While neither Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders are likely to win the Presidential election, the voter anger that has propelled both outsider’s campaigns will persist until Washington can come to terms with Americans’ sense of distrust after watching institution after institution fail, predicted veteran political strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin in a fast-moving, free-wheeling conversation about the election Thursday at Loyola University.
Carville is a Democrat known for his role in the election of President Bill Clinton, and Matalin is a conservative who served in both Bush White Houses. They married in 1993 (because who else could put up with each other, Matalin quipped during the event), have lived in New Orleans since 2008, and began their remarks during the seventh annual Ed Renwick lecture at the Loyola Institute of Politics by professing their love for the city, its leadership and the university community that invited them.
While both strategists were agreed on the intensity of the voter frustration roiling the Presidential election, they each had slightly different prescriptions for it.
Matalin — who insisted that she is a “conservative,” not a “Republican” — said that people get caught up in debates of left versus right, when the real fight is between the institutions that control politics versus the people subject to them. These struggles go back to the birth of America, Matalin said, when the Founding Fathers realized it was actually easier to have the Revolution than it was to manage the Republic they created.
To that point, Republicans now control more of the government than they have in decades — with majorities in the House and Senate and many state governments — but have not been responsive to the people. As a result, voters know Trump holds positions that are so unorthodox that they could barely be called conservative, but they don’t care — they’ve lost faith in the parties’ out-of-touch, snobby candidates like Mitt Romney, Matalin said.
“I don’t think the Republican Party image could be any worse than it is,” Matalin said.
Carville described an America where the only demographic group losing life expectancy is non-college educated white men, slowly killing themselves through growing diabetes and drug abuse and depression as the economy leaves them behind — ripening the stage for a candidate like Trump to blame their problems on “stupid politicians and immigrants.”
Meanwhile, today’s college students have lived through the housing crisis, putting their parents’ livelihoods at risk, while the costs of higher education skyrockets — and it is the banks that got bailouts, not their families. While Carville agreed that the bank bailouts were necessary, their true cost was Americans’ loss faith in their institutions, Carville said.
Sanders may be so radical that his Socialist party expressed solidarity with Iran’s revolutionary regime in the 1980s, leading Carville to personally think his voters are “out of their minds” for supporting him, but he obviously represents the same kind of departure from a broken status quo on the left that Trump does on the right, Carville said.
These voters think that “the game is rigged, and the people in Washington have it all rigged for themselves, and the manifestation of that is Trump and Sanders,” Carville said. “… These are the forces that are pushing this kind of behavior in American politics.”
Donald Trump, Matalin said, is the worst possible vehicle for that anger, however: “If nothing else, his hair!” she exclaimed — noting she grew up in a family of hairdressers.
Carville said the policies that Trump proposes are “insane” and “asinine,” such as deporting the 11 million illegal immigrants. That would take 90,000 new law enforcement officers to begin with — not to mention the logistics of the problem — and Trump’s “wall” is even more ridiculous.
“We have more illegals leaving the country than going in the country,” Carville said. “We’re going to stop them from leaving?”
In fact, even Trump’s slogan of making American “great again” is flawed, Carville said. America has changed, and despite its problems, offers more opportunity now than ever before. If you’re a woman, an African-American or a gay person, “1958’s not the watermark year,” Carville says.
Matalin cautioned that Trump’s message is not simply immigration; it is channeling the anger of voters, and it is important to recognize the factors making people angry.
“His ideas are idiotic,” Carville interjected.
“We’re in vigorous agreement,” Matalin retorted.
Where Carville and Matalin are not in agreement, however, is over the virtues of Ted Cruz. Matalin said he has been attractive to conservatives for a long time, and that she’s not surprised that the rest of Washington is angered by him. When Beltway pundits say that conservatives can’t win a general election, she replies that the Republicans have never nominated a conservative — and Cruz may be able to claim the nomination at a contested convention, giving voters a chance.
Carville, however, dismissed Cruz’s ideas — like a return to the gold standard, opposed by 40 economists in a poll conducted by the conservative economists at the University of Chicago — as those of a “crank.” And before Cruz can even get nominated, he’ll have to deal with the fact that Trump will likely have received more votes in the primaries before the Republican National Convention, a fight that Trump won’t back down from easily.
“He’s going to raise holy hell when that happens,” Carville said.
The prospect of a Trump nomination is so noxious to conservatives, she said, she simply doesn’t know what she’ll do if he is the Republican nominee. She does, however, know what she won’t do.
“I’m not going to vote for the H-Bomb,” Matalin said.
Matalin said she wasn’t even sure Clinton will make it to the general election without being indicted over her handling of classified material in her emails.
If Hillary does get indicted, “the fecal matter will engage the rotor blades,” Carville said. “That would be bad. That would be real bad.”
At that point, Matalin turned to her husband and praised him for not rejecting the notion of a Hillary indictment out of hand, suggesting that he sometimes prizes loyalty over honesty. She recalled in the 1990s asking her husband how he personally felt about the fact that Bill Clinton, his friend, had lied to him about the Lewinsky scandal.
Carville’s response, Matalin said — imitating her husband’s thick Louisiana accent in the biggest laugh line of the night — was, “Sugar, if I did something that stupid with a girl that young, I’d lie about it too.”
The back-and-forth between the two strategists dominated much of the night, with little time for questions at the end. The first, however, went to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who asked whether Louisiana could avoid the partisan gridlock that plagues Washington.
On that note, both Carville and Matalin were optimistic. The problems with the budget and the environment are so severe, Carville said, and the politicians generally so responsive to their constituents, Matalin said, that progress is likely.
“I’ve never lived in a state where people are more happy to be here,” Matalin said. “I don’t think we’re going to go the route of the non-communicative, non-federalist Washington.”
“We’ve always had problems, but right now we’re in a unique position,” Carville agreed, noting his belief that Edwards won his election for a reason. “People really do want something different in the state.”
The couple — outspoken supporters of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat whom Matalin begrudgingly praised as one of the most skilled politicians she’s ever seen — were also asked about their views on the removal of the Confederate and white-supremacist monuments from the city.
Carville said the Liberty Place monument — erected in praise of the White League to honor the murder of city police in a post-Reconstruction revolt — an “affront” to society. Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whether you personally admire them or not, had little connection to the city and were placed as symbols of oppression over blacks, despite the fact that the South lost the war.
But Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard — whose statue is also being removed — was from Louisiana and fought for racial equality after the war, and he likely deserves his statue, Carville said. Likewise, Carville even suggested a new statue to another Confederate general — James Longstreet, who settled in New Orleans after the war and even fought against the White League in the Battle of Liberty Place.
Ultimate, Carville said he supports the mayor’s actions, but “If I had my rathers, I’d probably have a little bit different decision on Beauregard.”
Matalin said that regardless of your personal feelings about the removal of the statues, “that ship has sailed.” Instead of continuing to fight over it, she said, the most productive thing that people of all beliefs can do is work together to make those spaces in the city as great as possible.
With that, Carville ended on a note that Matalin and he both agree strongly upon — the greatness of the city of New Orleans.
“As long as we keep our culture strong, then we’ll be strong,” Carville said. “We should not deny our problems, but as we acknowledge our problems, we should not lose sight that we’re just better than other people in the country.”
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