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

Why Hillary Clinton Can Move Left on Immigration

Back in 2008, I tried (without much success) to convince everyone that John McCain's reputation as a "maverick" was built on a fundamental misconception. It isn't that he didn't sometimes go against the prevailing Republican position on a given issue, because he did, even if those occasions were actually quite rare. It's that when he did so, it was always on an issue where the Republican position was vastly unpopular with the public as a whole. So his maverickizing inevitably put him on the right side of public opinion, winning him the best of both worlds: He could win plaudits from his admirers in the press for being allegedly courageous, but also do the popular thing.

I thought of that today looking at Hillary Clinton, who last night made her first detailed remarks on immigration since becoming a candidate—not because I'm trying to argue that Clinton is as phony as McCain (maybe, maybe not, but not what I'm interested in right now), but because of the complex interplay of sincere belief, primary considerations, and general election worries that operates on an issue like this one. While it was expected that Clinton would be firmly in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, her comments yesterday were surprising because they put her to the left of Barack Obama. Not only does she support the executive actions he has taken on immigration, she said she'd go further, by moving to suspend deportations of the parents of "dreamers," undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. (Obama's policy covers undocumented immigrant parents of those who were born in the U.S., but not the parents of those who came here as children.)

There's a long way to go in this campaign, but it looks so far like Clinton is emerging as a more liberal candidate than we expected, particularly given that, for most of her career, she's been known as a center-left Democrat. I think Steve Benen describes the situation well:

But as her candidacy takes shape, note how consistently she's positioned herself as a progressive champion of late. Clinton delighted much of the left, for example, with her remarks on criminal-justice reform last week. The Democratic base was equally pleased to hear about Clinton's 50-state strategy, her willingness to buck Wall Street, and her consideration of a constitutional amendment on campaign financing.

And now Clinton has done it again on immigration.

Some critics on the left will likely note, with cause, that she's adopted a far more progressive vision than the one she used to espouse. There's some truth to that, though where she is arguably matters more than where she was. President Obama has helped shift the national debate to the left a bit on many of these key issues; the Democratic coalition has become more unified around a progressive agenda; much of the American mainstream is far more likely to embrace the left's proposals than it was eight years ago; and Clinton has clearly evolved on these issues, ending up right where most of her party—and much of her country want her to be.

As I've argued before, ultimately irrelevant is the question of whether Clinton is sincere on any particular issue on which her position has changed; presidents govern as the candidates they were, whatever might be in their hearts. And I have no trouble believing that she genuinely believes in what she's espousing now. It's not as though she underwent some kind of wholesale, Romney-esque reinvention; in some cases she's just putting a new emphasis on things she already believed, and in others (like marriage equality) she evolved along with most of the country. Furthermore, issues themselves change over time, and often there is a different set of options on the table now than there were ten or twenty years ago. And there are certainly issues we haven't yet gotten into where her more centrist impulses might come to the fore. She hasn't said a lot about foreign policy yet, and she has always been one of the more hawkish Democrats.

What may matter most is that Clinton has room to be more liberal if that's what she wants. Consider the contrast on the issue of immigration with the candidates running on the Republican side. Clinton has an advantage they don't, not only because she isn't worried so much about winning the primaries but also because the things that will win her support from Democrats will also serve her well in the general election. The Republicans face have a difficult challenge: they have to appear tough on immigration in order to appeal to primary voters, but doing so runs a serious risk of alienating the general electorate, particularly Hispanic voters. (I discuss this in more detail in my column today at The Week.)

Clinton has no such fears. Although public opinion on immigration is complicated, there's a clear majority in favor of a path to citizenship, and the people who would be most angered by what she said yesterday aren't going to be voting Democratic anyway. So she can simultaneously cheer her base, assure Hispanic voters, and risk nothing with white moderates.

That's true to varying degrees on many other issues as well, for the simple reason that in most (not all, but most) cases, the consensus position within the Democratic Party is more popular than the consensus position within the Republican Party. It's a nice place for Clinton to be.

Photo of the Day, Across the Pond Edition

I thought of posting a photo of Mike Huckabee announcing his presidential candidacy, but this one is just so much more fun. Britons go to the polls this week, and that's George Osborne of the Conservative Party, who is currently Chancellor of the Exchequer, visiting with some hard-working constituents to tell them to vote Tory. He's more excited about this generator part than Kim Jong Un at a lubricant factory. I imagine that woman saying, "Let's not try to break it then, shall we luv?"

The Ridiculous Lure of the Amateur Politician

All the news stories about yesterday's entrants into the Republican presidential field, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, mention they are extremely unlikely to win. Yet the fact that they decided to run at all, and that many in their party will consider them carefully and give them money and attention, testifies to an ongoing delusion, not only among Republicans but among many in the press, as well. It says that the notion that someone with no experience in government should be taken seriously as a contender for the most important job in government is something other than absurd.

Ben Carson was an excellent doctor, and Carly Fiorina certainly knows a lot about the profit potential of printer cartridges (even if her tenure as CEO of HP was something of a disaster). But neither of them has ever held elective office, or any position at all in government at any level. Yet we accept that they could step into an entirely unfamiliar environment and operate with at least some level of competence. It isn't that they won't be asked about their lack of government experience, because they will (and already have been). But when they and other amateur politicians answer that what really matters is vague things like "judgment" and "values," we accept the answer as good enough and move on.

But do you know how many of America's 44 presidents arrived at that office without extensive government experience? Zero. Not a one. Not counting George Washington, only five had held no elected office before becoming president. Like Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower were generals, meaning that they spent their careers in the employ of the federal government and had years to learn its ways from the inside. William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover had been cabinet secretaries. Every other president had been a member of Congress or a governor.

Of course, some of them were excellent presidents and some were terrible. But the ones revered by both Democrats and Republicans came to the job with lengthy preparation. Ronald Reagan was governor of our largest state for eight years, and finally made it to the White House after his third presidential run. Franklin Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy and then governor of New York.

While the attraction to amateur politicians exists in both parties, it's much more intense on the Republican side. There are a few Democrats here and there who come to high office having never run for anything before—the occasional rich guy (like former Minnesota senator Herb Kohl) or celebrity (the current Minnesota senator Al Franken). But Republicans positively ache for the outsider who will come to Washington and use his common sense and familiarity with the "real world" to clean house and fix everything that's wrong. That's partly because many of those amateurs come from the business world, and Republicans tend to view successful businesspeople as the most admirable among us, their intellect, competence, and virtue proven by the size of their bank accounts. But it's also because Republicans are the party that despises government, so it's only natural that they would believe that the most noble and talented people can be found outside it.

The reason that outsider politicians usually fail in their bids for lower offices, and always fail when trying to get elected president, isn't so much that the voters realize that governing is hard and so they shouldn't elect someone who has never done it before. It's that running for office is also hard, and like anything else, doing it well takes experience and knowledge. It also takes things that are built up over time, which candidates like Fiorina and Carson don't have, like networks of allies for whom you've done favors, relationships with other politicians that can produce endorsements, and so on. But it also takes something else: practice. If you do it for the first time on the biggest possible stage with the most scrutiny and the highest stakes, chances are you aren't going to be very good at it, no matter how smart you are. Which is what saves us from having an amateur actually get to the White House.

Photo of the Day, Announcement Edition

That's Ben Carson, announcing his campaign for a radio talk show and higher speaking fees ... I mean president! Announcing his campaign for president. Wherever he goes in this campaign, he will bring his circular red rug, which channels his power and allows him to mesmerize audiences. 

Multiple GOP Presidential Candidates Now Investigating Nutball Conspiracy Theory

As we discussed last week, conspiracy theorists in Texas are convinced that a multi-state training exercise the military is soon to conduct called Jade Helm is actually preparation for the declaration of martial law across the Southwest, with all manner of ungodly consequences to follow, including the confiscation of people's guns and perhaps forced internment in re-education camps where patriotic Americans are forced to watch episodes of "Girls" with their eyes pried open "Clockwork Orange"-style and fed a diet of borscht and stale bread. Governor Greg Abbott, perhaps after noting continued healthy sales of tinfoil hats throughout the Lone Star State, announced that he had instructed the National Guard to "monitor" the exercise, just to make sure there's no funny stuff going on. Last week Rand Paul told a radio host he'd look into it, and on Saturday, Ted Cruz made clear that he's on the case:

"My office has reached out to the Pentagon to inquire about this exercise," Cruz, a Texas senator, told Bloomberg at the South Carolina Republican Party's annual convention. "We are assured it is a military training exercise. I have no reason to doubt those assurances, but I understand the reason for concern and uncertainty, because when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don't trust what it is saying."

If the question you're asking is, "Why would people believe something so preposterous?", then what Cruz is saying almost makes sense. His argument is essentially that ordinary folks would never have contemplated such a thing a few years ago, but after Barack Obama went on his socialist rampage, trying to get people health coverage and imposing restrictions on Wall Street's ability to obliterate the American economy again, it's only natural that people would become so alarmed that it seems perfectly plausible to them that Obama would have sent the army to take over Texas.

But there's a big difference between saying "Here's an explanation for why some people might be taken with this insane idea" and saying "I too am taken with this insane idea." Cruz is planting himself somewhere in the middle — he's not endorsing it, but he's not dismissing it either, which is why he instructed his staff to communicate with the Pentagon and inquire whether they are in fact about to launch some kind of coup.

Not only does Cruz not come out and say the conspiracy theory is absurd (he only goes so far as to say that "I have no reason to doubt" that martial law is not in the works), he seems to imply that it's perfectly reasonable, based on the Obama administration's record, for people to assume that something like that would actually be happening.

But it isn't. You can have a thousand objections to actions this president has undertaken, but if you genuinely think that an army training exercise is actually a cover for a military coup, you're a loon and there is not a single reasonable thing about what you believe. Like Greg Abbott and Rand Paul, Ted Cruz knows perfectly well how crazy this is. But he's a man of the people, so he'll just pass on what the people are telling him.