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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In today's Plum Line post, I took a look at an actual health care plan that congressional Republicans unveiled and came to the conclusion that they've basically ceded the argument on government's role in health care:

Again and again in the Republican plan, what they do is take a provision or principle in the Affordable Care Act and essentially say, "We want to do that too, we'll just do it a little less generously." No denials for pre-existing conditions? It's in there, but there are some important caveats (which I'll get to in a moment). No lifetime limits on coverage? In there. Young people up to age 26 can stay on their parents' plan? Yes, but a state could opt out. Subsidies for middle-class people? In there, just up to 300 percent of the poverty level. Coverage for the poor? Yes, just up to 100 percent of poverty instead of 138 percent. Tax on high-value plans? Yep, just in a different way. Government-set limit on how much insurers could vary premiums by age? Yes, but the ratio would be expanded from 3-1 up to 5-1. A mandated list of "essential health benefits" for all plans? Yes, but the states would determine the list instead of the federal government, with more flexibility.

The caveats on pre-existing conditions are important: instead of guaranteeing coverage the way the ACA does, Republicans would create finite windows in which you could get coverage, and if you don't make it in time you'd be out of luck. But it's still notable that they came up with a plan chock-full of regulations and government subsidies, insufficient though they might be.

And in my column for The Week, I noted that this is an unusually young field of Republican presidential candidates, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll make significant inroads among young voters:

The interplay of the candidate and his party will play out differently depending on who that candidate is, of course. Rand Paul's mix of economic conservatism and (relative) social moderation is more in tune with millennials than the positions of many of his opponents. On the other hand, Marco Rubio likes to ham-handedly quote hip-hop lyrics in speeches, which I suppose could appeal to … someone or other. But you can bet they're going to try. If one of the 40- or 50-somethings becomes the nominee, he'll surely accuse Hillary Clinton of having "old, tired ideas." Rubio calls her policy positions "20th-century relics," and everyone knows what he's really saying.


Should Brian Williams Get the Benefit of the Doubt?

In 2015, network news anchors are not the towering cultural figures they were in the days when there were only three channels and a majority of American households tuned in to watch the likes of Walter Cronkite every night. Nevertheless, anchoring the nightly news may still be the highest-profile job in American journalism, so when someone like Brian Williams gets in trouble, it's a significant story. And Williams is in fairly big trouble today.

I don't think this is going to end his career, both because of the nature of the offense and because of Williams's image. He may not be worshipped, but his persona is that of a serious yet friendly guy, who's even a little goofy at times (see his self-deprecating cameos on 30 Rock). There isn't some large group of people that despises Williams and is eager to take him down, as there was with Dan Rather. But how does something like this happen? To catch you up, here's the story that Stars and Stripes broke:

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.

Williams repeated the claim Friday during NBC's coverage of a public tribute at a New York Rangers hockey game for a retired soldier that had provided ground security for the grounded helicopters, a game to which Williams accompanied him. In an interview with Stars and Stripes, he said he had misremembered the events and was sorry.

The admission came after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment's Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor was nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire. Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said.

"I would not have chosen to make this mistake," Williams said. "I don't know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another."

Williams told his Nightly News audience that the erroneous claim was part of a "bungled attempt" to thank soldiers who helped protect him in Iraq in 2003. "I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago," Williams said. "I want to apologize."

That story has a timeline of Williams' statements, and it appears that he made the false claim twice: in a 2013 appearance on David Letterman's show, and this past Friday. So how should we interpret this? Was it an honest mistake? An intentional lie? Is Williams a fraud?

In thinking about it, I was reminded of a story George W. Bush once told about September 11. You'll recall that when the second plane hit, Bush was informed while visiting a classroom in Florida. He later described his reaction to the first plane hitting: "I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower—the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly, myself, and I said, well, there's one terrible pilot. I said, it must have been a horrible accident." This could not possibly have been true, because the impact of the first plane hitting was not broadcast on television that day (some video did emerge, but not until later). In my less charitable days I characterized this as simply a lie, but was it? Chances are that Bush was just mixing up things in his mind, essentially rewriting his memory with the things he saw and thought later on.

Which we all do constantly. Memory isn't a static file of information that can be opened later and perused. It's subject to constant revision. Which is why we've come to understand that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. For instance, when police show a witness a picture of a suspect and the witness decides that guy was the one he saw, he'll often essentially overwrite his own memory of the event with that person's face inserted in. His belief in the newly revised memory will be absolutely sincere. (For more on this, here's an article by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker on the subject, and here's a great episode of Radiolab on how unreliable our memories are.)

But you might object that this isn't like forgetting whether you saw a particular piece of footage as it was happening or you saw it a few days later. Being in a helicopter that got hit by an RPG and being in a helicopter following one that got hit by an RPG are very different things. On the other hand, for someone who isn't himself a soldier, the whole episode was probably crazy and exciting and a little traumatic—flying through the desert, making an emergency landing, seeing the damaged helicopter, having to stay at the FOB through a sandstorm, fearful that they might be attacked. And so it isn't all that shocking to find that years later as he's recounting the story, Williams mixed up the details in a way that had everything happening not just near him but to him.

Obviously, the way you judge this is going to be colored by what you thought of Brian Williams before. Do you think he's the kind of person who would willfully fabricate something like this in the belief that he'd never get caught? More to the point, would I be giving him the benefit of the doubt if he were Sean Hannity? I hope so, but until it happens I can't say with absolute certainty. But the fact that most Americans think Brian Williams seems like a perfectly nice fellow—and, of course, the fact that he's an extremely valuable property for his employer—is probably what will enable him to get past this with little damage to his career. Unless somebody finds another embellished tale or two that he's told, in which case it could become a real problem.

Photo of the Day, Presidential Schmoozing Edition

President Obama meets with some "Dreamers" who have benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. You know, just some folks sitting around, having a casual conversation.

Why Rand Paul's Past Is Going to Catch Up With Him

We're now in a particularly creative period for the political press, when the 2016 presidential campaign is definitely getting going, but journalists aren't yet required to spend long stretches of their lives following candidates from one soul-sucking living room meet-n-greet to the next across Iowa. That means that when something new and different comes up — like, say, Rand Paul dabbling in a little vaccine trutherism — reporters can say to themselves, "That's interesting. I wonder if he believes in any other crazy things?" And then they can spend some time looking, and talking about what they find.

In that spirit, Talking Points Memo reminds us of a story they did in 2010 that I think I missed at the time. It concerns comments Paul made in 2008 while campaigning in Montana for his father's presidential campaign, about a conspiracy theory known as the NAFTA Superhighway. Briefly, the theory says that there is a secret plan to build a highway 400 yards wide that stretches all the way from Mexico across the United States to Canada, the purpose of which is to unite the three countries in a single political entity known as the North American Union, under which American sovereignty will be lost and the dollar will be replaced with a currency known as the Amero.

As it happens, I have a bit of an interest in this topic, because around the time that Rand Paul was talking it up, I had a colorful little debate about it with Lou Dobbs, who had been pushing the theory on his CNN program. Basically, I asked Dobbs if he had any actual evidence that such a conspiracy exists, and in response he yelled at me for a few minutes. Like any good conspiracy theory, this one grabs snippets of truth and weaves them into a fanciful and sinister tale; one of those snippets is the Trans-Texas Corridor, a large and controversial highway project proposed by Rick Perry in the early 2000s. Though the project would be only in Texas, people like Dobbs were convinced that it was just one part of the secret plan, and after they started building the highway in Texas, they'd just turn north and head for Winnipeg, and before you knew it America would be nothing but a memory, our distinctiveness as a unique nation left to suffocate under miles of asphalt.

In the face of a lot of local opposition to the proposal, Perry's administration eventually gave up on it, and frankly I have no idea whether people on the right still think the NAFTA Superhighway is in the offing. But in 2008, Rand Paul was right on board with the conspiracy theorists. Here's the transcript:

Q: What does Ron Paul want to do to fight the prospect of a North American Union and an Amero?

Rand Paul: Well I think publicizing it is the first thing, publicizing that it's going on. Trying to get the legislature to stop it, through official acts of Congress. You know any time he talks about it, though, the media tries to make fun of him as if it doesn't exist. But I think in Montana, your state legislature has talked about the North American Union. Texas has had several votes about the corridor, they just call it a different name, they call it the trans-Texas corridor.

Q: It comes right through here.

Rand Paul: Yeah, it's the same thing. It's gonna go up through Texas, I guess, all the way to Montana. So, it's a real thing, and when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it's a conspiracy, they'll paint you as a nut. It's not a conspiracy, they're out in the open about it. I saw the YouTube of Vincente Fox talking about the Amero. So, it's not a secret. Now it may not be [inaudible] tomorrow, but it took 'em 20 or 30 years to get the Euro, and they had to push people kicking and screaming into the Euro.

But I guarantee you it's one of their long term goals to have one sort of borderless, mass continent.

It's all there: the superhighway to Canada, the Trans-Texas Corridor, the Amero, the North American Union. And who's this "they" Paul keeps referring to, pulling the strings and discrediting the people with the courage to speak the truth? If you have to ask, you're obviously one of the sheep. You need to open your eyes, man.

Over the last year or so I've praised Rand Paul multiple times for his political skills, particularly in working the media (see here, for example). But I think this is going to be one of Paul's biggest problems as a presidential candidate — not that he'll be tarred with his father's views, but that he spent so long marinating in his father's world.

You see, most politicians who get to where Paul is work their way up by climbing the political ladder: they run for city council in their town, then maybe mayor, then they become a state rep, then a state senator or congressman, and finally run for the Senate. That experience makes you a creature of the place where you come from and party that nurtured you. Along the way your views will come to reflect their concerns and their consensus about policy.

But that's not the path Rand Paul followed. Whatever his talents, he's a United States senator because he's Ron Paul's son. Over his time in Congress, Ron Paul developed a small but fervent national constituency, made up of some ordinary libertarians and a whole lot of outright wackos. That constituency was greatly expanded by his 2008 presidential campaign. Despite the fact that Paul had plenty of interesting and reasonable things to say, it's also the case that if you were building a bunker to prepare for the coming world financial crash and ensuring societal breakdown (and possible zombie apocalypse), there was only one presidential candidate for you. When Rand Paul decided to run for Senate in 2010, having never run for anything before, the Ron Paul Army mobilized for him, showering him with money and volunteers. He also had the good fortune to be running in a year when Republicans everywhere were looking for outsider, tea party candidates, so he easily beat the choice of the Kentucky GOP establishment in the primary.

You may remember that early on, and unseasoned Rand Paul got in trouble for his ideas about things like the Civil Rights Act. But he quickly discerned what was acceptable and what wasn't, and he set about moderating his views, sanding down the rough edges of libertarianism to find something that would fit more neatly within the Republican Party while also finding issues where he could say something distinctive. It's been very effective, but you can't erase the past.

And I'm guessing there's more in Paul's past that will be of interest now that we're getting into the 2016 campaign. I don't mean scandalous behavior, I mean scandalous notions. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are a dozen more videos like this one out there, in which the now-respectable senator says some alarming things to groups of people who revere his father in all the elder Paul's eccentric glory. I could be wrong, of course—the NAFTA superhighway and vaccines causing autism may be the only conspiracy theories Rand Paul has ever entertained. But we're going to find out.  

Did Koch Brothers Just Doom America to a Future of Crumbling Roads and Tunnels?

Posted by guest-blogger and American Prospect writing fellow Rachel M. Cohen.

It was never going to be easy for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an increase to the federal gas tax—a tax that finances the Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country. Last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has since lost much of its value, especially with the rise of fuel-efficient cars. With the Highway Trust Fund running huge annual deficits, plans for many infrastructure projects and repairs have been left hanging out to dry.

There were signs that raising the federal gas tax was possible, as when Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in early January that a gas tax increase couldn’t be ruled out, and Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, later agreed with him.

Well, forget it. Because last week more than 50 conservative groups, a number of them funded through the Koch brothers’ network, sent a letter to Congress expressing adamant opposition to raising the federal gas tax.

“Everyone knew it would be difficult, but you had a lot of senators and representatives saying privately that they would be open to raising the gas tax, so long as it could be framed in a certain way,” a high-ranking American Public Transportation Association official told me. “This letter just killed our momentum, I think permanently.”

While incredibly frustrating, this move is unsurprising given the rise of anti-tax groups committed to blocking serious public investment in national infrastructure. In addition to opposing the gas tax increase, the letter also calls for an end to all federal funding for biking, walking and public transit. Ever so disingenuously, the organizations claim they just want to look out for the needs of poor people. 

As Angie Schmitt, a writer for Streetsblog USA, put it:

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

The first signature on the letter belongs to Brent Wm. Gardner, vice president of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, the organization founded in 2005 by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch. In my feature in the current issue of The American Prospect magazine, I look at Chris Christie's cancellation of a new rail tunnel desperately needed in the Northeast, and the role that the national Republican Party and anti-tax groups played in the New Jersey governor and prospective presidential candidate's decision to kill the project known as ARC (Access to the Region’s Core). Now, in the wake of damage from Superstorm Sandy, civil engineers are unsure that the tunnels currently in use by hundreds of thousands of commuters between New York and New Jersey will hold out for another ten years.

Building a new tunnel would have required Christie to raise his state’s low gas tax, a move that the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity has been rallying against for years. From my article, “Blind to the Future”:

Mike Proto, the New Jersey communications director for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded anti-tax group, says that Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project “was one of the best he’s made.”

It’s unclear what it will really take to get this country to invest in its future. We should pray it’s not a big, preventable disaster that kills thousands of people. Building new tunnels, fixing broken bridges, and making America just generally safe to live in should be an urgent bipartisan priority for everyone.

It should be, and it used to be.

This post has been corrected. The high-ranking official from an advocacy group to whom the reporter spoke is employed by the American Public Transportation Association, not the American Public Transit Association.