Sunday, January 15, 2006
HAMASTAN - Many in this sleepy Palestinian town didn't know what to expect when noted Democratic strategist James Carville, the Ragin' Cajun, flew in for a quick pow-wow with his newest clients. Was he only helping ransom a kidnapped aid worker? Or was his presence a deeper indication of the Hamas party's growing commitment to the democratic process?
If recent hints in Israeli newspapers are any indication, it's the latter. There are growing signs that Carville's influence is already being felt -- and not just in pedestrian little issues like freedom or captivity for a few misplaced Italian diplomats, but in Hamas' growing understanding of exactly how this democratic game is played. Reports Haaretz:
According to Abu Tir, the movement's decision to enter the elections - as well as the decision to remove from its election platform sections in its constitution calling for Israel's destruction - are not only tactical measures. Rather, they represent a strategic shift.While some might view Abu Tir's statement as the naive surrender of previously inalienable rights, it's not hard to recognize the seasoned influence of Carville's steadying hand. For although Hamas' removal of Israel's destruction as an electoral plank is presented as a strategic choice, that presentation is itself a brilliant, non-binding electoral tactic. Regarding Hamas newfound appearance of moderation, Carville, interviewed at a Ben Gurion airport lounge, explains, "I told them what I always say, 'Don't get mad. Don't get even. Just get elected, then get even.' They talked my ear off about that 'even' part, but they got the idea real quick."
Carville confirms his growing influence within Hamas inner electoral circles, describing his role as teaching them to focus on key issues and speak in language the voters will understand. "I try to get them to stick to media consumable one-line sound bites," Carville explains. "They're pretty good at getting the media's attention, or at least Reuters, but we're still working on what they say while they've got it. True, 'Death to the infidel West' is only one line, but it lacks a certain poetic allure." Carville takes credit for the party's recent adoption of the Clintonesque mantra -- It's the corruption, stupid. "We want them to hammer away on Fatah's incompetence," said Carville, adding, "but keeping them away from the 'all slaughter, all the time' rhetoric is like holding Bill's leash -- it's a lot of work."
Still, Carville appreciates working with candidates without having to worry about midnight dalliances and suppressing photos of lard-loaded donut binges. "And," adds Carville, "I was pleasantly surprised to find they really had that Cajun fighting spirit -- in spades." He is confident that spirit will help them unapologetically put the focus on their opponent, Fatah's, deficiencies. "I want them to get the message out: Fatah doesn't care about your children. It's time for a change, not more of the same. It's time for a party that has big plans for your children. From everything I hear, we're getting that message out loud and clear."
Carville credits party leaders with strong talents and natural ability, viewing his role only as helping them tune the message. The adoption of his suggested slogan, "If we can't bring peace, nobody can," shows how quickly they are learning the advantages of constructive ambiguity, explains Carville. "I try to remind them they're not running for dictator here, and they seem to get a good chuckle out of that." But he reminds them to keep their eyes on the big picture. "Sometimes they forget that democracy is a process, that the promises they break today are going to have to be explained in the next election, but they just look a little puzzled about that 'next election' part. We'll have to hire better translators from now on."
Carville says his immediate advice on first meeting the Hamas leadership was remarkably similar to what he's been advising US Democrats. "It's not just to stand up and fight. The gist of it is to stand up and it's to turn a phrase. It's to turn an argument around. It's to contrast a policy. It's to tell a story. It's all these things we got to get a lot better at." He smiles broadly and shakes his head. "So with my new clients, we've definitely got the stand up and fight part down -- but I'll make policy wonks out of them yet." Still, he loves their fighting spirit. "I always say: 'When your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil.' I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to work with candidates who just get it."
Pressed on the issue of whether he was at all uncomfortable assisting an Islamist party that celebrates the slaughter of innocent civilians and supports reactionary Sharia as a form of government, Carville responded in the cryptic manner of a master guru, "Look, I tell these guys, 'It's better to light one candle than it is to curse the darkness, and you guys are the candle-lighters out there.' Then they all shout something in Arabic and dance around, and I just know we've shared a moment."
At that Carville slugged down three quick shots before hurrying to catch his flight, explaining any further advice to his new Hamas friends would only be via phone or remote linkup. "I think we've got all the ducks pretty well up in the air at this point, and how Hamas brings those suckers down is up to them now."
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