Laura Hollis / Feb. 13, 2020

James Carville Is Right: Democrats Should Be Panicking

Legendary Democratic strategist James Carville was interviewed by Vox's Sean Illing last week after Carville's doom-and-gloom jeremiad on MSNBC got a lot of people's attention.

Legendary Democratic strategist James Carville was interviewed by Vox’s Sean Illing last week after Carville’s doom-and-gloom jeremiad on MSNBC got a lot of people’s attention. In his inimitable fashion, Carville warned that Democrats’ love affair with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is sending the party hurtling toward resounding defeat in November.

“Bernie Sanders isn’t a Democrat,” Carville insisted. “He’s never been a Democrat. He’s an ideologue.”

Carville clearly thinks that Sanders has moved the party too far to the left, and he sharply criticized all the candidates’ fixation with ideas that resonate only with the party’s far-left wing, like “free college tuition” and student “debt forgiveness.” “(P)eople all over this country worked their way through school, sent their kids to school, paid off student loans,” he said. “They don’t want to hear this s—. … It’s just not a winning message.”

Carville also chastised Democrats for their condescension toward Southerners and rural Americans. And he warned that trying to be the lefty flavor du jour risks alienating a core constituency: African Americans. “These voters are a hell of a lot more important than a bunch of 25-year-olds shouting everyone down on Twitter.”

Carville’s rant earned plenty of praise from Republicans on Twitter. But even a quick read makes it clear that Carville isn’t necessarily opposed to the ideas that the most “progressive” Democrats are pitching. He’s just warning Democrats not to tip their hand too soon: “We have candidates on the debate stage talking about open borders and decriminalizing illegal immigration. … 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. … The purpose of a political party is to acquire power. All right? Without power, nothing matters.”

But it likely doesn’t matter much anyway. Carville, like his protege former President Bill Clinton, is considered by many on the left to be a vestige of another era.

Take The New Republic, for example. In an article titled “The obsolete politics of James Carville,” author Ed Burmila attacks Carville’s abundance of caution, saying, “This is endemic among liberals of the Clinton 1990s vintage, the insistence that their caricatured ideal of the working class cannot stomach the sort of change the left wing of the party prefers.”

In other words, “OK, boomer.”

Burmila clearly thinks that this is the far-left’s moment, and he is not alone. Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and plenty of other Democrats on the scene maintain that the time for Clintonesque “triangulation” and the delicate dance of campaign dissembling is past, that voters are ready to accept all those “crazy” ideas that Carville dismisses as electoral suicide: open borders, taxpayer-funded abortion, single-payer health care, skyrocketing taxation and — yeah, baby, yeah — full-throated socialism.

Good luck with that.

This is a problem of the Democratic Party’s own making. In recent years, it has pandered to the leftmost wing of its voter base. No idea has been too extreme, as long as it gets voters to the polls. And if the Democratic National Committee’s eventual candidate isn’t “progressive” enough? Well, where else are those voters going to go?

But 2016 was a watershed year for Democrats. The momentum was clearly swinging Bernie Sanders’ way during the primaries. It didn’t matter; the nomination of the deeply unpopular Hillary Clinton was a foregone conclusion. Bernie played good soldier and threw his support behind Clinton. A big chunk of his supporters did not, and they have long memories.

This year, Democratic voters appear poised to do what Republican voters did in 2016. Republicans were fed up with GOP candidates’ fervent promises on the campaign trail and tepid performance in office, and they went in droves for Donald Trump.

This year, the uber-left has decided to hold the Democratic Party’s feet to the fire.

Predictably, Democratic candidates have stumbled over one another trying to establish their socialist bona fides. Sen. Kamala Harris promised to effectively repeal the Second Amendment from the Oval office, set drug prices and confiscate patents. Elizabeth Warren’s many “plans” have included taxes that would gouge smaller businesses, not millionaires and billionaires, and policies that would destroy retirees’ pensions.

But these folks are Johnny-come-latelies, and voters on the left know it. So avowed socialist Bernie Sanders (who was defending bread lines before it was cool) now finds himself the front-runner in a field of candidates, none of whom can crack 30% of the votes in their own party — and who will almost certainly not get a majority of Electoral College votes in the general election.

Why? The economy is booming. President Donald Trump’s popularity is increasing. The impeachment debacle damaged Democrats, not Trump. More to the point, Trump voters (including a lot of converts to the cause) are fiercely loyal. And they, too, have been paying attention to the Democratic Party’s listing leftward, if primary turnout is any indication. Trump received 97% of the Republican vote in the Iowa caucuses, and in this week’s New Hampshire primary, he broke a 40-year record for the most votes cast for an incumbent president (about 130,000) well in excess of the number of votes cast for incumbent Presidents Barack Obama (about 49,000), George Bush (about 54,000) or Bill Clinton (about 77,000).

It’s too early to predict whether Sanders will keep this momentum going, or whether Joe Biden will miraculously rebound from two embarrassing losses, or whether newcomers former Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar will ride the wave of their strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire to broader voter appeal. What does seem to be clear is that no one in the current crop of Democratic candidates appears to have what it takes to trounce Trump.

James Carville is right to be panicking.

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