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.

Recent Articles

Photo of the Day, Damage Control Edition

Hillary Clinton, answering a few questions from reporters about her emails today. Unfortunately, no one shouted "What about your gaffes?"

Gaze In Wonder Upon My Bootstraps, Voters, For I Am Just Like You

In every election campaign, candidates assure voters that despite their fancy suits and smooth talk, they come from the humblest of origins. We were poor, they say. No running water! My mother made our clothes from old rice sacks! Dinner was one slice of bread to share between my siblings and me! And if that wasn't actually their experience, they'll tell you about the deprivations their parents or grandparents endured.

Why, exactly, are we supposed to believe that, all else being equal, it's better to elect someone who spent his youth as a street urchin? I'll get to that in a moment, but first, as Jonathan Martin reports in The New York Times, the Republican presidential contenders are particularly interested in waxing poetic about their humble roots, because of one particular candidate who doesn't have any:

As Jeb Bush stockpiles money and attracts early support, largely because of his family name, his potential adversaries are seeking to differentiate themselves by all but stating explicitly that they are no senator's grandson.

"Unlike some out there, I didn't inherit fame or fortune from my family," Gov. Scott Walker, Republican of Wisconsin, told a group of religious broadcasters last month.

Mr. Walker, whose father was a Baptist minister, may be the least subtle about it. But nearly all the candidates are introducing, or reintroducing, themselves to voters in ways that shine a light on Mr. Bush's privileged origins.

Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, was reared on a cotton farm in a house without running water. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, had the father who arrived in the United States with cash in his underwear, and Mr. Walker spent some of his teenage years laboring under the golden arches.

"Listen, my dad put himself through college at night. He worked at an ice cream plant in Newark, New Jersey, to put himself through college at night after he came back from the Army, and the next generation his son is the governor of the state of New Jersey," Gov. Chris Christie said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.

Not to be outdone, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, told CPAC about his parents' emigration from Cuba and the sacrifices they made for their children.

It's particularly odd to see this kind of one-downsmanship in a Republican primary. This is, after all, the party that not only holds that lavishing more riches on the already rich is the surest path to widely shared prosperity, but also rains contempt down on the poor. This is the party that wants to force people to pee in a cup before they can get welfare, that is horrified by the prospect of people with low incomes getting free health insurance, that thinks that what those who are struggling really need is a stern lecture about personal responsibility and a kick in the pants. Yet they all want to tell you about how poor they or their relatives were.  

I suppose you could see it as analogous to the redemption stories so popular among the evangelicals who make up the GOP's base: I was a low-down dirty sinner, but then I was saved and now I stand before you glowing with the light of righteousness. But what it's really supposed to say is: I get it. I know what your life is like, because I've seen both sides.

The problem is that it stops there, instead of extending to the logical final step, which is that the things I advocate will reflect that experience of having been poor (or having been told by my grandfather what it was like to be poor, if that's the best you've got). Some of these candidates may have genuine hard-luck stories to tell, but somehow, through the grace of Milton Friedman, they all ended up thinking exactly the same things about economic policy. Rick Perry didn't have running water, while Jeb Bush's dad was a president and his grandfather was a senator. But the policies they advocate are basically the same: cut taxes, especially for the wealthy; cut regulations on corporations; rinse, repeat. So why should it matter which one gets elected?

If this keeps up, the first Republican debate could look like this:

Photo of the Day, Mindless Tech Slavery Edition

Attention, my subjects. Behold this watch. You will buy it. Is it because you want it? Silly question—I have presented it unto you, and therefore you want it as much as you have ever wanted anything, even if it doesn't actually do much that the device in your pocket doesn't already do. You want it, because it is Apple, and because it exists. You will pay $349 for it if you're a cheapskate, $549 for the one made from a slightly different material, and $10,000—yes, I said $10,000—for the gold one. Why? Is it because you are slaves? Of course not—you're creative and independent and rebellious and forward-thinking and youngyoungyoung, which all the world can see because you buy Apple products. Now go and do as I command.

Obama in Selma, and the Definition of America

I wanted to say a bit about President Obama's speech on Saturday in Selma, which I think will (and should) stand as a key document in one of the central arguments of the Obama years. That argument is this: What is America? It's an argument as old as the nation itself, of course. But in the last six years it has taken on particular urgency, as Republicans have channeled the fears and resentments of many of their constituents into an ongoing stream of rhetorical bile, directed at the person of Barack Obama himself and what he represents.

A lot of people have characterized this speech as a retort to Rudy Giuliani and his recent assertion that "I do not believe that the president loves America. … he wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country." Which it was in part, but we shouldn't forget that not just Obama's patriotism but his very American-ness has been questioned from the moment he became a serious candidate for the presidency. In the eyes of Giuliani and millions like him, America is not people like Barack Obama. It's people like them, and only like them. There may be other people here, sure, but their American-ness is suspect.

I want to point to one passage in particular in Obama's speech. It's a bit long, but you should read it because it's as clear a statement of the the liberal answer to the question "What is America?" as you'll find:

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That's why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction—because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That's our spirit. That's who we are.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we're Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.

We're the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free—Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We're the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That's how we came to be.

We're the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We're the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers' rights.

We're the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we're the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

We're the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We're the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We're the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.     

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who "build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how." We are the people Emerson wrote of, "who for truth and honor's sake stand fast and suffer long;" who are "never tired, so long as we can see far enough."

That's what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don't pine for the past. We don't fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That's why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.

And that's what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you're ready to seize what ought to be.

No conservative would have spoken those words. Conservatism is about conserving, so of course the story they tell about America isn't one of constant change in order to improve the country. Their story, particularly in the last few years, is one of a kind of immaculate conception, in which the framers issued forth the nation in a state of perfection. The problems we have now can be solved if we would only revert back and be true to their vision. And the way you express that patriotism is precisely with the "stock photos or airbrushed history"—it's about praising America with the strongest voice you can muster and insisting that it is better than every other country, always has been and always will be. Yes, there are times when you can criticize the country, but that's something entirely separate from patriotism.

But the importance of this passage is about the inclusiveness of the "we" Obama repeated. It isn't that conservatives don't want their coalition to be as diverse as it can, because they do. But their leaders know that a sizeable part of the rank-and-file that votes Republican has a real problem with a "we" that includes all those different kinds of people, and that tells a story where immigrants and marchers and rabble-rousers are the heroes who define the nation, precisely because they change it.

Again, this is an old argument. But it's one conservatives are going to have an even harder time winning in the future.

Why Liberals Don't Trust Hillary Clinton

(AP Photo/Denis Paquin, File)
(AP Photo/Denis Paquin, File) Then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talks to reporters outside the U.S. District Court in Washington in this January 26, 1996 file photo, after testifying before a grand jury investigating Whitewater. Mrs. Clinton went to court to offer her explanation of why her law firm records turned up inside the White House living quarters two years after they were subpoenaed. D ear Secretary Clinton: Watching the story of your State Department emails emerge last week, liberals were possessed by an old familiar feeling. It's the one that makes them say two things at once: "This seems ridiculously overblown," and "What the hell is wrong with her?" It was like reliving a trauma, one they got through in the end, but nevertheless left its emotional scars. When I talk to liberals about the endless scandal wars of the 1990s, the word that comes up most often is "exhausting." It's true that it's been pretty exhausting arguing for six years about Barack Obama's birth...

Pages