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.

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Photo of the Day, Meet 'n Greet Edition

That would be one Hillary R. Clinton, sharing a cup of nourishing coffee with some folks from Le Claire, Iowa. If you've ever been to one of these spectacles, you have to admire the ordinary people who find themselves chatting with a candidate as a surly scrum of photographers jostles each other to get right in their faces and snap away. In my experience, the adults tend to do their best to be game about it, politely interacting until they can move along, while it's the kids who are more likely to be unable to help themselves from calling attention to the artifice of it all. Of course, if you're an Iowan, this kind of thing is old hat.

It Turns Out People Can Be Persuasive When They're High

I'm fairly certain she's a "yes" on legalization. (Flickr/Jonathan Piccolo)

The Pew Research Center has a new poll out on marijuana legalization, and in many ways it's about what you'd expect if you've been paying attention to public opinion on this topic lately. Overall support for legalization is at 53 percent, and young people are more supportive than older people, among other things. We might have expected this movement simply on the basis of generational replacement—the "silent generation," those now over 70, were really the last ones to have no experience whatsoever with the drug, while everyone after has.

In the poll, 19 percent of those older people say they've tried marijuana, compared to 59 percent of the next generation, the baby boomers. Even if you yourself didn't try it, if many people you know have, you're probably aware that it doesn't turn people into psychotic maniacs a la "Reefer Madness" or send them rushing to take heroin after their first puff. That would at least make you open to considering legalization, and as more of those older people die off and are replaced by young people among whom pot is commonplace, support for legalization in the public as a whole was destined to rise.

But there's something else I found more interesting, and it's revealed in the bottom graph in this pair:

Pew Research Center

What we have here isn't just generational replacement, though that is present (in the difference between the bottom line and the others). It's also the change within each cohort, roughly since 1992 or so, when Bill Clinton got elected and the triumph of the hippies was complete. The fact that those lines go up means that people are actually changing their minds.

Why? The simplest answer is that we had an ongoing debate about it, and the pro-legalization side got the better of that debate. It's tempting (and sometimes correct) to scoff when someone says they want to have a "national conversation" or "initiate a debate" about something, because that's often a poor substitute for action. But in some cases, an extended debate really does produce change. That seems to be what has happened here.

Can Republicans Make Hillary Clinton the Mitt Romney of 2016?

Republicans have lots of time to come up with a central theme with which they can attack Hillary Clinton, and right now there are a bunch of GOP pollsters scrolling through real estate listings for the lake houses they're going to buy with all the money they'll make from running polls and focus groups intended to figure it out. According to Eli Stokols of Politico, there's an early contender:

Forget about the Arkansas days, the small-bore scandals, her health care plan, and most everything else from the 1990s. A consensus is forming within the Republican Party that the plan of attack against Hillary Clinton should be of a more recent vintage, rooted in her accumulation of wealth and designed to frame her as removed from the concerns of average Americans.

With close to 20 announced and prospective GOP 2016 candidates, there’s no singular, unified messaging effort yet. But interviews with GOP consultants, party officials and the largest conservative super PACs point to an emerging narrative of a wealthy, out-of-touch candidate who plays by her own set of rules and lives in a world of private planes, chauffeured vehicles and million-dollar homes.

The out-of-touch plutocrat template is a familiar one: Democrats used it to devastating effect against Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. While Hillary Clinton’s residences in New York and Washington may not have car elevators, there’s still a lengthy trail of paid speeches, tone-deaf statements about the family finances and questions about Clinton family foundation fundraising practices that will serve as cornerstones of the anti-Clinton messaging effort.

Yes, it's a "familiar template." But it's a familiar template Democrats use to attack Republicans. There have been plenty of wealthy Democratic presidential candidates before, but that attack isn't nearly as effective on them. It isn't that you can't convince voters that a rich president won't be sensitive to their concerns, because you can. But there has to be some plausible connection to policy for it to really work.

The policy content is what gives the personal argument a foundation. The personal explains the policy and makes it vivid. So for instance, Democrats argued that Mitt Romney's wealth showed why he wouldn't be on the side of ordinary people. In this case, Republicans are trying to argue that Hillary Clinton's wealth shows the same thing, but her response is going to be, well there are two candidates here, and one of them wants to cut taxes for the wealthy, opposes increasing the minimum wage, opposes mandating equal pay for women, opposes paid family leave, and opposes expanded overtime, and it ain't me.

In order to illustrate this, I took 60 seconds and made a table:

I used Bernie Sanders because he's probably running for president, but you could put any number of people there. And similarly, you could put lots of other Republicans, particularly Jeb Bush, in the upper left-hand corner. When you have a rich candidate advocating policies that benefit the rich, the personal details and the policy arguments complement and enhance one another. When there's a dissonance between the two, it isn't quite as compelling.

Which does mean that it would be somewhat harder for Democrats to make the argument against Marco Rubio than it was to make it against Romney (or it would be against Bush). They wouldn't have those amusing/horrifying stories and symbols to offer, like Romney's car elevator or the people he laid off. But what they'll still have going for them is that the idea that Republicans are the party of the rich is the default assumption voters start with. You don't have to do any work to explain that or convince them it's true. On the other hand, Republicans will have to do quite a bit of work to convince voters that Clinton is going to serve the wealthy and not ordinary people, for no other reason than the fact that she's a Democrat.

What Republicans can do, though, is enlist the news media to help them in their task. If they establish this now as one of their key arguments against her, reporters will be on the lookout for events and moments that reinforce it. What did she order at Chipotle? Are her culinary habits sufficiently down-market? Is that an expensive outfit she's wearing? Is she really "connecting" with reg'lar Americans?

After a few hundred stories asking these questions again and again, it might start to have an impact. But it won't be easy.

Photo of the Day, Springtime Edition

The cherry blossoms are blooming here in Washington, which means there's an intoxicating smell in the air and young people's hearts turn to thoughts of love. Unfortunately, the Washington spring only lasts about a week and a half, after which we segue into the unspeakably hot and humid summer. Contrary to popular belief, the city was not actually built on a swamp, but a month from now it will feel that way.

Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Need to "Distance" Herself from Barack Obama

For a number of reasons, it has proven extremely difficult in recent history for a presidential candidate to win after eight years in which his party controlled the White House. Only one candidate has done it since 1948—George H.W. Bush in 1988. This fact would make a Hillary Clinton victory next year an unusual event, and there will be lots and lots of discussion between now and next November about how her candidacy is affected by the complex legacy of the Obama administration. The early form that discussion is taking seems to be that Clinton's essential challenge is to "distance" herself from Barack Obama, which will be difficult because she served in his administration for four years. Comparisons are being made to John McCain, who was dragged down by George W. Bush in 2008 despite the fact that McCain hadn't actually worked for Bush, but was just a senator (and a "maverick" at that, an idea that was essentially bogus but ubiquitous), as well as to Al Gore, who never found quite the right way to describe how his candidacy related to the administration in which he served.

This is a topic that I'm sure I'll be returning to, because how the electorate thinks about Barack Obama and feels about the last eight years is going to be a central theme of the campaign. But my feeling right now is that it might not be as much of a problem for Clinton as so many people seem to think.

First, let's dispense with the two main comparisons everyone is making: 2008 and 2000. Barack Obama's popularity right now is pretty middling, in the high 40s. Would it be better for Clinton if it were higher? Sure. But it's still worlds away from where George W. Bush was in 2008. In Gallup's last poll before the 2008 election, Bush's approval was at 25 percent. His administration was judged by Democrats, independents, and even many Republicans as an abysmal failure, because of both the disaster in Iraq and the financial cataclysm that had just hit. McCain was one of the war's biggest supporters, and was offering essentially the same economic policies as Bush. That's why it was easy for Obama to say that McCain offered more of the same, while he offered change—not only was there substance to the charge, but "more of the same" was something almost everyone agreed they wanted to avoid.

Today, people are less than satisfied with the way many things are going, but we aren't in the throes of a disaster. The economy is recovering rather nicely, and attention has turned to long-standing problems like inequality and wage stagnation. Republicans can say that Obama didn't fix these problems and Clinton won't either, but they'll have much more trouble saying that their remedy—essentially a return to George W. Bush's economic policies—will produce something better.

As for 2000, the comparison is even less apt. Al Gore struggled to get out of Bill Clinton's shadow and prove he was his own man, and because of the Lewinsky scandal he had a certain reluctance to embrace the successes of the administration. But nobody is going to plausibly say that Hillary Clinton isn't her own woman or would just reproduce everything about the Obama years.

Nevertheless, in many ways, a Hillary Clinton presidency would probably look like a combination of her husband's and the one she worked in. If you're a Republican you think that sounds dreadful, if you're a Democrat you think it sounds great, and if you're an independent there are probably some things you'd like about it and some you wouldn't. But it isn't some nebulous mystery onto which Republicans can project a bunch of fears. A Hillary Clinton presidency is, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, a known known.

Things can change, of course—maybe there will be another recession, or some huge scandal that covers Obama in eternal shame. But if we proceed along as we're going now, I doubt the Obama legacy is going to prove much of a problem for Clinton. It may even help her.

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