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James Carville is America's most widely recognized political consultant, a man who made his name by helping Bill Clinton win the presidency. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
James Carville is America's most widely recognized political consultant, a man who made his name by helping Bill Clinton win the presidency. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

James Carville: The man who made Clinton looks at Obama's chances Add to ...

James Carville is America's most widely recognized political consultant, a man who made his name by helping the unlikeliest of candidates get elected.

His most famous triumph was Bill Clinton, and Mr. Carville is credited with infusing the Democrats with a sense of economic populism they translated into ballots. "It's the economy, stupid,"  which he wrote on the wall of Mr. Clinton's "war room," became a catchphrase that propelled the party to victory in 1992. A year later, his pivotal role was captured strikingly in The War Room, nominated for best documentary at the Academy Awards.

Today, Mr. Carville is a political commentator who has been the host of several shows on CNN. He continues to consult on political campaigns overseas, and spoke to The Globe and Mail from Calgary, where he was appearing as part of the Teatro Speaker Series.

Let's start with the midterms. What is your prediction?

I think it's going to be a bad night for the Democrats. The polls that I've seen are not particularly encouraging. Obviously it's going to be a bad night.

Do you think they will lose control of Congress?

It's possible they could lose both, but most people believe that they will lose the House and retain the Senate by a narrow margin. That sounds like that's a realistic predicament. I would say that's realistic.

How did it get to this point?

I don't think there's much doubt that the driving force behind this is the economic conditions. A lot of people have been pretty bad coming along, and I think there's a real sense of frustration in the country, and I don't think much is going to change by election day, but it's just a function of a country with 9-1/2-per-cent unemployment.

Why haven't President Obama and the Democrats been able to sell the message that their stimulus package will eventually translate into jobs, or that it prevented a larger economic disaster?

Well, people don't feel like it has worked. You can make the argument that big bailouts work, but people won't believe it and that probably wasn't the message to try. My view is that they should have been much more aggressive talking about how irresponsible banks were. And how they were going to make sure that behaviour was going to change. I think the message was not sharp enough nor was it populist enough. I think that they were trying to say what they were doing was working and people just didn't believe it.

But the fact is, unemployment hasn't moved and that's what people really care about, their jobs.

Right and there's a lot of good research that says we kept a lot of jobs because of the stimulus, but that's a hard thing to say. You don't really tend to appreciate that.

For someone who worked with the Clintons, who coined the phrase 'It's the economy, stupid' and who was able to massage the handling of the economy in the right way, what's gone wrong this time?

Well, the economy's not going in the right way. It was a very, very bad recession and we're still having it. I think the President, if anything, the White House, tended to be a little optimistic that they could get out of this faster than they did. Some of his economic advisers didn't quite realize the depths of this recession.

So it was misreading the problem and then the message came out wrong?

Well, it actually irritated people when he was saying their measures were working. Not only did it not work, it was counterproductive. I actually think the Democrats could have been a little bolder, if anything. But I don't think they knew other people realized just how bad this recession was. I mean, they did save the world from depression. But they underestimated how severe recessions following financial crises are. I don't know how much they could do about it. We're just in a very, very precarious economic time.

Do you think the Democrats have completely forgone economic populism?

Little bit. Yes. I think they should have been much, much tougher on the banks. I think there's no doubt … the primary cause for this financial crisis is irresponsible lending and leveraging, mostly on the part of U.S. financial institutions. And I don't think we ever held the people that caused a good deal of this sufficiently accountable.

So what happens the morning after the midterms, in terms of democratic strategy?

Good question. Washington is going to be a different place completely. And that's the nature of the beast and everyone's going to have to figure out how to adjust. The side that figures it out the fastest is going to have a big advantage. You know, the Republicans came in '94 and they were very arrogant from the get-go and they paid a big price for it. … I think this time the Republicans are going to come in with a big force. I think the Democrats should say, 'Okay, present your proposals.' The Republicans are going to come in with a mandate from the voters to do things and we need to have them put out the things they want to do. And then you'll see there's not much to it and then the Democrats will adjust to new realities.

How do the Democrats take advantage of that? How do they get out of the gate first?

Well, I don't know if they're going to recoup a lot of the losses. I think the Republicans are going to make a lot of mistakes. Now the dynamic is going to change. And the Republicans are going to come in with a lot of people, a lot of different ideas and it's going to be interesting to see how they're going to hold discipline. The equation is going to change drastically and one side is going to have to adjust and it's going to be curious to see. The Republicans made a big mistake in 1995; let's see if they repeat it.

The Republicans are certainly a different beast than they were in '95 with the Tea Party.

They're a lot more conservative today. The Tea Party are Republicans. They're not new, they're not organic, they're not anything, they're just the most conservative Republicans. Forty eight per cent of the Republican Party identifies with them, so they're a very, very potent force within the Republican Party. And they're going to come with a lot of people to Washington. It's going to be an interesting force inside the party.

How so?

Because they're coming with a lot of energy and they're coming with a very set world view that is not shared by and large with a lot of other Republicans. They tend to be very anti-immigrant and they tend to be kind of anti-trade. This is not going to sit well with some of the other elements within the Republican Party. And they are not compromise people. They're sort of adamant in their world view. Inherently, if you don't agree with their world view, you're a bad American, so that makes compromise of any kind very difficult.

Ninety per cent of the country feels like it's in bad shape...

The country is. Look, people feel that we're in very tough economic times. They feel like we can't control our deficit. We're at wars that we can't get out of. Very little of this is Barack Obama's making, I might add.

Sure, but isn't it his job to better navigate the country out of this mess?

It's his job to begin. I think there's a lot of navigation left to do. I think he's pretty acutely aware of that. But he's two years into his term.

If you were to grade Mr. Obama, what would you give him?

In policy, a B-plus. In communications and explanations of his policy, a D-plus. D, as in dull.

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