Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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When a 'Gotcha' Question Is More Than a Gotcha

I'm no fan of John McCain's (to say the least), but there was at least one moment in his 2008 presidential campaign in which he did the right thing by standing up to the crazies in his party, even if it might have meant some political risk. At an event just before the election, a voter stood up and said "I can't trust Obama…he's an Arab," to which McCain replied, "No ma'am, he's a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with."

Seven years later, Republican voters are still convinced that Barack Obama is The Other, an alien presence occupying an office he doesn't deserve. He might say that he was born in the United States, he might say that he's a Christian, he might say that he loves the country he leads, but they know better. And if you want their favor, so many Republican politicians think, you'd better indulge their fears and resentments and bigotries.

In order to do so, it isn't necessary to actually agree with them on these matters. You can just admit to uncertainty, say you aren't quite sure who Obama is and what he believes. That's the path Scott Walker took over the weekend when he was asked by the Washington Post about Obama's religion:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a prospective Republican presidential contender, said Saturday he does not know whether President Obama is a Christian.

"I don't know," Walker said in an interview at the JW Marriott hotel in Washington, where he was attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Told that Obama has frequently spoken publicly about his Christian faith, Walker maintained that he was not aware of the president's religion.

"I've actually never talked about it or I haven't read about that," Walker said, his voice calm and firm. "I've never asked him that," he added. "You've asked me to make statements about people that I haven't had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian?"

Barack Obama has been president of the United States for six years. He talks about his Christian faith quite regularly. He sometimes goes to church. As you might recall, there was quite a controversy back in 2008 about his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Are we supposed to believe that Scott Walker is genuinely unsure of Obama's religious affiliation? I guess it's technically possible for a politically aware and active person in 2015 to not know the answer to that question, in the same sense that it's technically possible for a lifelong and ardent basketball fan to be unsure what position Shaquille O'Neal played. It could be true, but the person would have to be suffering from some unfortunate brain disorder, perhaps involving having had a metal spike penetrate their skull.

So let's not bother pretending that Scott Walker doesn't actually know that Obama's a Christian. Walker could have said, "He's a Christian, of course. We all know that. Now let me tell you what I think he's done wrong." But Walker also surely knows that had he said that, he'd be showing a willingness to puncture at least one prejudice held by an alarming number of GOP primary voters. That might win him some plaudits in Washington, but it probably wouldn't get him too many votes in Iowa.

After his interview, a spokesperson contacted the Post reporters to clarify, saying: "Of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian." Not that I want to read too much into one word, but the fact that she said her boss "thinks" Obama is a Christian would put Walker in line with what has become a tradition among Republican politicians when it comes to these questions. Whether it's Obama's religious affiliation or his American citizenship, Republican after Republican has treated the question not a matter of fact but of belief. As John Boehner said in 2011, "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I'll take him at his word." In other words, he might be an American and a Christian, he might not be, there's no way to know for sure, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. By sheer coincidence, Mitch McConnell said not long before, "The president says he's a Christian. I take him at his word."

To understand how weird this formulation, imagine you heard Boehner or McConnell say, "I'll take Chuck Schumer at his word that he's Jewish," or "Jeb Bush says he was born in Texas, so that's what I'll believe." But you'd never hear them say that.

I'm sure that Walker and his supporters think this was an unfair "gotcha" question to ask. About that, they're half right. On one hand, there are many more important topics to query Scott Walker about than this one, and we can hope that we'll get to as many as possible over the course of the long campaign. On the other hand, this isn't the kind of inane question so many candidates are subjected to, like whether they prefer Elvis to Johnny Cash or deep dish to thin crust—actual questions CNN's John King asked Republican candidates at a debate in 2011. This question does actually reveal something worth knowing about Walker, because it's rooted in today's Republican Party.

It tells us that Walker is (as yet anyway) unwilling to stand up to the Republican primary electorate's ample population of lunatics, the people who think Barack Obama is a Mooslem Marxist foreigner enacting his secret Alinskyite plan to destroy America. Depending on which poll you read, those people may constitute a majority of Republican voters. Walker is either afraid to alienate them, or perhaps he genuinely shares many of their beliefs. This isn't about whether you're a "real" conservative; you can be emphatically right-wing on every policy issue but still be tethered enough to reality not to get seduced by conspiracy theories and fantasies of Obama's otherness.   

Many knowledgeable people thought Scott Walker had great potential as a presidential candidate even before he began his recent rise in the polls. Perhaps more than any of the GOP contenders, he looked like a person who could bridge the party's key divide, between the pragmatic establishment that supplies the money and the decidedly less reasonable grassroots that supplies the troops. Walker is both an enemy of labor unions and an evangelical Christian himself (if he becomes president, Walker will be the first evangelical in the office since Jimmy Carter; contrary to popular belief, George W. Bush is not an evangelical). While he's still unfamiliar to most of the country, Walker is the the kind of candidate that the Koch brothers and the tea party protester with a sign accusing Obama of being a communist can both get excited about.

So it's important to know just how much he represents each of those groups, both in policy and in spirit. He just offered us one important clue. It won't be the last.

Photo of the Day, Snow In Strange Places Edition

This is the scene in Jerusalem today, with the Dome of the Rock half-covered by a fluffy white blanket of hope and understanding.  

How Will the 2016 Candidates Deal With Anti-Islamic Sentiment In Their Party?

(Flickr/Dan Nguyen)

My Plum Line post today is about what looks like a growing sentiment on the right that we should indeed be in a clash of civilizations, between the Christian West and Islam. When Bill O'Reilly is literally calling for a "holy war," practically every Republican is complaining that President Obama doesn't call terrorism "Islamic" often enough, and people like Senator Lindsey Graham are saying things like, "When I hear the president of the United States and his chief spokesperson failing to admit that we're in a religious war, it really bothers me," then there's something significant going on.

We're now entering the time when the party's most prominent politicians will be going out and meeting the voters, which will almost inevitably result in some instances where somebody says something horribly bigoted and the candidate has to decide how to react. Here's some of what I had to say about it:

The real test of how mainstream this kind of anti-Islamic sentiment has grown within the GOP isn't so much what those like Huckabee and Jindal say—they've obviously decided that advocating for religious war is the path to becoming the favored candidate of Christian conservatives (though they seem to have forgotten that the candidate who wins that mantle almost never gets the GOP nomination). The test is whether we see candidates like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, who are looking to appeal to a wider group of voters, dipping their toes in those rancid waters.

One Republican candidate has done the right thing in response to this question. In 2011, Chris Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed to a state judgeship, a decision for which he was attacked by some conservatives in the most blatantly bigoted ways you can imagine. The critics called Mohammed, an accomplished attorney, a terrorist sympathizer and someone who would attempt to impose sharia law on the citizens of New Jersey. Christie treated the criticisms with the contempt they deserved. "This sharia law business is crap," he said. "It's just crazy and I'm tired of dealing with the crazies."

But that was then. We'll see what the candidates do when someone at an Iowa town meeting stands up and says something grossly anti-Muslim, because that absolutely will happen. Will they agree? Will they just try to change the subject? Or will they say, "Now hold on there"? That'll show us what they’re really made of.

And while we're on the subject, anyone who says that all this "We can't defeat terrorism if Obama won't say 'Islamic terrorism!'" fury isn't in large part about the conservative belief that Barack Obama isn't a "real" American is just full of it. For instance, read this quote, which I'm sure many Republicans would agree is an "apology" for Islam, and evidence of how Barack Obama coddles our enemies: "Islam is a vibrant faith. Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim. We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn't follow the great traditions of Islam. They've hijacked a great religion." Or this one: "All Americans must recognize that the face of terror is not the true faith—face of Islam. Islam is a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. It's a faith that has made brothers and sisters of every race. It's a faith based upon love, not hate." Or this one: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."

How can a president who would bend over backward like that to praise Islam possibly fight Islamic terrorism, conservatives might ask? But those words, and many others like them, weren't spoken by Barack Obama. They were spoken by George W. Bush. I was not exactly a fan of Bush's when he was president, but in the immediate aftermath of September 11 and for years afterward, he took pains to emphasize that America was not at war with a religion. And I don't recall too many Republicans complaining at the time.

Why Did Ronald Reagan Hate America?

Just a couple of America-haters pretending to be cowboys. (State Department photo)

Ronald Reagan has been dead for more than a decade, but it's long past the time for us as a nation to come to grips with the fact that this two-term president really didn't love America. Scholars will have to debate whether he just had a mild distaste for the land of the free, or whether he actively hated America and wanted to see it laid low. But the rest of us need to confront this ugly legacy.

To begin with, Reagan came into office promising a fundamental change. As radio host Mark Levin recently said, "when somebody says they want to fundamentally transform America, well, then you must not love America." By that measure, Reagan had no love. Here's part of what he said in a speech on election eve, 1980:

In thinking about these questions, many Americans seem to be wondering, searching . . . feeling frustrated and perhaps even a little afraid.

Many of us are unhappy about our worsening economic problems, about the constant crisis atmosphere in our foreign policy, about our diminishing prestige around the globe, about the weakness in our economy and national security that jeopardizes world peace, about our lack of strong, straight-forward leadership.

And many Americans today, just as they did 200 years ago, feel burdened, stifled and sometimes even oppressed by government that has grown too large, too bureaucratic, too wasteful, too unresponsive, too uncaring about people and their problems.

Americans, who have always known that excessive bureaucracy is the enemy of excellence and compassion, want a change in public life—a change that makes government work for people. They seek a vision of a better America, a vision of society that frees the energies and ingenuity of our people while it extends compassion to the lonely, the desperate, and the forgotten.

All that talk of change, characterizing Americans as fearful and stifled? Why couldn't Reagan just accept the country that had given him so much?

And it didn't start in 1980. Back in 1965, Reagan promised that an America with a Medicare program would be a hellhole of socialist oppression. Only someone with no faith in our country could say something like this:

If you don't [write letters to stop Medicare], this program I promise you, will pass just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow and behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day as Normal Thomas said we will wake to find that we have socialism, and if you don't do this and I don't do this, one of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free.

I don't know if he actually spent his sunset years running down America to his grandchildren, but it wouldn't surprise me. And there's more: Did you know that Reagan didn't just pal around with terrorists like some people, he actually sold weapons to them? It's true. How could anyone who loved America do such a thing? And when Islamic terrorists killed 241 brave American servicemembers, did Reagan stand up for America? No, he turned tail and ran, like some kind of cowardly commie. And he even apologized for America!

Where did all this disdain for America come from? We may never know. Maybe it was his upbringing, or the crowd he ran with in high school, or the Hollywood types he fell in with in his career as an actor.

I know what you're thinking: Hold on, didn't Reagan sing America's praises in speeches all the time? Sure he did. For instance, he said, "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible." He said, "You know, this country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that's not what keeps the world coming to our shores. Instead, it is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend." And he said, "We keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth."

OK, it wasn't actually Reagan who said those things, it was this guy. But those were the kinds of things Reagan said.

But anybody can say that stuff. How can you tell whether the words are being offered sincerely by someone who loves America, or whether it's all a big lie? The key is to make the conclusion your starting point. Do that, and you'll understand that when he criticized decisions made by a prior administration, he was actually making clear his hatred of America. You'll know that you can look for the worst person he ever met one time at a party, and impute all that person's views to him. You'll be able to look at any action he took and find its true motivation in his contempt for this country. Once you've decided that Reagan hated America, everything else makes sense and all the pieces fall into place.

Photo of the Day, Chill Over Washington Edition

Marine One takes President Obama from the White House. And can I just say, winter isn't a competition, people. It's not about who got more snow, or who's being too whiny by complaining about the cold. It's cold out there. If you want to complain, go ahead and complain. Complaining about people complaining about the cold isn't any more noble than complaining about the cold.

But I'll bet it's nice and toasty inside that chopper.