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

North Charleston Murder Stems from American Tradition


Posted by guest-blogger Adele M. Stan

An unarmed man shot in the back. An innocent man released after serving 30 years on death row. The centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth. These are the stories that emanated from my radio yesterday, and all bear a common thread: the devaluing of black life.

The biggest news, of course, came from North Charleston, South Carolina, where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back by a white police officer after fleeing on foot from the scene of a “routine traffic stop”—also known in some parts as “driving while black.”  One difference this time: The cop was charged with murder after a damning cell-phone video, shot by a bystander, was provided to state authorities, and then posted on the website of the Charleston Post and Courier.

Scott was shot eight times. The video shows the officer, Michael T. Slager, dropping an object, which appears to be his Taser stun-gun, next to Scott’s body. Slager told his bosses that Scott had grabbed the Taser from him. In truth, it seems that what Scott was killed for was not any threat he posed to the officer's life, but rather to ego of a white cop who couldn't bear to have his authority defied by a black man. Think about Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Isn't that ultimately why they died?

It may seem that police killings of black people—and general harassment of African Americans by law enforcement—are on the rise, but chances are that they are not. Chances are better than good that this is the way it’s always been. It’s just that citizens are now able to shoot videos with their phones, and to take to social media to howl about injustice the moment it occurs.

Take the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, 58, just released from Alabama’s death row after spending half his life there for two 1985 murders he didn’t commit. His conviction was based on police assertions that the bullets found at the scene of the crime matched a gun found in his mother’s house. But, when both were tested decades later, they didn’t. Here’s how Hinton explained his predicament to the BBC:

He said he was told by police the crime would be "put on him" and there were five things that would convict him.

"The police said: 'First of all you're black, second of all you've been in prison before, third, you're going to have a white judge, fourth, you're more than likely to have a white jury, and fifth, when the prosecution get to putting this case together you know what that spells? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.' He was [right] and that's what happened."

He said: "I think if I'd have been white they would have tested the gun and said it don't match and I would have been released, but when you're poor and black in America you stand a higher chance of going to prison for something you didn't do."

Yesterday also brought human-interest stories marking 100 years since the birth of the great jazz innovator, Billie Holiday—meaning that, if, like me, you listen to the kind of radio that celebrates America’s classical music (because that’s what jazz is), you may have caught the iconic strains of Holiday’s brutally graphic tour de force lament of lynching, the centuries-old practice of white mobs hunting down a black person, torturing and mutilating that person, and then usually hanging the body from a tree. For those unfamiliar, here are the opening lines (lyric by Abel Meeropol):

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root

Black body swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

But you should really listen to the whole thing. Every American should. In fact, it should be part of the Common Core curriculum. Because until we understand this legacy—our national legacy—it’s hard to see how things will ever truly change, except, perhaps, by matter of degree.


A Reminder About Netanyahu, Iraq, and Iran

Just a few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked like a figure with huge influence in American politics. There he was addressing Congress, with Republicans practically carrying him into the House chamber on their shoulders. He was on every American television show he wanted, delivering his dark warnings of the second Holocaust to come if an agreement was signed with Iran. And now? Even after winning re-election, as Dan Drezner argues, Netanyahu has become irrelevant to the Iranian nuclear debate. There's no one left for him to persuade.

And even though his argument always verged on the nonsensical—that any agreement to restrain Iran's nuclear program "paves Iran's way to the bomb," whereas if we just walked away then Iran would abandon such ambitions and everything would turn out great—it is now becoming almost comical. He's now demanding that Iran recognize Israel as a condition of any agreement, which as Josh Marshall notes would certainly be nice, but is completely irrelevant to the question of whether Iran has nuclear bombs or not. The agreement will succeed or fail, no matter what Benjamin Netanyahu thinks of it.

At the risk of piling on, I want to draw your attention to this piece by J.J. Goldberg of the Forward, which reminds us of just how spectacularly wrong Netanyahu has been on questions like this in the past:

In early January 2002, four months after the September 11 attacks, Israeli national security council director Uzi Dayan met in Washington with his American counterpart Condoleezza Rice. She told him—to his surprise, he later told me—that President Bush had decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. A month later Dayan's boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, met with Bush in the White House and offered some advice, based on decades of Israeli intelligence.

Removing Saddam, Sharon said, according to three sources with direct knowledge, will have three main results, all negative. Iraq will implode into warring tribes of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. You'll be stuck in an Iraqi quagmire for a decade. And Iran, a far more dangerous player, will be rid of its principal enemy and free to pursue its ambitions of regional hegemony. Bush didn't agree.

Israeli leaders continued pooh-poohing Iraq all spring. Dismissal turned to alarm in August, when Iranian dissidents released evidence that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. In September Sharon told his cabinet to stop discussing Iraq. It was annoying the White House.

On September 12, however, a different Israeli voice visited Washington: ex-prime minister-turned-private citizen Benjamin Netanyahu. A longtime Sharon rival, closely allied with Washington's neoconservatives, he'd been invited to address the Republican-led House as an expert on Iraq. Baghdad, he said, was hiding mobile centrifuges "the size of washing machines." Moreover, "if you take out Saddam, Saddam's regime, I guarantee that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region." Throughout the Middle East, including Iran, populations will be inspired to topple their own dictators.

Bush, of course, listened to Netanyahu and the neocons, not Sharon and his generals. Alas, Sharon was right. Iraq imploded. Iran surged. The invasion had reverberations, but hardly positive. The rest is history.

I sometimes feel like as a country we're already beginning to forget what a spectacular catastrophe the Iraq War was. It was probably the single biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy, and part of what made it so maddening was the insistence of its boosters that it was going to be not just easy but the source of unending joy and happiness for the United States, the Middle East, and the world. They mixed their frenzied fear-mongering with the assurance that anyone who raised any doubts was a Saddam-coddler who didn't really want our Arab friends to receive the blessings of democracy, prosperity, and peace that were sure to result from our invasion. They didn't say, "This is going to be difficult and unpleasant, but we have to do it"; instead, they said, "This is going to be great!"

And today, the conservative narrative is that, sure, a couple of things went slightly wrong along the way, but if Barack Obama hadn't come along and screwed everything up, today Iraq would be thriving and peaceful and it all would have turned out just as they predicted in 2002. That belief forgives them for their part in the calamity, of course.

Bibi Netanyahu wasn't an "expert" on Iraq, and he isn't an expert on Iran. Perhaps after the last couple of months, we can finally put to rest the idea that we should take his opinion on anything into account as we're considering what we should do.

Why Republicans Won't Convince the Electorate That Hillary Clinton Is a Radical

One of the persistent conservative narratives about Hillary Clinton is that her identity as a supposedly moderate Democrat is a ruse, meant to conceal her radical leftist intents. If and when she reaches her long-held goal of becoming president, the mask will be removed and the true horror of her socialist scheme will be revealed.

That is, of course, assuming we reach January 2017 with Barack Obama having failed in his own plan to turn America into a dungeon of Stalinist oppression and misery. But the idea that Clinton is, like her husband, a moderate Democrat, is something that many conservatives have trouble abiding, particularly when the prospect of her becoming president becomes more salient.

So lest Republicans become complacent about the prospects for a second Clinton presidency (a real danger, no doubt), Liz Mair argues in the Daily Beast that Republicans shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that the former secretary of state is much like the first President Clinton:

...tying Hillary Clinton to her husband is an act of political malpractice that ignores the fact that on economic issues, she was—during his presidency, during her 2008 campaign, and still today—significantly to the left of him.

For whatever else one may say about him, Bill Clinton was and is a centrist. His presidency is remembered for the taming of the deficit, his advocacy for free trade, his signature of welfare reform, his legislation cutting the long-term capital gains tax rate, and perhaps most famously, his declaration that "the era of big government is over."

That would not have been true if Hillary had had it her way. And if she has her way now—and if she makes it to the White House—a very un-Bill-like big government will remain in the cards for some time.

Even if her bill of particulars is pretty weak, Mair is right insofar as Hillary Clinton is running in 2016 and Bill Clinton left office in 2001. In the time since, the Democratic Party has itself moved to the left in some ways, and a party's nominee is always going to reflect the party's consensus (with some small variation). If Bill Clinton were running now, he wouldn't be the same candidate he was then. It isn't that Hillary has been waiting for two decades to let her socialist freak flag fly, as I'm sure many conservatives believe; it's that her party has evolved, and she's evolved along with it. For instance, to be a Democrat now means to believe in full marriage equality and to question the War on Drugs, which wasn't true in 1992. At that time there was a comprehensive debate about the party's ideological direction, which Bill Clinton led; now there's a remarkable degree of ideological unity.

There are still ways in which Hillary Clinton is to the right of the median Democrat; she certainly retains more hawkish instincts in foreign affairs, and I don't know if she has abandoned her previous support of the death penalty (though that's something presidents don't do anything about). However you might judge her, we sometimes forget when we try to make such an assessment that it isn't necessary for a president to be an ideological radical for him or her to be a disaster in office. Richard Nixon was something of a moderate, but that made him no less corrupt. There are ways in which George W. Bush was less than a right-wing ideologue; that mitigates the disaster he wrought at home and abroad not at all.

The real things conservatives dislike about Hillary Clinton have little to do with ideology. They think she's a power-hungry, dishonest, overly secretive conniver who has no scruples. Someone could be all those things, and believe almost anything about policy.

This is something both liberals and conservatives will argue about when it comes to the Republican candidates, too. I tend to think that the actual policy differences between those candidates are tiny, and it's the attitudinal differences that are significant. If you actually went down a list of every issue you could come up with, you'd find that Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz disagree on only a couple of things, but Cruz presents himself as a proud far-right ideologue, while Bush doesn't.

Many conservatives believe that Bush is actually some kind of liberal simply because he talks about immigrants as though they were human beings and supports Common Core (which many other Republicans used to like before they decided it's some kind of communist indoctrination program). My guess is that Bush looked closely at Mitt Romney's ham-handed attempts to convince primary voters that he was actually a doctrinaire right-winger ("I was a severely conservative Republican governor") and concluded that the best course is to not fight too strongly against the notion that he's a moderate, despite what little truth there may be to it.

In any case, this kind of ideological name-calling is a feature of nearly every presidential campaign: each candidate says, "I'm mainstream, and my opponent is a radical." Sometimes it's true and sometimes it isn't, but I suspect Republicans are going to have a hard time convincing the electorate that Hillary Clinton is an ideological extremist, whatever they tell themselves.

Photo of the Day, Their Elections Are As Dumb As Ours Edition

That's prime minister David Cameron, campaigning ahead of the May 7 elections in Great Britain. You see, the little lamb represents the hopes and dreams of every Briton, to whom Cameron's Conservative Party will gently feed the nourishing milk of prudent fiscal and monetary policy, so it can grow up big and strong before it is stripped naked for its wool and then butchered into pieces to feed hungry...well, something like that anyway. The point is, look at our guy feeding a cute widdle wamb!

Rand Paul—and Every Other Candidate—to Run Against Washington

You know what America needs? A candidate who will change the way they do business in Washington, bring an outsider's perspective, stand up to all those politicians, and make Washington work for America and not the other way around! I know we need that, because that's what Barack Obama told us we needed before he got elected. So did George W. Bush. So did Bill Clinton. And so does pretty much everybody running for any federal office. Why do we hear this over and over again? Mostly because it's what Americans want to hear. After all, in many ways Washington really is a cesspool of legalized corruption and misplaced priorities. But more importantly, because voters are dumb enough to believe that the candidate making these promises can actually carry them out in a meaningful way.

That isn't to say reform is impossible. But it's always going to be slow and incremental, and the idea that a charismatic leader will just come in and sweep away a whole system is absurd. It's particularly ridiculous when you hear some House candidate saying he wants to change the way they do business in Washington, as though some freshman congressman is going to have a meaningful impact on the way the entire federal government and all the businesses and pressure groups that surround it operate.

But apparently this message still polls well, and Rand Paul is about to announce his outsider presidential campaign to bring change to Washington, under the slogan, "Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream." And what is his bold and innovative program? "Advisers say Paul's top issues will include a flat tax, IRS reform, term limits, privacy and justice reform." Ooo, a flat tax! You don't say. Let's take a look at Paul's inspiring video:

"Send the career politicians packing!" says the U.S. senator who won his seat almost solely on the basis of being the son of a man who spent 23 years in Congress.

Paul's essential problem is that he's built his political brand on being, as his video says, "a different kind of Republican," yet Republican primary voters don't really want a different kind of Republican. Karen Tumulty and Robert Costa of the Washington Post explore that dilemma in today's paper, noting that as the presidential race approaches Paul has changed some of his more libertarian views to line up with Republican orthodoxy. I wrote that story last August, as it happens. Paul can be the candidate of his father's libertarian acolytes, in which case he'll stick around but won't win the nomination. Or he can be a more traditional Republican, in which case there's nothing much to distinguish him and he probably won't win the nomination.

Perhaps he thinks that a broad anti-Washington message is the way to bring the libertarian and traditional conservative strands together into an appealing synthesis. It might be—if all the other candidates weren't going to be saying exactly the same thing.