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Conventional thinking is that the Clintonism of the 1990s is tired and irrelevant.

Our Boy Bill's electability formula is now widely rejected by millennials and unapologizing liberals. They say his "new Democrat" corporate-inclined moderation is today's affront. They say Democrats should stop with establishmentarian losers like Gore, Kerry, Hillary and Biden.

They say it's time to give a liberal ideologue like Bernie Sanders a chance.

They say we're in an urgent new age of stark income inequality, climate change and massive student debt. They say the socialism label is something only old people who grew up hiding under school desks worry about.

Even if they're right, it also can be true that Clinton's eccentric campaign adviser of 1992, James Carville, still knows a valuable tactical thing or two.

The fact that Carville's publicly declared preference for the Democratic presidential nomination is the distant also-ran Michael Bennet ... that still doesn't mean he is without strategic savvy. It might mean Democratic voters ought to give Michael Bennet, a Colorado senator, a look, though it's probably too late.

It might also mean that, when Carville says he likes Bennet as the full antithesis of Trump, an element of the difference is that Trump isn't boring, but Bennet is.

What Carville knows is that a winning general-election campaign requires a disciplined focus on a winning message and an avoidance of unnecessary policy baggage.

The message itself changes. The tactical obsession on that message shouldn't.

It was "the economy, stupid" then. It's "win, stupid" now. Denying a bloviating despot four more years is the imperative.

A recent video of a Carville interview has gone viral. He says in it that he is scared to death the Democrats are blowing it. He says he beholds contemporary Democratic behavior and concludes, "we're losing our damn minds."

He's not arguing policy. He's arguing tactics. He's arguing that the issue is power, not unregulated rhetorical devotion to ideology. He's saying you achieve your policy goals only after smart tactics that win elections and provide power.

Bill Clinton didn't run with a message to impose "don't ask, don't tell" to permit gays in the military. He ran with a message to focus like a laser beam on the economy. Once in office, possessing power, he did both.

Do Democrats want to install Supreme Court justices? Yes, of course. Do they install Supreme Court justices by throwing public hissy fits over keg parties? No.

The way to install Supreme Court justices is to win the presidency for their nomination and the U.S. Senate for their confirmation.

Since every little red state gets the same number of senators as every big blue state, the Democratic imperative in a presidential election is to install someone at the top of the ticket who doesn't drag down the Senate candidates in those little red states.

Carville says you risk dragging them down with public positions to let prisoners vote, and to let everyone go to public college for free, and to let everyone get Medicare based on wholesale conversion of insurance premiums to federal taxes.

Running on the candor of liberalism is not necessarily a loser, as long as the specific manifestation of liberalism appeals to voters and the message is tightly focused. But it is a loser if you run amok to the left of Denmark, where socialist health insurance policies are blended with private components.

Republicans apply Carville's rule to cynical proportion. Trump said the other night, laughably, that he will protect equitable treatment for pre-existing health conditions.

Democrats actually did that with a law Trump seeks to repeal even as he avoids the complication of replacing it.

Here are a couple of choice Carville quotations:

• "Eighteen percent of the population controls 52 Senate seats. We've got to be a majoritarian party. The urban core is not gonna get it done. What we need is power. Do you understand? That's what this is about."

• "We have candidates on the debate stage talking about open borders and decriminalizing illegal immigration. They're talking about doing away with nuclear energy and fracking. You've got Bernie Sanders talking about letting criminals and terrorists vote from jail cells. It doesn't matter what you think about any of that, or if there are good arguments. Talking about that is not how you win a national election."

You could say you're for the Green New Deal. Or you could say it's an example of America's legendary ingenuity that people are finding ways to make money and provide jobs on more affordable wind and solar power. You could say that you will embrace and stimulate that ingenuity as president, because change, while vital, need not be convulsive.

I know the planet is in imminent jeopardy and time is wasting. But it will be in less jeopardy if Democrats get elected, and thus replace frustrated rhetoric run amok with power.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 02/11/2020

Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Carville's lesson in tactics


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