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

How the Media Rig the Presidential Primaries

The primary game, I'm afraid, is rigged. In a perfect world, all contenders would start from the same point, equally able to assemble a compelling candidacy and make their case to the voters. In this world, however, the reporters who cover the race have already decided that only a few candidates are really worth thinking too much about, despite the fact that the first votes won't be cast in over nine months and even the supposed front-runner garners only 15 percent in polls.

This, from the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter, is a pretty good statement of the media wisdom of the moment:

At the end of the day, when you put all the assets and liabilities on the table, it's hard to see anyone but Rubio, Bush or Walker as the ultimate nominee. Sure, one of them could stumble or come up short in a key early state. It's also highly likely that someone like Huckabee, Paul, Cruz and even Perry could win in Iowa. But, when you look at the candidate vulnerabilities instead of just their assets, these are the three who are the most likely to win over the largest share of the GOP electorate.

Nothing Walter says here is wrong. And I don't mean to single her out—I've seen and heard other reporters say the same thing, that Bush, Walker, and Rubio comprise the "top tier." I've written some similar things, even predicting that Bush will probably be the nominee. So I'm part of the problem too.

This judgment isn't arbitrary—there are perfectly good reasons for making it, based on the candidates' records, abilities, and appeals, and the history of GOP primary contests. But it does set up an unfair situation, where someone who hasn't been declared in that top tier has to work harder to get reporters' attention. Or at least the right kind of attention, the kind that doesn't come wrapped in the implication that their candidacy is futile.

The candidates who aren't put in that top tier find themselves in a vicious cycle that's very difficult to escape from. Because they're talked about dismissively by the media, it becomes hard to convince donors to give them money, and hard to convince voters to consider them. They end up running into a lot of "I like him, but I need to go with someone who has a real shot." Their more limited resources keep their poll numbers down, which keeps their media attention scarce, which keeps their support down, and around and around. The media's prophecy is self-fulfilling.

That isn't to say that it's impossible for a candidate who isn't granted a higher level of attention by the press to find a way to break through. It happens from time to time; Howard Dean in 2004 is a good example of someone who wasn't considered top tier to begin with, but was able to work his way into it. The 2012 Republican primaries were a crazy free-for-all where there wasn't a real top tier for most of the time; the race was led in the polls at one time or another by five different candidates. Any one of them might have held on if they hadn't been such clowns.

Nevertheless, the press has now decided that the only candidates who are worth giving extended attention to are Bush, Rubio, and Walker. As I said, there are justifiable reasons for that judgment, and they do it for their internal reasons as well—most news organizations don't have the budget to assign a reporter to each of ten different candidates, for instance, and if they assign a reporter on a semi-permanent basis to only three or four candidates, then there are going to be many more stories written about them than about the others. However understandable, though, the granting of that elevated status is like an in-kind contribution worth tens of millions of dollars, whether it's truly deserved or not. 

Photo of the Day, Wrath of Nature Edition

View from Puerto Varas, southern Chile, of a high column of ash and lava spewing from the Calbuco volcano, on April 22, 2015. Chile's Calbuco volcano erupted on Wednesday, spewing a giant funnel of ash high into the sky near the southern port city of Puerto Montt and triggering a red alert. Authorities ordered an evacuation for a 10-kilometer (six-mile) radius around the volcano, which is the second in southern Chile to have a substantial eruption since March 3, when the Villarrica volcano emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava. (Giordana Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trouble With Drone Strikes

Today, President Obama revealed that a drone strike in Pakistan killed two aid workers who were being held by al Qaeda, one an American named Warren Weinstein, and the other an Italian named Giovanni Lo Porto. This is obviously generating news because there was an American killed, while the accidental deaths of innocent civilians don't usually merit notice here. As we note what a terrible tragedy this was, we shouldn't forget that this is the kind of war on terror we asked for.

Even as he ended the war in Iraq and began winding down the war in Afghanistan, Obama greatly increased the use of drones. Thousands of people have been killed in these strikes, and the number of civilians killed is in the hundreds. Perhaps because many people see drones as the only alternative to large-scale military operations where death tolls are much higher, support for the strikes has remained high, so long as they're occurring in foreign countries and not targeted on Americans. For instance, here's a Gallup poll from 2013:


As it happens, this strike did kill an American member of Al Qaeda, Adam Gadahn, or so the administration says. My suspicion is that the number of people who fall into the majority in that second category—opposing drone strikes against a U.S. citizen living abroad who is a suspected terrorist—would be lower once you personalize it in one individual who proclaims his membership in al Qaeda, as opposed to a hypothetical American who might or might not be guilty.

It's also important to know just how despised the American drone program is around the world. Take a look at this graph from the Pew Research Center:

Widespread Opposition to Drones

The only countries where a majority approve of the strikes are the U.S., Kenya, and Israel. Why are people around the world so opposed to a program that most Americans would say is justified and restrained? It's the civilian casualties, but I think it's probably also something else: the idea that the United States retains for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone anywhere at any time. To people in other countries, that represents America's arrogance and disregard for the sovereignty of other countries. You can say, "Well, isn't it better than us invading them?", but they don't find that very convincing.

Don't Get Bored With the 2016 Campaign Yet

Cheryl Colan/Flickr

Yesterday, The New Yorker's George Packer pronounced himself bored with the 2016 campaign in particular and American politics in general, and though I think he's wrong, I understand where he's coming from. But if those of us who have devoted our lives to politics can't find enough about it to sustain our interest, what hope is there for the citizens who have better things to do with their time? This isn't an easy question to confront, but I'll give it a shot.

First, this seems pretty understandable:

American politics in general doesn't seem like fun these days. There's nothing very entertaining about super PACs, or Mike Huckabee's national announcement of an imminent national announcement of whether he will run for President again. Jeb Bush's ruthless approach to locking up the exclusive services of longstanding Republican political consultants and media professionals far ahead of the primaries doesn't quicken my pulse. Scott Walker's refusal to affirm Barack Obama's patriotism doesn't shock me into a state of alert indignation. A forthcoming book with revelations about the Clintons' use of their offices and influence to raise money for their foundation and grow rich from paid speeches neither surprises me nor gladdens my heart.

I know what he means; I confess that I found myself feeling something between gloom and despair after the seventh or eighth shutdown/default crisis, like we were trapped in an endlessly repeating and miserable cycle, and it wasn't easy to do my job of examining the situation and writing something both informative and interesting about it. But that passed. And the thing is, it's up to those of us who write about politics to make it interesting. That's what we're here for.

Would a Clinton-Bush matchup lack novelty? In some ways, sure. But there are still things that make each of them, familiar though they might be, interesting characters. Their paths to this point and what voters think of them now tell us a lot about American politics and America itself. And this election will be hugely consequential. The next president is probably going to shape the Supreme Court's path for decades to come (there are four justices over the age of 76). The fate of the Affordable Care Act, and the health of tens of millions of Americans, hangs in the balance, as does the question of whether we're going to have another war in the Middle East and whether we're finally going to address decades of rising inequality.

Elections can be interesting (or even fun) for a lot of reasons. It becomes interesting if it's close, as this one is almost sure to be; the uncertainty of a conflict's outcome always heightens the dramatic tension. Beneath even the most practiced and cautious candidate lies a complex party with factions and internal divisions that can be explored. Every presidential campaign features uses of technology to reach voters that didn't exist four years before. Yes, the daily repetitive grind of the campaign trail and the latest micro-scandal or "gaffe" can enervate the spirit. But there's plenty more going on if you're willing to go deeper.

Maybe what's eating Packer is the lack of a collective sense of fun about politics and the campaign. I suspect this may be a hangover from 2008, which for liberals was, and probably always will be, the most interesting and fun campaign of their lives. You had a charismatic new candidate who got liberals excited and motivated to cast off the ennui that had overtaken them after eight years of George W. Bush, and in the midst of a horrible economic crisis it seemed like the future was filled with hope and possibility. Many of the elite liberals I know are now greeting the Clinton candidacy with an attitude of, "Well, I guess so." And if the people you know don't seem excited, it can be hard to get excited yourself.

I'm sure George Packer has plenty of other things he can write about if the campaign isn't grabbing his fancy. But if you're going to write about it and it doesn't yet look interesting, then you just have to look a little harder.  

Photo of the Day, Choo-Choo Edition

This is a Central Japan Railway maglev train returning to the station after setting a new speed record of 603 kilometers per hour, or 374 mph. And you pay extra to get on a pokey Acela just to get to New York 15 minutes faster.