James Carville, America’s best-known Democratic political consultant, has been on the scene for a very long time—he’s almost 80, though he seems decades younger than the current president. Carville’s most prominent victory was Bill Clinton’s successful run for the presidency in 1992, which was documented in the incredible D. A. Pennebaker documentary War Room. Some people watch Notting Hill as a comfort movie. For me, it’s War Room.
So you can imagine my excitement when I met Carville at The Texas Tribune Festival and noticed that he was wearing the exact same purple, gold, and green striped LSU polo that he wore in the film. It was actually quite fitting: a whole lot has changed in American politics over the last 30 years. Carville’s style—charming, extremely blunt—has not.
The people closest to Carville have other ways of describing the political icon. His former business partner, Paul Begala, has said that “James lives in a border town between genius and madness. Now that he’s rich and famous, he’s eccentric. I knew him when he was just crazy.” His wife, Mary Matalin, who is a Republican Party consultant, has said: “He really is a nut.”
Our conversation—which was recorded in a room full of three hundred Rachel Maddow die-hards—covered a range of political commentary, criticism, and diagnosis: whether he thinks Biden is too old to run again, why he thinks Kamala Harris is treated unfairly by the press, the direction of the Democratic Party, why he thinks wokeness “is over,” and, of course, Trump and the future of America.
Click here to listen to our full conversation or read an edited excerpt below. And see you in the comments. —BW
BW: I want to read you part of a speech that the president gave in Vietnam. “The Indian looks at John Wayne and points to the Union soldier and says ‘he’s a lying, dog-faced pony soldier. Well, that’s a lot of lying, dog-faced pony soldiers out there about global warming.’ ” I’ll give you a few more examples. On September 11, the president claimed that he was at the World Trade Center the day of the attacks. He was not. Last month, he claimed to have witnessed the bridge collapse in my hometown of Pittsburgh in 2022. He didn’t. In another speech recently, he falsely claimed that his grandfather had died just days prior to his own birth at the same hospital. A Wall Street Journal poll taken last month found that 73 percent of voters said that Biden is simply too old to run for reelection. Do you agree?
JC: According to the Census Bureau, there are 333,495,611 people currently living in the United States. I think we could find two under 75 to run for president. There’s a lot of things I like about Biden. He’s tenacious. He’s been in politics. He’s been beat up. He survived. He’s come back. But I wish he wouldn’t do this. I think the country is busting at the seams to get a new generation in there. I think right now, this country is in a period where sometimes you got to give other people a shot at this. We’ve got talent just screaming all over the Democratic Party. And I’d like to see some of it get showcased.
BW: A lot of us imagined, when we were younger, this idea of smoke-filled rooms, the party machine stepping in and making decisions. One of the things a lot of us have been confronted with is the idea that no such machine exists, that the party is simply voters. People look to you, James, as someone that has inside information. So I’m compelled to ask, are there people trying to get him to step aside?
JC: I don’t know how many actual peers he has. Sometimes people in politics have friends who say, look, you do this, you can’t do that. I think he’s been in politics for a long time and I think he has his place. And the people that have been around him the longest are very close friends of mine. But there is no evidence that he’s thinking about not running. And there’s no evidence that someone is thinking about getting in. But I led most of my political life saying what I think, and I’m probably not going to stop now.
BW: So unless something dramatic changes, we’re looking at Trump v. Biden in a little under 14 months. Let’s indulge, though, in a little bit of parlor games: is there anything that could upset what feels like a fait accompli?
JC: I don’t know. A lot of people say, this is decided; fall in. And I probably will have to. I think if Trump were reelected, it’d be catastrophic. I think it’d be the end of the Constitution. We’re looking at a corrupt, treasonous guy. It would ruin the country. But if we said the election was this November, let me give you a hypothetical: Joe Biden the Democrat, Donald Trump the Republican, Joe Manchin No Labels, and Cornel West Green Party—Biden would be an underdog, and we would have a catastrophic event in American history of the first order. Trump’s already saying, “I’m going to get rid of everybody. I’m going to get rid of civil service. We’re going to get rid of an independent judiciary, everything.” They’re telling you. They’re not hiding it from you. I feel like this would be catastrophic. There’s some chance Trump could win this election if we don’t play this really smart.
BW: So if those are the stakes and you look at people who clearly want to run for president at some point, whether it’s Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, the governor in Pennsylvania, why aren’t they doing it?
JC: People really like President Biden. In terms of raw political talent, the modern Democratic Party is full of it. Now, you wouldn’t know it because it’s like watching Secretariat in a barn. You got to get it on the goddamn track to see what it can do. But trust me that there’s real talent—and it’s not Bobby Kennedy, by the way.
BW: Let’s talk about Kennedy for a minute. How do you explain his poll numbers?
JC: Because he’s not Biden. No one pays attention to Bobby Kennedy or the crazy things he says or does. But they say, “Well, in some ways, a Kennedy must be okay. You know, I remember them.”
BW: But to give him the most generous read: isn’t the reason that Kennedy is resonating because he is picking up on so many of the themes that, frankly, Democrats don’t talk about anymore? The power of big tech in people’s lives, the dignity of the working class, things that were mainstays of the Democratic Party.
JC: Well, look, in terms of the tech stuff—what did Trump do about the tech business when he was president? Nothing. I think it’s fair to say that Democrats have sort of lost that connection with working people. Biden is the last thing but a cultural guy. He’s a regular guy, but not who the people that vote in the party are. And that’s why I’d like to see a bunch of these new candidates out there.
BW: Who are you most excited about?
JC: I’m excited about whoever Democrats pick. I’d like to see seven people running on a stage that had ideas and energy and could string a sentence together. Y’all decide who the hell you like, but give people a choice. When you go talk to people around the country, what do you think about the Democratic Party? They think we’re an urban, old party, that we are there for people in cities and all of our leadership is old. That’s not true. But you have to put people out there and start talking about things where you will change people’s minds because the Republicans will tell you all over again that we just care about people in the cities and that kind of stuff, and we don’t. Good candidates will give you a sharp definition and a concise message.
BW: The name you hear a lot among centrist Democrats and Never Trump Republicans these days is Joe Manchin.
JC: What is it like to be a moderate Democrat? I have no idea because I’m a liberal Democrat. I’m pretty liberal. Manchin is not. I like Senator Manchin. A Democrat has not carried a county in West Virginia since 2008. And so you have all of these people that don’t have to run in West Virginia criticizing Joe Manchin for trying to stay alive in that state. But he’s not going to be a Democratic nominee or a factor in national Democratic politics. He’s got his own politics and it’s not easy at all.
BW: I mentioned him only because he’s one of the wishcasting fan fiction–type stories that are happening right now. Another one of them is about Kamala Harris. There’s a lot of people who are saying we’re stuck with Joe Biden. But what if Biden dumped Kamala Harris and took a vice presidential candidate who was more exciting to the base? Why are people throwing out that idea? Is there anything to it?
JC: It’s a little bit unfair because the president’s approval rating is like 41. Well, the vice president’s can’t go any higher, so she has a ceiling of 41. What I’d like to see is her and about five or six other people start running to acquire delegates and be on TV and be on their own and see what they can do, how good their ideas are. But I think to some extent, she’s being defined by being in this administration. And maybe her approval is 35, and that’s not very good. But she couldn’t be any higher than 41 if she was perfect.
BW: But come on. I mean, when she speaks, it’s like Veep.
JC: To you. I mean, sure, that’s the way to you. I went through this with Hillary. Every time a female gets big in national politics, they get accused of shrieking or being fingernails on a blackboard. Maybe she’s not the greatest public speaker in the world. But a lot of the stuff that’s been heaped on her—some of it is stereotyping.
BW: I think I might be among the last people that would be turned off by a powerful woman politician.
JC: I’m not saying you were turned off by a powerful woman politician. I’m just saying that political science knows that certain qualities will get attributed to you based on your gender. I never hear about males talking in a shrieking voice.
BW: Do you think she’s a good politician?
JC: She’s not one of the all-time greats. But the only thing I know her is for the presidential campaign. I think she wanted to run for president in the worst possible way, and she succeeded. But a lot of people run for president and don’t do very well. Biden ran for president and didn’t do very well. I mean, failure is to politics what air is to life. But I think she’s not fulfilled her potential.
BW: Well, let’s talk about a happier subject, which is Donald Trump. So Trump is currently polling at 55 percent. The next closest candidate is Florida governor Ron DeSantis at 14 percent. Every indictment seems to make Trump more popular among his base. Is there any scenario in which you see one of these other candidates in the race unseating Trump?
JC: MAGA was there before Trump. The idea that people were under assault from immigrants, from people of color—it was always there and Trump stoked a feeling that already existed. So the whole Republican Party is—I mean, Lauren Boebert? Ken Paxton? Great. So we really want to talk about Kamala Harris as being the problem? I mean, next to Lauren Boebert, she’s Joan of Arc.
BW: But the question—is there anyone in the race that you, as a political strategist, think has a chance of unseating Trump?
JC: Right now, no. The most likely outcome is that the Republicans nominate Trump. DeSantis is the greatest disaster I’ve ever seen in my life. Y’all see the latest story where he kicked Tucker Carlson’s dog? Michael Wolff has a story that DeSantis wanted to go see Tucker and Susie Carlson. Well, they’re dog people, and DeSantis kicked one of the dogs. I guess he ate with his fingers, too. I mean, there’s something wrong with that boy. I don’t think he’s potty-trained, to tell you the truth.
BW: Let’s talk about the four indictments hanging over Donald Trump. I want to know from you which of those do you think is the most serious? Do you think politically it matters to him?
JC: As of now, it doesn’t matter. He said that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t matter. Well, he was found in a court of competent jurisdiction to have raped someone on Fifth Avenue. It didn’t matter! So I guess if rape don’t count in this country, I don’t know what does. But if anybody here is a lawyer, the first thing you look for is defenses. I cannot think of a single defense he has on Mar-a-Lago. What’s the defense? If I leave here and I take this chair and I say that it’s mine because I sat in it? Most people would say, that’s not yours. Give it back to us! It’s going to be interesting to see if we ever find out why some people say that he’s a packrat. I have no earthly idea of how he’s going to defend this. And I don’t think they do either, to tell you the truth.
BW: Let’s talk about President Biden’s son. Hunter just received his own indictment after the very public collapse of his plea deal. If the case does end up going to trial, how much of a headache will that be for the president? Could it seriously damage his chances of reelection?
JC: So first of all, the Republicans have opened an impeachment inquiry, and I could not be more excited about it—but only if they call witnesses. Because let me tell you, Jim Comer is not a very smart man. In fact, I think he’s pretty stupid. Jim Jordan,
G-Y-M, Jim Jordan. Not very smart. Dan Goldman? Smart. Delegate Plaskett? Smart. Jamie Raskin? Smart. They will eat their ass alive. There’s not been one iota of evidence to say that President Biden got any of this money. Now, if you want to say Biden did some really stupid things. Yes. If you’re going to make $80,000 a month from an energy company while your dad is vice president. . . . But he lied on a gun application. This is the only time that Republicans ever were against a gun. They investigated this guy for how many years? There is not any evidence whatsoever. And I personally want open hearings, call witnesses. Let’s air this thing out.
BW: Let’s talk about the state of the Democratic Party. Democrats used to be perceived as the party of the everyday, ordinary American. There’s a book that’s about to come out from John Judis and Ruy Teixeira called Where Have All the Democrats Gone? And it’s about the defection of working-class voters from the party. Reflect a little bit on how that happened. How did it come to be that the Democratic Party is the party of educated, elite, somewhat older voters?
JC: I wouldn’t say older, but they’ve definitely become much more of an educated party over the course of the century and less of a presence in places in mid-America. Some of it was our own making. Democrats gave off airs that we thought that we were smarter than other people, and Republicans did a good job of exploiting that. Now, having said that, again, I point out we haven’t lost an election since June of last year. But if you’re a Democrat, you’re really in a coalition. I like coalitions. I really do. I don’t want to be in a frickin’ cult. I don’t want my entire life to be defined by my own ideology. But if you’re in a coalition, you have to be a little uncomfortable because the bigger your coalition is, the more things that come up that will make you uncomfortable. And we have lost ground considerably with a significant number of working-class people, more specifically working-class whites. We allowed a small part of our party—people that describe themselves as “progressive liberal,” which is about 10 percent of the entire Democratic Party, compared to 65 percent of the Republican Party that thinks the election was stolen or that the Earth is 5,000 years old or our climate was some hoax out of a PR person in Beijing—I never saw a Democrat ever want to burn a book. But these sons of bitches have banned more books this year than any year in American history. And they fired some teacher from Galveston or somewhere for reading Anne Frank. But I have to worry about somebody talking about Latinx, which is just kind of a goofy thing they came up with? Why do Democrats pay such a price for 10 percent of the eccentric people in our party and the Republicans don’t pay a price to the 65 percent of people in their party that are just out and out nuts?
BW: But couldn’t the reason be that that 10 percent has an unbelievable amount of cultural power in America? They control publishing houses, Hollywood studios, media companies, all of the sense-making institutions of American life. So that’s the difference.
JC: First of all, honestly, it’s over. It’s over. The identity left has lost. They’re sitting there spudding around in some art museum or foundation. No one wants to defund the frickin’ police. No one wants the nonsense of cultural appropriation. If you come to New Orleans and you walk out and you have a sweatshirt that says, “I Got Bourbon-Faced on Shit Street,” am I going to say, “Oh my God, you appropriated my culture, how dare you say that?” It all became so idiotic. The term woke first came up by a guy named Lead Belly Ledbetter, who was a jazz musician who was born right outside of Shreveport, and the term woke was in a song telling black people in Texas and Louisiana that you should be aware in your interactions with the police, which I think would be sound advice for a black person in Houston in 1925. And then, like everything else, some overeducated white people got ahold of it and made woke into some entirely different word than what it’s supposed to be. And that costs us 20 House seats. I think that everybody knows that this whole thing is not a very good idea, and most people have moved on from it.
BW: What is your wife’s worst opinion?
JC: Thinking that the Iraq War was any good.
BW: What is one thing she has changed your mind about?
JC: Always bringing a gift when you go to somebody’s house.
BW: What is the best book you read recently?
JC: The book I’m reading right now is called The Identity Trap by Yascha Mounk. And it really deconstructs this identity politics, which I think was a giant mistake. Your identity will never, to me, trump your philosophy or your quality as a person.
BW: Your favorite American president of all time?
JC: Clinton second, Lincoln first by far.
BW: Okay, one word, for the following people: Donald Trump?
JC: Go to jail.
BW: One word, Joe Biden?
JC: “Think about it.” I guess that’s three.
BW: Vivek Ramaswamy.
JC: Well, I got to tell you. He’s everything that they like. He’s got a name you can’t pronounce. He went to Harvard. He’s a tech bro. He’s a frickin’ idiot.
BW: All right, I’m going to go with idiot. Cornel West?
BW: Chris Christie?
BW: Josh Shapiro?
JC: Potentially Clintonesque talent.
BW: Last question. If you had to vote right now, money on the table: Who’s going to win in 2024? Who’s it going to be?
JC: Well, I say the Democrats. My rationale is we’re just not losing elections. I mean, the country does not like Dobbs. They don’t like the Republicans’ authoritarianism. But remember, you got Cornel West and you got No Labels. And it’s dangerous. I’ll tell you that, Bari. It’s dangerous.
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