Larry Wilmore ventured far from his NYC studio to the heart of Pasadena to moderate the Deconstructing ’16 panel at Politicon. In one of the larger convention center halls, he dissected this year’s unusual election and its effects on the democratic process with Democratic strategist James Carville, former Obama administration consultant Van Jones, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, Republican commentator S.E. Cupp, and veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
The generally friendly conversation started on the topic of Donald Trump, with Wilmore referring to the opening line of The Graduate: “We now begin our descent into Los Angeles,” likening it to Trump coming down the Trump tower escalator “and taking us all down with him.” S.E. Cupp said she’s known Trump for years and had talked to his team and “they found the climate good now for Trump to make a run.” When Wilmore asked if they had run the “Mexicans are rapists” line by her, she said, “Rapists did not appear in the script I had. Not once.”
Asked if he believed Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic nominee from the jump, Paul Begala said, “The Democratic nomination will always be contested. I don’t think she underestimated Bernie. Some people joked “Buy him off with a bagful of weed.” I don’t think she took it that way at all. There’s authenticity to the pain Bernie spoke to.” But has Hillary connected with voters the way she needs to in order to take the win in November? Said Van Jones, “To those of us on the left, you have to look at why Bernie came up short. It’s a completely anti-establishment year. Hillary’s a human being. I’m not sure Trump was a carbon-based life form. I take the Left very seriously – there was a mistake on Bernie’s part, he talked so much about Wall Street, he didn’t get to connect on race and gender. That left a lot of black voters cold. HRC was saved from a socialist uprising by black voters.” Wilmore agreed and chimed in, “Hillary knows how to fan herself in a black church.”
When Wilmore asked Carville if Bernie Sanders had a chance to win, Carville was clear: “No. Democratic politics has two distinct hands: one, the pure who believe oppressed people have rights and two, the people who say it’s tough, you gotta scramble, scratch, and fight for progress. Bernie comes up and says “we’re gonna have a revolution” – there’s a streak in American liberalism that held itself as pure and above politics. I’m not of that — the scrapping is part of the political process. The person who’s come the farthest to my POV is President Obama. He used to be, “We are one people with one vision.” How’d that shit work out? (laughs) He understands now that this contention is how stuff gets done. Lincoln was a master politician. Basically, that’s my message. This is a necessary business for the country. It’s a good thing.”
Van Jones agreed with Carville, with some caveats, “I think that strain of crazy dreamers, over time, wins the country. Part of the frustration of the Bernie folks is that part of the establishment doesn’t agree with them and holds them in contempt as dumb and naive. They think it’s kind of dumb to compromise and run. They think it’s better to hold out a strong vision so you have somewhere to compromise from.” This was met with loud applause from the Bernie supporters in the hall.
Turning to the failed run of Jeb Bush, Bush’s strategist Mike Murphy explained, “We went to a tractor pull with opera and nobody was interested. The country is pissed off at politics. If you’re on the right, you want Cruz or Trump to blow up the system, if you’re on the Left, you want Bernie to blow up Wall Street. I’m proud of Jeb. We tried to run a positive campaign that would beat HRC but it wasn’t the year for what we were selling. We have a candidate on my side [Trump] that was designed in a lab to lose an election.”
Wilmore brought up the “Never Trump” movement and asked the panel, “If Trump were a disease, would he kill the party or can he be cured like Hep C?” S.E. Cupp got huge laughs when she answered this query, “Trump is wearing the Republican party like a rented tuxedo and at the end of the prom, that tuxedo is going to have cigarette holes in it, maybe have fluids on it. The party is going to have to figure this out. You’re already seeing a divide. George Will is leaving the party and challenging other conservatives to do the same. I, for one, will not let Trump push me out of my own party. I don’t think he represents my party at all. I’ll fight to keep my party intact and preach what I think we should be preaching. I won’t work to support Trump.”
Murphy had a shorter answer, “He’s more like a skin disease — you cover it up and wait for it to go away. We’ll have to rebuild conservatism to appeal to the whole country. He (Trump) doesn’t know what the Republican platform is.” Wilmore added, “He doesn’t know what a platform is.”
Wilmore asked the panel what they thought were the dumbest and smartest moves of the 2016 election process. Carville led off with, “When you say dumb, I think Jeb was an idea that was never gonna happen from the get-go. They were 3 supporters short of the nomination: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” He also thinks HRC’s slogan could be better, “I’m voting for her. I’m with Hillary – I think the slogan is idiotic.” Carville then praised the HRC campaign, “It was an obvious move but the way they’re dealing with Bernie is smart. It’s not an equal relationship – she needs his supporters. Candidates are who they are – she’s been around a long time, is set in her ways, thinks things out, thinks you can shape a future with well thought out policies. Trump is back in 1958. I think she’d be a thoughtful, prepared, judicious president. It doesn’t lead to the most ferocious campaign message though.”
S.E. Cupp started to talk about dumb things in the election. “Trump happened to everyone. One of the dumbest things we did from our side was make Trump sign a pledge to run as Republican. He was running away from us and we went to him…that was dumb. Now we’re wedded to this guy.”
Taking a bigger picture look, Van Jones observed, “There are three American stories that work: the rot at the top story – elites are screwing us over – that’s Elizabeth Warren and Bernie; the mobs at the gate story – outsiders are coming here to ruin America – that’s Trump; we’re all one people, a benevolent story.
Jones continued, “Hillary is not telling any of these stories. At some point she may land on one of those squares – she hasn’t yet.” Carville jumped to Clinton’s defense saying, “She’s thoughtful and judicious. If you want her to be what she is, why demand her to play a role that is not her?” Larry Wilmore nailed the sentiment in the room, answering Carville with “Because politics is theater.”
Wilmore steered the conversation to the upcoming conventions, asking the panel which convention is most important and for whom?
Mike Murphy did not mince words, “There’s gonna be a civil war in the party if Trump is the nominee. I think he may drop out. He’s like Charlie Manson’s fox trot instructor, he signs the pledge, then stabs you in the eye. There’s gonna be a war between the mathematicians and the priests – I’m a mathematician. In the primary so far, the voters have favored the more priestly.”
Cupp was blunt as well. “The Republican convention for Trump – it’s gonna be a sh*tshow. Every time, Trump promises to be more presidential then he turns the car the other way. This convention will put that on a big stage: the lack of unity, the lack of professionalism, the lack of presidentialism. The Democratic convention will be like a Super Bowl party, a jamboree. As a participant, I’m looking forward more to Philly.”
Van Jones pointed out, “43% of the delegates are Bernie Delegates – that’s a big number. I don’t think the party has yet digested our dyspepsia. I don’t think our convention will be as crazy (as the Republicans.) There’s a scenario in which we play this a year from now while Trump is president. I’m not in the camp that thinks Trump will fall apart and Hillary will win in a blowout. I think this will be a very very tough race. It’s hard to describe the level of pain, disgust and distrust out there. Trump can win. Brexit just happened. Liberals said the whole time it was impossible. The Republican convention is very important for Trump.”
The final question for the panel: who swears in next January?
Jones: Hillary, but it’ll be close
Cupp: Can women vote? If we can, yeah, Hillary.
Carville: It’ll be close. Looking at the numbers, I can’t see any way Trump wins.
Wilmore put a button on the session: “Nothing scares me more than everyone thinking something is inevitable.”