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

Vote Ted Cruz, Because Jesus

Here it is, the first television ad of the 2016 presidential campaign, courtesy of the first official presidential candidate, Ted Cruz. No beating around the bush here—we get a mention of Jesus in the very first sentence:

"Were it not for the transformative love of Jesus Christ, I would have been raised by a single mom without my father in the house. God's blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation. Over and over again when we faced impossible odds, the American people rose to the challenge. This is our fight, and that is why I'm running for president of the United States."

Wait, why were you running again? Because the American people rise to challenges? Or because "this is our fight"? And what is our fight?

OK, so we shouldn't expect too much specificity from a 30-second ad. But it's pretty clear that at least at this point Cruz is presenting himself as the most Christian candidate (Cruz is a Southern Baptist). I get that his religious faith is very important to him, but as a political strategy, even in a party made up in significant part of evangelical Christians, taking Jesus as your running mate is a sure loser.

We know that because so many people have tried it before and failed. That's what Rick Santorum did in 2012, and what Mike Huckabee did in 2008. It doesn't succeed for a couple of reasons. First, the evangelical voters to whom it's primarily aimed are a large part of the party's voters, but not so overwhelming a part that they swamp everyone else. For instance, in 2012, evangelicals voted 4-1 for Mitt Romney, but they were only 21 percent of the electorate. Which means that they made up only about a third of Romney's voters. That's a lot, but it isn't so many that you can get the Republican nomination if evangelicals is all you've got.

Secondly, no one's going to get all of them in the primaries, or even nearly all. Even if you're looking for the most devout candidate, there will be plenty of contenders to choose from, including Scott Walker (whose father was a Baptist minister), maybe Huckabee (himself a Baptist minister), possibly Bobby Jindal (who holds prayer rallies), and definitely Rick Perry (who's "not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian"). Even if Cruz succeeded in becoming the top choice of Christian conservatives, that would still leave him a long way from the nomination.

Somebody always tries to be the Christian candidate, and that person never gets the nomination. But maybe Cruz is just starting out by establishing his religious bona fides, and then he'll move on to win more people over with his compelling policy ideas.

The Insane Logic Underlying Republican Opposition to the Iran Deal

Republicans are, naturally, united in their opposition to the preliminary deal the Obama administration struck with Iran to restrain its nuclear program. And now, the presidential candidates in particular are going to compete with each other to see who can make their opposition more categorical. They're all criticizing it, of course, and Scott Walker has already said that on the day of his inauguration, he'll pull out of the deal. I'm guessing the rest of them will follow suit and pledge something similar. The question is: OK, so on January 20, 2017, you announce that we're out of the deal (since we're in the Republican fantasy world for the moment, let's put aside the involvement of Europe and the UN). What happens next?  

Well for starters, the Iranians would no longer be constrained by the things they agreed to. They could kick out all the inspectors and institute a crash program to create a nuclear weapon if they wanted. Are Republicans saying that Iran would never do that? I don't think so. Yet in practice, the Republican position seems to be: 1) We can never trust the Iranians to adhere to the terms of any nuclear deal we sign with them because of their insatiable thirst for nuclear weapons, so 2) If there's no agreement at all—no limits on nuclear research, no limits on the quantity and purity of uranium they can enrich, no inspections—then everything will be OK.

To be clear, I'm not saying this deal is perfect, though a lot of people who know a lot about this issue are arguing that it's far stronger than what they expected (see here, for instance). But Republicans aren't saying we need to reopen negotiations and push for something better. They're just saying we should scrap the agreement, and then ... well, they actually don't say what happens then.

In effect, the Republican argument is, We've put this dangerous criminal in prison, but I don't think this prison is secure enough. He might escape! So the answer is to tear down the prison and let him go. Then we'll be safe from him.

So they ought to be asked: Are you proposing a re-negotiation of this deal? Or are you just saying that if we scrap it and reimpose sanctions on Iran, then they'll capitulate to all our demands? And if that's what you're saying, is there any reason at all to think that might happen? After all, Iran has been under sanctions from the U.S., the EU, and many other countries for years, yet their nuclear program has continued. What will be different without an agreement?

We should hear conservatives out on all their specific complaints about this deal. They might have a case to make about particular weaknesses. But in every case, we have to ask: What's your alternative? I haven't yet heard an answer from any of them, other than the few honest enough to say what so many of them are thinking, that no deal will ever work and we should just go ahead and start bombing.

Photo of the Day, Colorful British Ferry Edition

Why? Does it really matter? No, it doesn't. It's a ferry, and it's colorful.

Why Republicans Are Getting So Spooked On Gay Rights

As I wrote yesterday on some other magazine's web site, the conservative argument on gay rights has gone from "It's not you, it's me" to "It's not me, it's them." After abandoning moral condemnation of gayness, the opponents of gay rights insisted that the problem wasn't gay people themselves, it was that straight people, confronted with gay people, felt all weird, and that's why those rights had to be restricted. So for instance, they argued that the ban on gay people serving in the military should be kept not because gay soldiers couldn't serve with distinction, but because their presence made straight soldiers uncomfortable. It's not you, it's me.

But now that has changed, to "It's not me, it's them." The oddest moment of this whole Indiana controversy was when Mike Pence, in his press conference on the issue, explained just how desperately he hates discrimination against gay people. "I don't support discrimination against gays or lesbians or anyone else," he said. "I abhor discrimination. I want to say this. No one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe. I believe it with all my heart." Inspiring, and if you know Mike Pence's history on this issue, positively gobsmacking.

But that's where Republicans have come to. They still want to maintain the right of people to exercise their "conscience" in commercial transactions, but they also want everyone to know that they themselves would never, ever even consider discriminating in that fashion. If Mike Pence were a baker, he'd probably make nothing but cakes for gay weddings, so deeply committed is he to the principle of non-discrimination. It's not him, it's those other deeply religious people.

Is it sincere? In many cases I'm sure it isn't. I can't read anyone's mind, so I can't say for sure whether Pence experienced a genuine change of heart (though I have my suspicions). But that doesn't really matter; what's important isn't what politicians believe deep down, but what they do.

If you want a hint as to why the GOP is insisting that they themselves are so deeply offended by the thought of a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker refusing to serve a gay customer, even as they want to maintain the legal right to do so, look no further than this poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (h/t Sarah Posner):

I'd certainly like to see more polling on this question (and I'm sure some such polls are in the field right now), because I'm shocked at those numbers. Given how much we've been hearing about the terrible plight of anti-gay bakers and photographers, I would have thought that many more people would say yes to that question. You could certainly phrase it in ways that would produce higher numbers, but it's still striking.

If that's where public opinion really is, you can bet that more Republicans are going to evolve on this question, and right quick.

Why the Newly Amended Indiana RFRA Is a Real—But Only Partial—Victory

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long speaks as House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) looks on during a press conference about anti-discrimination safeguards added to the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the State Capitol April 2, 2015, in Indianapolis, Indiana. They look pretty psyched, don't they?

The Republican leadership in Indiana has released its proposed changes to the "religious freedom" law they recently passed, and it's both an extraordinary retreat and not much of a change at all. Both things are important to understand, but here's the language from the new bill:

This chapter does not:

(I) authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, ability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service;

(2) establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service; or

(3) negate any rights available under the Constitution of the State of Indiana.

As the Republicans have pointed out, this is the first time the words "sexual orientation" or "gender identity" would be mentioned in Indiana state law. It's a testament to how eager Republicans are to show everyone that they abhor discrimination and have nothing but the most tender feelings toward their gay brothers and sisters. And (presuming it passes and Governor Pence signs it), this would mean that the state's religious freedom law couldn't be used in court as a justification for discrimination.

But—and this is a big but—this doesn't mean it's now illegal in Indiana to deny someone services because they're gay. What it does is return to the status quo ante, under which it's legal to discriminate in some places in Indiana and illegal in others. Right now there are cities like Indianapolis and Bloomington that have their own anti-discrimination statutes, but if you're in other parts of the state, it's perfectly legal to hang a "No gays" sign in the window of your store or restaurant. This amendment to the religious freedom law doesn't change that. If it actually forbade discrimination based on all those classes it mentions, then it would. But all it's doing is saying this particular law doesn't authorize that kind of discrimination. Since there's still no state law forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation, if you're in a town without a local ordinance doing so, you can go ahead and keep your pizza place gay-free.

So: Is it a big victory for gay rights? Yes it is, particularly since it represents a retreat by conservative Republicans and changes the debate around future religious freedom laws. Does it make Indiana a paradise of equal treatment? Not yet.