The Carville-Matalin Joke Is on Us
The Observer
by Steve Kornacki
November 26, 2007

For the love of God, please stop enabling them.

"Only 39 days until the Iowa caucuses," Tim Russert gravely intoned over the dramatic John Williams "Meet the Press" score. "The Democratic race: too close to call. The Republican race: too close to call. Which issues, policies, strategies will resonate?"

If Mr. Russert really wanted a thoughtful and provocative discussion of that subject, then why did he—yet again—hand over half of his show to James Carville and Mary Matalin, two of the four panelists whose punditry monopolized Sunday's one-hour broadcast?

This is not an issue of disclosure. Mr. Russert correctly noted in his opening that Mr. Carville "helped put Bill and Hillary Clinton in the White House in 1992" and that Ms. Matalin supports Fred Thompson, and later pointed out that Mr. Carville has also donated money to Hillary Clinton's '08 campaign.

Instead, it's a question of quality, fairness and basic respect for the intelligence and time of the viewing audience. Does Mr. Russert, the host of what is supposed to be the preeminent news discussion program on television, actually believe that Mr. Carville and Mrs. Matalin provide viewers with objective analysis? And why does he continually include them—on a regular panel that also features Republican Mike Murphy and Democrat Bob Shrum—without offering a similar platform to any of the other candidates' prominent supporters?

It took about 14 seconds on Sunday for Mr. Carville to show his stripes, when Mr. Russert used the first question of the show to ask Mr. Carville to analyze the latest Iowa numbers, which show Mrs. Clinton trailing Barack Obama, 30 to 26 percent (with John Edwards at 22 percent). Released last week, the poll prompted a round of Is-Hillary-Suddenly-In-Trouble stories in the press.

Mr. Carville's response could have been written by Howard Wolfson: He immediately downplayed the significance of what is inarguably a negative development for his candidate.

"It says that Iowa is very tight," Mr. Carville said, "and this poll and every poll has shown that it's very tight. Also, Iowa polls are unreliable over a month out. John Kerry was running third, Bill Bradley, at the time, was way ahead of Al Gore in Iowa."

He went on in this spirit, but let's stop right there, because Mr. Carville, in those few sentences, already mangled history in a way that is conveniently conducive to Mrs. Clinton. His claim that Bill Bradley "was way ahead of Al Gore in Iowa" at any point during the 2000 campaign is false on its face. In fact, eight years ago nearly to the day, an Iowa poll showed Mr. Gore throttling Mr. Bradley, 54 to 32 percent. Mr. Gore led Iowa wire-to-wire in 2000. New Hampshire was the volatile state that year, not Iowa.

Maybe this was just an innocent misstatement by Mr. Carville. After all, his broader point has the ring of truth: The Iowa leaderboard, the 2000 example notwithstanding, can change in a hurry. Any pundit in the country could have made that observation. But because of his personal devotion to the Clintons, it can't be assumed that Mr. Carville's motives in making it were pure. Actually, his entire answer raised several questions, including:

* If the poll in question had shown Mrs. Clinton—and not Mr. Obama—opening a lead, would Mr. Carville have been as quick to point out, as he did, that it's still early, that other polls have produced different results, and that surveys at this stage can be unreliable?

* Was his inaccurate statement about the Gore-Bradley race an understandable error, or was he—like any master of spin—guilty of intentional exaggeration and overstatement in an effort to amplify his Clinton-serving argument?

And this was only the first question of the show. The next time he spoke up, it was to point out that Mrs. Clinton had "performed superbly" in the Democratic debates and to echo her attack that Mr. Obama's health care plan "doesn't have the mandate, leaves 15 million people uninsured."

Good lord. Where was the competing, pro-Obama "analyst" to point out, say, the massive campaign contributions that Mrs. Clinton has gobbled up from the health insurance industry?

Even Mr. Carville's "criticisms" of Mrs. Clinton could be seen as subtle efforts to blunt attacks on her and to bolster her campaign. For instance, Mr. Russert pointed to Mrs. Clinton's pilloried performance two debates ago and asked if "her answer on the driver's license immigration issue and on other issues, or her reluctance to answer, hurt her with the honest, trustworthy questions that were asked in this poll?"

Mr. Carville's responded that he "did not think that that was (her) best performance"—something Mrs. Clinton herself had said publicly—and then quickly added that "anybody that looks at her performance over the course of the debates says that this a competent, thought-out campaign."

During a discussion of Mrs. Clinton's recent effort to claim credit for the domestic economy during her husband's presidency, Mr. Carville—as if it represented some stunning admission on his part—offered his opinion that " her argument is actually not a bad one, in this case."

It was no better when the talk turned to the Republicans, with Ms. Matalin, an advisor to the Fred Thompson presidential campaign, assuming the role her husband filled on the Democratic side.

Confronted with Iowa numbers that are downright atrocious for her candidate—a distant third place, nine points behind Mike Huckabee—Ms. Matalin, just like her husband, sought to downplay them.

"Oh, the dynamic hasn't changed," she said. "The numbers have changed. He's down from his peak, but Rudy's down from his peak. Rudy's substantially down from his peak … the national polls, Fred Thompson remains in second place. In South Carolina, a more pivotal state than the first two states, he's tied for first with Romney, who's been all over TV for two months."

If the conversation had been about any candidate besides Ms. Matalin's, does anyone actually believe she would have been so quick to thumb her nose at such damning polls numbers?

And in the next breath, she took it one step further, matter-of-factly hauling out talking points aimed squarely at Mr. Huckabee, who just so happens to have emerged as the chief strategic threat to Mr. Thompson.

"He's horrible on immigration, he's for benefits for illegal aliens," she said. "He's terrible on spending and taxes, right? Historic tax increases in Arkansas, government spending increased by 50 percent, government employees increased by 20 percent."

She argued that pointing this out is imperative for Mitt Romney's campaign, since it is Mr. Romney whose Iowa lead is now threatened by Mr. Huckabee, which is true enough. But what she didn't add is that the Thompson campaign—her campaign—is counting on Mr. Romney defeating Mr. Huckabee soundly in Iowa, so that Mr. Thompson will face Mr. Romney, a Massachusetts Mormon, in South Carolina—and not Mr. Huckabee, a fellow Southerner.

Mr. Russert has convened this same Carville-Matalin-Shrum-Murphy panel several times. But he ought to consider what it's supposed to accomplish. If he wants objective and detached (and occasionally unpredictable) analysis from political pros, Mr. Carville and Ms. Matalin need to go. They are shills.

And if he really is interested in dueling recitations of campaign spin, he should simply replace Mr. Shrum and Mr. Murphy with spokespeople for the rest of the candidates.

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