Matalin and Carville: Irreconcilable differences?

By: Terry Stanton

By Terry Stanton

The late Tim Russert used to preview their appearance on “Meet the Press” like he was touting a boxing match: “Coming next, Carville ... and Matalin!” Yesterday, when husband-and-wife political analysts James Carville and Mary Matalin appeared as the presidential guest speakers, jabs were indeed thrown from the left and the right as in any respectable bout, but this ideologically bifurcated couple first spoke as one in expressing their gratitude to the AAOS for coming to New Orleans in 2010 and for keeping the city in its “rotation” of future meeting.

“Welcome to the Who Dat Nation!” Ms. Matalin said to the audience, using the all-purpose term of affection for the National Football League champion New Orleans Saints and, by extension, the Crescent City. “We sincerely thank you for coming here.”

James Carville pleads “Just pass it!” on healthcare reform.

“How much we appreciate your coming here,” said Mr. Carville, “the Ragin’ Cajun,” who was raised in Carville, La., and moved to New Orleans in 2008.

With the pleasantries over, both shared their views of the current scene in Washington and the effort to overhaul health care—she from the perspective as a long-time strategist in Republican and conservative politics, he as a famously fierce manager of Democratic campaigns.

Health Care is #1
“So here we are, a year into the Obama presidency,” Ms. Matalin said. “We are in the bloviating business here. Pundits like to make these big, definitive prognostications. When President Obama was first elected you’d see, ‘We’re all socialists now.’ Now you’ll see, ‘The Obama presidency is over.’ Both of those sweeping generalizations are wrong.”

Noting that healthcare reform has been the “number one issue for this president,” Ms. Matalin said, “Yesterday, he gave his 52nd speech on it and said now there’s no more talking, no more talking—one week from now, we’ll have an up-or-down vote. We’re going to see what the 21st century looks like.” After a pause she said, “Right. In one week.”

Mary Matalin (left) and James Carville (right) entertained and enlightened as presidential guest speakers.

No fan of the Democratic proposal, Ms. Matalin described it a “radical transformation.” She called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement that “we have to pass a bill before we know what’s in it” a “new twist on democracy,” drawing a laugh from the audience.

Ms. Matalin noted reposts that say “there are only minor, technical things left to do—like, a dozen states demanding more money from Medicare; like, an add-on to the taxes on wages and dividends; and like, this little technicality: a complete student loan program overhaul … You wonder why people say, ‘Whoa, what’s going on out there?’”

After “a year of public selling” of the bill, public opinion has not budged from 60–40 against, and those who oppose the measure feel much more intensely about it than those counted as supporters, she noted.

“The president talks about historical healthcare change,” she said, “but people care more about debt and the deficit, and don’t think health care will reduce costs. They think it’s going to hurt the economy and raise taxes.”

While Ms. Matalin said passage of healthcare overhaul would surely flush moderate Democrats out of office in this year’s Congressional elections, Mr. Carville dismissed her line of thinking.

“Just pass this”
“Quit whining, just pass this,” he implored. Democrats should stop worrying about the short-term consequences for incumbents—even those in vulnerable, more conservative districts—because in tough economic times, voters are naturally apt to punish those in the majority. “Ten percent unemployment makes it hard for the incumbent. If people don’t think things are getting better, they’ll kick you out.”

Predicting just how a defeated bill would affect the Democrats is fruitless, Mr. Carville said. However, they said, “if they don’t pass, they’ll lose like crazy—100 percent, they’ll get wiped out. If they pass it, they’ve got a two-thirds chance!”

Ms. Matalin said that President Obama is “the fastest-falling, most polarizing president in the history of polling,” and this descent has had an impact on electoral politics, especially the recent election of Republican Scott Brown to the Massachusetts Senate seat held by the late Edward Kennedy. She said this lifted the prospects for Republicans, but noted that the GOP is still “more loathed than Democrats.”

Mr. Carville observed that recent election cycles have been extraordinarily volatile. From 2006 to 2010, the seats of 75 House members and 20 senators went the other way, and that current predictions for 2010 are for “25 and 5.” Obviously right now, the outlook is gloomy for the Democrats, but Mr. Carville cautioned the GOP not to celebrate early.

“The stock market is up 42 percent since Obama took office,” he said. “Somebody has confidence somewhere. April may have job growth. It won’t be great, but there is a case to be made.”

Mr. Carville said what he finds most interesting about the healthcare debate is that the final vote could hinge on the acts of two little-known men: Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, whose single tweaking of a cost prediction could change representatives’ minds, and Alan Frumin, the Senate parliamentarian who would rule on whether the Senate could pass the House bill by a simple 51-vote majority.

“The fate of our nation and all the billions of dollars rests on a man never elected to anything who makes $120,000,” said Mr. Carville of Mr. Frumin.

The topic that clearly most engaged the audience was liability and tort reform. Ms. Matlin scoffed at the nod President Obama gave to Republicans over this issue at the recent “C-SPAN summit” when he allowed a provision for pilot programs in the states.

To the delight of the audience, she said, “How come their approach is to redo one-sixth of the economy, but when it comes to something that could actually reduce costs, they want a pilot program?”

Mr. Carville countered that states are free to enact all the tort reform they want, and cited Texas as an example of one that has made strides. “I don’t see it written anywhere in the Constitution where the federal government has to mandate the tort laws of the states.