Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Republican Candidates Pretending to Be More Conservative On Immigration Than They Actually Are

In 2008, John McCain, straight-talking principled maverick that he was, got into a Republican primary and saw that a position in favor of comprehensive immigration reform was causing him problems, so he disavowed the reform bill he had co-authored not long before, going so far as to say that if it came up again in the Senate, he'd vote against it. And now Marco Rubio, who like McCain attempted to pass a bipartisan comprehensive reform bill, is doing something similar. When the "Gang of Eight" bill Rubio championed passed the Senate in 2013 but died in the House, Rubio was skewered by tea partiers as a sellout and a traitor. So he changed his position, saying that he now advocates "securing the border first, " just like every other Republican.

But there may be less of a flip-flop here than meets the eye. In fact, I'd argue that many of the Republican contenders are less conservative on immigration than they're pretending to be. Here's what happened when Rubio got asked yesterday on "Face the Nation" about whether he'd vote for his own bill:

"That's a hypothetical that will never happen," he says, which is probably true, even if it's a way of dodging the question. But when you listen to him outline his actual position on immigration, it doesn't seem to have changed from the Gang of Eight bill, and indeed, it doesn't sound all that different from what many Democrats advocate. Rubio may not like the term, but he advocates a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants: he describes a lengthy process that goes from a provisional status to a legalized status including a work permit to eventual citizenship, and involves things like paying back taxes, but that's what Democrats want too.

Rubio could frame an answer to the question in a reasonable way if he wanted; he could say, "We tried to pass comprehensive reform and we couldn't, so what I'm proposing now accomplishes the same goals piece by piece and therefore has a better chance of satisfying my party's right wing because the 'tough'-sounding stuff comes first." Of course he wouldn't put it that way, because all the incentives in the primaries encourage candidates to say, "Grr, no amnesty, border security first!" There's a premium put on channeling the emotions of the Republican electorate on this issue, including anger, resentment, and fear. But the details of what Rubio is advocating are pretty moderate.

And it isn't just him. Jeb Bush has aroused conservatives' ire by talking about undocumented immigrants like human beings, and though he too now stresses the "tough" parts of his immigration plan, he has long supported a path to citizenship. Scott Walker has been a bit muddy on the question, but he has allowed that there could be a way to give the undocumented citizenship (after the border is secure, of course). He says he's against "amnesty," but doesn't say that he opposes any path to citizenship ever. Rand Paul supports a path to citizenship, even if he doesn't want to call it that. Bobby Jindal supports a path to citizenship. Mike Huckabee wants citizenship for DREAMers. In fact, the only major candidate I could find who has unequivocally ruled out any path to citizenship is Ted Cruz, and even he advocates some kind of legal status that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and work.

So what we have here seems to be a bunch of candidates who want to convince Republican primary voters that they're more conservative on immigration than they actually are.

Let's be clear that in practice, "Secure the border first, then we can get to what to do with the undocumented" can be and often is a way of saying that we'll never get to comprehensive reform. Almost no one who says this has a clear idea of what a "secure" border means — is it zero undocumented people getting in? — and so no matter how many miles of fence we build or how many thousands of new Border Patrol agents we hire, some people will always say the border isn't yet secure and therefore all the other elements of reform have to wait. And I'm not naïve enough to think that someone like Scott Walker would be working hard to get comprehensive reform accomplished if he became president. But it's revealing that even this group of extremely conservative candidates embraces many of the liberal goals of immigration reform — even if they don't really want to talk about that part of it until the primaries are over.

Why Media Coverage of Campaign 2016 Will Be as Bad as Ever

The return of horse-race coverage. 

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News
View image | gettyimages.com L et's spare a bit of sympathy for the reporters who found themselves running after Hillary Clinton's van last week in the hopes that they might get a few seconds of video of her stepping out of it and into whatever momentous event she was arriving at. I'm sure that as they took off in hot pursuit, more than a few thought to themselves, "This is pretty ridiculous." But they kept running anyway, and when they finally caught their breath, perhaps they had a chance to sit down and pen that blog post on Clinton's order at Chipotle that their editors were demanding. Reporting from the presidential campaign trail is of a rite of passage in political journalism (even if some poor souls find themselves doing it again and again), and though it can have its moments of excitement, it's also a trial. Subsisting on unhealthy food and too little sleep, away from their families, the journalistic legion trudge from one event to another, hearing the same talking points...

Why Media Coverage of Campaign 2016 Will Be As Bad As Ever

Let's spare a bit of sympathy for the reporters who found themselves running after Hillary Clinton's van last week in the hopes that they might get a few seconds of video of her stepping out of it and into whatever momentous event she was arriving at. I'm sure that as they took off in hot pursuit, more than a few thought to themselves, "This is pretty ridiculous." But they kept running anyway, and when they finally caught their breath, perhaps they had a chance to sit down and pen that blog post on Clinton's order at Chipotle that their editors were demanding.

Reporting from the presidential campaign trail is of a rite of passage in political journalism (even if some poor souls find themselves doing it again and again), and though it can have its moments of excitement, it's also a trial. Subsisting on unhealthy food and too little sleep, away from their families, the journalistic legion trudge from one event to another, hearing the same talking points repeated again and again, and trying to wring something resembling news from what everyone acknowledges is a bizarre and absurd charade.

Clinton in particular is making life difficult for those following her. First, she has little or no opposition; how can you spin exciting tales about a contest in which there's only one contestant? Second, her campaign is conducting a kind of soft rollout—no big speeches, nothing planned too far in advance, just some "spontaneous," small-scale meet-and-greets with voters that reporters are either barred from or not given much notice about. If you were assigned to the Clinton beat and it was your charge to report news from this campaign, you might be getting desperate already. And so you'd find yourself chasing after her van as it rolled into a parking lot, hoping desperately that something exciting might happen when it came to a stop. Maybe the door will open to reveal her in a passionate embrace with Justin Timberlake, or someone will throw a pie at her when she emerges. Something, anything.

That endless need to produce content—and fast—is the source of many if not most of the pathologies of contemporary campaign coverage. And the easiest way to put the "new" in "news" is to write about the horse race, because even if it hasn't changed since yesterday, it still sounds current even if you're repeating yourself.

And unlike deep, substantive dives into issues, the horse race is inherently dramatic in a way a comparison of the candidates' varying ideas about monetary policy isn't, though the latter is much more consequential for people's lives. The horse race has conflict, antagonists, twists and turns leading to an eventual climax in which a victor rises and foes are vanquished.

So is there a way to reconcile these two competing needs—to inform the public about things that matter, and to produce daily news that moves the larger story of the campaign forward? It's hard, but I'd make one suggestion: Reporters could do their best to tie whatever controversy or conflict or "gaffe" we're consumed with at a particular moment to the job one of these people will be doing come January 2017. If you're going to say something a candidate said or did "raises questions," tell us what those questions are. For instance, Marco Rubio (43) is presenting himself as the youthful alternative not only to Clinton (67) but also to Jeb Bush (62). That could be interesting, but instead of just saying, "Ooo, Rubio made a reference to a rapper!" why not ask what this issue might mean for the presidency? Is there something the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton (the three youngest upon taking office) had in common that reveals something about what a Rubio presidency would be like? Is there any reason to believe Clinton or Bush would be hindered in their energy level (or in any other way) by their relatively advanced ages?

You ought to be able to come up with similar questions focused on the presidency about whatever the candidates have decided to put on the agenda. And if it's difficult or impossible to determine what the micro-controversy of the moment has to do with what the next president will face in office, maybe it isn't worth talking about.

The trouble is that putting the day's events in context to reveal something important can be difficult and time-consuming. So instead, what we get from the campaign trail is a thousand stories that sound like this:

Here's what the candidate did today.

Here are the parts of the electorate she/he is trying to appeal to.

Here's how the day's message tried to appeal to those people.

Here are her/his weaknesses and the negative parts of her/his image.

Here's where she/he stands in the polls.

Back to you, Bob.

The good news is that there's never been a better time in history to be a citizen looking to be informed about presidential politics. There are more news outlets than ever before, and more easily available sources of information than someone living 50 or 100 years ago could have dreamed of as they contemplated their votes. Whatever you're looking for in campaign coverage, whether it's fine-grained background analyses of issues, detailed examinations of the candidates' records, or up-close-and-personal profiles of their pets, you can find it somewhere.

Which you'd think would spur those more traditional media of newspapers, radio, and television to devise new ways to bring their audiences compelling and edifying news. And maybe it will, someday. But they're still trying to figure out how. 

Photo of the Day, Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far, Far Away Edition

Flickr/Betsy Weber

I'm not even going to bother linking to the new trailer for the new Star Wars movie, because it's been out since yesterday, and if you haven't watched it already there's obviously something wrong with you. I'll just give you this picture of cookies.

Two More Candidates to Begin Doomed Runs for Presidency

What leads a man to look in the mirror and say, "I could be president of the United States"? Anybody can say they should be president, of course—after all, aren't all your ideas the right ones?—but it takes a remarkably optimistic spirit to think that you can do what it takes to make it to the White House. Can you raise all that money, run that huge organization, out-strategize your opponents, overcome the inevitable stumbles and controversies, have the stamina and fortitude and cleverness to do it all better than anyone else, and convince the American people that you're the one?

Somebody has to do it, of course. But if you're a politician who last ran for office thirteen years ago, who had a relatively undistinguished record, who represents a wing of your party that no longer exists, and whom nobody ever accused of being charismatic in the first place, what makes you look in that mirror and say, "Yeah. I'm ready. Let's do this"?

America, I give you George Elmer Pataki:

Ready to get on that train to Victorytown? No? No matter, Pataki is in New Hampshire, pressing the flesh and winning hearts and minds. And he's not the only one with visions of electoral glory dancing through his head:

Mike Huckabee, who stepped down from his Fox News Channel show, "Huckabee," in January, is expected to return to Fox this evening to make his 2016 presidential campaign official. Huckabee said Friday he is "moving toward" announcing a second bid for the White House.

Huckabee told reporters in Washington this morning he would make a little news on "Special Report with Bret Baier," which airs on FNC at 6 p.m. ET.

Huckabee's bid is, if equally destined for failure, at least a little easier to understand. Unlike Pataki, Huckabee isn't a walking Ambien, and he's kept in touch with the Republican electorate since his last run in 2008 by being a ubiquitous presence on radio and television. But he's also a con artist who seems to spend most of his time devising ways to separate gullible conservatives from their money. Not only is that likely to be raised by his opponents should he actually gain any momentum in the primaries, running for president isn't a good way to make money, at least in the short term. He already had what I assume is a lucrative career. So he must really believe he can win. After all, Huckabee is a man of fervent and sincere faith.

Maybe it's the imperfections of the announced candidates that lead people like Pataki and Huckabee to give it a shot. After all, Jeb Bush is a Bush, Marco Rubio is a whipper-snapper, Scott Walker is untested nationally—if you were motivated enough, you could come up with a scenario in which everyone else falls and you're left as the obvious choice. But these guys? I'm sure Hillary Clinton is quaking in her boots.

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