What James Carville Knows

Political News

The Clintonista writes an op-ed warning Democrats not to neglect rising crime. His political realism may be having a moment.

James Carville speaks onstage during the 2019 Politicon at Music City Center on October 26, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Politicon )

I first became familiar with James Carville back in the early 2000s when he was on Crossfire. Those were the show’s thunderdome days, when the cameras soared over the cohosts and tense music blared in the background and the whole setup seemed like an answer to a question no one in human history had ever asked: “What The McLaughlin Group were directed by Michael Bay?” Carville was one of the “from the left” hosts whereas I was a young conservative, and I remember being irritated by his pugnacity. I also remember noticing that he sometimes wore jeans underneath the desk.

Today, Carville is something like a begrudged eminence grise of the Democratic Party. No one can dispute that he won that 1992 election for Bill Clinton, but then Democrats have about as much interest in reviving the Clinton years as they do in taking cues from Grover Cleveland. The party has moved on. Yet Carville is still there and he has developed a penchant for telling difficult truths. That’s what he did in the Wall Street Journal last week when he took up an issue no one else on the left wants to talk about: crime.

There’s a lot to object to in Carville’s piece, starting with its headline, “Democrats Are the Anticrime Party” (uh-huh). Carville all but credits Bill Clinton with the steep drop in crime that occurred during the 1990s even though the reasons for that plunge still aren’t fully understood. He attacks Donald Trump because the crime rate increased on his watch even though Trump had little control over that and in some places violent crime had already been going up for years (Baltimore’s murder rate, for example, jumped following the Freddie Gray riots in 2015). He claims that Trump is part and parcel of this crime wave, that he “broke laws, obstructed justice,” which is…rich coming from a signed-in-blood Clintonista.

Still, it’s hard to argue with Carville when he warns Democrats not to “pivot on crime. Own the issue or the issue will own you.” The man surely remembers the tough Democratic losses of the 1970s and ’80s when the far left was exerting influence and the party was seen as being too soft on social pathologies. And with Trump having injected some steel into the GOP’s law and order plank, with violent crime spiking across the country and expected to grow worse over the summer as COVID restrictions lift, Carville is worried this could prove a possible road to recovery for an ailing Republican Party.

“Own the issue or the issue will own you”—that’s just one of the maxims Carville has coined over the years. Famously, during the 1992 presidential campaign, he hung a sign on the wall of Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock that read, “The economy, stupid.” Staffers were encouraged to take that to heart, to focus like lasers on the economic recession at the expense of then-president George H.W. Bush. Also on the wall were two other commandments: “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.” That all of those could have been applied to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign or even Joe Biden’s 2020 run should signal that Carville knows something about winning elections. His thinking might be aphoristic, but then easy wisdom is often the easiest to forget.

American politics right now has entered an idealistic phase, perhaps its most idealistic since the 1960s. This is partially because so much seems so broken, partially because of social media which disconnect our conversations from real life, and partially because Donald Trump acted as a kind of projection screen for all our myriad desires and hatreds. The result has been one hell of a wild time. Leftists chatter earnestly about abolishing gender and defunding the police. Conservatives are reopening the book on just about every shibboleth they’ve ever had: free markets, originalism, even the American founding.

What James Carville knows is that just because the activists and pundits are talking this way doesn’t mean voters are. The laws of politics have not been suspended. Not a single swing voter gives a damn about white fragility or equity training. It’s still the economy, stupid, after all these decades. What Americans want are the usual things: a good job, stability for their families, low taxes, reliable health care, not to be pushed around, and, of course, to be safe when they go to sleep at night.

This is why, over the last 50 years, Democrats have tended to win elections on economic issues while Republicans have tended to win them on promises of security and safety. Both are of direct and immediate importance to voters’ day-to-day lives. Issues like abortion, say, and the national debt still matter—in fact, they matter immensely—but they don’t affect people on the same visceral level that an IRS form or a college tuition bill does.

There’s a Burkean streak to the American electorate, a sense that practical improvements are preferable to societal transformations, that it’s better to progress slowly and in pursuit of the familiar. “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper” and all that. Carville, though it’s difficult to imagine him in a powdered wig, seems to understand as much. It’s the same reason he told Vox.com that radical wokeness “is a problem and we all know it.” It’s the same reason he said in that same interview that Democrats should cool it with the “abolish the police” stuff because “almost f***** no one wants to do that.” Small-d democratic politics is the art of meeting people where they are and taking them where you want to go; widen the gap too much and you’re never going to clear it.

So is Carville right? Could crime ultimately hobble the Democrats? Early indications are that they’re safe for now, if only because voters are so polarized and the inner-cities already tend to lean left. Earlier this week, New Mexico’s First Congressional District held a special election to replace Deb Haaland, whom Joe Biden had nominated to be his secretary of the interior. Even though the First is deep blue, Democrats were anxious because it covers much of downtown Albuquerque. Crime there is high, and Stansbury’s Republican opponent, Mark Moores, was running a campaign monomanaically focused on law and order.

They needn’t have worried. Stansbury crushed Moores with 60 percent of the vote. Yet Moores was also woefully underfunded by the Republican National Committee and didn’t benefit from the kind of national momentum that can occur during a midterm election. It may very well be that the GOP next year can fashion a successful broader narrative around the crime issue, along with critical race theory and wokeness more generally. Carville understands that. He deplores that politics has become infected with what he calls “faculty lounge bullshit.” Both left and right ought to consider that he has a point.

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