J. R. R. Tolkien famously christened “cellar door” as the most aesthetically-pleasing phrase available in the English language. By way of contrast, I submit that it’s nearly impossible to conjure a less euphonious sequence of words than “James Carville interviewed by Chris Cuomo.” It’s similarly difficult, even by the lowly standards of cable news, to imagine a program description that sounds less appetizing. Whatever your politics, I think we can all agree that the prospect of hearing Andrew Cuomo’s brother pick the brains of a Clinton-era apparatchik mainly known for yapping received centrist wisdom in a Louisiana accent doesn’t exactly scream “good vibes.”
Not counting myself among the dozen or so millennials who regularly watch network primetime shows, I hasten to add that I discovered the interview in question while scrolling through Twitter — that is, without the intercession of paid agitprop from personal injury lawyers, insurance companies, or miracle weight loss scams. And so it was that I happened to stumble upon the iconically cadaverous face of a man who has not had the flicker of an original political insight or purchased a single skincare product since 1992.
At a glance, very little about the segment was actually notable. With a few assists from a sympathetic Cuomo, Carville essentially regurgitated a version of the same narrative centrist Democrats have been peddling since they barely won last November: the crux of it being that a “noisy” and pronoun-obsessed “identity left,” representing about 15 percent of the party, has become an albatross round the necks of those in the sensible middle — imperiling their prospects with voters who are turned off by rhetoric about defunding the police.
Nuance and careful analysis, for what it’s worth, have never exactly been Carville’s strong suits. As the New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu pointed out, 15 percent is actually a less than negligible chunk of the Democratic base — barely smaller than the African-American share of the electorate and in fact more sizable than Hispanics, which seems somewhat beside the point that Carville was, with characteristic hyperbole and imprecision, attempting to make.
What struck me, though, was how tiresomely familiar it all sounded. Interminable debates about November’s election notwithstanding, Third Way liberals like Carville really have been performing the same basic schtick for decades — its thrust being that Democrats win by scolding and/or disciplining a portion of their own base and lose whenever said portion is allowed to become too vocal.
Whatever the era, whatever the actual debates at hand, and however many cultural and political realignments occur, there is somehow always said to be a segment of liberal voters or activists whose crank enthusiasms are alienating the good people of the hardworking, reasonable middle.
The exact contours of the caricature, of course, can be amended as needed. Thus, in one fell swoop, the same cadre of Dem hacks who so cynically wielded identity politics as a cudgel against Bernie Sanders can now just as easily blame a phantom version of them for their own lackluster election results.
South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn, among the originators of the spin presently being wielded by the likes of Carville (and one of the biggest recipients of Big Pharma money in Congress), can casually collapse Medicare For All supporters and slogans about defunding the police into the same, hazily defined scapegoat constituency. Last year’s feral pinko “cult” can become this year’s cop-hating pronoun brigade.
Triangulation may come in many forms, but the basic political cosmology embraced by centrist liberals really hasn’t changed since the early 1990s when Bill Clinton consolidated the shunning of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and made antagonizing the Left a formal part of the Democrats’ national political repertoire.
For Carville and many others involved, Clinton’s 43 percent victory in 1992 was less a conventional electoral event than it was an act of providence. As far as electoral tactics were concerned, it was also taken to represent a formula that could be repeated more or less indefinitely. Since this was so obviously not the case (two years after Carville’s would-be Machiavellian genius helped build the indomitable Clinton coalition, the Democrats lost control of the House for the first time in forty years) it ensued that the same logic could also be applied in instances of failure — even, and especially, when centrists themselves had defined, planned, and executed a campaign.
Talking to Chris Cuomo, Carville’s warmed-over bash-the-fringe routine thus had all the vitality and dynamism of a flash-in-the-pan pop star performing a one-hit wonder decades after its disappearance from the charts. In the nearly thirty intervening years spanning today and 1992 — years which have seen dynasties rise and fall, the global economy collapse, orthodoxies dissolve, and American culture undergo innumerable seismic shifts — his political outlook does not seem to have evolved one iota. To give the Ragin’ Cajun due credit, consistency is hard to come by in the political mainstream and, for what it’s worth, the man has never wavered from his steadfast determination to be wrong as often as humanly possible.
The Carville mythos, such as it is, owes heavily to 1993’s The War Room, codirected by living legend of documentary cinema D. A. Pennebaker. Its stylistic flair notwithstanding, the film has aged about as poorly as the Third Way consensus itself: it now being a kind of monument to the final conquest of American politics by backroom hacks whose air of impenetrable wizardry has at least as much to do with playing savvy operatives on TV as it does with actually being them.
‘He’s become a commodity of himself by design . . . a walking conglomerate,” a Washington insider once said of Carville in an apparent attempt at a compliment. The remark wasn’t exactly wrong. In fact, Carville’s rather dubious billing as a kind of ur-political impresario has earned him astonishing sums in the form of book deals, media appearances, and corporate ad campaigns (the beneficiaries ranging from Heineken and American Express to Nike).
For a guy whose original billing was as a “strategist,” however, it must be said that he is hardly a modern-day Sun Tzu. Animated by his hall monitor–like desire to defeat Bernie Sanders in 2020, Carville’s finely tuned political instincts led him to go all in with Colorado senator Michael Bennet, who fetched a whopping 952 votes, or roughly 0.3 percent of the total, in the New Hampshire primary and ultimately finished behind several write-ins (one of whom was quite literally Donald Trump).
Last year, he brazenly boasted that November’s contest would swing so decisively in Joe Biden’s favor that its it outcome would be known by 10 PM on election night, a crystal ball divination so eerily prophetic it would later be included by Politico on a list of “the most audacious, confident and spectacularly incorrect prognostications about the year.” No matter. In the sclerotic culture of the Beltway, the reheated bilge of triangulations past can be forever packaged as hardheaded political wisdom; the hacks of neoliberal yesteryear as electoral grandmasters of Clausewitzian insight.
James Carville will never stop being wrong. But, God help us all, he’ll also never stop being on TV.