Book World Live

Paul Begala
Co-author, "Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future"
Tuesday, February 7, 2006; 3:00 PM

"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 Comeback Kids , Feb. 5)

Co-author Paul Begala is online to take questions and comments about his new book and the state of American politics.

Paul Begala is a political analyst, commentator and research professor of public policy at Georgetown University. He is a former counselor to President Clinton.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.


Paul Begala: Hi. Good to be here. Thanks to the Post for hosting this. Should be fun. My publisher has a cool idea: let's see how far up the Amazon list y'all can push the book during this hour. Don't you think that would be fun? Boy, I do. Okay, now that I've got my publisher off my butt with that shameless plug, let's talk politics -- and how the Democrats can TAKE IT BACK.


Oklahoma City, Okla: What would you consider to be what the Democratic Party stands for in essence - what it stands for first? Is it the party of common people? Is it the party of cultural liberalism like feminism and gay rights? Or is it the party of people of ethnicity outside the white Protestant mainstream? What is most important?

Paul Begala: Great place to start. Both parties can be fairly accused of being collections of interest groups -- oil companies, multinational corporations that ship jobs overseas, right-wing preachers and corrupt lobbyists are the interest groups that dominate the Republicans, to be sure. Democrats are seen as being too dominated by working people (especially those in unions) feminists, minorities and gays. I frankly prefer my parties' interest groups to theirs. But we argue in the book that Democrats need a broader, unifying message to rise above the accusation of being a collection of interest groups. Carville and I worked for a year on this project, and the culmination is the chapter entitled "Progressive Patriotism." We argue that the essence of patriotism is putting one's country ahead of one's self, and the essence of Bush Republicanism is precisely the opposite -- putting selfish greed for a few ahead of national needs of the many. It is nothing less than a sin that President Bush has sent troops into combat without enough body armor, while he's wasted trillions on tax cuts for the idle rich. The Bush Republicans' policies are, we argue, the antithesis of patriotic. And so we urge Democrats to reclaim patriotism -- to call on all Americans to pull together. And, yes, to sacrifice. Rich people will have to do with fewer tax cuts. Middle class people will need to drive less and switch to more fuel efficient cars (to reduce our dependency on middle east oil). And poor folks -- especially young ones -- will have to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and other indicia of social pathology.

This debate -- between those who say you're on your own and those who say we're all in this together -- is as old as humanity. The first question in recorded history was when Cain asked God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" My Bush Republican friends say no. Democrats say yes. So let the GOP be the party of Cain. We Democrats are the party of our brothers' keepers. I can't think of anything more in tune with our spiritual values and our patriotic traditions.

That's what I think Democrats should say, and stand for, and fight for.


Fight, dammit: There are many in the Republican party who mistake politeness and restraint for weakness. I meet people like this all the time, and I'm sure you do too. By contrast, many Democrats are far too nice. If they had been at Lexington and Concord, they would have taken lemonade to the British troops and asked them if they were comfortable. We need more fighters. We need people who will make the spin doctors and spokespeople hurt every time they lie, mislead, misquote or distort. This is all they do nowadays. That is all they do because that is all that they have to do, because no one makes them suffer when they do these things.

No one seems to ask obvious questions. For instance, if monitoring is a "terrorist monitoring program", how many terrorists have been convicted as a result of this monitoring?

Virtually every Republican claim can be shown by attacking its basic premise. Few do that; instead they argue about the details.

Paul Begala: I agree that too many Democrats have been too weak for too long. That's why we argue for a tougher Democratic Party. To be fair to my Democrats, we do have some folks who are strong and tough and unafraid. Take Harry Reid, for example. The leader of the Senate Democrats is so tough he took on the Mob -- drove the Mafia out of the Las Vegas casinos. They planted a bomb in his car, and he never flinched, never backed down. So it shouldn't surprise you that he's not afraid of Karl Rove. Harry Reid is stronger than garlic in a milkshake. He led our party (with Nancy Pelosi in the House) to take on and crush Pres. Bush's chief domestic priority -- privatizing part of Social Security.

So, just as fighters like you and I hammer the dems when they wimp out, we should also salute them when they stand and fight.


Columbia, SC: For decades, the Republicans have been very successful at presenting every presidential election as a contest between faithful beievers and godless infidels. How do the Democrats attract people of faith? How do they say, in effect, "You are welcome in this party -- and your interests are our interests"? Can they?

Paul Begala: Yes, and you've probably heard that more than most of us, being in Columbia. Some Democrats are, in my view, too shy about giving voice to their faith. It is, perhaps, a regional thing. I grew up in a small town in Texas. Everyone I grew up with was conversant about their faith. Others perhaps grew up in a culture in which religion was considered more private.

I've been greatly influenced by Rev. Jim Wallis, the author of GOD'S POLITICS. Rev. Wallis is an evangelical Christian minister who says, "Faith is always personal, never private," by which I gather he means that we should not hide our light under a bushel. Carville and I devote an entire chapter to this topic. We call it "God is a Liberal" -- just to annoy the right-wingers. Truth is, I don't know if God is a liberal, but His Son sure was. Rev. Wallis notes that 3,000 times in the Gospels we're told to care for the poor. Never once did Jesus say we should beat up on homosexuals. But to hear my friends on the fringe right tell it, the only way to show you're a Christian is by beating up on gays. Poppycock.

Take today's news: the President's budget. Jesus told us, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Matthew 6:21) That means that a budget is preeminently a moral document. Mr. Bush's treasure -- and thus his heart -- is with the overprivileged. He devotes hundreds of billions to tax cuts that mostly go to the very rich. He has tens of billions in subsidies and handouts and no-bid contracts to insurance companies, oil companies and Halliburton. But he's cutting the growth of Medicare, which will mean a cut in health services for poor seniors. He's putting new fees -- copays and deductibles -- on veterans' health care. And he's putting a new tax on student loans. Democrats should oppose that budget on moral grounds. We should show the country that our faith, our ethics, our values lead us to put our heart -- and our treasure -- with our grandparents and our veterans and our children.


Tysons Corner, Va.: You wrote, "Oil companies, multinational corporations that ship jobs overseas, right-wing preachers and corrupt lobbyists are the interest groups that dominate the Republicans, to be sure. Democrats are seen as being too dominated by working people ..." Gosh, that's charitable. Thanks for the kind words about the GOP.

And YOUR book is supposed to be "reasonable"?

This is why your side loses. Broad generalizations, and demonization. Why not say what the GOP actually represents: the values and thoughts of most voting Americans. That's what recent elections have shown. Why not acknowledge that, instead of obfuscating and pretending that somehow the Dems truly represent what people actually believe, if only they could "get out the message"?

Paul Begala: Let's take your kvetches ad seriatum:

"oil companies" - Mr. Bush's GOP-backed energy bill had $80.8 billion in subsidies for the energy industry, principally oil companies. This in a year in which Exxon-Mobil alone had more in profits than the entire Gross Domestic Product of Saudi Arabia.

"multinational corporations that ship jobs overseas" - On 2/10/04, the LA Times reported in a story headlined "Bush Supports Shift of U.S. Jobs Overseas" that the Bush Administration "embraced foreign outsourcing, an accelerating trend that has contributed to U.S. job losses in recent years." The Bush Administration even sponsored "conferences and workshops that encourage American companies to put operations and jobs in China." (that's a direct quote from the NY Times of 12/11/03.

"right-wing preachers" - Mr. Bush campaigned at Bob Jones University, a self-proclaimed "Christian" university that did not allow white students to date black students, and whose leader called the Catholic Church a cult and the Pope an "antichrist." In his appearance there, Mr. Bush did not have the guts to criticize any of those rather extreme views.

"Corrupt lobbyists" - Jack Abramoff was the head of the College Republicans. He was a Bush Pioneer (raising Bush over $100,000) and he gave 100% of his personal contributions to Republicans.

You don't like it? Tough. It's the truth. And it's about darned time someone told it like it s.


Washington, DC: Wow - the Democratic Party is in trouble if your answer to "what does it stand for?" is that long.

But seriously, y'all always come back to government, and particulary the federal government, as the solution to every problem. And that's your achilles heel.

Paul Begala: If you're a limited government conservative, I feel your pain. Your man Mr. Bush has exploded the size of government, ballooned the deficit and increased government power so dramatically that he claims the right to eavesdrop on your conversations without a warrant.

Pres. Clinton made government both leaner and more effective. He reduced the federal bureaucracy to its smallest size since JFK. That's in absolute terms, not relative numbers or as a percentage of population. Clinton had the smallest federal workforce since JFK.

And yet Clinton did more with less -- his pro-growth, pro-middle class economic policies lifted millions out of poverty, and boosted millions of middle-class Americans into the ranks of the rich. Crime went down, welfare rates went down, abortion went down. I can't imagine anyone who would prefer Mr. Bush's policies of high deficits, slow growth and stagnant wages.


Washington, DC: Paul-

After 9/11 I went into government IT security. As a liberal Democrat who is hawkish on security I find it difficult to find footing between what I know: there are rightwing religious groups overseas that hate our freedom and what I also know: We lost the War in Iraq in late '04 and can't win it without new leadership. Every time I talk to guys on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan they tell me the same stories: they want MLK and Unionesque "real man" JFK Democrats who can kick butt. Do you hear that from the military?

Paul Begala: Interesting observation. Although, unlike most folks in the media, I actually know several folks on active duty in the military, I would never presume to speak for them.

I do think that Democrats can make the case that we can do better at fighting terrorism. Most Americans now believe that Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq was done under false pretenses (there was no threat to America and there were no WMDs). They also believe the war in Iraq has made us weaker, not stronger.

Democrats can and should make the case that it is Mr. Bush and the Republicans who have a pre-9/11 mindset. Pre-9/11, people believed the greatest threat to America was from large, heavily-armed nations, which we would have to invade, conquer and occupy. Post-9/11 thinking teaches us the greater threat is from stateless terrorist networks like al Qaeda. They're not defeated by invading, conquering and occupying a large, desert country. Instead, al Qaeda can be crushed by a leaner, more lethal, more stealthy combination of special forces, covert operations, human intelligence and close alliances. Much of what we're doing in Iraq is degrading those very capacities. That's why, correctly, most Americans think Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq has made us weaker.


Washington, DC: I was amazed that NBC allowed James' wife, Mary Matlin, to be on Meet the Press to challenge your book. I do not know of any other program that allowed a democratic speaker the same opportunity to rebut a republican book. (could be wrong) Why did you agree to such an arrangement? Would NBC or Meet the Press allow the same opportunity to a Democratic speaker to challenge the one of the books of her publishing company?

Paul Begala: The other side of the coin is that Mary was outnumbered two-to-one. I must say, she more than held up her end of the conversation.

Having Mary there was a civilizing factor as well. Not only is James married to her, but I think the world of her. It's important for people in my profession to keep in mind that someone can be pursuing policies that you deeply, passionately oppose, but still be a good person. It's called maturity, and it's a quality I've been accused of lacking. So I was pleased that "Meet the Press" had Mary on, and that she agreed to appear.

I noticed a few weeks before, "Meet the Press" had a similar debate between Kate O'Beirne and Kate Michelman. The two Kates both have books out, and both address feminisim -- from very different perspectives. So I think having James and I on with Mary is in the same vein.


Not Tysons Corner: You didn't really respond to Tysons' main point. You guys

do engage in transparent demonization and generalizations all the time - it is not good for the political discourse of this country and it turns people off.

How would you feel if someone said the Democratic Party was "dominated" by people who want abortion on demand and gay marriage, flag burners, peaceniks, commies and hippies? Sheesh. Get a clue, man.

Paul Begala: I wish the Democrats' problem was that we were seen as too mean. Far from it, we're too often seen as too wimpy. Y'all right-wingers are classic bullies: full of bluster, until someone stands up and (metaphorically) punches you in the nose. Then you cry to your mama.

Quit whining.

Would any Democrat have trashed triple-amputee war hero Max Cleland the way the GOP did -- attacking his courage? No way. Would any Democrat have hinted that the war hero John McCain betrayed his fellow veterans -- as a Bush supporter did in South Carolina in 2000, with Mr. Bush standing beside him and thanking him? No way. Would have Democrat have questioned whether John Kerry won his medals, or whether Jack Murtha loved his country? No way. But Republicans did all that and more. If they didn't have the politics of personal destruction they wouldn't win a race for dog catcher.


Richmond, Va.: The maximum age for enlisting in the military has been raised to 42. Ken Mehlman is 38. Do me a favor. Since Mehlman seems to think it's OK to make personal comments (Hillary Clinton is "angry", etc), ask him a personal question: since his party started the Iraq war, and supports it, why hasn't he enlisted?

Personal attack are a two-way street.

Until people suffer consequences for making personal attacks, they will continue to make them.

Paul Begala: Great idea. Ken Mehlman is smart, he's evidently in good shape, and he's deeply patriotic. I think he'd make an excellent soldier. Sign him up.

By the way, with all due modesty, Carville & I have solved the Army's recruiting problem. There are 120,000 college Republicans in America. Now, we don't need 120,000 more soldiers, but some military supporters, like Hillary Clinton, have said we need to expand the Army by about 40,000 troops. So we included a recruiting form, right there in our book. It's on pages 134 and 135. All you need to do, my College Republican friends, is buy the book (put it on Daddy's AmEx), tear out those two pages, and send them in to the Army. Then you can really show your support for President Bush. If enough College Republicans enlist, maybe the Pentagon will create special units for them -- the 101st Trust Funders or the Fighting Frat Rats.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Some of us - in both parties - believed that the war in Iraq was a mistake before it started. That's in stark contrast to the vast majority of Democratic Congresspersons and Senators who rolled over and played dead for the President because they thought it was politically expedient. So, where's the courage in that?

Paul Begala: Good point. Carville and I are both state-school kids. (I went to the University of Texas, NCAA football and baseball champions) and Carville went to LSU. But both of us were smart enough to figure out the war was wrong. We argued that there was no threat to America, certainly not one so imminent as to necessitate the pullout of weapons inspectors before they'd found anything. We also argued that invading Iraq would degrade our ability to capture and kill the animals of al Qaeda. So we, like you, were frustrated with our fellow Democrats who supported Pres. Bush's war.

But you ought to at least entertain the notion that those in Congress (in both parties) who disagreed with us did so for the best of reasons: because they honestly believed there was a threat. It was Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney who cherry-picked and manipulated intelligence to fix the case for war (as the Downing Street memo from British intelligence said.) The moral culpability for the dishonest way we were marched into this war resides with the White House, not the Congress.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Is it true the Josh Lyman character in "The West Wing" is based on you?

Paul Begala: When "West Wing" was launched there was some reporting that made that connection. I do know that some of the things that happened to Josh in that first year had come from my life. Some of the consultants on the show were folks I'd worked with in the Clinton White House.

But Aaron Sorkin once said that was nonsense. He is a brilliant and creative man, so I take him at his word. Still, I'm honored that some of the people who viewed the show would have thought Josh was even slightly based on me. But my Mama told me she thought I look more like Rob Lowe. (Only a mother would think that.)

I've had the pleasure to meet Brad Whitford, the actor who plays Josh. He's smart and savvy and political -- and progressive. So I think Josh is actually more Brad than Begala.


Avon Park, Fla.: I appreciate and generally agree with the ideas that you and Mr. Carville have promoted in your book. What I would like to know is why don't you two actually sit down and talk to Congressional Democrats and tell them the ideas that you have? It's one thing to promote a book, but I don't think that you or anyone should just hope that Democratic politicians will wake up one morning and somehow come up with the ideas that you have. I think that you should show them some guidance. What do you think?

Paul Begala: We have done so. Keep in mind, we do not work for the party as political consultants. We're just ordinary Democrats. But from time to time we have been asked by Congressional Democrats what we think. We have found them receptive and open-- and increasingly willing to fight, especially under the feisty leadership of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Most of the congressional Democrats I've spoken to love the book. A few have told me it's disloyal -- that we should not acknowledge the GOP charge that voters think we're too weak. The problem is, too many voters do in fact think that. We feel like we have to acknowledge and address the problem so we can overcome it. Denial is not an option.

And when Congressional Democrats stand up to Mr. Bush -- as they did on Social Security, and when Sen. Reid forced the Senate into secret session to investigate whether we were misled into war -- no one cheers more loudly than Carville and me.


Centreville, Va: Glad to see you've decided you lost the war of ideas with Republicans and want instead to move to a war of name-calling and silly insults. That'll really help America to a positive future, Paul.

Paul Begala: My finely-tuned sense of irony tells me you're being sarcastic, Centreville.

So let me straight: if you don't like name-calling, what on earth are you doing in a party that called John Kerry weak? Sen. Kerry shed his blood for our country -- not once, not twice, but three times. He also earned the bronze star for valor and the silver star for heroism. And yet Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney -- who dodged the draft -- called him weak. Other Bushies said Kerry "looks French," suggesting he might surrender the way the French did when Hitler invaded.

If it's name calling you dislike, you must have been dismayed by your party chairman calling Sen. Clinton "angry" on Sunday -- apropos of nothing. And let's not even go to the name-calling of the Republican right's media machine: Limbaugh, Coulter and Savage, to name a few.

Your problem, Centreville, is one you share with so many on the far right: you can dish it out but you can't take it. Well, guess what? You're fixin' to take it in 2006 and 2008, so get used to it.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr. Begala, I've been a fan of yours for quite a few years now, and I have two questions. First, honestly, how did you ever survive that long on CNN sitting next to Robert Novak?

Second, I honestly believe that if anything - if anyONE - can put a wrench in the Hillary '08 plan, that it could only come from her husband's former VP. While he says he's not running, what's the chance that a Draft Gore 08 campaign could pull him in? I don't know what the big party donors and leaders are thinking or doing, but from all the average joe democrat voters I've talked to, Gore 08 is a much easier vote than Hillary 08.

Paul Begala: Bob Novak is one of the finest minds of the 12th Century. Why did I sit next to him all those years? Because CNN paid me a lot of money to.

No, in all seriousness, you can't work with someone every day and not see some good in him or her. Bob is devoted to his grandchildren, he's a deeply knowledgeable sports fan, and he's generous to charity. He happens to be wrong about almost every issue...but he did oppose the war in Iraq.

As for Gore versus Hillary...that would be God's gift to cable television, wouldn't it? Al Gore comes off awfully well in our book. We make a convincing case that if he'd been allowed to take office after winning the 2000 election, he would have prevented the 9/11 attacks. It's unimaginable that he would have shelved Richard Clarke's 2000 plan to roll back al Qaeada, the way Condi Rice and Pres. Bush did. It's unfathomable that he would have gone golfing after reading a CIA report that BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO ATTACK AMERICA, as Mr. Bush did. Gore had deep knowledge both of aviation security (having chaired the Gore Commission on airline security in 1996) and he was keenly aware of the al Qaeda threat. Whether he'll run for President (or whether Hillary will, for that matter) is unkown to me.


Paul Begala: Thanks so much for the flood of posts. Thanks again to the Post for hosting such a lively forum. Post readers are indeed highly informed and highly opinionated. Hope y'all had as much fun as I did.


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