Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future
The dust jacket of this book should carry a warning similar to those found on cigarette packages: "Republicans: This book may cause apoplexy, high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Read at your own risk."
You could hardly expect anything else, given the political pedigrees of its authors. James Carville managed Bill Clinton's successful 1992 campaign, in which Paul Begala served as a chief strategist. After Clinton won the Presidency, Begala was one of his chief lieutenants. It's obviously no accident that in their jacket photos, both men wear blue.
Their basic message has two parts, one of which they share with other political analysts of totally different loyalties: Today's Democratic party lacks a coherent message. Their other big idea is that the Democrats should not be timid about attacking the assumed failures and derelictions of the Republicans. Their summary: "Americans don't like what Republicans stand for, but they don't know what Democrats stand for." Their prescription: Democrats must become a "principled opposition" made up of "progressive patriots."
Their book is thus an openly partisan screed. Tied as it is to the day-to-day headlines, it is likely to have a fairly short shelf life, given the volatile ebb-and-flow of political warfare. If you want to read it, you better hustle off to the bookstore before the whole political landscape is changed by some unexpected earthquake.
Tough as they are on the Republicans, Carville and Begala are not shy about criticizing their own party. They give failing grades to a whole parade of tactics and cliches that Democrats have used in the past in their campaign rhetoric --- over-reliance on focus groups, domination by pressure groups, reliance on narrow issues rather than on the big picture, above-the-battle reluctance to attack their opponents boldly. Much as they despise Karl Rove, they pay him grudging tribute: "Karl doesn't take votes; he makes decisions."
This book discusses a laundry list of the issues that are roiling political waters these days: abortion, taxes, Iraq, gun control, gay rights, influence-peddling by lobbyists, oil addiction, global warming, health care, and many more. In each case the authors have ideas about how their party might change the terms of debate to make them more favorable to their party's position.
Now and then they endorse compromise with the Republicans on some details. But early on they come to the disheartening conclusion that in the end, such issues don't much matter. They are not what sways most voters.
The authors insist that Democrats must campaign on broad principles and, yes, on the supposedly Republican terrain of "values," if they are to return to power. They recommend, for instance, framing issues like Iraq and the environment in moral terms, even providing a selection of Bible verses that might be quoted to support their arguments.
On the central issue facing their party these days --- should it move to the center a la Bill Clinton or pursue a resolutely "progressive" course --- Carville and Begala try to find a middle ground, calling for a "truce" between centrist Clintonites and the more left-leaning "progressives." Easy to say, not easy to achieve.
On a purely literary level, this book is entertaining for the torrent of colorful invective its authors direct at their Republican rivals. When contending, for example, that the Bush administration used the trauma of 9/11 to advance its own conservative agenda on a number of unrelated issues, their language is delightfully Menckenesque: ".…so slimy, so selfish, so cynical, so transparently scummy, so transcendentally sleazy.…" One can almost hear Democratic readers applauding and Republicans gagging.
Perhaps on second thought a few Republicans may not gag. I suspect Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Ken Mehlman and a few more top GOP strategists will use this book as a peek behind enemy lines as November's elections draw closer.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011