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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'Obama Never Praises America' May Be the Single Dumbest Criticism Republicans Have

Not that you needed a reminder that Rudy Giuliani is a contemptible jerk, but the former New York mayor has managed to find his way back in the news in the only way he can, which is to to say something appalling. I'm going to try to take this opportunity to explore something meaningful about the way we all look at our allies and opponents, but first, here's what Giuliani said at an event for Scott Walker:

"I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America," Giuliani said during the dinner at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. "He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."

O.K., so we've heard this a million times before, though usually from talk radio hosts and pundits, but less often from prominent politicians. Offered a chance to clarify later, here's how Rudy explained himself:

"Well first of all, I'm not questioning his patriotism. He's a patriot, I'm sure," the former mayor of New York said on Fox and Friends Thursday morning. "What I'm saying is, in his rhetoric, I very rarely hear the things that I used to hear Ronald Reagan say, the things that I used to hear Bill Clinton say about how much he loves America."

Obama is different from his predecessors in that respect, Giuliani said.

"I do hear him criticize America much more often than other American presidents," he told the morning show hosts. "And when it's not in the context of an overwhelming number of statements about the exceptionalism of America, it sounds like he's more of a critic than he is a supporter."

He's not questioning Obama's patriotism, he's just saying he doesn't love America. Got it—thanks for clearing that up. I'm not saying Rudy is foolish and immoral, I'm just saying he's a cretinous dirtbag. So no offense.

But what I'm really interested in is Giuliani's explanation that he "very rarely hear[s]" Obama say patriotic things, but he "do[es] hear him criticize America." It's safe to say a lot of conservatives feel the same way. They hear these criticisms of America all the time from Obama! But never a word of praise for this country!

It would be great if the next person who interviewed Rudy (or anyone else making the same claim) asked him to name some of these many criticisms of America that he has "heard" from Obama. Because my guess is that he wouldn't be able to come up with any. What he has heard, however, is other people saying that Obama criticizes America. If you spend a day watching Fox News, you'll probably hear that assertion a dozen times. The idea that Obama constantly criticizes America, like the fictitious "apology tour" assertion from Obama's first term, is something conservatives say over and over but almost never back up with any actual evidence.

If pressed, they might be able to come up with times when Obama has said that prior administrations have made mistakes, like the Bush administration enacting a policy of torturing prisoners. But these aren't criticisms of America per se, any more than Republicans are criticizing America when they say we shouldn't have passed the Affordable Care Act. If criticizing something the American government did means you're aren't a patriot, then the Republican Party is the most anti-American organization in the world today. Al Qaeda has nothing on them.

Perhaps even more revealing is Giuliani's assertion that he rarely hears Obama praise America. The truth is that like all presidents, Obama heaps praise on America constantly. For instance, here's a bit of vicious America-hating from his last State of the Union address:

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong. I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long.

I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I've seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California, and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, New London. I've mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown, in Boston, in West Texas, and West Virginia. I've watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains, from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I've seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in 10 Americans call home.

So I know the good, and optimistic, and big-hearted generosity of the American people who every day live the idea that we are our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper. And I know they expect those of us who serve here to set a better example.

Look at any major speech Obama has given, and you'll find similar passages. But Giuliani isn't lying when he says he doesn't "hear" that. The words pass through his ears into his brain, but they don't register, because he decided long ago that Barack Obama is incapable of such thoughts.

And if you read that passage or any of a hundred like it directly to Giuliani, how would he respond? He'd probably say that, sure, Obama spoke those words, but they weren't an expression of his real feelings; they were artifice, meant to conceal the sinister truth lying deep within. The words tell us nothing. On the other hand, when Obama says something critical about a Bush administration policy, the words reveal his hatred of America.

To a certain degree we're all prey to this tendency. Once we've made our conclusions about who our political opponents are deep within their souls, we want to accept at face value only their statements that reinforce the view we already have of them. But you'll notice that Giuliani wasn't only stating his opinion about what lies in Obama's heart, he attempted to justify that opinion with a statement of fact. Giuliani's argument is that he concluded that Obama doesn't love America because he assessed that Obama so seldom says nice things about America. That's like saying that you think Tom Brady is a bad quarterback because he hasn't won any Super Bowls. Maybe you have some other reason why you think Tom Brady is a bad quarterback, or maybe you just don't like him, but if what you offer as the basis of your opinion is his lack of Super Bowl wins, there's no reason why anyone should take you seriously.

Not that there was much reason to take Rudy Giuliani seriously to begin with. But he's expressing beliefs that are not just common but absolutely rampant on the right. 

Photo of the Day, Canine Glory Edition

This is the elegant if ridiculously named Miss P, the winner of last night's Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Backstage, an inconsolable owner wondered when the Mexican hairless would get the respect it deserves. "All they care about is looks!" he cried. "I think I'll lick my butt," his dog silently replied.

Jeb Bush's Distinct and Special Manhood

The political news of the day came from Jeb Bush, who delivered a foreign policy address with a sound-bite-ready quote in which he declared that as terrific as his father and brother are, "I am my own man." He didn't actually explain any differences between what they did and what he'd do, but in my Plum Line post today, I wondered how we might get a better idea of what sort of president he'd be:

The real question, however, is less whether Jeb Bush can be his own man in relation to his brother and father—who, after all, conducted foreign policy in extremely different ways—but whether he can be his own man in relation to the rest of the Republican Party. As we come to the end of eight years in which hatred of Barack Obama has come to define every position the Republican Party takes, will there be any room for a Republican presidential candidate to have an original thought on foreign policy?

It’s early yet, so we haven’t heard all that much from the Republican candidates on foreign policy. What we have heard, however, isn’t particularly encouraging. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is so far the only one who has managed to say anything on any foreign policy topic that doesn’t amount to, “Obama bad! Must be strong!” (For instance, Paul opposed applying new sanctions to Iran while negotiations on its nuclear program are ongoing). Today, Bush will say that “weakness invites war…and strength encourages peace,” which tells us very little about how he’d conduct himself as president. Here are a few questions we might ask him—and the other candidates—to learn what they actually believe:

You'll have to read the rest to find out what the questions actually are.

Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and the Long But Fading Shadow of the 1960s

Hanna Rosin has a new Atlantic article plumbing the depths of Clinton-hatred, and it contains this insightful paragraph referring specifically to R. Emmett Tyrell, one of the most prolific Clinton-haters, but applying more generally to the broader phenomenon:

Unlike the nastiest Obama hatred—which is typically rooted in a fear of the Other (black, with an Arabic middle name, product of a mixed marriage)—Clinton disdain had a strange kind of intimacy. It was like hating a sibling who was more popular, more successful, more beloved by your parents—and always getting away with something. Tyrrell felt he knew the Clintons, because he'd gone to college with so many Clinton types: draft dodgers, pot smokers, '60s "brats." They were "the most self-congratulatory generation in the American republic," he tells me. "And it was all based on balderdash! They are weak! The weakest generation in American history!"

I've argued for some time that even though you can trace America's culture war back to the country's founding and through the Civil War, its current incarnation is, at its essence, about the 1960s, when so much of our ruling class came of age. The divides we have now are still between the squares and the cool kids, the buzzcuts and the longhairs, the upright and the pot smokers and, perhaps most importantly, the group that looked on in disgust and envy at the other group that was getting laid and having all the fun.

If you were in that first group back then, you may still be mad, not just for what you missed out on but because so many of the questions people were arguing about back then—civil rights, Vietnam, sexual liberation—have been settled, and your side lost. Many of those people looked at Bill Clinton and saw every hippie they ever wanted to sock in the jaw.

Not that Clinton was actually anything resembling a hippie in the 1960s—his hair may have been a little long, but his eyes were always on his political future, which is why he had that moment of indecision when the joint came around the circle toward him. (A side note: Unlike almost everyone, I've always fully believed Clinton's "I didn't inhale" line. It was the act of a young man who wanted acceptance from those around him but was also worried about the effect it might have on his political future.)

But I think what Rosin mentions about Clinton "always getting away with something" was key to conservatives' feelings about him. He wasn't just a sinner, he was a sinner who knew he could skate away in the end. They always thought they had him, and he always beat them in the end, never paying the price for his transgressions. In the Saturday Night Live special that aired the other day, they excerpted a skit that had a perfect moment, one that embodied why Darrell Hammond's impression of Clinton was so good. After being acquitted by the Senate, he comes out to address the press, and with a little smile says three words: "I. Am. Bulletproof." Then he turns and walks away.

But Hillary Clinton didn't have any of those 1960s sins to get away with. She was even farther from the counter-culture than her future husband. She arrived at college as a "Goldwater girl," and even as she moved leftward politically she was the kind of ambitious yet sensible young woman who would be chosen to give the graduation speech at Wellesley. She wasn't taking drugs and having sex, so it's hard for any reasonable person to despise her for being a hippie.

So that's one attack that doesn't seem like it'll have much power. About half the voting-age population in 2016 will be too young to remember the 1960s, and even for those who weren't there, the idea that Hillary Clinton is some kind of counter-culture rebel will seem absurd. But there are innumerable identities conservatives will put on her; Rosin quotes Matt Continetti, editor of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, saying, "I see her as a high-school teacher I really dislike, who can do you harm but you can still snigger about behind her back." Which is something, I suppose, but it's probably not enough to destroy a presidential campaign.

The Circle of Scam Spins On

In my Plum Line post today, I took a look at this interesting report from John Hawkins of Right Wing News on how some of the conservative PACs meant to funnel money to Republican candidates have actually been just keeping the donations they get—most or even all them—for the people who run the PACs. What's different about this is that while lots of liberals (myself included) have talked about this kind of thing—I found this recent case of Mike Huckabee scamming his fans into buying secret biblical cancer cures particularly despicable—there haven't been a lot of conservatives willing to talk openly about it. Hawkins explains how the most up-to-the-minute exploitation of campaign finance rules can be worked to line some people's pockets:

For example, let me tell you how conservatives can be (and have been) ripped off by scam groups. Let’s say Ronald Reagan is still alive and someone starts the Re-Elect Ronald Reagan To A Third Term PAC. Because people love Reagan, let's suppose that conservative donors pony up $500,000 to help the organization. However, the donors don't know that Ronald Reagan has nothing to do with the PAC. Furthermore, the real goal of the PAC is to line the pockets of its owner, not to help Ronald Reagan. So, the PAC sets up two vendors, both controlled by the PAC owner: Scam Vendor #1 and Scam Vendor #2. Let’s assume it costs $50,000 to raise the half million the PAC takes in. Then, the PAC sends $100,000 to the first company and $100,000 to the second company to "promote Ronald Reagan for President." Each of the companies then goes out and spends $1,000 on fliers. The "independent expenditures" that show up on the FEC report? They're at 40%. That’s because the FEC doesn't require vendors to disclose how much of the money they receive is eaten up as overhead. The dubious net benefit that Ronald Reagan receives from an organization that raised $500,000 on his name? It's $2,000. On the other hand, the net profit for the PAC owner is $448,000. Is that legal? The short answer is, "It's a bit of a grey area, but, yes, it is legal."

One particularly vivid example Hawkins found was the National Draft Ben Carson for President PAC, which isn't affiliated with Ben Carson, yet raised nearly $13 million in 2014 to promote his candidacy, only a half-million dollars of which actually went to promoting his candidacy. Even if it's technically legal, it's a scam. If I was a conservative, this stuff would enrage me. But similar things have been going on for a long time—lists of conservatives used as repositories of gullible people that can be mined for cash, whether you're selling a phantom political organization or a snake-oil medicine. I wonder when we'll see prominent Republicans condemn it?