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

When Reporters Decide a Candidate's Supposed Character Flaw 'Raises Questions,' Watch Out

Which of Hillary Clinton's character flaws do you find most troubling? If you're a Republican, you may not have quite decided yet, since there are any number of things about her you can't stand. But if you're hoping to defeat her, you'd do well to home in on whatever journalists think might be her primary character flaw, because that's what will shape of much of their coverage between now and next November.

The determination of that central flaw for each of the presidential candidates will soon become one of reporters' key tasks as they construct the frames that are going to guide their coverage of the race. And the idea that Clinton can't be trusted is an early contender for her central defect, the one journalists will contemplate, discuss, explore, and most importantly, use to decide what is important and irrelevant when reporting on her.

Take a look at the lead of this article by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, titled "For Hillary Clinton, a trust deficit to dismount":

Is Hillary Clinton honest enough to be president?

That question—phrased in a thousand different ways but always with the same doubts in mind—sits at the heart of a campaign that will span the next 18 months and on which billions upon billions of dollars will be spent.

If Cillizza was trying to write a campaign-defining piece that will be cited in histories of 2016 as representative of the press's perspective on Clinton, he couldn't have done much better. This happens in every presidential race: Each candidate is reduced to one or two flaws, the things about them that are supposed to "raise questions" and make us all wonder whether we'd be comfortable with them in the Oval Office. Republicans are surely hoping that reporters will lock in a frame in which Clinton is presumed to be dishonest, because once that happens, they will pay far more attention to the veracity of everything she says and highlight every point of divergence from the truth, no matter how trivial. This is how character frames operate, and the process works the same for Republicans and Democrats.

It's a double-edged sword for candidates, because it means that an absurd amount of attention will be given to some things they do and say, while others that might get a different candidate in trouble will be ignored or downplayed. Look back at almost any recent election and you can see it in action. For instance, in 2012, Mitt Romney was defined as an uncaring plutocrat (who was also stiff and awkward), so when he said something that seemed to highlight this flaw—like "Corporations are people, my friends"—it would be replayed and repeated over and over in news reports. But Romney was also a spectacularly dishonest candidate, and despite the efforts of some on the left, dishonesty never came to define him. He might have claimed he was being unfairly treated on the first count, but on the second he got something of a pass.

Let's take another example to show why this selection of frames matters. In no election in my lifetime was there more discussion about honesty than the one in 2000, which reporters essentially presented as a contest between a well-meaning and forthright simpleton on one side, and a stiff and dishonest self-aggrandizer on the other. Once those frames were settled (and it happened early on), reporters sifted everything Al Gore said about his record like prospectors panning for gold, trying to find anything that would suggest an exaggeration. They even went so far as to make some up; Gore never said he "invented the Internet," nor did he say many of the other things he was accused of having said.

Gore did mangle his words from time to time, but when he did, reporters didn't bother to write a story about it. Likewise, George W. Bush said many things that weren't true, but because he was supposed to be the dumb one, not the liar, reporters didn't give them much attention. Even when they did, it would be in the form of a simple correction: The candidate said this, while the actual truth is that. What reporters didn't do was say that a false statement from Bush or a bit of linguistic confusion from Gore "raised questions" about either's fitness for the presidency; those "questions" (almost always left unspecified, both in who's asking them and what they're asking) are only raised around the central character flaw that reporters have settled on.

Bush's lies during the 2000 campaign actually turned out to be quite revealing, which demonstrates that the problem isn't simply the way the media focuses on one or two character flaws, but how shaky their judgment is of what matters. While Gore did occasionally exaggerate his importance in events of the past, Bush lied mostly about policy: what precisely he did as governor of Texas, what was in the plans he was presenting, and what he wanted to do. It turned out that as president, he deceived the public on policy as well, not only on the Iraq War, but also on a whole host of issues.

This demonstrates an important principle that seldom gets noticed. When a candidate gets caught in a lie, people often say, "If he'll lie about about this, what else will he lie about?" The most useful answer is that a candidate is likely to lie about things that resemble what you just caught him lying about. Bill Clinton, for instance, wasn't particularly forthcoming in 1992 about whose bed he had or hadn't shared, and when he was president, that's exactly what he lied to the country about. Bush, on the other hand, spun an absurd tale about how his tax-cut plan was centered on struggling workers, and when he got into office, sold his upper-income tax cuts with the same misleading rationale.

One of the reasons reporters gravitate to discussions of "character" is that such examinations allow for all kinds of unsupported speculation and offering of opinions, served up with the thinnest veneer of objectivity. A supposedly objective reporter won't go on a Sunday-show roundtable and say, "Clinton's tax plan is a bad idea," but he will say, "Clinton has a truth problem." Both are statements of opinion but, for reporters, statements of opinion about a candidate's character are permissible, while statements of opinion about policy aren't.

So is Hillary Clinton less trustworthy than Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or any other politician? Maybe, but maybe not. The problem is that reporters often answer the question just by choosing to ask it for one candidate, but not for another. 

Photo of the Day, Cool Energy Edition

That's a Tesla superfan (which apparently is a thing) posing in front of the company's new Powerwall battery, which Elon Musk unveiled today. Meant for homes and businesses, the battery will allow users to store energy from their solar panels, windmills, or whatever else they're using to charge up their cars and power their homes without any help from the grid. Chris Mooney explains why this could be a really big deal as we head toward our promising future of distributed energy.

Riots and Results

Yesterday, I wrote about how the explanation Baltimore police gave for the death of Freddie Gray was almost impossible to believe, and apparently, state's attorney Marilyn Mosby felt the same way after her investigation, because she announced today that she is charging six officers with crimes ranging from negligence to second-degree murder (you can watch her statement here). In a post at the Plum Line this morning, I raised the question of whether you could argue that the violence that occurred in Baltimore on Monday led to this prosecution and therefore produced some of the accountability people in Baltimore want so desperately. Here's a piece of that post:

The violence led to a huge increase in media attention, and even if much of that coverage was sensationalistic, there was also a lot of attention paid to the substantive issues involved. Those included the Baltimore police's record in dealing with the public generally, and in particular the use of "rough rides" as a method of abusing suspects, which is a likely explanation for how Freddie Gray came to have his spine broken in the back of a police van.

All that national attention put every public official under pressure to not only bring calm but also to confront the issues that have the people of Baltimore so angry: The police commissioner, the mayor, the governor, and yes, the state's attorney. While every official would like to believe that he or she would make all the same decisions regardless of whether there are people chanting in the streets and news cameras parked outside their office, they can't possibly be immune.

I have to confess I'm not completely sure what the answer to the basic question is. I'm not at all comfortable endorsing violence as a political tactic, particularly since it not only claims innocent victims, it also tends to be less effective than nonviolent protest over the long run. But there's no question that Monday's rioting instantly made Baltimore and Freddie Gray a national issue.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that if the nonviolent protests had simply continued and grown, there would still have been a prosecution. Though I know very little about Mosby, she doesn't seem like she's being forced into this against her will. One important question is how the rest of the Baltimore officials who are also under a microscope respond. What kind of police reforms are they going to initiate, and how effective will they be? We probably won't know the answers until long after the national media's attention has shifted elsewhere.

There's also the question of whether the events in Baltimore, including this prosecution, have any impact on what happens in police departments around the country, with regard to both police abuse and accountability for it. Suspects die in police custody all the time, after all, and prosecutions are pretty rare. Changing both of those things will take a long time, but the next time a suspect dies, the people in the community where it happened may now be more likely to take the streets, and the prosecutors are going to be asked why they aren't issuing an indictment like the prosecutor in Baltimore did. 

Why Democrats Upped Their Demands on the Minimum Wage -- and Why Republicans Should Embrace It

Democrats unveiled their latest proposal to increase the minimum wage yesterday, and it shows not just how quickly the party's consensus has moved on this issue, but what activists can accomplish by changing the terms of debate. We don't know exactly when a bill to raise the minimum wage will pass Congress and be signed by the president, but it will happen eventually. When it does, lots of Republicans are going to vote for it, for the same reason they have in the past: because the political risks of voting no are too high. The biggest question may be whether the next increase is the one that finally eliminates the minimum wage as a political issue.

The minimum wage has been at $7.25 since 2009, the last step in a series of increases set by the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007. That bill was signed by President Bush, and got the support not only of every Democrat in Congress, but also of 82 Republicans in the House and 45 in the Senate. Republicans may be standing in the way of an increase now, but eventually they'll let it through, if for no other reason than the desire to stop the pummeling Democrats inflict on them over the issue.

But look how the Democratic position has changed. In his State of the Union address in 2013, President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour. A year later, he proposed raising it to $10.10. His administration has now endorsed a $12 minimum; Secretary of Labor Tom Perez appeared at yesterday's press conference with congressional Democrats to give the administration's support for this new bill sponsored by Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott.

Even more important may be the fact that indexing the minimum wage—having it rise automatically with the cost of living—has now also become a central Democratic demand. The Murray-Scott bill would index it not to inflation but to median wages (Danny Vinik argues that that isn't a good idea), but the point is that no Democratic proposal from now on is going to exclude indexing.

It seems pretty clear that the activist movement around a $15 minimum wage has pulled the consensus among Democratic politicians toward a higher demand. Which isn't surprising—it's called the anchoring effect, and it's something both sides use in negotiations over money all the time. I say I'll give you $20 for your old lawnmower, knowing that I'll be willing to give you more for it, while you say you want $100 for it, knowing you'll be willing to take less. We're each hoping that our initial offer will set a context that changes how the eventual number is perceived. It's why stores put labels that read, "Regular price $99—reduced to $49!" on items. The $99 is purely fictional; its only purpose is to make $49 seem like a great deal.

The discussion of a $15 minimum wage made $10.10 seem too modest to those who want to see the wage increased, so they've now settled on $12 (which would be phased in between now and 2020). So why should Republicans embrace the latest proposal or something like it? They may like to see a lower increase, and they might be able to negotiate one—perhaps to $10.10. But they really ought to embrace indexing, for the simple reason that it means we aren't likely to debate the federal minimum wage much once it's in effect. This issue is absolutely brutal for them—minimum wage increases are regularly supported by over 70 percent of the public, and the discussion reinforces the one thing above all others that Republicans wish people wouldn't believe about them, that they only care about the interests of the wealthy.

So if you actually passed a law that increased the minimum wage and indexed it to inflation, it would keep rising slowly to keep up with the cost of living, and there wouldn't be much reason to have arguments about it. Everyone would get something they want. 

Photo of the Day, Socialism On the March Edition

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, speaking to the press after announcing his candidacy for president. Here's something I wrote about him earlier today.