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

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.

The Real Reason Social Security Is the Third Rail of American Politics

Chris Christie still harbors hopes of becoming the Republican nominee for president, and in search of a way to convince conservatives that he's one of them—and reinforce the idea that he's a bold truth-teller who doesn't care whose feathers he ruffles, and you might not agree with him but you'll always know he's telling it like it is—Christie has announced a plan to cut Social Security benefits. He would do it in two ways. First, he would means-test benefits, reducing them for those who have over $80,000 in income and phasing them out entirely past $200,000 in income. Second, he would raise the retirement age to 69 (it's currently 66 and will soon rise to 67).

As Matt Yglesias explains, the cut in upper-income benefits is getting most of the attention, which works to Christie's benefit because it sounds like his plan hurts rich people. But in fact, the number of people affected would be fairly small, while increasing the retirement age would be devastating to people of modest incomes. That's particularly true of people who do manual labor, which in your late 60s becomes increasingly difficult. So Christie is proposing a plan that is actually an attack on retired poor and middle-class people, but it's being described as an attack on the rich.

I should point out that even means-testing benefits can be a clever way to undermine the program as a whole. It eliminates the understanding that it's a program for everyone and instead changes it to a program just for people of modest incomes, which then opens it up to further cuts and changes in the future. This is why most liberals oppose means-testing, even though it sounds like something they would support.

In any case, I want to return to this idea that Chris Christie is willing to tell the hard truths. Every story about Social Security mentions that it is the "third rail of American politics," meaning you can't touch it without being zapped. Anyone who would do so naturally deserves praise for their courage and for doing what's right despite the risk. But why is touching Social Security dangerous?

It isn't because of some magical incantation that FDR spoke over the bill as he signed it. It's because, with the possible exception of Medicare, Social Security is the most successful and therefore beloved social program in American history. Before Social Security, aging was almost a guarantee of falling into poverty. If you're below a certain age, you've probably never heard the cliché of old ladies eating cat food to survive, but at one time in America that was an actual thing.

But don't we need to do something before Social Security goes broke? No. Social Security is not going broke, and if we want to fix the funding problems that we will confront a few decades from now there are relatively easy ways to do it; I discussed that years ago in this piece, and not much has changed since.

But back to Christie: Is it courageous to propose a policy change that would be tremendously cruel to millions of Americans? I guess it is in a way. But that doesn't make it praiseworthy.

Hillary Clinton's Evolution On Marriage Equality Shows How Change Happens, and Why Parties Matter

Over the last few days, Chris Geidner of Buzzfeed has been documenting Hillary Clinton's evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage, an evolution that may now finally be complete. First Geidner posted some interesting documents from the 1990s showing Clinton and her husband explaining their opposition to marriage rights, then he got the Clinton campaign on record saying that she now hopes the Supreme Court will rule that there is a constitutional right to marriage for all Americans, which is actually a change from what she was saying just a year ago, when her position was that this was an issue best decided state by state.

So does this all tell us that Hillary Clinton is a chameleon willing to shift with the political winds, lacking in any moral core? Not really. Like every politician, she'll tell you that her shift on this issue was a result of talking to people and searching her own soul, not some political calculation. If that's true, then it mirrors how millions of Americans have changed their own minds. But even if it isn't true, it doesn't matter. She is where she is now, and if she becomes president, her policies will reflect her current position, whether it's sincere or not. That's how change happens.

We spend a lot of time in campaigns trying to figure out if politicians are honest or authentic or real, and one of the supposedly important data points in that assessment is whether they've changed their positions on any important issues. "Flip-floppers" are supposed to be feared and hated. But most of the time, that judgment is utterly irrelevant to what they would actually do in office.

For instance, few party nominees had in their history the kind of wholesale ideological reinvention that Mitt Romney went through. But what does that actually mean for the kind of president he would have been? Does anyone seriously believe that had he been elected, Romney would have flipped back to becoming a moderate Republican, just because deep down he's a flip-flopper? Of course he wouldn't have. Romney changed when his sights moved from liberal Massachusetts to the national stage, which also happened during a period when his party became more conservative. He would have governed as the conservative he became.

When public opinion on an important issue is in flux, politicians are emphatic followers. They figure out what's happening, particularly within their own party, and then accommodate themselves to that change. It often looks like they're leading when what they're actually doing is taking the change in sentiment that has occurred and translating it into policy change. For instance, Barack Obama has taken a number of steps to expand gay rights, like ending the ban on gays serving in the military and pushing the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. But he did all that after public opinion demanded it, not before.

In the end, what's in a politician's heart may be interesting to understand, but it doesn't make much of a practical difference. Does it matter that Lyndon Johnson was personally a racist who spent his early career as a segregationist? No, it doesn't: When his own party and the American public more broadly moved to support civil rights for African Americans, he passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and became an advocate for equality.

It's possible that Hillary Clinton believed in marriage equality all along, but didn't have the courage to advocate it publicly until she finally did so in 2013. Or maybe every shift in her public stance was a perfectly accurate reflection of her views at that moment. Either way, now that the Democratic Party is firmly in support of marriage equality for everyone in every state, that position is going to guide her if she wins.

And let's not forget that almost every major Republican politician has gone through their own evolution on this issue as well. The first time it was a major issue in a presidential race, in 2004, Republicans advocated a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage everywhere. Most of them even opposed civil unions. But today, the opinion supported by every presidential contender who has been explicit on the topic is that the decision should be left up to the states, meaning it's OK with them if some states have marriage equality while others don't. A few do advocate a constitutional amendment—but not one to ban same-sex marriage nationwide, just one to preserve the ability of individual states to ban it if they choose.

That's where the Republican Party is now, so that's what the next Republican president's policies will reflect. Until they evolve again.