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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Sincerity Is Overrated

We spend an awful lot of time in campaigns talking about a set of personal qualities candidates may or may not possess that revolve around honesty. Is the candidate truthful, honest, sincere, candid, authentic? The New York Times asked yesterday whether Hillary Clinton's focus on inequality was sincere: "the former secretary of state must persuade voters that she is the right messenger for the cause of inequality, not simply seizing on it out of political expedience." My colleague Greg Sargent argued that if it represents a change in emphasis for Clinton, it's only because her party's agenda has evolved, and that's what the process is for. Matt Yglesias said that it's absurd to think that anyone who understands and agrees with Clinton on the issue of inequality isn't going to vote for her because she's been talking about it more lately than she used to. Jonathan Bernstein agreed, but argued that sincerity could matter for primary voters:

The primary campaign is a different story. A voter who agrees with a candidate's positions down the line may defect to another contender who is more convincing as a true believer. Nominations often involve candidates who seem identical. Can you tell Scott Walker from Marco Rubio from Bobby Jindal from Rick Perry based only on what they've said about where they stand on the issues?

Primary voters as well as the party actors who are involved in a campaign's earlier stages need to find a way to choose. They might see experience as the best indicator of who might be the most effective president. Or they might use ethnicity, gender or other demographic traits as a guide, or something to identify with the candidate personally. They might be drawn to the best speaker or debater, either because they are inspired or because they assume those skills will produce the strongest general-election candidate.

So it wouldn't be unlikely if primary voters look for the candidate who is most likely to stick to his or her promises and discount promises that seem targeted for transient electoral appeal.

I agree that some number of voters will make their choice this way, but I'd argue that doing so is foolish. As we know well, presidents tend to keep the vast majority of the promises they make while campaigning, and most of those they don't keep are merely the ones they tried and failed to do. The actual number of broken promises, a la "Read my lips: no new taxes" is incredibly small. If a candidate says he's going to do something, he's probably going to at least try to do it. This is particularly true when the thing he's proposing is of vital importance to his party. And it's true even if it was something he wasn't all that enthusiastic about, but adopted out of political opportunism.

That isn't to say that sincerity is completely irrelevant—a president will pursue some goals with more zeal than others depending on what he or she cares most about—but if primary voters have managed to extract a promise from every candidate to do something, they can probably consider their work on that issue done, and base their decision on something else. For instance, every Republican is going to say he wants to cut taxes. If you're a Republican, should you waste your time figuring out which of them is more deeply, emotionally, fundamentally committed to cutting taxes? Probably not. The next Republican president, no matter who he is, will try to get a tax-cutting plan through Congress. You'd do better to figure out who has the best shot of winning the White House and who might have the skill to guide that tax-cut plan into law. You don't need a president who's sincere, you just need one who'll do the things you want.

Only Connect, Says Rick Perry, Only Connect

It's a little strange that Rick Perry has gotten so little attention so far in the presidential race. OK, so his 2012 run was kind of a disaster, but the guy was the governor of the country's second-biggest state for 14 years, and he's as conservative as they come. Why should he get less notice than, say, Ted Cruz?

Well RickPAC, the totally non-affiliated and non-coordinating organization that exists to help conservatives like Rick Perry, though, legally speaking, not Rick Perry in particular, is hoping to change that. They just came out with a slick video that gives a hint at where Perry is coming from. Do you like Enya? Then you'll love this:

The theme here seems to be that if his predecessor George W. Bush was The Decider, Rick Perry is going to be The Connecter. "I grew up 16 miles from the closest place that had a post office, in a house that didn't have running water," he says. "If I can't get down there and connect with the blue-collar worker, then no one can. That's where I came from."

We then see a headline touting Perry's ability to connect with the business and tea party wings of the GOP, and we see him connecting with all sorts of people who apparently are hungry for connection. Old folks, young folks, men and women, black, white and Hispanic, Rick Perry is connecting with them all. He's shaking their hands, laying a comradely hand on their shoulders as he passes, putting his arm around them, connecting, connecting, connecting. And also walking quickly — but not too quickly to connect! — suggesting that a Perry White House might have some of that "West Wing" walk-and-talk feel to it.

Does this foreshadow the theme of the upcoming Perry campaign? "Rick Perry: People Person"? After all, Jeb Bush likes to tell people he's an introvert, so while he's back in his house poring over wonky think tank reports, Rick Perry can be out there connecting with people. I guess there are worse things to build a campaign around.

Photo of the Day, You Are Very Small Edition

This photo was taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Barry Wilmore. You can see Lake Michigan in the upper left hand corner; those lights at its edge are Chicago. Courtesy of

The GOP, On the Road to Coolsville

Assuming Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee next year, we already know that the Republican candidate will be younger than the Democrat, maybe by just a few years (if it's Jeb Bush or Rick Perry, both in their 60s), but maybe by quite a bit. Marco Rubio is not only just 43, he also likes hip-hop (as he never tires of letting people know). Is it possible that the Republican Party will actually have a nominee who's cool? Or at least cooler than the Democrat? Conservative columnist Matt Lewis thinks so:

Like the products we purchase, the candidates we support say something about who we are (or, at least, who we want people to think we are). We might want to believe that our preference has to do with a candidate's policy positions, and in many cases it does. But it's also at least partly about cultural signaling. We all want to be seen affiliating with a cool brand, and we interpret what that cool brand is by means of our tribal identities.

In this sense, Republicans are faced with both a challenge and an opportunity. If a demographic shift has made it vital for Republicans to sell conservatism to more millennials and urban, cosmopolitan voters—and I believe it has—it makes sense to go for cool. Marco Rubio—who is young, handsome, and fluent in Spanish, sports, and pop culture—is cool. Especially compared to Hillary Clinton. Grandmothers (and grandfathers!) may be a lot of wonderful things, but "cool" isn't typically one of them, at least in the popular imagination.

And it's not just Rubio. Rand Paul is kind of cool, particularly among millennials who are socially liberal but wary of the intrusiveness of big government. Indeed, there might never be a better time for the GOP to steal the "cool" mojo from Democrats—who have tended to "own" the cool factor for the better part of the last 50 years.

I'd argue that the only genuinely cool presidents we've had in the last century were Kennedy and Obama, though you could throw in Clinton (although really dude, "I didn't inhale"? Not cool). But it depends on what standard you're using, because cool is complicated. There's the kind of cool Barack Obama embodies, which is all about emotional control, never being too high or too low. There's the cool that comes from just being young, in a culture where youth is inherently desirable. In any case, Lewis is right that voting is an act of cultural affiliation. It can be about the candidate in particular; I've said before that one of the things that made Obama's 2008 campaign so powerful for liberals was that they saw him as everything they wanted to be—youthful, erudite, cosmopolitan, his multiracial identity a tribute to their own open-mindedness, and so on. Republicans portray Democrats as weak and effeminate in part to convince male voters that a vote for such a candidate might say something about the person casting the ballot, too.

But when we're talking about politicians, who are inherently uncool, there's only so cool they can be. And it's enough to know that all the cool people are voting a particular way, even if the person they're voting for isn't particularly cool. Maybe Rubio can drop a few more Tupac references and pull a few votes from young people here and there, but his coolness factor is inevitably going to be pulled down by the fact that he's a member of the GOP, the party where some of the uncoolest people can be found. 

Scott Walker Just Won the Koch Sweepstakes

For some time now, the smart money in political circles has been on Scott Walker becoming the Republican nominee for president—even though primary voters hadn't yet thought much about him. If you look at primary polls, up until October of last year, Walker was at around 5 percent support, which is essentially nothing. Then as the media started to focus more on the race after the midterm elections were over, Walker began a steady rise, and he's now second to Jeb Bush. And he just got what could be the most important endorsement of all:

On Monday, at a fund-raising event in Manhattan for the New York State Republican Party, David Koch told donors that he and his brother, who oversee one of the biggest private political organizations in the country, believed that Mr. Walker would be the Republican nominee.

“When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination,” Mr. Koch told the crowd, the billionaire brothers would support him, according to a spokeswoman. The remark drew laughter and applause from the audience of fellow donors and Republican activists, who had come to hear Mr. Walker speak earlier at the event, held at the Union League Club.

Two people who attended the event said they heard Mr. Koch go even further, indicating that Mr. Walker should be the Republican nominee. A spokeswoman disputed that wording, saying that Mr. Koch had pledged to remain officially neutral during the primary campaign.

But Mr. Koch’s remark left little doubt among attendees of where his heart is, and could effectively end one of the most closely watched contests in the “invisible primary,” a period where candidates crisscross the country seeking not the support of voters but the blessing of their party’s biggest donors and fund-raisers.

We should be clear on two things. First, the Kochs may not actually invest in a candidate in the primaries, whatever their feelings are. Second, even if they did, the money they spent probably wouldn't sway the outcome. In 2012 Sheldon Adelson spent $20 million trying to make Newt Gingrich the nominee, and we saw how that worked out. The other candidates will be amply funded as well; there are other billionaires out there who will make sure that Bush, Marco Rubio, and possibly others will have more than enough money to keep up.

But in the "invisible primary," the Koch's nod of approval can be a powerful symbol. When the Republican Party's biggest funders—who plan to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 campaign—say that Walker is their guy, it will almost inevitably make a lot of other people important to the primary process think very seriously about him. That includes other funders, party officials, key operatives, and the kind of state and local organizers and endorsers who can be so critical in early contests. The main reason Walker has seemed like he has such potential is his ability to appeal to both sides of the central divide in the GOP, between the establishment and the grassroots. But if the Kochs are supporting him, even informally, all of a sudden he seems like nearly as much the establishment candidate as Jeb Bush.

My own opinion is that despite what many in the party will say, you'd much rather be the establishment candidate than the scrappy insurgent. But what is it about Walker that the Kochs find so attractive? We can't read their minds, of course, but like all of us they probably believe that their own personal favorite is the most electable candidate. Walker's core primary message—that unabashed conservatism with a hard partisan edge is not only right but politically shrewd—is surely as appealing to them as to any other Republican.

And while all the Republican candidates are committed to laissez-faire economics, Walker has already demonstrated the missionary zeal he brings to crushing unions and working for the interests of the wealthy and corporations. Perhaps the Kochs look at Jeb Bush and see someone who might someday feel the stirrings of a troubling noblesse oblige and go soft on the unwashed masses. But Scott Walker? Never.