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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The Culture War Is Dead, Long Live the Culture War

Flickr/Rob Chandanais

The emphatically old-timey presidential candidacy of Mike Huckabee has spurred an interesting discussion among some liberal commentators about the status of America's culture war, beginning with this piece by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig which all but declared the culture war over, leading to thoughtful responses from Ed Kilgore and Heather Digby Parton. When you view the changes of the last few years or the last few decades, it's easy for liberals to feel a little triumphal, even if there are some areas (like abortion and guns, as Parton points out) where the right is making more progress than the left. But the culture war never ends, it merely renews itself in an altered form.

If you take a broad view, much of the history of the United States is a slow but inexorable movement in a progressive direction, as one issue after another is eventually settled in favor of the position liberals had been advocating, from slavery to women's suffrage to Jim Crow to the legalization of contraception to sex discrimination and up to gay rights today. You can find exceptions, some of which are extremely consequential, but the fundamental trend in social relations moves in only one direction. It would be a mistake, however, to look at one historical moment's iteration of the long culture war and say that conservatism is on its way out or about to undergo some fundamental transformation.

As long as society is changing—i.e., forever—conservatism will find its purpose in resisting that change, because that's what it means to be a conservative. Conservatism seeks to conserve, and in many cases return to a previous order. And like liberalism, it adapts. For instance, conservatives lost the argument on most of the things that made up the culture war of the 1960s and 1970s—Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the principle (if not the reality) of equality for women—so they approached those issues in ways that accommodated the new reality, or moved on to other issues entirely. The culture war is infinitely renewable.

There's no perfect definition of what makes any particular issue part of the culture war or not, but I think that it often has to do with the ground where the personal meets the political and questions of identity are contested. It's often about who I am, who you are, who we are, who's part of "us" and who isn't. Which brings me to an article in today's New York Times that raises some of these identity questions with regard to Marco Rubio. If Rubio remains one of the leading contenders in the presidential race as other candidates begin to fall away, I think we're going to hear a lot more discussion of how the GOP's older white base thinks about this young Latino:

But there was something larger that drew Mr. Hallihan, a former Iowa State basketball coach, to Mr. Rubio, 43, the son of poor Cuban immigrants.

"The day of the older white guy is kind of out," said Mr. Hallihan, a 70-year-old white guy.

As Mr. Rubio has introduced himself to curious, and overwhelmingly Caucasian, Republican audiences from Iowa to New Hampshire, he has vaulted to the front ranks of the early pack of likely presidential candidates, partly because of his natural political talent. But it may owe just as much to the combination of his personal story and the balm it offers to a party that has been repeatedly scalded by accusations of prejudice.

He says he is highlighting his background only to share his own twist on the American dream—not out of any desire to make history on behalf of Hispanics. But Mr. Rubio and those around him are also acutely aware of the sometimes raw tensions in his party, between those unsettled by an increasingly diverse society and those who say Republicans must embrace the multihued America of 2015.

Now let's think back to 2008. As I've said many times, liberals were so excited about Barack Obama in that campaign because he embodied a certain kind of cultural change. He was the person they wanted to be, or at least be friends with: multiracial, educated, cosmopolitan, urban, and urbane. Conservatives' rage against Obama comes from the same place: he represents a change in American society that they find intolerable.

If you spend any time listening to conservatives, you quickly realize that their rhetoric, whether it's coming from politicians or media figures like Bill O'Reilly, is absolutely awash in nostalgia, a yearning for the supposedly simpler time of their youth, when, among other things, everything they saw was theirs. It was their kind of people who ran things, their kind of music that came from the radio, their priorities and values that were accepted as right and true. They look around now and see so much of American culture shifting away from them, and it's profoundly unsettling, few things more so than the fact that the president of the United States is a liberal black guy with a foreign-sounding name.

But what about Marco Rubio? I think that to some Republicans, he's attractive not so much because he's what they would want in a president in their perfect world, but because they think he might be attractive to other people. It's an acknowledgment of and accommodation to the fact that America has indeed changed, and their party needs to change in response. And if the conservative Republican with the best chance of winning the White House is a 43-year-old Latino, well so be it.

This could be a fascinating dynamic within the primaries, the tension between voters like the one quoted in this story, the older white guy who grudgingly acknowledges that "the day of the older white guy is kind of out," and the many other Republicans who want to stand athwart history, yelling "Stop." In many cases, that tension will exist within each individual voter.

Interestingly enough, the older white guy from a Republican royal family—Jeb Bush—might actually represent a compromise resolution of that tension, since in some ways he's a more modern figure, what with his Mexican wife and his fluent Spanish. On the other hand, if you're attracted to Scott Walker, your beliefs about the culture war probably sound something like this:


Of course, you can say that now, but before you know it you will have retreated from that line and there will be a whole new line that you'll decide is the point beyond which you absolutely will not move. And the culture war will continue on.

Photo of the Day, Goose Stepping Edition

This is a group of Russian soldiers rehearsing for the upcoming parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Say what you will about the Russians, they know how to put on a military parade.

Republicans Are Thoroughly Freaked Out by Clinton's Immigration Move, but Should They Be?

While the substance of what Hillary Clinton actually proposed to do in her immigration event on Tuesday may be a bit less than it first appeared (see my colleague Greg Sargent for more on that), there was one thing she said that was absolutely clear: Whatever Republicans might try to convince you of, they don't want to let undocumented immigrants have a path to citizenship. "Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly supporting a path to citizenship," she said. "Not one. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status." Depending on how you define "clearly," that's not completely true—the position most of them are taking is that eventually, after we've "secured the border," then we can talk about a path to citizenship.

Clinton might argue that they're full of baloney on that, which they probably are (more on that below), but in any case, Republicans seem pretty unnerved by this, as evidenced by the fact that most of the candidates can't figure out what to say in response. As Byron York reports, not only have most of the candidates not said anything about Clinton's immigration stance, they seem to be suddenly realizing anew that this is going to be a real problem for them with Hispanic voters:

The idea was that [comprehensive immigration] reform was a threshold issue—that is, Republicans would have to pass it before Hispanic voters would consider supporting the GOP's stand on other issues. Hence the Gang of Eight effort, led by Rubio. But reform, passed by the Democratic Senate with Rubio's efforts, died in the Republican-controlled House.

So Clinton has made her move. Her new position effectively trumps all other immigration reform offers on the table. Her message to Hispanic voters is: No Republican—not Jeb, not Marco, not anybody—will offer you as much as I will.

The Republican response is unclear. Can Bush and Rubio say they share Clinton's goal of citizenship for millions of currently illegal immigrants but disagree with her way of getting there? That's not terribly strong. Do they stick with the "legal status" that Clinton characterizes as "second-class status"?

The fact is, if the heart of immigration reform is an effort to win the support of Hispanic voters, Clinton's offer has trumped all other immigration reform proposals on the table. There's not much pro-reform Republicans can say: "We'll give you a little less than Hillary—but please look at our issues, like taxes and entitlement reform."

I'm not sure that this is such a sure thing. It may be true, but it will depend a lot on who the Republican nominee is. If it's Scott Walker, then yes, Hispanic support for the Republican ticket will crater. But while the substance of the issue debate matters, identity and attitude matter too.

Let's say that Marco Rubio were the Republican nominee. You'd have to expect at least some Hispanics to be attracted to the idea of the first Hispanic president, even if the Democratic nominee has a position on immigration that they find more appealing, not to mention the fact that when Rubio talks about immigration he doesn't sound nearly as mean-spirited as someone like Walker or so many other Republicans. If Jeb Bush gets the nomination, he'll be cutting ads in Spanish (which he speaks fluently) to air on Univision and Telemundo, showing off his Mexican wife and half-Mexican kids, and generally doing everything he can to communicate that he understands Hispanics and their concerns. What you certainly won't get from him is the message of outright hostility that so many people perceived coming from Mitt Romney.

It may not be possible at this point to know how persuasive all that might be. But consider that the position Republicans are offering on immigration is a sequence of policy moves, and when two candidates describe the same sequence it can sound very different, even if the substance is essentially the same. When Scott Walker describes it, it sounds a lot like "We need to crack down, secure the border, get tough on those no-good illegals. And yeah, when that's done we'll get around to making a path to citizenship, but did I mention how tough we're going to be?" When Marco Rubio describes it (and particularly as he would describe it if he's past the Republican primary and into the general election), it sounds more like, "First we'll secure the border, and then after that's taken care of we'll bring hard-working people out of the shadows and set them on a path to citizenship so they can be part of our big American community."  

Again, they're describing the same policy sequence: some effort to enhance border security (without any details), then a process by which undocumented immigrants are granted legal status, which could eventually lead to full citizenship (though Walker can't seem to decide whether citizenship is actually at the end of that process; at various times he's said yes and no). But it's entirely possible that, given the right messenger and the right tone, at least some Hispanic voters could decide that what the Republican is saying is, if not what they'd prefer, at least good enough.

But what no Republican is going to admit is that the Republican Congress is never going to pass comprehensive immigration reform, no matter what the next Republican president thinks or says about it. That's because what we have now is an extremely conservative GOP caucus, particularly in the House, many of whose members personally don't want to see undocumented immigrants get on a path to citizenship, and more importantly, who know that their constituents from the very conservative districts they represent don't want that. The truth is that in all likelihood the only way such reform could pass the House is through a combination of Democratic seat gains and Clinton winning the White House, which might convince a few more Republicans that immigration really is a "threshold" issue that necessitates comprehensive reform. But no Republican candidate, whatever they think about immigration, is going to admit just how hard it will be to pass reform.

Photo of the Day, Ordinary Bloke Edition

That's British prime minister David Cameron, helping out with some bricklaying ahead of tomorrow's election, like a regular chap would do. Man of the people and all that, wot wot.

Don't Sweat the Iowans, Jeb

So Quinnipiac has a new poll out showing Jeb Bush with ongoing problems among Republicans in Iowa, but I don't think he should be worried. I'll let Ed Kilgore explain:

What do the internals say about Jeb Bush's basic standing among Iowa Republicans? They really don't much like him, though not as much as they don't like Chris Christie. Jebbie's favorable/unfavorable ratio among likely caucus-goers is at 39/45 (down from 41/40 in February). Christie's is at 32/56. The only other underwater proto-candidate is Lindsey Graham, at 15/37. Ben Carson's at 53/9; Ted Cruz: 59/19; Carly Fiorina: 26/8; Mike Huckabee: 64/27; Bobby Jindal: 45/9; John Kasich: 20/8; Rand Paul: 59/23; Rick Perry: 51/30; Marco Rubio: 69/9; Rich Santorum: 56/28; Scott Walker: 59/11.

As compared with QPac's February poll, Bush has now passed Christie as the guy most named as someone likely caucus-goers definitely will not vote for, at 25%. Forty-five percent say Bush's positions are “not conservative enough,” more than for any candidate other than Christie (52%).

That, not "Bush fatigue," seems to be the problem (at least among Republicans—I'm guessing revulsion at his last name is a big factor in general election trial heats, which in turn affects his electability street cred among Republicans, but none of that is measured here). W.'s favorability ratio is a robust 81/16, and Poppy's is 80/13.

So what's their problem with Jeb? I'll get to that in a moment, but first let's look at a poll that just came out from the New York Times:

While Mr. Bush has faced questions about whether he is conservative enough to win a Republican primary, only 22 percent of Republican voters said his views were not conservative enough. Further, 60 percent of Republican voters said having the right experience was more important in a presidential candidate, while only 27 percent said they thought offering fresh ideas was more valuable.

What could also help Mr. Bush—along with the other governors or former governors seeking the G.O.P. nomination—is that 73 percent of Republican voters said they preferred candidates with experience outside Washington.

Now it's true that in that poll, 38 percent of Republicans say they wouldn't consider voting for Bush, but that's about the same number received by a number of other candidates, including Huckabee, Paul, Santorum, and Perry. But Bush doesn't need 100 percent of Republicans to consider voting for him in the primaries, he just needs enough to get a plurality in one state after another.

To return to the Iowans, my suspicion is that while caucus voters may not have heard enough about any of the candidates yet, they know that Bush is supposed to be the establishment choice, and that's not what they're looking for. Let me repost a graph I made a couple of months ago:

Iowa Republicans not only aren't like other Americans, they aren't even like other Republicans. They're more conservative, more white, more male, and more likely to be evangelical. Jeb can lose them and be just fine, just like Mitt Romney and John McCain were. Would he rather win the Iowa caucus? Of course. But losing it is both to be expected and not much of a blow to the rest of his candidacy.