The Comeback Kids

Reviewed by Peter Beinart
Sunday, February 5, 2006


Our Party, Our Country, Our Future

By James Carville and Paul Begala

Simon & Schuster. 349 pp. $24

The most interesting thing about James Carville and Paul Begala's new book is its subtitle. The two authors grace the cover, looking as if they want to punch someone. Across their torsos scream the words "Take It Back." And underneath, the subtitle reads "Our Party, Our Country, Our Future."

The second two phrases are self-explanatory. Carville and Begala are the quintessential Democratic partisans -- of course, they want to wrest America and its posterity from the GOP. It's the first phrase that contains the mystery. Whom, exactly, do Carville and Begala want to take "our party" back from? After all, Carville and Begala are the two most influential Democratic operatives of the last decade and a half. They helped elect Bill Clinton, and, ever since, they have sat at the epicenter of the Clinton alumni network that represents the closest thing the Democratic Party has to an establishment. How can they take back a party which, as much as anyone, they already control?

The most honest answer -- reading between the lines -- is that Carville and Begala want to rescue the Democratic Party from the political consultants who succeeded them. One of the minor dramas of both the Gore and Kerry campaigns was the candidates' decision to rely heavily on strategists outside the Clinton orbit (most notably, Bob Shrum). Carville and Begala don't name names, but they are smart, funny and ruthless in dissecting the mistakes and idiocies of the Democratic campaigns of 2000, 2002 and 2004. The book is most convincing when it is most elitist -- a kind of "why can't anyone play this game" attack on the Democratic Party's inability to find strategists as talented as they are.

But while such a book might titillate readers of insider blogs like the Note, no one else would much care. So Take It Back creates a fictional party elite -- composed of "mushy-spined mealy-mouthed wimps . . . Pollyannas who deny there's a problem . . . accommodationists who think being a lighter shade of Republican is the key to survival." The members of this elite go nameless. In fact, Carville and Begala pointedly exonerate Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, and Harry M. Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, and praise both Kerry and Gore. Carville and Begala portray themselves as populist outsiders fuming with anger at their party's leaders -- except that since those leaders are mostly their friends, they repeatedly pummel a phantom.

Why do they feel the need? Why not just write an anti-Bush book that offers tips for how Democrats can regain power? Why denounce as spineless and corrupt the very Democratic establishment they helped create? Because Carville and Begala know that liberal activists -- their target audience -- have for several years now been almost as angry at the Democratic Party leadership as at President Bush. Howard Dean's 2003-04 primary campaign was one long rebellion against the Washington Democratic establishment, and the liberal blogosphere he helped spawn has made anti-Beltway populism its rallying cry ever since.

During the primaries, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council interpreted Dean's campaign as an ideological attack on Clintonism itself and fired back. But now, with Dean chairing the Democratic National Committee and his followers playing an increasingly powerful role in the party, Carville and Begala are pursuing a more subtle strategy: co-option. The book's rhetoric is classic Dean, circa 2003: Washington Democrats lack the guts to take on President Bush. For Dean and his Internet progeny, however, this critique has two key implications: First, Democrats should shift power out of Washington and toward grassroots activists. And second, Democrats should not compromise their principles, even on unpopular issues, because that would simply reaffirm what many Americans already suspect: that Democrats don't believe in anything.

Carville and Begala, by contrast, while flaying a mythic party elite, don't want to turn power over to the activists. How could they? While the Deaniacs loathe political consultants, the authors are political consultants. "No one pines for the days of amateur attorneys or amateur doctors," they argue. But today, many grassroots Democrats do pine for the days of amateur politics. In Take It Back , Carville and Begala are trying to pull a bait and switch -- hijacking the Deaniacs' outsider rhetoric while retaining the insider structure that the Deaniacs revile.

What's more, Carville and Begala, while repeatedly saying that the Democrats need to stand for something, clearly believe the party must compromise on some signature issues. Their discussions of gun control, abortion and gay marriage are politically shrewd and coldly realistic: They want Democrats to swallow a ban on "partial-birth" abortion and live with parental consent for minors seeking to end a pregnancy; to forego any new federal gun control laws; and to give up, for the foreseeable future, not only on gay marriage but on overturning "don't ask, don't tell" in the military as well. Carville and Begala are probably right that such cultural concessions could help Democrats win back some of the working-class whites who have abandoned them in droves. But they never reconcile these proposed compromises with their call for a party that stands on principle. Once again, Carville and Begala are trying to wrap the politics of Clinton in the language of Dean.

In their hearts, Carville and Begala are Clintonites: They think liberal activists are valuable but only if harnessed by political professionals with a keen eye for the swing-voting center. The best thing about Take It Back is its smart tips for how to update the strategy they employed so winningly in 1992 for 2008 and beyond. But the most telling thing about Take It Back is its unwillingness to argue frankly for such a strategy -- because doing so would lead them into conflict with the increasingly powerful party activists who see the Clinton model as obsolete or worse. Carville and Begala may think they are the ones doing the co-opting, but the truth may be closer to the reverse. ยท

Peter Beinart is the editor of the New Republic and the author of the forthcoming "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again."

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