Message Man : After the Pennsylvania ‘miracle,’ Democrats hope James Carville can help them win the White House.
James Carville and Paul Begala are tossing around some harpoons they’d like to aim at George Bush in 1992.
Carville waves his arms in big circles, his voice gets louder, his Southern accent more pronounced as the fantasy of the television commercial grows:
“I can see a big flame--a red flare in the sky over the capital--with a voice saying: ‘Why, what’s that? The government in Washington says it cares about you, but do we have to send up a flare to remind them that the people need national health care; that they can’t afford to pay for their kids’ education, that the people. . . . ‘ “
But why should anyone care what this Batman and Robin of the Democratic Party have to say about Bush?
Carville is this election season’s success story among the brotherhood of political advisers, the 5,000 Svengalis who, according to myth, take lumps of clay and mold them into senators, governors and sometimes even a President.
Along with Begala and the media team of David Doak and Bob Shrum, Carville helped the darkest of horses, Harris Wofford, slaughter Dick Thornburgh, a George Bush surrogate if there ever was one, in last month’s U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania.
While the voters picked Wofford, not Carville, Democratic insiders are analyzing the results differently. For in the loosest of political terms, Carville beat a sort-of Bush and some Democrats are interested in how Carville would dislodge the real thing from the White House in 1992.
“We’ve loooooooong been among the few Democratic consultants who don’t think ’92 has to be a Bush coronation,” says Carville, barely containing a Cheshire cat smile just this side of evil.
The phone rings persistently these days in Carville’s “headquarters,” a cluttered basement apartment on Capitol Hill. Three Democratic presidential candidates have been flirting, and Carville and Begala have been weighing the best fit.
The team was hired Monday by Arkansas Gov. William Clinton as general campaign consultants. Of the “message men,” George Stephanopoulis, a Clinton aide, said “we think they (Carville and Begala) are tough but fair. That’s the kind of campaign we’re going to run.”
Carville says he ultimately decided to join the Clinton campaign because it had vigorously pursued him and Begala: “They really wanted us.”
But Carville’s prominence, though he would be the first to suggest its temporal nature, begs the question of whether he has some sort of magic touch--rough-and-tumble as it may be--that can help a Democrat win next year.
Is James Carville really the Democratic Lee Atwater--as he is often labeled in the echo chamber of the Establishment media? Can Carville do for a Democrat what Atwater, the wunderkind handler of 1980s GOP politics, did for Bush--help frame a message, fashion the candidate and get down and dirty to win?
Carville, 47, says a lot depends whether the candidate will ring true on the stump. And whether he’ll let the handlers have a free reign--as Bush did Atwater and GOP adviser Roger Ailes--to play up the preppie-from-Connecticut as a pork-rind-eating, country-music-listening Texan.
But as much as the Democratic candidate must portray a good image, Carville says, the nominee must also use a red flare to get across a positive message.
“When people stay up late at night, they worry more about how to pay for an education than how to pay for an abortion,” he says, repeating a line that has turned up in several of his clients’ speeches. “Yet the people of this country see Washington spending more time on so-called social issues.”
Democrats, he says, must lay aside their passion for social and cultural issues such as abortion, gay rights, arts funding and suck in their elitist guts to find ways to appeal to the middle class. Not the poor, not the special-interest groups, not liberals--but the broadest definition of people who see themselves as middle class and are hanging on by their credit cards under the strain of recession.
Though not a completely novel strategy, Carville now has a record of making it work--most dramatically in Pennsylvania, but also elsewhere.
Clearly, George Bush is groping to reassure middle-class voters that he hasn’t forgotten them. With Atwater, his touchstone, gone, Bush seems bereft of down-to-earth aides who can help him do it. But insiders agree he needs to show a little empathy for those folks and to get across the all-important message that the economy is not as bad as it now looks. A quick trip, like the President made last weekend, to buy socks at J. C. Penney may not do it.
The legend of Carville is that he mentally lives in K mart and moves campaign messages in terms of people he finds there; that he prefers USA Today over the elite press, and blue jeans and sneakers over the dark suits of politics.
His desk always smothered with old clippings and dirty sneakers, Carville is not known as a detail man. Sidekick Begala, 30, is the orderly one, marshaling the troops and translating his partner’s political divining rod into speeches written in neat, boxy script.
Carville is also legendary for driving disciplined campaign messages into a candidate’s every speech, visible event and TV news clip. “It’s like hornets all around you,” says one former opponent.
But mostly, Carville is known for kneecapping the opponent. In the last six years, in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Georgia and New Jersey, he has nudged underdog clients to go for the jugular. No holds barred, except one: He says he has not and will not use race as an issue.
In helping Robert P. Casey capture the Pennsylvania governor’s seat in 1986, Carville loosened conservative support for Casey’s opponent, William Scranton II, with a television spot that showed Scranton as a young man in the 1970s, looking like a counterculture wacko who said he wanted to put transcendental meditation into government.
The 1988 New Jersey Senate race, in which Carville advised incumbent Frank Lautenberg, turned into one of the smarmiest in state history. One Lautenberg ad used footage of Republican challenger Pete Dawkins, who moved to New Jersey a year before the election, saying how much he loved the state and denying he was a carpetbagger. After focus groups of voters found Dawkins’ speaking style phony, Carville came up with a kicker to the ad: “C’mon Pete,” says an announcer, “be real.”
To explain the current Carville phenomena, fast-forward to the early days of Wofford’s campaign in Pennsylvania, to how he helped a novice who was 44 points behind in the polls end up 10 points ahead.
Like method-acting teacher Lee Strasberg--who broke down actors and put them back together again--Carville took Wofford, an abstract thinker with a professorial manner, and showed him how to be sloganeering, tightly focused.
Says Begala: “Any competent consultant, myself included, would have told Harris (Wofford) the rules--focus, focus, focus, hammer, hammer, hammer. But instead of taking Harris with a choke-chain like a German shepherd, he appealed to his intelligence and got under his skin.”
An adviser to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and former president of two colleges, Wofford evolved from a classic liberal Democrat into an economic populist. Critics say Wofford devolved into something he wasn’t: That the co-founder of the Peace Corps spouting a slogan like “It’s time to take care of our own” was xenophobic. Or that his wildly successful line, “If criminals have a right to a lawyer, I think working Americans should have a right to a doctor,” leveraged the anxiety among the middle class against the lower class.
But Begala insists Wofford has long had a solid record devoted to middle-class issues and that while the consultants used polling data to isolate issues, it was Wofford who demanded that national health insurance, though only fifth among voters’ concerns, be his campaign’s centerpiece.
Much of Wofford’s success must also be credited to a confluence of exterior events--a dour economic environment and Dick Thornburgh’s campaign. The former U.S. Attorney General’s position that he knew the “corridors of power"--and some say his arrogant air--turned on him, especially after a Wofford commercial linked him to the “mess in Washington.”
Other Thornburgh aides say his campaign made a mistake trying to anticipate Carville’s next hit instead of attacking.
“We spent too much time waiting and ducking James Carville,” says a Thornburgh supporter, who asked to remain anonymous. “In the meantime, Wofford’s attack dogs ate our message.”
The cult of Carville, an ex-Marine and law school graduate who has more unofficial tags than most prizefighters--from the Ragin’ Cajun to Attila the Hun of the Left to Rasputin--is as big and perhaps as oversized as the man himself.
A tall, muscular runner who is always in motion, Carville is also always ready with outrage. The flip side of his at-times overbearing personality is that he, like Atwater and Ailes, has at times become the issue himself, with some of his work boomeranging against his clients. And he has quite a temper. At one point in an interview he lights into the pundits; in another minute he turns on himself:
“I’ll die before I turn into one of those guys in a tie, down at the Gucci Gulch, testifying before some Congressional subcommittee.”
But later he calls back to explain his fear is not so much the tie but that he could be “gobbled up by Washington.”
Carville’s earliest political experience was ripping down signs of an opponent, as a Catholic high school student in southern Louisiana. He grew up in a hamlet outside of Baton Rouge, called Carville, where his father and grandmother were postmaster and the biggest institution was a leper hospital.
By college, which took seven years, he graduated to chauffeuring a district attorney candidate. But it wasn’t until after law school, when Carville was in his mid-30s, that he took up campaign consulting full time. One of his first candidates promoted himself saying: “I want ya, I need ya, I love ya.” Laughing, Carville says he deserves no credit for that.
“You know I’m probably one of the few people who you know who actually likes politicians,” he confesses. “In fact, I love them. They’re risk-takers; the ones in Louisiana were really interested in stuff.”
One hitch in his ambition could be his personal life: For almost a year, Carville has been in a relationship with Mary Matalin, the Republican National Committee chief of staff and one of 25 people Bush invited to Camp David this summer to brainstorm about his reelection campaign.
Matalin, 38, declined to comment, but Carville, sounding a bit like a country-Western singer, downplayed potential conflict:
“People get together for reasons other than to find people of their sameness. We (political consultants) are hard-rock and tough, but you know, we fall in love too.”