January 1, 1999
After ridiculing Binyamin Netanyahu for getting an American adviser in the 1996 election campaign, Labor has gone and hired one, too.
Carville on Netanyahu: 'He's a very good politician ... [but] he's the head of a failed government'Political campaign wizard James Carville came to Israel to meet with his newest client, Ehud Barak, just when his most prominent charge, Bill Clinton, also happened to be in the country.
"A total coincidence - not that anybody's going to believe me," Carville said Tuesday night.
He noted that while he didn't speak with Clinton in Israel, the president would be calling him later that night, on his way home on Air Force One, to talk about his political troubles in Washington.
If Carville's visit had nothing to do with Clinton's timetable, it had everything to do with Barak's : The Labor leader saw a campaign about to start, and an election in May or June, so he wanted to get Carville out here in a hurry, said Aliza Goren, Barak's spokeswoman.
Very simply, Carville is Barak's answer to Arthur Finkelstein. The Labor Party has ridiculed Netanyahu ever since the 1996 campaign for hiring an American political Svengali to feed him his lines; now Labor has hired one of its own.
Carville, however, has a greater reputation than Finkelstein in America, as well as in other parts of the world.
Ever since he managed the successful campaign of a little-known Southern governor against an incumbent president coming off a war victory, Carville has become known as the man who teaches liberals how to move toward the center and win.
The 1992 Clinton campaign's aggressive, up-with-people approach served as the model for Britain's Tony Blair and, most recently, for Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, to unseat conservative prime ministers. Carville advised Blair informally in his campaign, and Carville's partner, Stanley Greenberg, did Blair's and Schroeder's campaign polling.
"Just like people in Britain, Germany and the US, people in Israel are tired of the rhetoric and inaction of the Right. They don't want to vote for something that's old and tired," Carville said.
Asked if the Labor Party thought Barak was the Israeli version of Clinton, Blair and Schroeder - a social democrat whose time had come - Goren gave first the short answer, "Yes," then the long one : "Definitely."
But Carville is more than just a red-hot campaign consultant; he's become an American pop-culture fixture.
Born in the microscopic town of Carville, Louisiana (named for his grandfather, who was town postmaster), Carville, 54, goes on all the talk shows to give hell to the Republicans in his thick Southern accent. He has the most refreshing of images - the liberal redneck.
The titles of his three best-selling books say a lot about the way he works : We're Right, They're Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives; All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President (written with his wife, Mary Matalin, who was deputy campaign manager for Bush in 1992); and his most recent, And the Horse He Rode in On: The People V. Kenneth Starr.
In the lobby of Tel Aviv's Dan Hotel, Carville stood out.
With his shaved head and prominent brow he looked like a Svengali, but the striped polo shirt, denims up around his ankles and Heineken in his hand softened the impression.
He laughed a lot, and his demeanor seemed to say, "Hey, I'm here to learn."
Arriving here with Greenberg and their other partner, media man Robert Shrum, Carville freely admitted that he wasn't well-versed in Israeli politics. He'd met earlier in the day with a number of Labor MKs, but couldn't recall any of their names.
His first meeting with Barak was six months ago in New York.
"I kept looking at his hands, and wondering, you know, as a commando, how many people he'd come up behind," said the ex-marine.
He gushed about his new client, saying he had been so dazzled by Barak's reputation as an IDF soldier and general that it took him a while to get past the halo. Barak's reputation precedes him in the US, or at least among big-time Jewish Democrats, Carville said.
"Sitting with him is like sitting with [World War II legend] Audie Murphy," he said.
"He's a classical pianist, and they say he plays very well. He has a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. He's a remarkable man."
So much for the resume.
How did Barak strike him? As handler of the world's most charismatic political leader, what kind of buzz did Carville get from Barak?
"One-on-one he's a very likable guy. He's not an aloof person, neither is he a slap-you-on-the-back type. He's warm, but businesslike," Carville replied.
And what about the leaden way Barak comes across on television?
"You could say he's not the biggest barrel of laughs I've ever seen in politics," Carville allowed.
Still, the man nicknamed the Ragin' Cajun didn't want to focus on Barak's style, but on his political persona and the way he puts his messages across.
This is what Carville said he was hired to improve, to sharpen.
"What I do is so frighteningly simple that I'm almost scared to tell people what it is," he said.
"I find out what a candidate believes in, what's important to him, and then we focus on those things relentlessly, aggressively, energetically, with clarity of thought, direction and commitment."
Carville, who focused the 1992 Clinton campaign with his famous saying,"It's the economy, stupid," said he realized that Israel is not America or Western Europe - here security is still the overriding issue.
"Somebody told me that in Israel, 'being' comes before 'well-being,' " he said.
But, noting the high unemployment rate and slumping economy of the Netanyahu years, he added, "That doesn't mean we can't talk about maybe a little 'better-being.'"
First, though, Barak has to do a better job of playing his strongest card.
"He has to remind people of his military record, and make it absolutely clear that he is totally, unequivocally committed to the security of the State of Israel," Carville said.
That's the positive message. There's also going to be a lot of emphasis on the negative message.
"The premise is this : It's not that Netanyahu is a bad man, it is that he has led an inept government. Israel is a country looking for change; people are dissatisfied with this government.
"There's no reason Israel has to continue down the road of division and ineptitude that has been the road taken by the present government."
Barak, Carville continued, will be saying Netanyahu hasn't been a leader, but instead has been led by the minority right-wing and religious factions in his coalition.
The thing is to get Barak to say this more sharply and simply. Maybe the Labor Party leader's wide-ranging intelligence has been a bit of an obstacle, he said cheerily.
"The guy's full of ideas. He's got more ideas about more things than anybody I've ever met in my life," Carville gushed.
"I would just like to help him take that brilliant, wonderful mind and focus it on a few ideas, and express them a little more clearly."
And once Barak hones his message, he is going to repeat it over and over and over and over - literally ad nauseam, Carville hopes.
"It's only when a candidate's wife tells him, 'I'm sick of this, I don't think I can listen to you say that anymore,' that I know the message is getting down to the people who don't pay attention to the news, who may be taking care of a sick parent and are too busy for politics.
"I want the [news junkies] to be sick and tired of hearing it - that's the great breaking point."
Told that Israeli news junkies may have already gotten sick and tired of hearing Barak's exhortations about "physical separation from the Palestinians - us over here, them over there," Carville replied, "You know what I say to that? Good."
He was at his talk-show best, bringing to mind Booklist magazine's review of We're Right, They're Wrong : "One can almost see the sneaky twinkle in Carville's eye - and the light reflecting off his skull. ..."
He discoursed on the supreme importance of repetition in campaigning, any kind of campaigning: "Why do you think people drink Coca-Cola? Because they see Coca-Cola logos, and Coca-Cola ads, and hear Coca-Cola commercials, and it's Coca-Cola here, Coca-Cola there, Coca-Cola everywhere."
Which led him into an appreciation of Netanyahu : "Let's give him credit : He can be very repetitive, he's a very good politician. I don't disparage his skills as a politician."
But the Ragin' Cajun stayed focused : "He's just the head of a failed government. His job isn't to give speeches. Sometimes I think we should elect one guy to run the country, and another guy to run his mouth."
Nice soundbite. Spoken for the 800th time, no doubt.
Better look out, Finkelstein. By the way, does he know Finkelstein?
"I do not," he said.
What does he think of his rival's work?
"Well, he was successful in the 1996 [Netanyahu] campaign, so some people probably think he's some kind of genius."
Others are hoping Carville is a bigger genius, and just as importable to Israel.
Walking out of the Dan lobby and heading for a car was Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who ran the party's successful 1992 campaign.
Asked what effect Clinton's old coach would have on Barak's chances, Ben-Eliezer replied : "He can only help."