Following the 2014 midterm elections, political strategists James Carville L.H.D. ’13, P’17 and Mary Matalin P’17 joined the Hobart and William Smith Colleges President’s Forum Series for post-election commentary and their predictions for 2016.
Carville and Matalin — who have been married for more than 20 years and are prominent and influential voices in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively — discussed the outcomes of the 2014 midterms, both in terms of immediate governance and as “a walkup and prelude to 2016,” as Matalin put it.
Moderated by HWS President Mark D. Gearan, the Nov. 5 event at the Harvard Club in New York City drew HWS students, parents, alums, Trustees and friends of the Colleges, for an afternoon of political banter, laughter, and deep consideration of the challenges and solutions of U.S. policy.
Matalin, one of the most celebrated and popular conservative voices in America, said that the 2014 midterm elections were “not a victory for Republicans so much as a defeat for Democrats…This is an opposition vote.”
For his part, Carville — a political commentator, media personality and a prominent figure in the Democratic Party — agreed: “This was a disastrous election for Democrats. Even if you account for the normal ebb and flow of things, it was a particularly bad election….maybe there’s an alternative way to look at it but I haven’t thought of it yet.”
It was also “a unique election,” Carville continued, “in that the Democrats refused to run on anything they did, and the Republicans refused to run on anything they’re going to do.”
In the wake of the election, however, Matalin and Carville both noted the comments from President Barack Obama and presumed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell regarding plans for bipartisan compromise.
“There’s plenty of consensus on important issues that would incentivize and unleash some growth in the economy,” Matalin said, citing energy reform, regulation reform and tax reform. “There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit over which there’s bipartisan consensus — not compromise, not capitulation.”
As for the 2016 elections, Matalin pointed to a few presidential frontrunners — particularly Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey. Matalin noted that where the presidential race is concerned, these potential candidates strengthen “the case that a governor, with policies that have been proven to work and supported by voters, gives credence to a campaign to be for something, which will pull out the millions of conservatives that have stayed home in the last few cycles.”
Carville predicted that for Democrats, “in two years, the profile of the electorate is going to be substantially different than the profile of this electorate,” noting the “gulf” between voter turnout in mid-term election years and presidential election years.
“The single most powerful driver of voting turn out and voting behavior is a reason,” Carville said, but in this year’s election, “Democrats never really gave people a reason. Every off year, the party of the president, every time, acts like they don’t know the president, and every time, they lose….Phone calls, multiple contacts, Get Out the Vote efforts, flushers, emails, texts are not going to overcome giving people a reason to go out and vote, to feel they have a real stake in the election…I think that we fell for the idea that we could alter the composition of the electorate through technology in a way that would be favorable, and I think that idea is going to come under scrutiny in the next two years….The demographic profile is critical to the outcome of the election, and I think we became too reliant and thought we could do it through technology alone.”
Matalin, however, countered that “demographics as destiny bothers me,” that it “leads to a political strategy that is divisive….We’re structurally dividing people.” She also noted the “generational shift in the Republican Party. Of all these new senators, their average age is under 45. It’s a whole new wave. The superstars coming up are anything but old white males — Susan Martinez in New Mexico, Sandoval in Nevada, Rubio, Cruz. This is a different party.”
What they both agreed on, despite this year’s election, was the need for candidates to have a substantive message with which to engage voters.
“Technology’s important, good candidates are important, campaigns are important, but there’s this belief in airtime,” Matalin said, acknowledging the minimal impact of empty campaign ads, especially as Election Day approaches. “You have to have the capacity to get your message out, but if you don’t have a message and you have all those spots cross-pressuring each other, people just don’t watch them. I think we’re going to gravitate toward some kind of politics which employs more than just TV spots.”
“I’m a big believer that if you have an idea, you drive it home so people associate you with something,” Carville said.
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to engage a variety of speakers in sharing their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty, staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. The President’s Forum Series will continue to bring important politicians, intellectuals, and social activists to campus-allowing the community the continual flow and exchange of ideas.
On Tuesday, December 9, the President’s Forum Series welcomes Susan Brison, chair of the philosophy department at Dartmouth College, whose scholarship explores a broad spectrum of scholarly inquiry, including trauma, memory, free speech theory, sexual violence, and other topics in social, feminist, political, and legal philosophy.