James Carville, Mary Matalin Spar Over Politics and Policy at Four Arts

Photos courtesy of Capehart

Yesterday at the Society of the Four Arts, married political commentators Mary Matalin and James Carville enjoyed a fiery and heady tete-a-tete, in what had been one of the most anticipated afternoons in this season’s O’Keeffe Speaker Series. Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, chair of the Four Arts’ speakers committee and former U.S. Ambassador to Finland, moderated a wide-ranging discussion, which allowed for both frothy humor and deep dives into current events and the 2020 electoral map.

As arguably the most famous politically mismatched couple—George and Kellyanne Conway not withstanding—Matalin and Carville reflected on the major conflicts that have arisen in their 25 years of marriage, which began with a first date of vodka and French fries. Though their love and affection for each other was readily apparent onstage, neither of them, especially Matalin, pulled punches when debating politics and policy, eliciting occasional gasps from the packed-to-capacity audience.

Matalin also won the afternoon, if I’m being an honest critic. She offered unapologetic and vociferous support for her party’s embattled president, and delivered her positions with tenacity, bite and eloquence. Carville, whom I’ve admired in the past, seemed both ageist and out of step with his own base, typical of establishment Democrats who are all too quick to eat their own.

Asked an interesting but leading question about the rising poll numbers for socialism among the Democratic electorate—“What is driving Democrats so far left so fast?”—Carville took the moderator’s bait. Rather than intelligently parse the differences between modern American Democratic Socialism and the scary hammer-and-sickle variety, Carville instead went on an unprompted rant against the newly elected renegades of the Democratic Party, slamming by implication Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s necessary Green New Deal: “I think this is insane that we have a 27-year-old writing an illiterate report that a 29-year-old puts out that no one has thought about, that I wouldn’t accept from a college junior.”

This went on and on, allowing Matalin to win both the argument and the audience, and leaving progressives out in the cold. With friends like Carville, who needs enemies?

That said, here are some of the highlights from both speakers.

Carville (on his fights with Matalin over the years): Most people have problems with their children or this or that … to some extent we’ve been blessed. We’re so defined by our political differences; our politics has become so much of the DNA of who we are, it doesn’t allow you to be anything else. People see me and they say, ‘he’s a Democrat.’ Well, he is, but I’m also a lot of other things. Many of you have had hugely successful business careers, but you’re something more than a businessperson. I think that’s something we have to keep in mind. And the stress points in relationships and marriages are multitudinous. It’s a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances.

Matalin (on their biggest fight, over the Iraq War): That was our last fight, the kind of fight where you rip each other’s hair out, which is pretty hard in his case! I was in the White House in 9-11, and part of the policy that it produced … so I had, admittedly, a biased view about it. But you have to listen to the lessons of history. And the lessons of history suggested the course we took. As it got politicized, I was resentful of the politicization of it. At one point he wouldn’t talk about it. He said, ‘It takes two to fight, and I’m not going to fight.’

Carville: In the past 25 years, there were a lot of things not worth getting into a fight about. But the Iraq War isn’t one of them. That’s not a minor thing. If in 25 years of marriage, the biggest issue you had was a war …

Carville: I’m a Nancy Pelosi Democrat. I think she’s tough as nails, and if you don’t like politics, and you don’t want to get into the difficult management of governing, and what it takes, and you just want to issue proclamations to people, that’s not how the world works. The world is conflicting interests, and dealing things that can only be dealt with by people who relish and love the system we have. We can’t take politics out of politics, and you shouldn’t try. We have a demoralized national security state, a completely demoralized CIA, NSA … in addition to the multitude of problems the president has to deal with. Before I decide who I’m for, I want it to be somebody that I can reasonably think can play the game. That they’re smart, that they’re wily, that they’re savvy, that they know when to make a deal and when not to make a deal.

The president had no part of the budget agreement. That’s how irrelevant he’s become. So McConnell and Pelosi sit down, and he says, I’m not happy with it, but I guess I have to sign it. We’re at a point in the United States where the president is not included in a conversation about the U.S. budget. I don’t care if you’re a Republican, a Democrat, a conservative, a liberal, that is an astonishing statement.

Matalin: That’s an astonishing opinion in that, between us, we’ve worked for six presidents. What president rolls up his sleeves and starts writing… and who would want to engage in a budget discussion that shuts down the government over 5.7 billion out of a 4 trillion dollar budget? That’s like out of a thousand dollars, he wanted a dollar. Now it’s 1.4 billion. … It’s such an insane conversation. And they’re fighting over something the Democrats previously agreed on.

He wasn’t my guy, but I am swooning over Trump’s governance. You may not like the way he does it, but he knows how to get it done—and he’s got more done in a short amount of time than any president I’ve worked for.

All of this beating people up and calling them names and calling them a bigot or a homophobe or a xenophobe or a misogynist is an effort to silence people from having debate.

Going back to the socialism question, I think that … the adherence to socialism has as much to do with the cohorts as anything else. Millennials now outnumber baby boomers, and if you’re not a utopian, an idealist, at that age…. Socialism is a utopian idea, and it’s never worked, but that’s how they think. That’s how I thought at that age. When you start paying your bills, getting your checks, looking at FICA and taxes… This is a cliché, but you’re liberal when you can be a liberal, but when you start having children and obtaining property and paying taxes and take on responsibilities, which is the essence and the dignity of living, then it’s not a conservative or liberal thing. It’s a practical thing.

Carville (on the likelihood of the Democrats trying to impeach Trump): Unlikely. But he’s not doing anything; he’s just sitting there watching television. It’s 60 percent of his days! He’s not getting involved in anything, he doesn’t appoint people. Maybe we’re better off with him.

Mary (on the president’s approval rating): People are looking at results. … His base has not wavered a bit, and his improvement in his numbers has been steady.

Carville: All you have to do is go to fivethirtyeight.com and look at the aggregate of the polls. He’s at 40. Let me say this about American politics: Forty is a shitty number. Fifty is the break-even number. 40 percent is not a number to celebrate in a democracy.

Matalin (on legislative/executive gridlock): I think there are an unprecedented number of senators running on your side, so they’re taking positions relative to their 2020 aspirations. And we don’t know how Trump is going to govern. He may govern like Obama did, with his pen, but he is going to fulfill, as he has been, the promises he made. It’s a completely new eventuality for people who follow politics. The legislative branch is going to be hijacked by 2020 politics, and what has been the case for the last several cycles is that the judicial branch is making all the big decisions that rule our culture, and that’s going to continue to happen. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not how we set up our system, and it’s an abdication of the legislature’s responsibilities.

(To Hunter, on the number of women candidates running in 2020): I’m a feminist, you’re feminist, I’ve hired lots of women, you’ve hired lots of women, all things being equal. But this is a time for competence, not a time for identification—whatever your identification is, over which you have no control. You can control your own destiny by subscribing and acting on values that are common to the entire culture. I hope that’s where they’re going to come back to. You’ve got to have competitive, sane debate. And I think we’re going to burn ourselves out here.