James Carville test markets a Hillary message

Democratic strategist James Carville gestures as he speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" in Washington
Democratic strategist James Carville offers his take on the 2008 presidential campaign, and the message he thinks voters will want to hear.Alex Wong / Meet the Press via Reuters file

James Carville orchestrates lunch at the Palm like an auto mechanic hovering over an engine, arms moving swiftly to the bread and condiment plates as he blurts out his order in that familiar Cajun honk. “Gimme a big salad first, then the soup,” he says, with a ceremonial absence of ceremony. I’m impressed by his dietary discipline, unusual for a Louisianan, but relieved when he adds an order of fries.

Once lionized by reporters, political consultants are out of fashion, to put it mildly. But Carville long ago escaped that pedestrian category, having become, among other things -- and at various times -- a restaurateur, movie producer, television and radio personality, celebrity pitchman and famous spouse. Through it all he remains a shrewd and likable guy, loyal as the day is long.

Carville doesn’t speak for the Clintons, but he speaks to the Clintons. So spending some time with him can give you a sense of what’s going on within that brain trust as they plot to retake control of the Democratic Party and the White House. Even Carville’s promotional rat-a-tat about the movie he’s involved with -– a remake of “All the King’s Men” -– is revealing in a way. Here’s some of what he had to say, and my translation from the Cajun:

1) “The American people are going to be ready for an era of realism. They’ve seen the consequences of having too many ‘big ideas.’"

TRANSLATION: As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton looks for a basic sales pitch after what is likely to be a sweeping reelection victory in her New York Senate race this fall, she’s going to play a part that comes naturally to her: hard-eyed realist in a world of dreamers. It’s true that her political heart was ignited as a teenager by a crusading Methodist preacher. It’s true that Hillary Healthcare was a political disaster. Still, the pitch will go, she knows how to get things done.

She’s the one who kept her family together –- its finances, its marriage, most of its parenting function -– and that is the role she will cast herself in as she tries to win the White House. After eight years of what she will call the perhaps worthy but disastrously administered dreams of George Bush, it’s time to restore some discipline. Think of the iron-willed mom in “Malcolm in the Middle.”

2) “`Every man for himself’ is the last order of a weak, failed commander. `All hands on deck’ is the order of a successful commander. What we need is what I call `progressive patriotism.’ Everybody pitches in, all hands on deck, not for the idea of `sacrifice,’ but for survival. Why do you get to drive that SUV all the time with no consequences? Well, you don’t. And what if we raise the Social Security retirement age by a few more months -– and faster? Isn’t that worth it to save the system?”

TRANSLATION: In 1992, Bill Clinton went to great lengths to demonstrate that he wasn’t a traditional liberal. Being from the South, he knew, wasn’t enough. He was for the death penalty, for free trade (a position anathema to the industrial unions), for welfare reform -– and against the in-your-face use of African-American racial consciousness as a sales tool in popular culture.

Hillary is going to want her own “Sister Souljah” moment -– a dramatic way to demonstrate her independence from what’s left of liberal orthodoxy, as well as to show a measure of political bravery in tackling an intractable problem. And I’m wondering if Social Security is going to be it, and if the Baby Boomers are going to be the guilt-tripped “progressive patriots” called to the deck.

It’s also a way to balance some of the rest of what she would call for, which would include a demand that corporations and the wealthy pay more taxes in the name of “progressive patriotism.”

3) “A lot of people in the party think we ought to take a more populist line. Look at the giant checks the oil company executives get; then look at what’s happening to average workers.”

TRANSLATION: The Clintons can play the attack-the-rich game with the best of them, but it’s not what they want to be known for. Let others in the Democratic Party handle that.

4) “I don’t think Mark Warner is catching on out there, but Evan Bayh is raising a surprising amount of money.”

TRANSLATION: Call me cynical, but this would indicate to me that Carville is more worried about Warner -– a former governor of Virginia, with $200 million of his own money -– than he is about Sen. Bayh, the carefully decent but determinedly uncharismatic centrist from Indiana.

5) “We’re going to do previews of the movie in Louisiana, and use it to highlight the needs of the state. The movie is going to be so relevant to what’s going on in the country.”

TRANSLATION: Carville & Co. are going to sell the remake of “All the King’s Men,” due out in September, as a call to the kind of stirring hands-on-deck leadership they think is missing in the country. But the story of Willie Stark is a cautionary tale. He becomes governor, but makes many soul-corrupting compromises to get there. He hopes to redeem himself by building a big hospital for the state, but it never gets done. It’s not a story line the Clintons want to follow.