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

Should We Relitigate the Iraq War in the 2016 Campaign? You Bet We Should

If all goes well, in the 2016 campaign we'll be rehashing the arguments we had about the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003. You may be thinking, "Jeez, do we really have to go through that again?" But we do—in fact, we must. If we're going to make sense of where the next president is going to take the United States on foreign policy, there are few more important discussions to have.

On Sunday, Fox News posted an excerpt of an interview Megyn Kelly did with Jeb Bush in which she asked him whether he too would have invaded Iraq, and here's how that went:

Kelly: Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?

Bush: I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.

Kelly: You don't think it was a mistake?

Bush: In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn't focus on security first, and the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families. By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place, as well? George W. Bush. So, news flash to the world, if they're trying to find places where there's big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.

While the full interview airs tonight so we don't yet know whether Kelly followed up to clarify, in this excerpt Jeb Bush deftly answers not the question Kelly asked him but a slightly different question, one that lets him rope in Hillary Clinton and get himself off the hook. While she asked him whether he would have authorized the invasion knowing what we know now, he answered as if she had asked whether he would have authorized the invasion believing what many believed then. For the record, there were plenty of people at the time who objected to the invasion, so it's utterly false to say "almost everybody" supported it, and while Hillary Clinton did indeed vote for the war, she wouldn't say she would have invaded knowing what we know now.

Bush's answer may be evasive, but it's understandable—after all, it's not like he's going to say, "Yes, the whole thing was a catastrophe and we never should have done it." As of now, Rand Paul is the only Republican presidential candidate who has said that the war was a mistake.

But the question isn't so much whether a candidate will admit what a disaster Iraq was, but what they've learned from the experience. How do they view the extraordinary propaganda campaign the Bush administration launched to convince Americans to get behind the war? Does that make them want to be careful about how they argue for their policy choices? Did Iraq change their perspective on American military action, particularly in the Middle East? What light does it shed on the reception the American military is likely to get the next time we invade someplace? What does it teach us about power vacuums and the challenges of nation-building? How does it inform the candidate's thinking on the prospect of military action in Syria and Iran specifically? Given the boatload of unintended consequences Iraq unleashed, how would he or she, as president, go about making decisions on complex issues that are freighted with uncertainty?

I would love to know how Jeb Bush would answer those questions, whether he'll say that the invasion was a mistake or not. The same goes for his primary opponents. But if what we've seen so far is any indication, we aren't likely to get a whole lot of thoughtful foreign policy discussion from them. This weekend the non-Bush candidates were in Greenville for the South Carolina Freedom Summit, where they walked on stage and beat their chests while advocating for a foreign policy inevitably described by the press as "muscular." Scott Walker apparently thrilled the crowd by telling them that terrorists are coming to America, and "I want a leader who is willing to take the fight to them before they take the fight to us." But the real good stuff came from Marco Rubio:

"On our strategy on global jihadists and terrorists, I refer them to the movie Taken. Have you seen the movie Taken? Liam Neeson. He had a line, and this is what our strategy should be: 'We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.'"

Ah, the inspiringly sophisticated foreign policy thinking of the GOP candidate. I'm old enough to remember when we had another president who liked to sound like a movie-star tough guy. "There's an old poster out West, as I recall," he said when asked about Osama bin Laden, "that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'" You'll recall that it was a different president who was in charge when bin Laden was found. "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there," he said about Iraqi insurgents early on in the war. "My answer is, bring 'em on." They came, and thousands of American servicemembers were killed in the ensuing fighting. But George W. Bush was praised at the time for his "moral clarity."

We shouldn't forget Hillary Clinton—I doubt she wants to talk much about Iraq, since she supported the war at the time (which was one of the biggest reasons she lost to Barack Obama in 2008). She should explain how the the Iraq War will inform her thinking about the foreign policy challenges the next president is likely to face. But twelve years after the war started, we're back in Iraq (albeit with boots hovering in midair). Large swaths of the country have been taken over by a terrorist group that emerged out of the war's chaos. And the glorious flowering of freedom and democracy across the region that George W. Bush promised hasn't come to pass.

So there's a basic question the Republican candidates should answer: Is there anything they learned from the Iraq War? Anything at all?

Photo of the Day, Tastes Like Chicken Edition

Apparently, the market for alligator meat is booming, and prices for a good 'gator steak are way up this year. And no, I don't know if it actually tastes like chicken.

Are Republican Elites Ready to Shut Down the Circle of Scam?

When Mike Huckabee decided to run for president, he surely knew that he'd be subjected to a level of scrutiny that your average Fox News host doesn't have to worry about. So it was to be expected that commentators would start discussing Huckabee's colorful history with regard to money, particularly the way he has used his email list to separate gullible conservatives from their funds, with scams like miracle Bible cancer cures. Ron Fournier looks at that today, and it just happens to coincide with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by conservative writer Matt Lewis, who excoriates conservative con artists for the way they prey on the rank-and-file. Instead of convincing conservatives to subscribe to newsletters or buy useless products, the newly loose campaign finance laws now allow them to be targeted for bogus superPACs that are allegedly for political causes but actually seem to be just a way to make money:

There's no need to pick on one group; PACs using similar tactics are all over the place. Another one with an innocuous-sounding name, Conservative America Now, is raising money to draft Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon to challenge Sen. John McCain. But Mr. Salmon might not run and doesn't want the help. In February the Hill newspaper reported he was prepping a cease-and-desist letter to the group, which a spokesman for the congressman alleged "appears to intentionally mislead potential donors."

Last year Fox's Detroit affiliate WJBK ran an exposé on direct-mail fundraising companies that continue to solicit using the names of past clients, such as former Republican congressional candidate Rocky Raczkowski. One direct-mail firm, the piece noted, "collected $1 million to support Rocky Raczkowski for races he never ran." The Fox reporter spoke to Mr. Raczkowski, who said he'd had no idea that funds were being raised using his name. Some of the donors went on camera as well, including senior citizens living on fixed incomes, who were aghast when they were told the truth.

John McCain tweeted that Lewis's piece was a "must-read," and this is making me wonder if there might be an elite backlash brewing against the longstanding right-wing con industry, whereby gullible (usually elderly) conservatives are targeted for all manner of schemes and scams by operators within the movement. I've been writing about this for a while (see here, here, or here), and one of the reasons this stuff can persist is because it often has the involvement or at least tacit approval of Republican elites. But many of those elites dislike Mike Huckabee intensely, both for his occasional forays into economic populism and for the fact that he puts forward exactly the type of image they're trying to get away from, by writing books with names like God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. Since Huckabee is up to his neck in these kinds of scams, going after the whole little industry would be a great way to undermine him.

The Culture War Is Dead, Long Live the Culture War

Flickr/Rob Chandanais

The emphatically old-timey presidential candidacy of Mike Huckabee has spurred an interesting discussion among some liberal commentators about the status of America's culture war, beginning with this piece by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig which all but declared the culture war over, leading to thoughtful responses from Ed Kilgore and Heather Digby Parton. When you view the changes of the last few years or the last few decades, it's easy for liberals to feel a little triumphal, even if there are some areas (like abortion and guns, as Parton points out) where the right is making more progress than the left. But the culture war never ends, it merely renews itself in an altered form.

If you take a broad view, much of the history of the United States is a slow but inexorable movement in a progressive direction, as one issue after another is eventually settled in favor of the position liberals had been advocating, from slavery to women's suffrage to Jim Crow to the legalization of contraception to sex discrimination and up to gay rights today. You can find exceptions, some of which are extremely consequential, but the fundamental trend in social relations moves in only one direction. It would be a mistake, however, to look at one historical moment's iteration of the long culture war and say that conservatism is on its way out or about to undergo some fundamental transformation.

As long as society is changing—i.e., forever—conservatism will find its purpose in resisting that change, because that's what it means to be a conservative. Conservatism seeks to conserve, and in many cases return to a previous order. And like liberalism, it adapts. For instance, conservatives lost the argument on most of the things that made up the culture war of the 1960s and 1970s—Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the principle (if not the reality) of equality for women—so they approached those issues in ways that accommodated the new reality, or moved on to other issues entirely. The culture war is infinitely renewable.

There's no perfect definition of what makes any particular issue part of the culture war or not, but I think that it often has to do with the ground where the personal meets the political and questions of identity are contested. It's often about who I am, who you are, who we are, who's part of "us" and who isn't. Which brings me to an article in today's New York Times that raises some of these identity questions with regard to Marco Rubio. If Rubio remains one of the leading contenders in the presidential race as other candidates begin to fall away, I think we're going to hear a lot more discussion of how the GOP's older white base thinks about this young Latino:

But there was something larger that drew Mr. Hallihan, a former Iowa State basketball coach, to Mr. Rubio, 43, the son of poor Cuban immigrants.

"The day of the older white guy is kind of out," said Mr. Hallihan, a 70-year-old white guy.

As Mr. Rubio has introduced himself to curious, and overwhelmingly Caucasian, Republican audiences from Iowa to New Hampshire, he has vaulted to the front ranks of the early pack of likely presidential candidates, partly because of his natural political talent. But it may owe just as much to the combination of his personal story and the balm it offers to a party that has been repeatedly scalded by accusations of prejudice.

He says he is highlighting his background only to share his own twist on the American dream—not out of any desire to make history on behalf of Hispanics. But Mr. Rubio and those around him are also acutely aware of the sometimes raw tensions in his party, between those unsettled by an increasingly diverse society and those who say Republicans must embrace the multihued America of 2015.

Now let's think back to 2008. As I've said many times, liberals were so excited about Barack Obama in that campaign because he embodied a certain kind of cultural change. He was the person they wanted to be, or at least be friends with: multiracial, educated, cosmopolitan, urban, and urbane. Conservatives' rage against Obama comes from the same place: he represents a change in American society that they find intolerable.

If you spend any time listening to conservatives, you quickly realize that their rhetoric, whether it's coming from politicians or media figures like Bill O'Reilly, is absolutely awash in nostalgia, a yearning for the supposedly simpler time of their youth, when, among other things, everything they saw was theirs. It was their kind of people who ran things, their kind of music that came from the radio, their priorities and values that were accepted as right and true. They look around now and see so much of American culture shifting away from them, and it's profoundly unsettling, few things more so than the fact that the president of the United States is a liberal black guy with a foreign-sounding name.

But what about Marco Rubio? I think that to some Republicans, he's attractive not so much because he's what they would want in a president in their perfect world, but because they think he might be attractive to other people. It's an acknowledgment of and accommodation to the fact that America has indeed changed, and their party needs to change in response. And if the conservative Republican with the best chance of winning the White House is a 43-year-old Latino, well so be it.

This could be a fascinating dynamic within the primaries, the tension between voters like the one quoted in this story, the older white guy who grudgingly acknowledges that "the day of the older white guy is kind of out," and the many other Republicans who want to stand athwart history, yelling "Stop." In many cases, that tension will exist within each individual voter.

Interestingly enough, the older white guy from a Republican royal family—Jeb Bush—might actually represent a compromise resolution of that tension, since in some ways he's a more modern figure, what with his Mexican wife and his fluent Spanish. On the other hand, if you're attracted to Scott Walker, your beliefs about the culture war probably sound something like this:


Of course, you can say that now, but before you know it you will have retreated from that line and there will be a whole new line that you'll decide is the point beyond which you absolutely will not move. And the culture war will continue on.

Photo of the Day, Goose Stepping Edition

This is a group of Russian soldiers rehearsing for the upcoming parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Say what you will about the Russians, they know how to put on a military parade.