On James Carville and “The War Room”

by Jay Stevens 

James Carville has been in the news lately for attacking DNC chair Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy. It was a sort of foolish move. Chris Bowers has an excellent post about the brouhaha – or lack of one – and how Carville’s attempt to smear Dean may have been a bald try to make himself and his consultant kind still relevant in the face of a growing grassroots and locally based Democratic movement:

Carville and Begala generally represent an older tactical vision for the Democratic Party. This was a vision that was dominant from 1988-2004, when Democrats heavily employed triangulation, focused almost entirely on the narrow targeting of a few “swing” districts and demographics, and when television advertisements and repetitious talking points aimed mushy-middle, low information voters where the primary tools utilized in all national Democratic campaigns. Wealthy donors and high-level consultants liked that strategy because it kept money flowing to the latter in the form of hefty commissions, and because it kept Democratic policy where the former would like it to be. Most state parties and progressive activists hated that strategy because it basically dictacted that their electoral concerns were either not important, or something that the Democratic Party needed to actively distance itself from. Whatever ideological differences there may or may not be between the two feuding camps, ultimately their dispute is grounded in a difference in tactical vision: narrow targeting versus the fifty-state strategy.

Basically Dean’s 50-state strategy has given the “power” to local activists and state party chairs, which means less attention and money flowing to the DC-insider consultants. That is, Carville and the like.

So imagine my joy to finally get The War Room delivered by Netflix to my door this week. I could watch the film and candidacy that propelled Carville (and to a lesser extent, George Stephanopoulos) into the limelight.

From today’s perspective, the film is hardly revolutionary. There have been a number of other campaign documentaries, and the youthful vigor so prominently displayed in the film almost seems like a cliché, because the quick-talking spin-master and the operations room seems so common in campaigns now. There’s not much substance here, either. As Bowers wrote, Carville and the gang worked incessantly on superficial spin, targeted “swing” districts, and used television advertising to win. In effect they exploited mass media.

Consider this: Carville’s legacy is his strategic haiku that’s still in part mouthed by politicos everywhere:

Change vs. more of the same.
The economy, stupid.
Don’t forget health care.

That’s it. That’s Carville’s “genius.” Boil down the campaign into these simple words and bring everything back to them. It works, yes, but it’s the same type of genius responsible for pulpless orange juice.

But the thing that makes the movie is Carville’s personality. He shines in the flick. He’s indefatigable, earnest, saucy, and sentimental. He’s got this way of trashing someone in a playful way that says, “hey, we’re all friends here,” and allows him to say outrageous things without suffering repercussion. Because after all, he’s working for Bill Clinton and is pressed to spin an unending stream of scandals, notably in The War Room, Gennifer Flowers on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.

And the striking thing about Carville’s performance is the genuine emotion he put into this campaign. I was moved by his dedication to the ideals Clinton stood for. Here’s the review from the New York Times describing it:

Mr. Carville’s distinctive brand of Southern charm emerges equally clearly. “The country’s goin’ el busto,” he says flatly. “Fix it. If you can’t, get out of the way.” Since both he and Mr. Stephanopoulos appear to believe in that sentiment fervently, their strategy sessions are seen to go beyond the cynicism and dirty tricks associated with too many political campaigns. Confronted with the specter of Gennifer Flowers, Mr. Carville speaks fiercely to a small group of campaign workers in New England, telling them that if they let Mr. Clinton sink under the weight of such a story, they will be giving up their own hopes of changing the political process. That same motif is heard throughout the film, most movingly as a tearful Mr. Carville thanks his staff on election eve.

In an interview with Frontline, Carville reveals that he suffered personally more than the film cameras showed:

You write in your book that, on the morning of January 26, you woke up in the middle of the night sobbing uncontrollably. Why?

That was the morning of the 60 Minutes interview. I was 40 at the time. I’m 47 years old. I had reached almost the pinnacle of my career in political consulting. I was a guy that mattered in a presidential campaign. I had been sleeping on floors and running statewide campaigns — and it came down to the sex interview being the biggest event in the campaign. . . . And I didn’t know which way it was going to go. I was tired and I was scared. I was scared for the people I was working with, and I was scared for myself. . . . It was fatigue, it was fear, and it was like, God, is this what I’ve worked all of this for? Did I come this far to get to this? So I just kind of lost it; I just got emotional (laughs).

It’s interesting to note that this emotional outburst – the “60 Minutes” interview Carville mentions here is the one the Clintons candidly discuss his marital infidelities – is the outcome of Clinton’s candidacy, and ideals and hopes behind it, resting on the outcome of a sex scandal and Carville’s frustration with that fact.

That’s what the film shows: Carville is genuinely believes in Clinton and what he represented for America. Take this question from the Frontline interview concerning the Starr investigation and Clinton’s eventual impeachment proceedings:

A few hours before the election, when the governor was sure he was going to win, Ted Koppel interviewed the Clintons. In that interview, Mr. Clinton says, “I’m going to keep this zone of privacy, even as president.” Was that a naïve view at the time?

Frankly and honestly, yes. When you run for president, and become president, they just rip you apart. Every facade of privacy that you have is gone. I think everybody believes that, to some extent, you can maintain privacy. And I think in the end, everybody gets proven wrong. . . .

She was distraught. She said that things were dark. . . . And she said, “I don’t know how we are going to get through this. Can you help me?” And I said, “Damn right I can help you.” And then they start . . . railroading the whole thing. It was just another railroad job, over nothing more than a grown man acting stupid with a young woman and not wanting nobody to find out about it.

Investigating everything, FBI agents all over the place, squeezing people. You know something that has never been pointed out? In the last 78 indictments that Ken Starr handed down, he never got one conviction. Not one. Zero for 78.

. . . They were mustering people to vote for impeachment like it was going out of style. They politicized this thing to no end. They wanted to make it political? Fine. I’d be glad to jump in to a political fight with them. . . . This thing will never ever go away from me. Never, ever. This is one of the great injustices that has ever taken place. And I wasn’t coy about it. I didn’t try to hide it or anything else. I wrote a whole book about it.

The movie brings this out, starkly, that Carville believes in this campaign deeply, and that it represents hopeful opposition to the “sleazy cabal” of Republicans who operate on behalf of the wealthy against the working poor and the everyday American. And in his answers on the Lewinsky affair, it’s obvious he takes the attacks on his former boss seriously and personally and that it’s more than just a political battle here.

Combine that desire for revenge with Carville’s own deification after the Clinton win in 1992 — it was Stephanopoulos who said Carville would “pass from a regular human being into a hero” as a result of the campaign — and maybe what we’re seeing isn’t bald self-interest as it is hubris. The man still believes he’s a miracle worker, he still believes he’s the superstar activist of the Democratic party, and he’s loath to give up his say and miss his chance at sticking it to those that attacked Clinton and the country.

But lastly, and most of all, I recognized the emotions I recently experienced in the Montana Senate race: exhaustion, giddiness, calculated coldness, exhaltation and despair, and hope.

Carville to the campaign volunteers: “Outside of love, the most precious thing you can give of yourself is your labor…you people showed you could be trusted.”

  1. “…it’s the same type of genius responsible for pulpless orange juice.”

    Might I steal that line and claim it as my own? I like it.

    Point of curiosity – if we had not had a fifty state strategy, would Tester now be a Senator-elect?

    I am one who thinks that Democrats nationally tend to flock to the center and right, as that is what draws corporatea money. It’s why all the fuss about the eagle with two right wings. A fifty state strategy does allow for a broadening of the spectrum. I doubt that Rahm likes that at all.

  2. I don’t think Dems or anybody “tend to flock to the center and the right,” I think they, like anybody tends to gravitate towards security and prosperity.

    In the old system, before McCain-Feingold, big-corporate soft-money donations was the ticket to re-election and power. It’s easier getting a lot of money from a handful of supporters than it is getting a little money from a lot of supporters.

    The rules have changed, and it’s going to take a populist, grass-roots movement to get into office. That’s a good thing. That means people like us have more power in the system than we did before. Rahm and Schumer resisted the reality in the middle of the election term, but their comments since the election — and especially in backing Dean against Carville — show that they’re aware of the shift and are making overtures at compromise.

    Yes, I do think Tester’s victory can be in part laid at the feet of the 50-state strategy. Of course, because the race was so close, everything was important, Native Americans, rural counties, Missoula, the 50-state strategy, you, me.

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