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

The GOP, On the Road to Coolsville

Assuming Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee next year, we already know that the Republican candidate will be younger than the Democrat, maybe by just a few years (if it's Jeb Bush or Rick Perry, both in their 60s), but maybe by quite a bit. Marco Rubio is not only just 43, he also likes hip-hop (as he never tires of letting people know). Is it possible that the Republican Party will actually have a nominee who's cool? Or at least cooler than the Democrat? Conservative columnist Matt Lewis thinks so:

Like the products we purchase, the candidates we support say something about who we are (or, at least, who we want people to think we are). We might want to believe that our preference has to do with a candidate's policy positions, and in many cases it does. But it's also at least partly about cultural signaling. We all want to be seen affiliating with a cool brand, and we interpret what that cool brand is by means of our tribal identities.

In this sense, Republicans are faced with both a challenge and an opportunity. If a demographic shift has made it vital for Republicans to sell conservatism to more millennials and urban, cosmopolitan voters—and I believe it has—it makes sense to go for cool. Marco Rubio—who is young, handsome, and fluent in Spanish, sports, and pop culture—is cool. Especially compared to Hillary Clinton. Grandmothers (and grandfathers!) may be a lot of wonderful things, but "cool" isn't typically one of them, at least in the popular imagination.

And it's not just Rubio. Rand Paul is kind of cool, particularly among millennials who are socially liberal but wary of the intrusiveness of big government. Indeed, there might never be a better time for the GOP to steal the "cool" mojo from Democrats—who have tended to "own" the cool factor for the better part of the last 50 years.

I'd argue that the only genuinely cool presidents we've had in the last century were Kennedy and Obama, though you could throw in Clinton (although really dude, "I didn't inhale"? Not cool). But it depends on what standard you're using, because cool is complicated. There's the kind of cool Barack Obama embodies, which is all about emotional control, never being too high or too low. There's the cool that comes from just being young, in a culture where youth is inherently desirable. In any case, Lewis is right that voting is an act of cultural affiliation. It can be about the candidate in particular; I've said before that one of the things that made Obama's 2008 campaign so powerful for liberals was that they saw him as everything they wanted to be—youthful, erudite, cosmopolitan, his multiracial identity a tribute to their own open-mindedness, and so on. Republicans portray Democrats as weak and effeminate in part to convince male voters that a vote for such a candidate might say something about the person casting the ballot, too.

But when we're talking about politicians, who are inherently uncool, there's only so cool they can be. And it's enough to know that all the cool people are voting a particular way, even if the person they're voting for isn't particularly cool. Maybe Rubio can drop a few more Tupac references and pull a few votes from young people here and there, but his coolness factor is inevitably going to be pulled down by the fact that he's a member of the GOP, the party where some of the uncoolest people can be found. 

Scott Walker Just Won the Koch Sweepstakes

For some time now, the smart money in political circles has been on Scott Walker becoming the Republican nominee for president—even though primary voters hadn't yet thought much about him. If you look at primary polls, up until October of last year, Walker was at around 5 percent support, which is essentially nothing. Then as the media started to focus more on the race after the midterm elections were over, Walker began a steady rise, and he's now second to Jeb Bush. And he just got what could be the most important endorsement of all:

On Monday, at a fund-raising event in Manhattan for the New York State Republican Party, David Koch told donors that he and his brother, who oversee one of the biggest private political organizations in the country, believed that Mr. Walker would be the Republican nominee.

“When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination,” Mr. Koch told the crowd, the billionaire brothers would support him, according to a spokeswoman. The remark drew laughter and applause from the audience of fellow donors and Republican activists, who had come to hear Mr. Walker speak earlier at the event, held at the Union League Club.

Two people who attended the event said they heard Mr. Koch go even further, indicating that Mr. Walker should be the Republican nominee. A spokeswoman disputed that wording, saying that Mr. Koch had pledged to remain officially neutral during the primary campaign.

But Mr. Koch’s remark left little doubt among attendees of where his heart is, and could effectively end one of the most closely watched contests in the “invisible primary,” a period where candidates crisscross the country seeking not the support of voters but the blessing of their party’s biggest donors and fund-raisers.

We should be clear on two things. First, the Kochs may not actually invest in a candidate in the primaries, whatever their feelings are. Second, even if they did, the money they spent probably wouldn't sway the outcome. In 2012 Sheldon Adelson spent $20 million trying to make Newt Gingrich the nominee, and we saw how that worked out. The other candidates will be amply funded as well; there are other billionaires out there who will make sure that Bush, Marco Rubio, and possibly others will have more than enough money to keep up.

But in the "invisible primary," the Koch's nod of approval can be a powerful symbol. When the Republican Party's biggest funders—who plan to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 campaign—say that Walker is their guy, it will almost inevitably make a lot of other people important to the primary process think very seriously about him. That includes other funders, party officials, key operatives, and the kind of state and local organizers and endorsers who can be so critical in early contests. The main reason Walker has seemed like he has such potential is his ability to appeal to both sides of the central divide in the GOP, between the establishment and the grassroots. But if the Kochs are supporting him, even informally, all of a sudden he seems like nearly as much the establishment candidate as Jeb Bush.

My own opinion is that despite what many in the party will say, you'd much rather be the establishment candidate than the scrappy insurgent. But what is it about Walker that the Kochs find so attractive? We can't read their minds, of course, but like all of us they probably believe that their own personal favorite is the most electable candidate. Walker's core primary message—that unabashed conservatism with a hard partisan edge is not only right but politically shrewd—is surely as appealing to them as to any other Republican.

And while all the Republican candidates are committed to laissez-faire economics, Walker has already demonstrated the missionary zeal he brings to crushing unions and working for the interests of the wealthy and corporations. Perhaps the Kochs look at Jeb Bush and see someone who might someday feel the stirrings of a troubling noblesse oblige and go soft on the unwashed masses. But Scott Walker? Never.

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 | 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.