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“The party needed an intervention and the voters staged it”

Why James Carville thinks the Democratic Party just saved itself.

James Carville speaks onstage during Angel Ball 2015 hosted by Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation at Cipriani Wall Street on October 19, 2015, in New York City.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation

A month ago, I interviewed longtime Democratic strategist James Carville about the November 2020 election and the state of the Democratic Party.

He was, to put it mildly, worried.

“The fate of the world depends on the Democrats getting their shit together and winning in November,” Carville told me. “We have to beat Trump. And so far, I don’t like what I see. And a lot of people I talk to feel the same way.” Carville said Democrats were blowing it by rallying behind an “ideologue” like Bernie Sanders and taking electorally toxic positions on immigration, fracking, and nuclear energy.

After Super Tuesday, however, the Democratic race has winnowed down to Biden and Sanders, with Biden the likely favorite now. It’s a shocking turn of events. Less than a week ago, Sanders was the clear frontrunner and many thought he would secure an insurmountable delegate lead on March 3; instead, the moderate wing of the party, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, went all in for Biden and turned the race upside down.

I reached out again to Carville to see if he thinks the Democrats are “getting their shit together” now or if he’s still “scared to death” about their chances in November. We also discussed what he considers the biggest lesson of Super Tuesday.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Last time we spoke, you were scared shitless. How are you feeling now?

James Carville

Oh, I’m much less afraid. I think the party got relevant. Biden, in that last debate in South Carolina, actually spoke to voters instead of getting carried away by whatever stupid questions were being asked. And man, that endorsement from Jim Clyburn was massive, one of the most consequential endorsements in any presidential campaign ever.

Look, the bottom line is that Democratic voters just want to win. Period. That’s it. And it couldn’t be more evident after Super Tuesday. As soon as they saw a path, they jumped on it.

Sean Illing

So you think the party saved itself from electoral annihilation this week?

James Carville

Yes.

Sean Illing

Is Biden really the most viable path to winning? He certainly might be, but I’m not sure it’s as clear as a lot of people assume.

James Carville

First, I’m not at all impressed with Trump’s electoral appeal, so there’s that. Was Biden the best possible choice? Probably not. Was he the best choice we had? Damn right. He had the confirmation of the African American community, which is one of our most important constituencies. He won with suburbanites. He even won with non-college-educated voters in a bunch of states.

It’s really that simple.

Sean Illing

The South Carolina debate was definitely Biden’s strongest debate, and he had a moment or two, but what was the big shift?

James Carville

Go back and look at the tape of what I said in my post-debate analysis. Biden was actually talking to voters in South Carolina. Elizabeth Warren, inexplicably, was talking to her fundraising list. Bernie was speaking to the larger questions of the Revolution. Biden just got real and spoke directly to the people in South Carolina.

It’s not just about the issues, like health care or the economy or climate or whatever. It’s about how you talk about them and if you do it in a way that people understand, that relates to them. I think Biden did that. The stupid thing that so many of these candidates are doing now is speaking to opinion leaders, to the Twitter mob. Let me tell you something, that shit doesn’t win elections, all right? It just doesn’t.

Sean Illing

Yeah, that’s all true, but Biden still has a ton of vulnerabilities. What worries you the most?

James Carville

All I care about is November. Nothing else matters. It’s time to go. It’s time to get behind the ticket we think can help us win the Senate back. Like I told you last time, it’s about power, man. That’s it. That’s the game. And without it, you got nothing.

Does Biden have weaknesses? Of course. Everybody has weaknesses. There’s something wrong with every candidate that’s set foot on that stage. But the voters are deciding it’s Biden, the party is deciding it’s Biden, so it’s likely Biden. And he’s our best shot at retaking the Senate now.

Does anybody think that Steve Bullock would be running for the Senate in Montana if Biden wasn’t running away with this thing? Does anybody think he would win with Sanders leading the party? I sure as hell don’t.

Sean Illing

Can Biden recreate the Obama-Biden coalition of 2008 and 2012?

James Carville

It can’t wait to come out. It’s sitting right there in front of us. Just look at what happened on Super Tuesday. Look, it ain’t that complicated — the country doesn’t want this circus anymore. It just doesn’t. It could not be clearer. They just want to win in November.

Sean Illing

A lot of people are pissed off and dissatisfied with the pre-Trump status quo, but is it really enough to just hope that people want to end this nightmare?

James Carville

Of course that’s not enough. Biden has to have a clear message. He has to fundraise. He has to make his presence felt everywhere. I’m saying the public is ready for this. People are ready to turn the page.

You got to understand something. In all of politics, the greatest turnout generator in the history of the world is not contacts or money or anger — it’s a reason. That reason can be positive or negative. But people need a reason to leave their house and cast their vote. And the biggest reason this year is getting this madman out of office.

Sean Illing

Why wouldn’t that logic hold if Sanders was the nominee?

James Carville

Who am I to say that Sanders couldn’t win? He could win 270 Electoral College votes. And maybe the Dems could still hold on to the House. All I can tell you is that I’ve been hearing from people constantly — House members, party officials, people on the ground in the places we have to win — and they were all collectively holding their breath until Tuesday.

But now they think they can win. Now these Senate candidates and House candidates want to go to the convention and be seen. Now they think they’ve got a shot. That’s all I can tell you.

Sean Illing

Does Sanders get a bump now that Warren dropped out?

James Carville

No.

Sean Illing

Why?

James Carville

There’s this fantasy that the Democratic base has undergone some grand leftward shift. It’s just not true. People look at “The Squad” or the Sanders movement or political Twitter and they think that’s the party. It’s not. You know who the party is? It’s the people who just voted on Tuesday.

But I guess that’s the establishment, huh? If we don’t have a word for someone now, we call them “the establishment.” The notion that there was some revolution of young and working-class voters ready to transform the country was nonsense. The evidence just doesn’t bear that out. These voters didn’t turn out the way the Sanders people said they would. Sanders won lots of young voters, but they didn’t turn out any better than they did in 2016. And Biden won all over the place with our key constituencies.

That’s the deal. That’s the reality, okay? It’s done. The Sanders campaign started with a false premise and it ends where all things that start with a false premise end.

Sean Illing

If Sanders loses the nomination, how worried are you that his supporters will walk away or cast protest votes for Trump?

James Carville

I don’t think that’s going to happen. A lot of these people aren’t very strategically located.

Sean Illing

What does that mean?

James Carville

They’re mostly in the cities. Look, people in Brooklyn aren’t going to swing this election. And the world they’re seeing today isn’t the same world they imagined they were in a week ago. And they know it. People didn’t vote for their revolution. They voted to boot Trump out of office. That’s it.

Sean Illing

I think you’re selling the depth of the Sanders movement a little short there. His support goes way beyond the coastal cities.

James Carville

Fine, but look, Sanders ran in 2016. He got the party to change all the rules he wanted changed. Then he campaigned again, performed well at the debates, delivered his message, and the voters are rejecting it. So what are they going to do now? Just ignore the African American vote because they choose Biden? We’re going to ignore our most loyal constituency? Come on. Let’s get serious.

I don’t think we abandon people who voted for Sanders. That’s crazy. The majority of people who voted for Sanders want to beat Trump and they’ll vote for the ticket. I think 10 percent of his people, the most online people, have come to define the other 90 percent.

Most of the people who prefer Bernie can see that Biden isn’t a long-term threat to their movement. He’s probably going to be a one-term president. So if you’re a Sanders supporter and you want to advance your cause, that’s great. The best thing to do is increase the popularity of your vision within the Democratic Party, and that starts with getting on board if Biden wins.

Sean Illing

What’s the best-case scenario moving forward? What’s the worst?

James Carville

Well, the worst-case scenario is that we lose. Period. That’s easy. The best-case scenario is that we win the presidency and the Senate and we keep the House.

Look, the party needed an intervention, and the voters just staged it. They took charge. And you know why? Because they recognize what I’ve been saying all along: “Remember, remember, it’s all about November!”