Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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GOP Response: The Breadbags of Empathy

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
I magine going to the doctor and saying, "My back is killing me. I can barely move. What can you do to help me? Should we do an X-ray? Physical therapy? Medication?" And the doctor responds, "Yeah, I hurt my back once. It was awful. So I know exactly what you're feeling. Anyway, thanks for coming in—just see the receptionist on the way out to pay your bill." That's not too far off from what we heard from Senator Joni Ernst in the GOP response to the State of the Union address last night. I'm particularly interested in this part: As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardees. We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning. You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would...

The Bread Bags of Empathy

Imagine going to the doctor and saying, "My back is killing me. I can barely move. What can you do to help me? Should we do an X-ray? Physical therapy? Medication?" And the doctor responds, "Yeah, I hurt my back once. It was awful. So I know exactly what you're feeling. Anyway, thanks for coming in—just see the receptionist on the way out to pay your bill."

That's not too far off from what we heard from Senator Joni Ernst in the GOP response to the State of the Union address last night. I'm particularly interested in this part:

As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardees.

We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning.

You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.

But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.

Our parents may not have had much, but they worked hard for what they did have.

These days though, many families feel like they’re working harder and harder, with less and less to show for it.

Because America is still the home of the world's most creative and inspiring strivers, within minutes people were not only posting pictures of themselves with bread bags on their feet to Twitter, some even crafted shoes out of bread to photograph. But what, precisely, is the point of the bread bag story supposed to be?

The point is affinity, saying to ordinary people, in Christine O'Donnell's immortal words, "I'm you." I understand your struggles and fears, because I've experienced them. I don't need to walk a mile in your shoes to feel your pain, because I've already done it, though mine were covered in bread bags. At a time like this, Ernst's ability to tell stories about her hardscrabble roots is no doubt one of the big reasons Republican leaders chose her to deliver their response.

There's a second part of this message that no Republican is going to lay out too explicitly, and Ernst certainly doesn't, which is that because I'm just like you, when it comes time to make decisions about the policies that will affect you, I will have your interests at heart.

But there's a problem with that, because despite the years she spent trudging through the snow in her bread bag feet, Joni Ernst's beliefs about economics are no different from Mitt Romney's, Jeb Bush's, or those of any other Republican whose childhood feet were shod in loafers hand crafted from the finest Siberian tiger leather. There's almost perfect unanimity within the GOP on economic issues, an agreement that the minimum wage should not be raised, that taxes on the wealthy are onerous and oppressive and should be reduced, that regulations on corporations should be loosened, and that government programs designed to help those of modest means only serve to make them indolent and slothful, their hands so atrophied that bootstrap-pulling becomes all but impossible.

But now that both parties agree that they must address economic inequality and stagnant wages, you really need to follow up the tale of long-ago hard times with some specifics about what you want to do now. And this is where things break down. When Ernst got to laying out the GOP economic agenda, here's what she offered: First, the Keystone XL pipeline, which as an economic stimulus is a joke. For whatever combination of reasons—the fact that environmentalists hate it is the most important—Republicans have locked themselves into arguing that a project that will create at most a few thousand temporary jobs is the most important thing we can do to boost the American economy. Second, Ernst said, "Let's tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific." Kind of vague there, but nobody likes trade barriers. She didn't elaborate, however. And finally, "Let's simplify America's outdated and loophole-ridden tax code." Which, again, nobody disagrees with in the abstract, but I doubt there are too many struggling families saying that their biggest problem is that the tax code is riddled with loopholes.

So that isn't much of a program. But she did close by saying that America is "the greatest nation the world has ever known." And it's inspiring that someone like Joni Ernst can start life in the most modest of circumstances, fitted as a baby with tiny booties made from Hostess Twinkie wrappers, then graduate to bread bags as she learned to castrate hogs (they do help keep the blood off your one good pair of shoes), and eventually grow up to do the bidding of the nation's noblest plutocrats. It shows what's possible in this great country of ours. 

Photo of the Day, Republican of Tomorrow Edition

 

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) rehearses her response on behalf of the GOP to President Obama's State of the Union address. Odds of a subtle yet unmistakable reference to hog castration are currently running at 1-4.

Why Republicans Shouldn't Be Too Upset At Obama's Tax Proposals

By now you've heard that tonight, President Obama will propose a package of tax breaks for the poor and middle class, paid for by some tax increases for the wealthy, including raising capital gains taxes and closing some loopholes. In my Plum Line piece today I consider this in light of some basic features of the American system and how it compares to our peer countries in Europe. Most people may not realize that taxes in Europe are actually much less less progressive than ours, despite our higher level of inequality. How can we explain that?

The first is that they collect more in taxes than we do in total, but the tax burden falls more evenly across income groups (this is a good time for a reminder that state and local taxes in America tend to be much more regressive than federal taxes, but we're talking here about federal taxes). The second is that they are willing to not make the wealthy pay much more because they take those tax revenues and create a panoply of cash transfers and social services that have the effect of dramatically reducing inequality. A low-income person in Scandinavia gets health insurance, child care, paid family leave, a free or low-cost university education, and other benefits that not only make their daily lives easier but also make moving up the income ladder not the kind of Herculean task it is in America. So it's a good bargain.

In contrast, in America when the government helps people with those kinds of benefits, we do it in a more limited way and on a sliding scale. Look at the Affordable Care Act, which conservatives decry as the very essence of oppressive statism. Its benefits are a function of income: The poor can get on Medicaid, which is free; the middle class get subsidies to help them buy private coverage; the rich don't get help with paying for insurance. When Europeans reformed their health care systems, they just gave everyone coverage.

So it isn't just our tax system that's progressive, it's our social welfare system, too. And that's what allows Republicans to keep it under attack. An old saying has it that programs for the poor are poor programs; they'll forever be vulnerable because their beneficiaries are those without political power. And which programs do Republicans find it impossible to chip away at? Social Security and Medicare, which provide benefits to all seniors, regardless of income. It's no accident that the only people who have ever suggested means-testing Social Security—making wealthy people ineligible—are Republicans. That would change the nature of the program and make cutting it in the future much easier.

It isn't surprising that Republicans are upset at the distributive nature of Obama's proposal; taxing the wealthy at a higher rate (pardon, "punishing the successful") and giving the money to poor and middle-class people is an affront to everything they stand for. But a system that's just a bit more progressive shouldn't bother them too much. How many American liberals would trade the tax and social welfare system we have now for one more like those you find in Europe, with less progressive taxes but more generous services? I'm guessing most would. And how many conservatives would accept a system with truly universal health care, free child care, free university, paid family leave, and so on as the price for getting the "flatter" tax system they always say they want. Probably not many. So maybe they shouldn't complain too loudly.

Mike Huckabee Is Your Candidate Of Cultural Resentment

I'm going to confess an unpopular opinion (among liberals at least) and say that as much as I enjoy The Daily Show, Jon Stewart is usually not that good an interviewer when it comes to political figures. He's about two-thirds of a good interviewer—there are always some good questions, but he usually misses opportunities to ask critical follow-ups, and when his interviewee is struggling, he'll often jump in with a joke. Which is his job, of course—it's a comedy show, and he's a comedian—but it also has the effect of letting his subject off the hook.

Last night though, Stewart did an extremely revealing interview with Mike Huckabee, one that cast into sharp relief what Huckabee's 2016 presidential campaign is going to be about. Huckabee's chances of becoming the GOP nominee are pretty small, but he's still going to be an important candidate, one who is likely to stick around after many others flame out. You can watch an extended version of the interview here, but this is what aired:

 

The topic is Huckabee's new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. The book comes out today, so I'm going to have to rely on what Huckabee has said about it and not the actual text, but the topic is what we might call his version of the Two Americas: not the haves and the have-nots, but the heartland and the coasts. Huckabee refers to these two worlds as "Bubbleville," made up of the bubbles of Washington, D.C., New York, and Hollywood, and "Bubbaville," where the real people live.

This is a familiar dichotomy often presented in conservative politics: you have the real Americans who live in small towns, go to church, love country music, wave the flag, and have "values," who are contrasted with the pretentious, licentious, condescending urbanites. But one of the fascinating things about this interview is that Huckabee—perhaps conscious of the audience watching—won't even take ownership of the very thing on which he's basing his campaign:

Stewart: It sounds like there's an idea that the people who live on the coasts are not real, that you're talking about—the Bubbas are real, and we're not.

Huckabee: No, it's not a matter of reality, it's a matter of different perspectives. I'll give you an example. There's a big difference between people who are well-educated and people who are smart. And a lot of people who are very well-educated—say, the Harvard faculty—believe that the people who live out in this part of the world where I live, in flyover country [note: Mike Huckabee actually lives in Florida], those red states that people think, "Those people are nuts"...

Stewart: But you believe that the Bubbas are better than the Bubbles.

Huckabee: No, different.

Stewart: No, better. You believe they're better. You wrote a book called God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. You believe they're better.

Huckabee: Here's the point. I want to explain who we are to the people who live in the Bubbles. Because those of us who live in Bubbaville, we get the people in the Bubbles, because all the television shows and movies are all about the people in the Bubbles.

Stewart: No, you don't get it.

Huckabee: Six and a half years, I've come to New York, and I've seen the difference in the attitudes and lifestyles and culture. It's not that one is better.

Stewart: Yes it is. You believe one is better.

Huckabee: Well if it is, it would be Bubbaville.

That sure took a lot of effort to wring that admission out of him. But let's move on. Later, Stewart brought up the fact that Huckabee has criticized Jay-Z and Beyonce for the former's vulgar lyrics and the latter's suggestive dance moves. He previously said about Jay-Z, "Does it occur to him that he is arguable crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?" (because when the two appear on stage together, it must be Jay-Z making the decisions about what they'll perform and how).

Stewart then played a clip of Huckabee on his show playing bass for Ted Nugent performing "Cat Scratch Fever" ("Well I make the pussy purr with a stroke of my hand/They know they gettin' it from me…") and said, "You excuse that type of crudeness because you agree with his stance on firearms, but you don't approve of Beyonce because she seems alien to you. Maybe the problem is Bubba is in a bubble." He went on to note that country music is full of crudeness. "Johnny Cash shot a man just to watch him die!" Stewart said. "That's some gangsta shit!" Huckabee tried to argue that "Cat Scratch Fever" is "an adult song, geared for adults." Right.

And as the interview closed, Huckabee added one more pitch for Bubba's superiority: "There's a difference between education and smart. If your car breaks down in the middle of the night on a country road, who do you want coming by: an MBA in a beamer, or do you want a couple of good ol' boys in a pickup truck with a tool box in the back?"

Before I get to the politics of all this, let me say: Oh for frack's sake. Seriously? That's supposed to tell us something about the cultural superiority of the red states? You can come up with a million different situations in which you might need some assistance requiring specialized knowledge. If I need my car fixed, I want someone who knows how to fix cars. If I'm having a heart attack, Huckabee's good ol' boys probably aren't going to be able to help.

In any case, this all makes clear that Huckabee is going to be the candidate of cultural resentment. He wants to be the spokesperson for those who feel that they're looked down upon by the elites, and for years, what politicians like Huckabee have fed those people is a narrative that says, "No, you're the ones who are better, and it's the coastal elitists who are worthy of scorn. The places where you live are brimming with virtue, the cultural products you prefer are superior to those preferred by other people, you are the real Americans. Those bastards are nothing compared to you." I particularly like Huckabee's repeated invocations of the Harvard faculty, a stereotype that among his intended audience will simultaneously evoke insecurity and contempt.

There is without question a sizeable market within the Republican Party for this kind of appeal. The problem is that it isn't large enough to get you the presidential nomination. If it was, then Sarah Palin would be the most popular politician in the party. But she isn't. In this CBS poll a few days ago, 30 percent of Republicans said they'd like to see Palin run for president, but 59 percent said they wouldn't. The numbers were almost exactly reversed for Mitt Romney, who's nobody's idea of an authentic culture warrior.

But no one can speak to those insecurities and resentments in a more folksy and appealing way than Huckabee, which is why he'll be a serious player in the presidential race. Then when it's over he can go back to Fox.

 

An earlier version of this post misquoted Huckabee as saying "NBA in a beamer," not "MBA in a beamer." It has since been corrected.

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