It can be hard to remember, with his ubiquitous television appearances and verbal jousting with all manner of conservative adversaries, including his wife Mary Matalin, but James Carville was not always a household name among political pundits.
He first came to national prominence in 1991, when he helped orchestrate total underdog Harris Wofford’s upset victory over Dick Thornburgh, the former governor and sitting Attorney General, to replace John Heinz in one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seats.
Wofford’s unyielding emphasis on the need for health care propelled him to victory and Carville to unprecedented acclaim.
Eventually, the “Ragin’ Cajun” started working for Bill Clinton, then the Arkansas governor deemed, like all of the other Democratic candidates, to have no chance at toppling the highly popular incumbent, George H.W. Bush.
Carville centered the campaign on three simple sayings-George Stephanopolous called them ‘haiku’-to which he would encourage the governor to return throughout the nearly year-long fight.
Change v. more of the same.
It’s the economy, stupid.
Don’t forget about health care.
Beyond the messaging, Carville set about creating a new type of campaign that was sleek, mobile and decentralized.
Despite raising less money and not having the power associated with being an incumbent, Clinton won handily, securing 370 electoral votes to 168 for Bush (The popular vote was much closer, in large part due to Ross Perot’s winning close to 20 percent.).
The documentary film The War Room tells the story of that campaign, starting with Clinton’s quest nearly being capsized by the revelation by Gennifer Flowers of their lengthy affair and culminating with his victory in November 1992.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes takes place the night before the election, when an emotional Carville pays tribute to the people with whom he worked and what they had created together.
Carville’s speech is noteworthy both for its profundity and its vision.
His articulation of the value of labor is still well taken and remembered, and his understanding of the value of a world in which hierarchy is second to trusted lieutenants getting and spreading the word about their cause and their candidate can only be taken as prescient.
As Carville predicted, Clinton did change the world, though perhaps not in the ways Carville was predicting before the cheers of “One more day!” broke out in the war room where he had spent so many hours.
Beyond what Clinton wrought, technology has brought the planet and its people ever closer and more connected.
The very format in which I am writing this post is only testimony to the power of people of ordinary rank and stripe to create and sustain meaningful conversation, and, as we saw last year, to use that information to topple oppressive regimes.
This year will be the first one in which Twitter is likely to play a major factor.
Already, Obama strategist David Axelrod and top Romney campaign officials have gotten into a dustup.
Their role as campaign leaders are important, and, more and more, it will be the actions of those people like the ones Carville memorably honored for giving their labor who will help to make a difference in deciding who will lead our country in this pivotal election in November.
We will watch, follow and comment with interest.