Carville’s greatest claim to fame, of course, is that he was Bill Clinton’s campaign manager in 1992, a year when at first it seemed that the greatest stature a Democratic nominee could hope to achieve was to be the answer to a medium-hard “Jeopardy” question. Instead, Clinton was able to attack the first President Bush by framing issues in ways that made it seem that Clinton was in touch with our problems, and that Bush either didn’t care, or was their author. So armed, Clinton smote the incumbent. It didn’t hurt that the country was swaying through the aftershocks of a recession; but please recall that four years earlier when there were reasons to think that the Democrats were due for a victory, they responded to these favorable auguries by nominating Mr. Competence, not Mr. Ideology, and lost.
Clinton talked so much in that campaign that it is difficult to believe he was ever scripted; still, his ability to discuss issues and Carville’s knack for framing them surely complemented one another. Reading Had Enough?, one can’t help hearing the arguments made not in Carville’s Cajun accent, but in Clinton’s husky drawl. It’s like looking at the sheet music of a song written by Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, and hearing Sinatra singing it in your head. One wonders what the 2004 political landscape would look like if a virtuoso candidate like Clinton were in the field, equipped with Carville’s arrangements. Whatever virtues the Democratic candidates possess, when it comes to selling an issue, none of them is even Jerry Vale.
Had Enough? is a handbook for Democrats, one that can be used everywhere, from classrooms and church socials to the sets of the Fox News Network and beyond, yea onto the very campaign trail itself. It’s interesting that he lards the book with homespun stories of his upbringing in Louisiana, because his philosophy of politics and government is very much a community-based approach writ large. Carville’s public persona is that of a tough, sarcastic, combative, high-stakes sharpie, but underneath, he is really that familiar mainstay of most communities, the volunteer fireman, PTA member, money raiser for the new Little League field.
Carville’s approach–his doctrine and battle plan–is let’s be fair, let’s look out for the little guy, and let’s roll up our sleeves and chip in some money to invest in a better tomorrow: It’s a useful approach for people who want to be Democratic standard-bearers. In most of the elections of the last quarter century, the American public has elected the man whom they could envision comfortably explaining policy in the local barbershop, and not the pointy-headed intellectual or sharp Washington insider (or, in the case of some recent Democratic nominees, both).
The most interesting aspect of this book, then, is not how many arguments Carville throws against Republican positions, but the number of these arguments that are in fact attacks on big business. On issues involving health care, energy, the environment, tort reform, and taxes, Carville criticizes Republican positions because they protect and defend business practices that are not fair, don’t look out for the little guy, and give to rich people the resources that could be used to invest in a better tomorrow. “Today corporations are the great threat to citizen power,” Carville writes. “They have the ability to abuse employees, shareholders, customers, neighbors and the environment. The only force powerful enough to stop that abuse is government, which is why rich people and corporations want to shrink our government or own it. Republicans are helping them do both.”
This is something new: a harsher tone, and a more explicit critique of business. The years since the election of Ronald Reagan have been strongly pro-business. Taxes have been cut, free trade has been promoted, and the growth of pension funds and 401(k) plans have turned millions of people into shareholders. Business executives, starting with Lee Iacocca and Ted Turner, enjoyed a new kind of celebrity; some, like Steve Jobs, were even hip. Both political parties cast themselves as pro-business: the Republicans by nature, the Democrats out of the realization that they had strayed too far into anti-business positions and needed to adapt. Bill Clinton and Al Gore specifically ran as pro-business New Democrats.
Had Enough? perhaps signals the birth of the New New Democrat, –pro-business, sure, but not wacky about it. For a long time, people swallowed painful business practices like corporate takeovers and downsizing, having convinced themselves that such ruthless steps promoted a more competitive business environment that was better for everybody in the long run. Now, in the wake of the shocking business scandals, Bush’s massive tax giveaways, his vice president’s secret energy-policy meetings, and our parents buying medicine in Manitoba, even people who are happy to have a good job and a fattening 401(k) plan may conclude that things have gone too far. For decades Republicans have had great success convincing people who like government but who are concerned about its power and profligacy to vote for a party that wants less of it. Maybe New New Democrats will aim to pull off a similar trick with business, and convince voters who’d love to be rich to vote for a party that aims to check the corporate class’s reflexive selfishness. Already these sentiments are filtering into the campaign. “We want a country that is not simply run for the benefit of the corporations,” Howard Dean said recently. “We want a country that ordinary Americans can have some confidence that it is being run for them and their benefit.” Perhaps Howard has seen a review copy of Had Enough?
If 2004 is going to be like 1992, this will probably be a pretty good game plan. As it is, it might not have any effect at all. The key issues remain the war and security, which are Bush’s to win or lose. But if James Carville is right, one of these days, even if Bush’s crusades are triumphant, things will have gone too far, and the business party will get served with a bill.