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There's something about Mary (Matalin)
Republican half of Carville/Matalin TV duo talks to us about why partisanship is good, and what Obama has in common with Nixon
Mary Matalin

MARY MATALIN is best known to politics junkies as the female half of America’s most unlikely pundit couple. The diehard Republican married high-profile Democratic consultant James Carville in 1993, soon after he helped catapult Bill Clinton to the White House.

Their successful odd-couple marriage has even survived Matalin’s brief stint as a high ranking official in the Bush administration, where she served as counselor to former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003.

Along with husband Carville – once renowned for his killer instinct, now more known for his Cajun witticisms on CNN — Matalin appears this Saturday night at the Hyatt in honor of Georgia Days 2009, sponsored by the Georgia Historical Society.

GHS Executive Vice President Laura Garcia-Culler says, “Attendees are in for a real treat this Valentine’s Day. The theme of the evening is ‘Magic in the Moonlight,’ a Mercer song title, and the décor is the blue and white from Tiffany & Co.—and we’re having a raffle featuring jewelry items from there. In addition to the keynote presentation, the governor will induct the new Georgia Trustees. And of course, after the program there will be champagne and dancing under the stars.”

As of this writing some tickets are still available.

Matalin spoke to me from her home in New Orleans. (I deliberately didn’t ask the oft-posed question “How can a Republican be married to a Democrat?” If you’re interested, you can find her answer in dozens of online interviews.)

Something interesting happened during the 2008 campaign. At one point it seemed like all the Ron Paul signs were taken down and replaced with Obama signs. That makes no sense ideologically. What do you make of that?

Mary Matalin: But it does make sense demographically. The essence of the Ron Paul support was libertarian. There are a lot of intellectual libertarians, but the real force was young people, and they overlapped with Obama.

Young people only know for the moment that they’re not conservative. The digital age has a different way of looking at the world. It’s not libertarianism, it’s not liberalism, it’s not what they perceive to be the kind of conventional descriptions of both.

They want decentralized, customized, practical solutions. They don’t like any kind of hypocrisy, and they have a low tolerance for phoniness.

In this specific case they were anti-war, and Ron Paul was the most coherent on that. Obama really was all over the place. On the specific issues relative to this time and place, Ron Paul matched up with them. But in the general philosophical framework, who didn’t match up was John McCain.

These people got very engaged and active for the first time with the Ron Paul thing. So it doesn’t surprise me that when they lost that course, they turned to the next paradigm shift.

Elaborate on what you said about the digital age.

Mary Matalin: The digital age wants to be active, but they want to do it without reordering their lives. It used to be if you wanted to be in politics, you had to be in politics, and that was it. Now you can group by social internet foundations — Facebook and all that jazz.

So it didn’t surprise me. But the longer they study this stuff the more they’ll realize Obama’s not a libertarian. It’s unclear exactly what he is and to what extent he’ll be able to control traditional liberals in the Democratic majorities. But he looks less like anything they’ve seen, which for the moment is their definition of libertarianism.

With government as big as it is and likely to get only bigger, do you think being a libertarian these days is more of a cosmetic thing — a lifestyle choice rather than a viable ideology?

Mary Matalin: The semantics have gotten so twisted. Small government doesn’t mean no government, it doesn’t mean anti-government — it means practical, productive government.

Madison said “If men were angels we wouldn’t need government.” Well, men are not angels. The problem with this economic crisis is not the lack of regulations, it’s the lack of oversight. And that goes to both parties, starting with the devotees of Fannie Mae and branching out to the SEC.

I’m not defending libertarianism, just explaining their position. I’m a traditional constitutional conservative, which Republicans have not practiced for a decade or so.

What I love about this is we’re having the beginnings of a real debate. This contest was about — though it was not articulated as such — the role of government in a free state. What is the balance of power between government and people?

Is that essential question extending to the stimulus package?

Mary Matalin: With this stimulus thing, they say the criteria for a stimulative shovel-ready project is it’s got to be ready to go in 90 days, and done within two years. Well, nobody can do that really. You can’t plan out a project until you know you have funding for it.

You can talk about a smart grid, but that’s not stimulative. Talking about rebates and increased food stamps, that’s stimulative, but it’s like throwing lighter fluid on a fire.

The longer it’s out there and the more we debate it, the more we’re really having a debate not on tax policy, or economic policy: What is the role of government?

We may be a country so lacking in confidence in its own ability right now that we’re going to let government do it. What people don’t understand is every dollar the government spends is a dollar it took from somebody else.

No one sits around and thinks about this but wackos like me who look at history and look at government’s complicity, for good or ill, in the rise and fall of great nations. When you’re living through it you can’t see it, but in our own lifetimes the greatest empire of modern times fell under the weight of welfare state policy — Great Britain.

But it’s hard to have an honest debate with all this fetishizing of “bipartisanship.” I think partisanship is the only way stuff gets done. How about you?

Mary Matalin: Oh, my God. I couldn’t agree more. I love what you just said. Bipartisanship is such pap, such crapola.

Every burst of progress — whether you agree or disagree with it — has been the result of partisanship. That’s FDR, that’s Reagan. That’s LBJ, who was a huge partisan. That didn’t work, and that’s why I became a conservative. I was doing my graduate work when the Great Society programs were thankfully swiftly collapsing.

The Founding Fathers fought like cats and dogs, they hated each other. I came in with Reagan, and we were partisans, but we weren’t prickly. Reagan’s best friends were Democrats. Poppy Bush, Bush 41, his best friends were Democrats. It’s just the way it worked then.

I don’t know what Obama is now. We like to call him liberal, and they like to call us “wingnuts,” and we’re stuck in this vernacular that is pejorative with regards to partisanship. But we’ll see no progress if there is no debate.

This idea that Obama got some huge mandate is not only wrong but destabilizing and dangerous. He got two million more votes than Bush and four million Republicans didn’t turn out. It was more of an anti-Bush and anti-Republican election than pro-liberal.

In fact, at the end of that election somewhere close to 60 percent of people thought Barack Obama was more likely to cut taxes than John McCain.

I saw that polling.

Mary Matalin: And over fifty percent thought cutting taxes was a better solution to government woes than spending. If there was a mandate, then Obama really went centrist, center-right towards the end.

Having said all that you got to be in the zeitgeist, and you’ve got to understand what it is in order to work around it. If people call it “bipartisanship” but what they mean is “let’s get some relief” — smart people know that whatever you call it, here’s what the elements are.

One thing I’ve learned in 30 something years of doing this—and it’s been true in all our history – is that in a country of 300 million it doesn’t take 300 million people to be on top of every issue. It takes about ten percent to be really on top of things.

That sounds ridiculous, but while it takes a lot of people voting and leading in their communities, it takes more smart, articulate people who stay on it than a whole nation of brilliant people.

It was always thus. The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, a third were for it, a third were against it, a third didn’t have any idea what was going on.

Nine out of ten people that voted for Obama had no idea where he was on ten policies they were asked about. It was a cultural thing, and I think he was smart enough to figure that out.

Is it ironic that the first black president isn’t descended from slaves and wasn’t a civil rights activist? Or was that the only way it was going to happen?

Mary Matalin: He didn’t live through the cultural wars. That did not inform his social conscience. My friends will say, “Oh, he was a community organizer.” Look, I grew up on the southside of Chicago, and that’s just what you had to do if you wanted to break into politics in southside Chicago. He did not grow up fighting over Vietnam or civil rights.

Obama is really on the top edge, the avant garde edge, of the digital age, and they think completely differently. Their brains are being formed differently.

What I hope this puts an end to – and I hope there’s a way out, because we’ve gotten ourselves so twisted up over political correctness — is the grievance industry. The kind of civil rights that turned into victimology, complaining, attacking, and hurting people who were the intended beneficiaries more than it helped them.

Just as feminism became gender politics instead of equality politics. I was a feminist when it was about equal pay. But then it turned into “fifty percent of the artists represented from the Middle Ages in this graduate art course have to be women.”

Well, no, because that’s not how it really was. It all got completely silly.

So Obama is Nixon in China relative to civil rights. It would be really great if Michelle was kind of a gridiron feminist, who could bring it back to how we can make ourselves genderblind as well as colorblind, the way the original feminists and MLK meant it.

During the campaign I was shocked at the misogyny directed toward Hillary Clinton — not from Republicans but from liberals.

Mary Matalin: I think the problem was less in the country and more in the Democratic Party. Their structure and paradigm is identity politics. So it’s a zero-sum game. Somebody wins and somebody loses.

In a Democratic primary, which is where that fight was taking place, the Democrats were forced by virtue of their own structure to pick what they like more: Women or African-Americans. It was their fight, not mine.

I so respect Hillary Clinton. She did not deserve the treatment she got, but she wasn’t entitled to anything either. She was sending a mixed message on the campaign trail. She was saying it’s my turn, I’m entitled. That’s just not how they think in that party, and you add to that their identity politics.

What I don’t get is, what is a woman’s issue? Why aren’t taxes and national security women’s issues? And women’s health care, why wouldn’t that be a man’s issue? Men don’t want their daughters or wives to have inferior health care. I don’t understand all that. And with black and white issues — it’s in the whole country’s interest for no community to be unequal or kept in poverty.

The issue of race and sex goes to the Democratic Party, and maybe Barack Obama will help them get past that. It’s not going to happen overnight, because people in that party have built their entire lives around activism relative to groupthink. cs

‘Magic in the Moonlight’ GHS Birthday Bash and Awards Gala with James Carville and Mary Matalin

When: Sat., Feb. 14, 7 p.m.

Where. Hyatt RegencyCost: $250