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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Scott Walker Sees Things With Own Eyes, Emerges Wiser (Or Not)

Last July, President Obama took a fundraising trip to Texas and, to the feigned outrage of conservatives, did not go visit the border. Passing up the opportunity to stand next to a border patrol agent gesturing off into the distance, or to walk thoughtfully along a section of border fence, just showed how unserious Obama is about fixing the problem of illegal immigration. He even turned down an invitation to tour the border with his good friend then-governor Rick Perry. Had only Obama gone and "seen for himself" the situation, Republicans were sure, he would have completely changed his beliefs and policies on immigration to be more in line with theirs.

Scott Walker will not be so foolish, and here's the evidence:

 

 

And what insights about the border did Governor Walker glean from his time there? Probably that, as Governor Abbott says, the federal government has failed to secure it. Which is exactly what he would have said yesterday.

Look, I'm all in favor of politicians learning things and seeing things. But at this point, Scott Walker is a presidential candidate, which means that every place he goes is carefully chosen for its PR value. When he gets there, he sweeps in with a retinue of aides (not to mention members of the press) and everyone he talks to is pre-screened to make sure they aren't going to say anything that'll make him uncomfortable, and the whole thing will be judged a success if they get a few good pictures out of it.

Which is what campaigning is, of course, but I'm sure that the next time the subject of immigration comes up, Walker will say, "You know, when I was at the border…" to establish that unlike some people who might just talk about this stuff, he's seen it with his own eyes, and therefore his judgment is based on a deep understanding of the issue. But while there are some things you can learn about immigration by gazing across the border, those things make up a miniscule portion of everything one might want to know about the topic in order to formulate good policy.

There's nothing wrong with seeing things for yourself; the problem comes when you convince yourself you've seen everything you need to.

Jeb Bush to Continue Family Tradition of Pretending to Be a Reg'lar Fella

Just a few ordinary guys, hangin' out.

It's presidential campaign time, which means that I will have ample opportunity to fulminate against my many pet peeves of political rhetoric in the months to come. There are few higher on that list than the repeated claim politicians make that they aren't really politicians—they don't really think or know much about politics, and they're both repulsed by and unfamiliar with this strange and sinister place called "Washington, D.C." that they just happen to be so desperate to move to. Obi-Wan Kenobi may have said of Mos Eisley, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy," but he didn't follow that up with, "But I don't really know anything about the place, which is why I'm the best person to guide you through it." Because that would have been ridiculous. Not so our politicians, however. And here's the latest:

Jeb Bush isn't a New York Times reader.

The former Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate appeared on Fox News Radio on Thursday and, when asked to respond to a quote in the paper, said he doesn't read it.

"I don't read The New York Times, to be honest with you," Bush told Fox's Brian Kilmeade.

The quote in question came from Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who was quoted in the Times saying that the Christian right should begin discussing which candidate to back as an alternative to Bush, because he didn't represent their views….

Kilmeade later asked, "Would [Perkins] be somebody you'd approach. Would you say, Tony, you're misunderstanding me. We need to talk. I read that column today in The New York Times?"

"Maybe I'll give him a call today, I don't know," Bush said. "I don't read The New York Times. But if you're going to force me to do so...."

You'll notice that Bush points out that he doesn't read The New York Times not once, but twice. Can I say for sure that this is a lie, and Jeb Bush does in fact read The New York Times? Of course not. But the point is that instead of just saying, "I didn't see that article," he has to make a point of letting people know he doesn't read the Times, as some high-falutin' elitist would.

Nobody has to read The New York Times in particular. It does remain the most important news outlet in America, not because its audience is the largest but because it has more influence than any other. When a story appears in the Times, it can set the agenda for the entire news media (media scholars have actually documented this effect). Unless you're Sarah Palin, if you're a politician it's part of your job to keep abreast of what's going on, which means you'll at least glance at the Times, The Washington Post, and probably The Wall Street Journal. I'm sure that one of Jeb Bush's staffers assembles for him a collection of clips that he can look at every day so he knows what's happening in the world.

But Bush feels the need to display his own (alleged) ignorance and disinterest, lest anyone believe that this guy—whose grandfather was a senator, whose father and brother were both president, who was a governor, and whose entire life has been wrapped up in American politics—might actually be so crass and cynical as to keep up with the news.

In this, Bush is following a family tradition of pretending to be "jus' folks." George H.W. did it in typically hamhanded fashion, by letting everyone know he loved pork rinds. George W. was far more adept at it; in 1999, in advance of his run for the White House, he bought a "ranch" to which he would go for vigorous brush-clearing sessions, conducted in the appropriate cowboy costume (boots, hat, belt-buckle). I believe that the sole agricultural product the ranch produced was brush, which Bush would "clear," i.e., move from one place to another, so that he could be photographed in action.

There are reasons one might vote for Jeb Bush, and reasons one might vote against him. But nobody is going to be convinced that he's an outsider who will come to Washington, shake up the system, and bring his real-world common sense to bear on all those politicians and bureaucrats. So let's drop the Unfrozen Caveman Politician bit, shall we?

Photo of the Day, Starstruck Washington Edition

The Capitol Hill media were absolutely captivated by this hearing about foreign aid to Africa, which surely had nothing to do with the presence of an extremely wealthy man and an extremely handsome man. 

What Happened to Chris Christie?

Remember when Republicans were over the moon for Chris Christie? There was a period when YouTube videos of him shouting down some uppity teacher or other constituent were gleefully forwarded from conservative to conservative; here was a guy who knew how to put liberals in their place! He was a tough-talking former prosecutor who knew how to win in a blue state! Before the 2012 election, GOP megadonors were imploring him to run for president, but he decided to hold off for 2016. And now, no one's begging. In this poll in New Hampshire, he comes in sixth, with 4.6 percent of the vote. In this Iowa poll, he's tied for seventh place, with 4 percent.

So what the heck happened? It isn't that hard to figure out. Most broadly, people actually began thinking about the presidential campaign. Primary voters thinking about the presidential campaign had other potential candidates they could compare Christie to. And as it turns out, whoever you are and whatever your priorities, there's at least a candidate or two who is more appealing than Christie. Looking for a conservative fire-breather? There's Cruz or Huckabee or Carson or any number of others. Want an older, steadier type? Jeb Bush is your man. Looking for a governor? You've got Walker or Jindal or Bush. In short, nothing about Christie is unique, other than his attitude.

And it turns out that attitude doesn't wear all that well. Christie's tough-talkin' schtick, while great for generating momentarily compelling video clips, doesn't have a lot of purchase on the primary campaign trail, where you spend most of your time not sparring with constituents but begging your own people to vote for you.

I suppose it's possible that once the candidates start debating, Christie can yell at his opponents and remind Republican voters of what they liked about him, namely that he's kind of a jerk. But that's probably not enough to build a campaign on.

How Rand Paul Is Losing His Distinctiveness

As the 2016 presidential race has swung into motion in the last couple of months, we've heard a lot about Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker, and even Ted Cruz. But there hasn't been a lot of news about Rand Paul, whom many people considered the most interesting candidate in the race. Paul has proven adept at gaining positive news coverage, and the fact that he's a quasi-libertarian makes him a little less predictable than other candidates. In fact, that's the core of his appeal. He can't argue that he has a lengthy list of accomplishments; his 2010 Senate campaign was the first time he ran for any office, and he hasn't authored any important legislation. Being different is what makes Rand Paul compelling.

But there's only so different you can be. The guy who was supposedly so skeptical of the overuse of American military power is now proposing a huge increase in military spending:

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.

We should have seen this coming. Last August, I wrote that while Paul may have a few positions that don't fit neatly into traditional Republican conservatism, the more central an issue is, the more likely he is to take the expected GOP line:

Even if being a little less ideologically predictable is part of Paul's appeal, it turns out that there are some positions that are negotiable for a Republican presidential candidate trying to win over primary voters, and some that aren't. A true libertarian can start off telling those voters that he favors low taxes and small government, and they'll cheer. He can tell them he's concerned about the militarization of the police, as Paul recently wrote eloquently about, and they might say, "I still think we need law and order, but I get what you're saying." He can tell them that government surveillance of Americans is getting out of control, and they might decide he has a point, even if they're still concerned about fighting terrorism. But if the libertarian candidate goes on to say that because he believes in maximal personal freedom, he also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of drugs, they'll raise their eyebrows and say, "Hold on there, buddy."

That's not what Rand Paul will be saying; on those last three issues, he ranges from firmly Republican (he opposes abortion rights) to essentially Republican (he opposes same-sex marriage but says it should be left up to the states) to somewhat less Republican (he opposes legalization but has suggested some sensible reform of marijuana laws). In other words, he's about as libertarian as an ambitious Republican can be: pushing the GOP a bit on issues where the party is pulled by competing impulses (like law and order vs. skepticism of state power), but safely in the fold on every issue where there's consensus in the party.

Why is Paul making this proposal now? It's partly because the presidential race is getting going, but mostly because this intra-Republican argument over the budget has brought the issue of military spending back near the top of the agenda. If he wants to be competitive in the presidential race, Paul has to get on the right side.

Contemporary conservatism has four main pillars: low taxes, small government, "traditional" social values, and a large military. No one who wants to be the GOP presidential nominee can stray from any of them in any serious way. And this is Rand Paul's dilemma: His distinctiveness as a candidate comes from the fact that there are areas in which he questions Republican orthodoxy, but if he questions parts of that orthodoxy that Republicans fervently believe in, they'll reject him. But when he does things like propose a large increase in military spending, he ends up looking just like every other Republican.   

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