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.

Recent Articles

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.

Jeb Bush Was Born On Third Base. Does He Think He Hit a Triple?

Jeb Bush, you may or may not be aware, spent much of his adult life as a "businessman." I put that word in quotes because from what we've learned so far Bush doesn't seem to have risen in the business world the way we normally think of people doing, by creating some kind of product or service that can be sold to people, by managing a growing operation, and so on. Instead, his work, such as it was, consisted of opening doors and making deals, something a succession of partners brought him in to do because of his name.

Which isn't in itself a sin. I'll get to that in a minute, but first, an article in today's Times discusses some of Bush's deals that didn't turn out so well, and how he reacted:

Yet a number of his ventures before he entered politics have invited criticism that Mr. Bush traded on his family's name and crossed ethical lines. His business involvement, as the son of a president, was inevitably vetted in public view, subjecting Mr. Bush to so many questions that he angrily accused the news media of treating him unfairly.

"By definition, every single business transaction I am involved with may give the appearance that I am trading on my name," Mr. Bush wrote in The Wall Street Journal during the final days of his father's re-election campaign in 1992, responding specifically to stories about his involvement with the sale of M.W.I.'s water pumps. "I cannot change who I am."

Months earlier, he had written a 1,400-word defense of his business dealings in The Miami Herald in which he condemned reporters for having "gone too far in delving into the private lives of the families of public figures."

"Being part of America's 'First Family' is both wondrous and challenging," he wrote in the newspaper, adding that he desired to have his successes or failures "measured by his own performance and behavior, not those of his parents."

There isn't necessarily anything wrong with making money the way Bush did. He had a famous name and connections that that name produced, and people were willing to give him large quantities of money to use it to their advantage. Every once in a while we hear of some wealthy heir who gives away all their inheritance and makes a fresh start with nothing, but most of us wouldn't have the guts to do that. Connections and renown were Bush's inheritance, an invaluable currency that could be traded for riches and power. He accepted that inheritance, like most people would.

But what I'd like to know is how Bush himself thinks of his career, and how self-aware he is today. At the 1988 Democratic convention, Jim Hightower said of Jeb's father that he "was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." What does Jeb think he hit?

I'm sure he would like to believe that every dollar he ever made came because of his skills, smarts, and hard work. But it didn't. Like his brother George (who had a similar business career in which people lined up to give him money), Jeb had opportunities that are available to almost no one else in America.

So imagine if he said, "Look, I know that my career has been different from most people's. My grandfather was a senator and my father was the president. Did that ease my way? Of course. It would be ridiculous of me to claim otherwise. But I tried to operate as honestly as I could, work hard, and learn as much as possible in the business world." If Bush said that, he could earn a lot of respect, even from his political opponents.

When he was born, Jeb Bush won the lottery. We don't condemn anyone for winning the lottery, but we do judge what they do afterward. Some people win it, buy a nice house, and then set up a foundation to help other people. Other people win the lottery and blow the whole thing on hookers and cocaine. Bush's history seems to be somewhere in between.

Most of the people Bush is running against in the primaries are the dreaded "career politicians," and those who have made their careers outside of business (Ted Cruz was a lawyer, Rand Paul and Ben Carson were doctors). Since Republican ideology has it that businesspeople are the most noble and heroic among us, it will be tempting for Bush to tout his business experience as a key credential during the primaries. It will also be tempting for his opponents to criticize him as a scion of the elite, particularly since it fits well into the narrative that he's the "establishment" candidate while they're representatives of the grassroots. The question is whether Bush will deny that he's any different from any other successful businessman.

Photo of the Day, Cold Day In Hades Edition

A bunch of politicians at a press conference, you say? Nay, this is something far more momentous. This is Democrats and Republicans at a ceremony signing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, better known as the "doc fix" bill, or more properly, the bill that ends the annual absurdist ritual that was the doc fix. Democrats and Republicans. Together. Agreeing. Mark it well, for you may not see its like any time soon. I do think the photo captures Boehner's and McConnell's enthusiasm for sharing a podium with Nancy Pelosi, however.