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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Photo of the Day, Cold Day In Hades Edition

A bunch of politicians at a press conference, you say? Nay, this is something far more momentous. This is Democrats and Republicans at a ceremony signing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, better known as the "doc fix" bill, or more properly, the bill that ends the annual absurdist ritual that was the doc fix. Democrats and Republicans. Together. Agreeing. Mark it well, for you may not see its like any time soon. I do think the photo captures Boehner's and McConnell's enthusiasm for sharing a podium with Nancy Pelosi, however.

The Real Reason Social Security Is the Third Rail of American Politics

Chris Christie still harbors hopes of becoming the Republican nominee for president, and in search of a way to convince conservatives that he's one of them—and reinforce the idea that he's a bold truth-teller who doesn't care whose feathers he ruffles, and you might not agree with him but you'll always know he's telling it like it is—Christie has announced a plan to cut Social Security benefits. He would do it in two ways. First, he would means-test benefits, reducing them for those who have over $80,000 in income and phasing them out entirely past $200,000 in income. Second, he would raise the retirement age to 69 (it's currently 66 and will soon rise to 67).

As Matt Yglesias explains, the cut in upper-income benefits is getting most of the attention, which works to Christie's benefit because it sounds like his plan hurts rich people. But in fact, the number of people affected would be fairly small, while increasing the retirement age would be devastating to people of modest incomes. That's particularly true of people who do manual labor, which in your late 60s becomes increasingly difficult. So Christie is proposing a plan that is actually an attack on retired poor and middle-class people, but it's being described as an attack on the rich.

I should point out that even means-testing benefits can be a clever way to undermine the program as a whole. It eliminates the understanding that it's a program for everyone and instead changes it to a program just for people of modest incomes, which then opens it up to further cuts and changes in the future. This is why most liberals oppose means-testing, even though it sounds like something they would support.

In any case, I want to return to this idea that Chris Christie is willing to tell the hard truths. Every story about Social Security mentions that it is the "third rail of American politics," meaning you can't touch it without being zapped. Anyone who would do so naturally deserves praise for their courage and for doing what's right despite the risk. But why is touching Social Security dangerous?

It isn't because of some magical incantation that FDR spoke over the bill as he signed it. It's because, with the possible exception of Medicare, Social Security is the most successful and therefore beloved social program in American history. Before Social Security, aging was almost a guarantee of falling into poverty. If you're below a certain age, you've probably never heard the cliché of old ladies eating cat food to survive, but at one time in America that was an actual thing.

But don't we need to do something before Social Security goes broke? No. Social Security is not going broke, and if we want to fix the funding problems that we will confront a few decades from now there are relatively easy ways to do it; I discussed that years ago in this piece, and not much has changed since.

But back to Christie: Is it courageous to propose a policy change that would be tremendously cruel to millions of Americans? I guess it is in a way. But that doesn't make it praiseworthy.

Hillary Clinton's Evolution On Marriage Equality Shows How Change Happens, and Why Parties Matter

Over the last few days, Chris Geidner of Buzzfeed has been documenting Hillary Clinton's evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage, an evolution that may now finally be complete. First Geidner posted some interesting documents from the 1990s showing Clinton and her husband explaining their opposition to marriage rights, then he got the Clinton campaign on record saying that she now hopes the Supreme Court will rule that there is a constitutional right to marriage for all Americans, which is actually a change from what she was saying just a year ago, when her position was that this was an issue best decided state by state.

So does this all tell us that Hillary Clinton is a chameleon willing to shift with the political winds, lacking in any moral core? Not really. Like every politician, she'll tell you that her shift on this issue was a result of talking to people and searching her own soul, not some political calculation. If that's true, then it mirrors how millions of Americans have changed their own minds. But even if it isn't true, it doesn't matter. She is where she is now, and if she becomes president, her policies will reflect her current position, whether it's sincere or not. That's how change happens.

We spend a lot of time in campaigns trying to figure out if politicians are honest or authentic or real, and one of the supposedly important data points in that assessment is whether they've changed their positions on any important issues. "Flip-floppers" are supposed to be feared and hated. But most of the time, that judgment is utterly irrelevant to what they would actually do in office.

For instance, few party nominees had in their history the kind of wholesale ideological reinvention that Mitt Romney went through. But what does that actually mean for the kind of president he would have been? Does anyone seriously believe that had he been elected, Romney would have flipped back to becoming a moderate Republican, just because deep down he's a flip-flopper? Of course he wouldn't have. Romney changed when his sights moved from liberal Massachusetts to the national stage, which also happened during a period when his party became more conservative. He would have governed as the conservative he became.

When public opinion on an important issue is in flux, politicians are emphatic followers. They figure out what's happening, particularly within their own party, and then accommodate themselves to that change. It often looks like they're leading when what they're actually doing is taking the change in sentiment that has occurred and translating it into policy change. For instance, Barack Obama has taken a number of steps to expand gay rights, like ending the ban on gays serving in the military and pushing the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. But he did all that after public opinion demanded it, not before.

In the end, what's in a politician's heart may be interesting to understand, but it doesn't make much of a practical difference. Does it matter that Lyndon Johnson was personally a racist who spent his early career as a segregationist? No, it doesn't: When his own party and the American public more broadly moved to support civil rights for African Americans, he passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and became an advocate for equality.

It's possible that Hillary Clinton believed in marriage equality all along, but didn't have the courage to advocate it publicly until she finally did so in 2013. Or maybe every shift in her public stance was a perfectly accurate reflection of her views at that moment. Either way, now that the Democratic Party is firmly in support of marriage equality for everyone in every state, that position is going to guide her if she wins.

And let's not forget that almost every major Republican politician has gone through their own evolution on this issue as well. The first time it was a major issue in a presidential race, in 2004, Republicans advocated a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage everywhere. Most of them even opposed civil unions. But today, the opinion supported by every presidential contender who has been explicit on the topic is that the decision should be left up to the states, meaning it's OK with them if some states have marriage equality while others don't. A few do advocate a constitutional amendment—but not one to ban same-sex marriage nationwide, just one to preserve the ability of individual states to ban it if they choose.

That's where the Republican Party is now, so that's what the next Republican president's policies will reflect. Until they evolve again.

Photo of the Day, Theater of Protest Edition

I happen to think that most protests of this type range somewhere between useless and counterproductive. But I still love this photo, because it's so dynamic—the flying paper, the confetti, the movement of European Central Bank president Mario Draghi (that's him on the left looking like he's ready to catch a football) and the other people in the shot. So, confetti woman, we'll give you a qualified thumbs-up for your dramatic but ultimately futile protest against "ECB dictatorship." Just this one time.

Where the Candidates Stand On Taxes

Tax day is a good time to wonder just what sort of changes to the tax code we might expect when we get a new president 21 months from now. Most of them haven't produced lengthy position papers yet, but we can get at least a preliminary idea of where they'd like to take the tax code. So let's take a look at what we know so far about the candidates and their ideas on this topic:

Jeb Bush: Bush hasn't released a tax plan, but he has refused to sign Grover Norquist's pledge to never ever, ever raise taxes, as most congressional Republicans—including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—have. In a 2012 congressional hearing, Bush was asked about a question Republican candidates got at a presidential primary debate, where they were asked whether they would accept a deal that included one dollar of tax increases for every ten dollars of spending cuts. Everyone had said they'd walk away from such a deal, so horrifying would even a tiny increase in taxes be. Bush replied, "If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we're going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement—put me in, Coach." Remarkably, this is taken by many Republicans as evidence that Bush is some kind of fiscal apostate.

Will Bush deal with these questions by coming out with a tax plan full of upper-end cuts? I wouldn't be surprised.

Marco Rubio: Rubio has the most specific plan of any of the candidates so far. His plan contains some provisions that would benefit people of modest incomes, but it also has huge giveaways to the wealthy. He would reduce the current seven income tax brackets down to two: 15 percent for individuals earning under $75,000 a year, and 35 percent for everyone over that. It would mean a tax increase for some people in the middle—for instance, if you earn $100,000 a year, you're currently paying a marginal rate of 25 percent, so your taxes would go up—but it also means a cut for those now paying the top rate of 39.6 percent.

But the real favor to the wealthy is the fact that Rubio would completely eliminate all taxes on capital gains, stock dividends, and inheritances. That's right, eliminate them. To zero. So congrats, Paris Hilton, you'll never have to pay a dime in taxes.

Rand Paul: Paul hasn't been all that specific about taxes, though he has said he wants to cut them by "hundreds of billions of dollars." He rejects the idea that cuts ought to be "deficit neutral"—that is, neither raise nor lower the deficit—meaning that his cuts would increase the deficit. He might argue that his dramatic spending cuts would offset the decreased revenue, but he also believes in the Tax Fairy, i.e. the idea that cutting taxes increases revenue. The section of Paul's website on taxes is 159 vague words about a "plan" that as of yet doesn't exist. "My tax plan will get the IRS out of your life, and out of the way of every job creator in America," it reads. "My plan will also cut spending and balance the budget in just five years. It will be the largest tax cut in American history and a tax cut that will leave more money in the paychecks of every worker in America." Paul has also advocated a flat tax.

Scott Walker: Walker doesn't have a campaign yet, nor does he have a tax plan. But his record in Wisconsin is such that it's been touted by none other than Grover Norquist himself. Walker has slashed taxes so much that because of the decreased revenue he was forced to miss a payment on the state's debt. He has toyed with the idea of eliminating the state's income tax, and said that eliminating the federal income tax "sounds pretty tempting" and that he'd like to reduce income tax rates.

Ted Cruz: Though Cruz hasn't released a formal plan either, he proposes eliminating the IRS and instituting "a simple flat tax that allows every American to fill out his or her taxes on a postcard." Without an IRS to read and process those postcards, the task would presumably be taken up by a cadre of tiny magical creatures, each with gossamer wings and the face of Ayn Rand.

Hillary Clinton: As yet, we've heard nothing from her on this subject.

Presumably, all or most of these candidates (and whoever else ultimately decides to get in the race) will produce more details in the coming days. But at the moment we can say with a fair degree of confidence that the eventual Republican nominee is going to be advocating a reduction in income tax rates, likely along with some kind of reduction in investment taxes (not to mention corporate taxes, which all Republicans want to reduce or eliminate, but which I haven't discussed here). They will surely say that therein lies the key to spectacular economic growth and a rising tide for all. Democrats will respond that Republicans just want giveaways for the wealthy. In other words, it'll be like most presidential elections.