. Sanders doesn’t talk like that. Buttigieg doesn’t talk like that. Cory Booker never talked like that.
Warren knows her stuff, and I’m particularly hard on her, because she was the star pupil, the one who was smart, had a good story. But I think she gets distracted and loses her core anti-corruption message, which resonates. With a lot of these candidates, their consultants are telling them, “If you doubt it, just go left. We got to get the nomination.”
And then Biden gets in and blocks out good candidates like Cory Booker or Michael Bennet or Steve Bullock by occupying this mainstream lane. There just isn’t enough oxygen and they couldn’t get any traction. But these are serious people, professional people, and they could’ve delivered a winning message.
Are you confident that any of the remaining candidates can beat Trump?
I don’t know, I just don’t know. I’m hoping that someone gets knocked off their horse on the road to Damascus.
Buttigieg seems to model the sort of candidate you think can win.
Mayor Pete has to demonstrate over the course of a campaign that he can excite and motivate arguably the most important constituents in the Democratic Party: African Americans. These voters are a hell of a lot more important than a bunch of 25-year-olds shouting everyone down on Twitter.
I take all your points about power and the Senate and the need to be a majoritarian party. I just wonder where the limits are, especially in this media ecosystem where even the best Democratic messaging gets deformed and bastardized in right-wing media and thus never reaches the people Democrats need to reach, or at least doesn’t reach enough of them.
I think the other side wants us to think there are no swing voters, that we’re doomed and it doesn’t even matter if you have a message because you can’t reach anyone. I think that’s bullshit. I think that’s a wholly incorrect view of American politics. But look, if no one’s persuadable, then let’s just have the revolution.
Falling into despair won’t help anyone, though. I mean, you can curse the darkness or you can light a candle. I’m getting a fucking welding torch. Okay?
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