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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Photo of the Day, Republican of Tomorrow Edition


Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) rehearses her response on behalf of the GOP to President Obama's State of the Union address. Odds of a subtle yet unmistakable reference to hog castration are currently running at 1-4.

Why Republicans Shouldn't Be Too Upset At Obama's Tax Proposals

By now you've heard that tonight, President Obama will propose a package of tax breaks for the poor and middle class, paid for by some tax increases for the wealthy, including raising capital gains taxes and closing some loopholes. In my Plum Line piece today I consider this in light of some basic features of the American system and how it compares to our peer countries in Europe. Most people may not realize that taxes in Europe are actually much less less progressive than ours, despite our higher level of inequality. How can we explain that?

The first is that they collect more in taxes than we do in total, but the tax burden falls more evenly across income groups (this is a good time for a reminder that state and local taxes in America tend to be much more regressive than federal taxes, but we're talking here about federal taxes). The second is that they are willing to not make the wealthy pay much more because they take those tax revenues and create a panoply of cash transfers and social services that have the effect of dramatically reducing inequality. A low-income person in Scandinavia gets health insurance, child care, paid family leave, a free or low-cost university education, and other benefits that not only make their daily lives easier but also make moving up the income ladder not the kind of Herculean task it is in America. So it's a good bargain.

In contrast, in America when the government helps people with those kinds of benefits, we do it in a more limited way and on a sliding scale. Look at the Affordable Care Act, which conservatives decry as the very essence of oppressive statism. Its benefits are a function of income: The poor can get on Medicaid, which is free; the middle class get subsidies to help them buy private coverage; the rich don't get help with paying for insurance. When Europeans reformed their health care systems, they just gave everyone coverage.

So it isn't just our tax system that's progressive, it's our social welfare system, too. And that's what allows Republicans to keep it under attack. An old saying has it that programs for the poor are poor programs; they'll forever be vulnerable because their beneficiaries are those without political power. And which programs do Republicans find it impossible to chip away at? Social Security and Medicare, which provide benefits to all seniors, regardless of income. It's no accident that the only people who have ever suggested means-testing Social Security—making wealthy people ineligible—are Republicans. That would change the nature of the program and make cutting it in the future much easier.

It isn't surprising that Republicans are upset at the distributive nature of Obama's proposal; taxing the wealthy at a higher rate (pardon, "punishing the successful") and giving the money to poor and middle-class people is an affront to everything they stand for. But a system that's just a bit more progressive shouldn't bother them too much. How many American liberals would trade the tax and social welfare system we have now for one more like those you find in Europe, with less progressive taxes but more generous services? I'm guessing most would. And how many conservatives would accept a system with truly universal health care, free child care, free university, paid family leave, and so on as the price for getting the "flatter" tax system they always say they want. Probably not many. So maybe they shouldn't complain too loudly.

Mike Huckabee Is Your Candidate Of Cultural Resentment

I'm going to confess an unpopular opinion (among liberals at least) and say that as much as I enjoy The Daily Show, Jon Stewart is usually not that good an interviewer when it comes to political figures. He's about two-thirds of a good interviewer—there are always some good questions, but he usually misses opportunities to ask critical follow-ups, and when his interviewee is struggling, he'll often jump in with a joke. Which is his job, of course—it's a comedy show, and he's a comedian—but it also has the effect of letting his subject off the hook.

Last night though, Stewart did an extremely revealing interview with Mike Huckabee, one that cast into sharp relief what Huckabee's 2016 presidential campaign is going to be about. Huckabee's chances of becoming the GOP nominee are pretty small, but he's still going to be an important candidate, one who is likely to stick around after many others flame out. You can watch an extended version of the interview here, but this is what aired:


The topic is Huckabee's new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. The book comes out today, so I'm going to have to rely on what Huckabee has said about it and not the actual text, but the topic is what we might call his version of the Two Americas: not the haves and the have-nots, but the heartland and the coasts. Huckabee refers to these two worlds as "Bubbleville," made up of the bubbles of Washington, D.C., New York, and Hollywood, and "Bubbaville," where the real people live.

This is a familiar dichotomy often presented in conservative politics: you have the real Americans who live in small towns, go to church, love country music, wave the flag, and have "values," who are contrasted with the pretentious, licentious, condescending urbanites. But one of the fascinating things about this interview is that Huckabee—perhaps conscious of the audience watching—won't even take ownership of the very thing on which he's basing his campaign:

Stewart: It sounds like there's an idea that the people who live on the coasts are not real, that you're talking about—the Bubbas are real, and we're not.

Huckabee: No, it's not a matter of reality, it's a matter of different perspectives. I'll give you an example. There's a big difference between people who are well-educated and people who are smart. And a lot of people who are very well-educated—say, the Harvard faculty—believe that the people who live out in this part of the world where I live, in flyover country [note: Mike Huckabee actually lives in Florida], those red states that people think, "Those people are nuts"...

Stewart: But you believe that the Bubbas are better than the Bubbles.

Huckabee: No, different.

Stewart: No, better. You believe they're better. You wrote a book called God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. You believe they're better.

Huckabee: Here's the point. I want to explain who we are to the people who live in the Bubbles. Because those of us who live in Bubbaville, we get the people in the Bubbles, because all the television shows and movies are all about the people in the Bubbles.

Stewart: No, you don't get it.

Huckabee: Six and a half years, I've come to New York, and I've seen the difference in the attitudes and lifestyles and culture. It's not that one is better.

Stewart: Yes it is. You believe one is better.

Huckabee: Well if it is, it would be Bubbaville.

That sure took a lot of effort to wring that admission out of him. But let's move on. Later, Stewart brought up the fact that Huckabee has criticized Jay-Z and Beyonce for the former's vulgar lyrics and the latter's suggestive dance moves. He previously said about Jay-Z, "Does it occur to him that he is arguable crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?" (because when the two appear on stage together, it must be Jay-Z making the decisions about what they'll perform and how).

Stewart then played a clip of Huckabee on his show playing bass for Ted Nugent performing "Cat Scratch Fever" ("Well I make the pussy purr with a stroke of my hand/They know they gettin' it from me…") and said, "You excuse that type of crudeness because you agree with his stance on firearms, but you don't approve of Beyonce because she seems alien to you. Maybe the problem is Bubba is in a bubble." He went on to note that country music is full of crudeness. "Johnny Cash shot a man just to watch him die!" Stewart said. "That's some gangsta shit!" Huckabee tried to argue that "Cat Scratch Fever" is "an adult song, geared for adults." Right.

And as the interview closed, Huckabee added one more pitch for Bubba's superiority: "There's a difference between education and smart. If your car breaks down in the middle of the night on a country road, who do you want coming by: an MBA in a beamer, or do you want a couple of good ol' boys in a pickup truck with a tool box in the back?"

Before I get to the politics of all this, let me say: Oh for frack's sake. Seriously? That's supposed to tell us something about the cultural superiority of the red states? You can come up with a million different situations in which you might need some assistance requiring specialized knowledge. If I need my car fixed, I want someone who knows how to fix cars. If I'm having a heart attack, Huckabee's good ol' boys probably aren't going to be able to help.

In any case, this all makes clear that Huckabee is going to be the candidate of cultural resentment. He wants to be the spokesperson for those who feel that they're looked down upon by the elites, and for years, what politicians like Huckabee have fed those people is a narrative that says, "No, you're the ones who are better, and it's the coastal elitists who are worthy of scorn. The places where you live are brimming with virtue, the cultural products you prefer are superior to those preferred by other people, you are the real Americans. Those bastards are nothing compared to you." I particularly like Huckabee's repeated invocations of the Harvard faculty, a stereotype that among his intended audience will simultaneously evoke insecurity and contempt.

There is without question a sizeable market within the Republican Party for this kind of appeal. The problem is that it isn't large enough to get you the presidential nomination. If it was, then Sarah Palin would be the most popular politician in the party. But she isn't. In this CBS poll a few days ago, 30 percent of Republicans said they'd like to see Palin run for president, but 59 percent said they wouldn't. The numbers were almost exactly reversed for Mitt Romney, who's nobody's idea of an authentic culture warrior.

But no one can speak to those insecurities and resentments in a more folksy and appealing way than Huckabee, which is why he'll be a serious player in the presidential race. Then when it's over he can go back to Fox.


An earlier version of this post misquoted Huckabee as saying "NBA in a beamer," not "MBA in a beamer." It has since been corrected.

Google Glass Is Dead, But It's Also the Future

Flickr/Karlis Dambrans

Google announced today that it is ceasing production of smartphone-on-your-face Google Glass, and although they are characterizing it as just an end to the beta version, everyone else seems to be calling it a failure. There were certainly some reactions the company didn't anticipate, like the fact that most people thought they look ridiculous, the coining of the term "Glasshole," and the sometimes violent reactions people had to being recorded by someone else's glasses. Jake Swearingen says the camera was the problem: "it turns out very few people are willing to be viewed as walking, talking invasions of privacy."

But I promise you, wearable augmented reality will return before long. I looked back at what I wrote when the device was first announced two years ago, and I still hold to what I said then: of the consequences of this being a technology we've all expected for a while is that its first iteration inevitably looks like a clunky preliminary version of what it will eventually be. We're spoiled by how small electronics have gotten, so the fact that the glasses need to have a rectangular hunk of plastic on one arm that houses the components is a little disappointing. In 2013 we aren't able to make it all fit into the frame of a regular pair of glasses, though we will be eventually. And at some point, it will all fit into a contact lens, so no one even knows you're augmenting.

If that sounds like this incredibly disturbing episode of the terrific British series "Black Mirror," that's not because I'm some kind of genius futurist, it's because it's the almost inevitable endpoint of this technology, the convergence of electronics miniaturization and immediate access to large quantities of information. As the "Black Mirror" episode demonstrates, when you can put a camera and the entire Internet in a contact lens, there are going to be enormous and profound social consequences. And someday, we will.

But between now and then, I'm guessing this technology in its next widely-used form could be specialized versions of Glass-like devices for certain professionals with much more specialized needs, like firefighters, police, and the military (they're already working on it). Once that becomes common, it'll start to spread to other professions, and eventually it'll make its way back to consumers. And once you can put an Oculus Rift in a pair of contacts, watch out.

The Entire Conservative World Has Turned On Mitt Romney

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Well that sure was fast. At the beginning of this week, Mitt Romney 3.0 was the talk of the political world, and while it's certainly unusual for a candidate to lose a general election and then come right back and run again, it didn't seem absurd. I myself wrote a column titled "Why Not Mitt?", arguing in part that from where Romney sits, the idea seems perfectly reasonable. He never went away like most presidential losers do, but kept going around the country endorsing and stumping for candidates, and he was well-received. Republicans kept telling him what a great president he would have been. The field of potential opponents doesn't look intimidating at all. And so on.

But within just a few days, the entire Republican world, from conservatives to moderates, from office-holders to pundits, from strategists to hangers-on, has turned on Romney with a spectacular fury. Five days ago it was, "Huh, another Romney run—interesting." By today it's "Depart this land and never return, accursed one." Right now it seems like the only people left who want Mitt to run are his family members and people who he's employed in the past (and not even all of them).

The floodgates may have been opened by this editorial on Wednesday from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is as close to an official voice of American conservatism as there is. The Journal laid into Romney for being a bad candidate in 2012 and not showing much reason why he'd be better in 2016, and that may have made other conservatives feel like they had permission to speak out, to reporters and on their own, in opposition to him. There has been a wave of articles quoting Republicans both on and off the record against Romney, with headlines like "Republican activists widely say Romney should sit out White House run," "Mitt Romney faces skepticism, frustration as he looks to 2016," and "Mitt Romney backlash intensifies." As conservative reporter Byron York wrote last night, "In the last day or so, [conservatives have] all gotten their boots on and publicly reacted to Romney 2016, and their preliminary verdict is not at all favorable." Even Peggy Noonan, relentless chronicler of Americans' gut feelings and secret longings—who on the eve of the 2012 election assured readers that Romney would win despite what the polls said because "All the vibrations are right"—has today turned rather viciously on the man she used to hold in such high esteem:

There is no such thing as Romneyism and there never will be. Mr. Romney has never encompassed a philosophical world. He has never become the symbol of an attitude toward government, or an approach to freedom or fairness. "Romneyism" is just "Mitt should be president." That is not enough.

He is a smart, nice and accomplished man who thinks himself clever and politically insightful. He is not and will not become so. He should devote himself to supporting and not attempting to lead the party that has raised him so high.

Hard to argue with that. On the other hand, are there any potential GOP candidates about whom one could say they "encompass a philosophical world"? Is there a Jebism or a Christieism or a Walkerism or a Jindalism or a Rubioism? There may be a Cruzism, but as philosophies go it's repugnant.

So what happens to Mitt now? He could say, "Well, the trial balloon didn't float, so nevermind," and find something else to do with his time (keeping in mind that it's been eight years since he last held a job, and that entire time was spent running for president). Or he could decide that this is just another hurdle to climb over on the way to his ultimate goal, no more daunting than all those behind him. He could just persevere like he always has, not letting the skeptics get him down, keeping his chin up and his eyes forward, heading with strength and optimism toward that brighter day that he knows deep in his heart is coming.

That's what I'm guessing he'll do, because that's who he is.