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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Republicans have now reached the point where they agree that things like inequality and wage stagnation are important, and they should discuss them with voters. Which isn't a bad first step, but I'm skeptical about whether they can take the obvious next step. That's the topic of my Plum Line post today:

The current Republican efforts to reposition themselves on economic questions remind me a little of how Democrats used to talk about national security before the Iraq War went south and discredited Republican wisdom on the issue. Democrats were always defensive about it, and when they tried to come up with a new message for whatever campaign was looming, the point was never to win the argument over national security. They just wanted to minimize the damage the issue could do to them, or at best, fight to a draw so that the election would hinge on issues where they were stronger.

If Republicans are to do that now on economics, it isn’t a bad start to say their focus has to shift to what people who aren’t wealthy or business owners (or both) care about. Now they just have to come up with an answer to this question: Okay, so what are you going to do about it?

At the moment the answer is, not much. Just look at the interview John Boehner and Mitch McConnell did with 60 Minutes last night. They said that inequality is a problem, and Barack Obama has made it worse. Then Scott Pelley asked some questions about why it exists and what might be done to combat it. Everything that they responded was about employers and the wealthy. Regulations are crippling business! Taxes are too high! How about Obama's proposal for free community college tuition? We can't afford it. So there you go: exactly the same policies as before, but we'll introduce them by saying, "Yeah, inequality, wage stagnation, yadda yadda yadda, we care, whatever."

Finally, as an extra bonus, here's a column I wrote for on the latest GOP attack on Social Security.

Why Fictional "No-Go Zones" Could Be the 2016 Campaign's Next Culture War

Have you heard about the "no-go zones"? If not, just ask the uncle you dread seeing at Thanksgiving; by now he's already gotten a dozen chain e-mails about them. Despite having been widely debunked, this little nugget of misinformation is showing remarkable resilience. In and of itself that's nothing new; one poll earlier this month found that a majority of Republicans still think we found WMDs in Iraq. What's interesting about the no-go zones is how deeply the idea plays on certain fears and resentments that are rather common among a group of Americans to whom politicians are now starting to pay a great deal of attention, namely the Republican primary electorate.

To catch you up, a rumor recently began circulating that in many countries in Europe, Muslims have established areas where not only are non-Muslims afraid to go, but where police refuse to go and some version of Sharia law has replaced the actual laws of the country. As is usually the case with these kinds of delusions, some true facts are hidden within; for instance, manic Islamophobes have seized on the fact that the French government has designated certain areas as "zones urbaines sensibles," or "sensitive urban zones," as evidence that entire regions of that country are gone from French sovereignty. In fact, the ZUS's are merely neighborhoods with high crime and unemployment that have been targeted by the French government for economic development. But it sure sounds like the kind of surrender to foreigners we could expect from the French, doesn't it?

The truthiness of the no-go zones—at least to those with a certain cast of mind—keeps driving the rumor forward no matter how often it gets debunked. When Fox News "terrorism expert" Steve Emerson went on the network and said that "In Britain, it's not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don't go in," it made enough news in Britain that Prime Minister David Cameron got asked about it. He called Emerson "a complete idiot," and Emerson apologized, as did other Fox on-air personalities.

You might have thought that would take the air out of the idea, but instead it appears to be spreading. Bobby Jindal, who at this stage seems to be positioning himself as the candidate for voters who think Pastor Huckabee might not be quite Christian enough, went to England last week to lecture the British about no-go zones in their country that don't actually exist. As Byron York reported, many conservative voters in Iowa ate up Jindal's fantastical charges. "To them, Jindal was warning about the danger of enclaves of unassimilated Muslim populations in an age of Islamic radicalism, a problem they fear could be in store for the United States."

And that's where the idea is moving: away from debating about what is or isn't happening in Europe, to what might be coming to the United States. Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, an extremely influential figure among the religious right, recently warned that Dearborn, Michigan, and "parts of Minneapolis" are now ruled by Sharia law. In response, Representative Keith Ellison—one of two Muslim members of Congress, who represents Minneapolis—sent Perkins a warm and patient letter inviting him to the city, where he could see that while there are many Muslim Americans who live there, all federal, state, and local laws remain in effect.

While you might think that any whipped-up fears having to do with Muslims are about terrorism, this is as much or even more about immigration. It's an exaggerated version of what so many find disturbing when they see significant numbers of immigrants in and around their communities: that the new arrivals will make them feel like aliens in their own home. People will be speaking a different language, eating different foods, participating in a different culture, and all of it will seem strange and unsettling.

In truth, that's a temporary situation. There aren't too many people who drive through a Chinatown or an Italian neighborhood in a major city and feel the urge to roll down their window and shout, "I want my America back!" Hispanic immigration seems threatening to so many because it's newer and closer to where they live. Take that discomfort, make its face an even more alien-seeming group, add in the threat of violence and turn the whole thing up to eleven, and you've got the no-go zones.

With the issue of same-sex marriage possibly resolved for good when the Supreme Court rules in a few months, this could be the campaign's new culture war, one that pits what those primary voters see as "our" America against an alien one that doesn't seem to them like America at all, where Spanish-speaking immigrants and terrorist sleeper cells join forces to conquer and remake the country from within. My guess is that before long, other Republican presidential candidates will chime in with warnings about the terrifying future where an archipelago of Muslim no-go zones spreads to cover all of America. So what if it isn't happening elsewhere and won't ever happen here? Once the candidates realize what a potent bit of fear-mongering the no-go zones could be, they won't be able to resist.

Sarah Palin Achieves Peak Palin, and It's Spectacular

I know a professor who can turn to a teaching assistant on the way down to the classroom and ask, "What's today's class about?" and then upon hearing the answer, walk in and give a flawless and fascinating three-hour lecture without notes, and without a hint of hesitation or uncertainty anywhere along the way. Politicians are about the only people who are called upon to speak extemporaneously as often as teachers, and some are better at it than others. But it's important to know how good you are at it, so that when you've agreed to give a speech before a sizeable crowd and a bank of television cameras, you consider beforehand whether it might be a good idea to prepare a speech. Some people, however, don't have the self-awareness to say to themselves, "Maybe I'd better have something written out, or else it could go badly." That self-awareness could be particularly important if you're the kind of person who has to write notes on your hand in order to remember your main talking points.

You or I might have that kind of foresight, but thankfully, Sarah Palin does not. In a short career full of public-speaking train wrecks, her speech Saturday at Steve King's Iowa conservative-o-rama may be the most amazing yet. Behold:

That's just a one-minute excerpt. Here's the whole speech if you've got the time and inclination. The speech is a spectacular, baffling wonderment, a roiling melange of mixed metaphors, non sequiturs, grammatical flights of fancy, and awkward transitions. Click anywhere in there and within 30 seconds you'll hear something that'll make you say, "What the hell did she just say?" For instance, this was a passage I liked (it comes around 22 minutes):

That must be that 800-pound elephant in the room at the White House, that the radical left won't even name, they won't even name the threat to our way of life today. We'll hit it, we'll name it. It is any Muslim who would choose evil, whose loyalty to a death-cult perversion is so darkened and has deceived their soul that they actually think that they're welcome here to transform here? No. What we do, we strengthen our military, we respect our troops, and we let them—our troops as our gatekeepers—we let them tell jihadists, "Uh-uh, this is our house, get the hell out!"

That last bit was met with shouts and applause while a self-satisfied smile crept over Palin's face, as though she was saying to herself, "Yeah—nailed it." But you have to watch it to really get the flavor of how she's constantly teetering on the verge of utter incoherence, casting about desperately to find her way out of each sentence when she's plainly forgotten how she got in.

By the way, the use of the word "transform" there is very intentional—conservatives constantly refer to the fact that in 2008 Barack Obama said he wanted to "transform" America as evidence that his nefarious plan to take America on the road to a socialist nightmare was evident from the beginning. In other words, those evil Muslim terrorists have the same goal as Barack Obama. But then you already knew that.

A Republican Sister Souljah Fantasy

This weekend, no fewer than eight potential Republican presidential candidates, along with some party media stars like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump, will head to Des Moines for the Iowa Freedom Summit, an event organized by anti-immigrant nincompoop and member of the U.S. House of Representatives Steve King. In my Plum Line Post today, I wondered what might happen if one of those candidates decided to do something unexpected:

What if one of those eight candidates got up at this event and said, “Representative King, I appreciate you inviting me here, but I’m going to have to be honest and tell you that you and people who think like you do are killing this party that we all love. There are some things we can agree on, like the need for a more secure border. But every time we rain contempt down on immigrants, we push away millions of voters that we ought to be reaching out to instead. If we’re ever going to win back the White House, that has to change.”

Would that lose the candidate some votes? You bet. But it would also be an earthquake. The media (who will be at the Freedom Summit in force) would go crazy—there’s nothing they love more than a “maverick” who’s willing to start fights within his or her party. The candidate who said it would lead the news and be on the front page of a hundred newspapers the next day. It would be worth tens of millions of dollars in publicity.

Of course it won't happen. But it would be something if it did.

Chart of the Day, Anti-Clinton Sexism Edition

This comes from Aaron Blake at the Washington Post:

The fact that fully 24 percent of Republicans say that Clinton's gender makes them less likely to vote for her is pretty striking. Of course, the number of Republicans who were going to vote for Clinton anyway is tiny. Blake has an explanation for why this number would be so large: "When these Republicans hear the name 'Hillary Clinton,' their impulse is to say 'no' in whatever way possible—even if that means saying that her gender is a problem for them. They might never have considered what a female president would actually mean, but they know they don't like Clinton. Hence, 'less likely.'"

Maybe. It's also possible, even probable, that there are a lot of people who do have a problem with Clinton's gender but won't say that to a pollster. That's called "social desirability bias," and it comes up on many kinds of poll questions. They know it's considered inappropriate to say that you won't vote for a woman, even if you probably wouldn't. How many of those are there? There's no way to know.

But sexism is going to be like a driving bass line to this campaign, underneath everything all the time, and occasionally breaking out for a noticeable solo. I've said for a long time that her candidacy is going to bring out some of the ugliest misogyny that you can imagine, just as she always has. It'll come from the conservative media stars like Rush Limbaugh, and from the odd GOP operate or officeholder here and there, and it will work to her advantage by turning moderate women away from the Republican candidate, whether he actually does anything to encourage it or not.

You can bet that Clinton's pollsters are going to test and probe and examine and assess the question of her gender to within an inch of its life. We'll be able to see the results of that research in the way she talks about it, both when she gets asked and when she gets confronted with it in less polite ways. For instance, here's an incident that occurred in January 2008, when a heckler got up and started chanting "Iron my shirt!" at her (he even had a sign saying the same thing), and she was perfectly forthright about what was going on:

So in the past she's never been particularly shy about talking about sexism. But in this campaign I wouldn't be surprised if she pursues a strategy of discussing it gently—not dismissing it, but being careful not to sound like she's complaining, and mentioning it just often enough to keep it salient among women voters. Not that she'll need to wait too long before it comes up.