Thursday I got to hear two of the brightest political minds in America talk about the upcoming election.
James Carville, who managed Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, and his wife Mary Matalin, who served as an assistant to President George W. Bush, spoke at the Dallas/Fort Worth Hospital Council’s 64th annual Awards Luncheon at the Arlington Convention Center.You’ve probably seen Carville, whose skin-head, smirk and Cajun accent have made him the subject of parody on “Saturday Night Live.” Matalin hosted “Crossfire” on CNN. She’s more low-key, but just as witty and articulate.
“For 10 years Barbara Bush referred to James as ‘he who shall not be named,'” she said of her husband. James said he has developed pretty thick skin over the years.
“I’m from Louisiana,” he said. “Half our state is underwater, and the other half is under indictment.”
But this couple, who share lives from opposite sides of the aisle, had some fascinating observations about the election.
“The first debate, Obama didn’t want to be there,” Carville said. “Romney was better prepared. I expect the third debate to have some effect on the race, but nothing dramatic. It’s an even race, and frankly, I’m not sure who’s going to win the election.”
Matalin, too, said the race at this point is “all pretty much within the 2 or 3 percentage point margin of error” in virtually every poll.
“The big question everyone’s asking now is, ‘Who is Mitt Romney?'” she said. “They keep talking about the ‘likeability’ factor, but I don’t know if that really matters to most voters. I’d like to like my plumber, but mostly I want the toilets to flush.
“Of course, Obama was better in the second debate. It would be hard to do worse.”
Matalin said Romney is doing a better job of outlining his programs than Obama and believes he did another thing very well in the last debate.
“He belied the caricature of him that’s been put out by $300 million in negative ads,” she said. “He’s not a felon, he’s not a tax cheat, he’s not a dog abuser, he’s not waging war on women.”
Carville said the Republicans are a bunch of whiners.
“They talk about how slow this economy is recovering, but compared to other recoveries, this recovery is not that bad,” he said. “This recovery has produced 3.3 million private sector jobs – the Bush 43 recovery produced 1.1 million.”
Matalin termed the current recovery “awful.”
“Historically, the deeper the recession, the steeper and quicker the recovery,” she said. “What Romney is trying to get across is that there is a way out. This is not inevitable.
“This ‘recovery’ has people underemployed, working two jobs, kids graduating from college and not being able to get jobs – that’s the new norm.”
She also took on the accusation that Romney is “unauthentic.”
“He’s not unauthentic,” she said. “He’s just not what we’re used to seeing. He’s a businessman, a problem-solver. In Massachusetts, he was a red governor in a blue state, and he got things done.
“I’d rather have a problem-solver with real programs than a celestial being who makes you cry when he speaks, but it’s like an Italian opera – you go outside and you realize you don’t speak Italian and you have no idea what just happened.”
Carville offered some advice to both candidates.
“You have to pick a theme,” he said. “In this campaign, if you say five things, you’ve said nothing. It’s coming down to the end. You have one big event left, and this last debate is a mega-event in a very close race. It will be decided by the candidate’s skill and the campaign’s ability to execute.
“The key for voters is that somebody is consistently saying something they can understand.”
They also discussed the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya – an issue most commentators feel Obama came off well on during the last debate.
“For two weeks we were told that this conflagration in Benghazi was over a video, which nobody had seen, and over which we arrested an American citizen,” Matalin said. “The president said there was ‘no actionable intelligence,’ but we had intelligence, we just didn’t act on it.
“It’s an issue his people didn’t expect to be worrying about.”
Carville said he thought Romney lost that part of the debate and will lose again if it is a topic of discussion in the next debate.
“I’m very confident that the president will do very well on this issue,” he said.
I came away much more impressed with Matalin’s reasoning than with Carville’s one-liners but was convinced that James and I have at least one thing in common.
We both married smart women.