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

The Bush Doctrine Lives

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements

The process of evaluating presidential candidates always involves a lot of speculation and guesswork, because we can't know what conditions a president is going to confront a few years from now. On domestic policy, however, we can at least look at what the candidate says he wants to do, because candidates keep the vast majority of their campaign promises. Barack Obama said he would enact health care reform, and he did; George W. Bush said he'd cut income taxes, and he did. When it comes to foreign policy, though, it can be a lot tougher to discern. First, candidates tend to be a lot less specific about what they intend to do. And second, much of foreign policy involves reacting to developments no one can foresee.

So if you're trying to figure out what, say, Jeb Bush would do in foreign affairs, what do you have to go on? Well, you can ask a question like, "Would he be more like his father, or more like his brother?" Which will tell you very little. But Michael Crowley gives it a shot:

Jeb Bush's allies include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is a board member of an education foundation Bush chairs, and with whom he is personally close. And soon after leaving office in 2009, Cheney, who cares most about national security, told Fox News that he is "a big fan of Jeb's." Bush has also impressed one of the GOP's wealthiest donors, the hawkish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Conservative foreign policy insiders say that what's known about Bush's views places him in the dominant interventionist wing of his party, which is still shaped by his co-signatories on the 1997 Project for the New American Century document [which advocated overthrowing Saddam Hussein]. He has challenged the anti-interventionist views of Sen. Rand Paul and his supporters.

But those conservatives also note that while Jeb's brother, George W., is remembered for a controversially bold foreign policy, his father, former president George H.W. Bush, charted a more pragmatic approach. The elder Bush, for instance, did not act to remove Saddam from power after expelling him from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.

I love the expression "controversially bold." Reporters can't seem to figure out how to describe George W. Bush's catastrophic foreign policy record without using all kinds of positive, manly words, like "bold," "strong," "aggressive," or my favorite, "muscular."

Anyhow, the problem in trying to use the past as a guide is that the next president is going to confront a different set of challenges than what presidents did in the 1980s or 2000s. Jeb Bush wouldn't have to deal with the winding down of the Soviet empire, and while he might consider invading Iraq, doing so now would be a very different decision than it was in 2003.  

In a fair world, Bush would be "burdened" by his brother's disastrous foreign policy no more than any other Republican who supported it. After all, Jeb didn't invade Iraq, any more than Chris Christie or Ted Cruz did. There's really no way to know if he still defends what was probably the single worst foreign policy decision in American history because he actually thinks it was a great idea, or because he's a Republican and therefore he doesn't have much of a choice.

So the task of predicting what kind of foreign policy president he'd be is an almost impossible one: first you have to try to discern some kind of underlying foreign policy doctrine based on a statement he signed in 1997 or a speech he gave a year ago, then you have to figure out how that doctrine might apply to events that haven't yet occurred.

If I had to ask one set of questions about a presidential candidate on foreign policy, it would be this: does he think that foreign policy challenges have easy solutions? Or does he appreciate that the world is a complex place and that our actions can have unintended consequences? Does he, like John McCain, give the same answer to every foreign policy question? George W. Bush's childish beliefs about the world always seemed to me to be the root of all his foreign policy mistakes. He thought that the world could be divided neatly into good guys and bad guys, that if we were righteous then anything we attempted would work out splendidly, that all that mattered was being strong and resolute. His father, on the other hand, certainly had an appreciation for the world's complexity, and while some of Barack Obama's foreign policy decisions may turn out to have been mistaken, on the whole his concern for unintended consequences and reluctance to make bad situations much worse has served him well.

For all we know, there may be vast differences in how the Republican candidates would actually handle foreign policy crises or opportunities. With the exception of Rand Paul, though, they're all likely to adopt a pose meant to contrast with Obama. They'll say America needs to act, and be bold and strong and muscular, whatever the actual challenge is. In other words, they're going to sound a lot like George W. Bush.

The Bush Doctrine Lives

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements
The process of evaluating presidential candidates always involves a lot of speculation and guesswork, because we can't know what conditions a president is going to confront a few years from now. On domestic policy, however, we can at least look at what the candidate says he wants to do, because candidates keep the vast majority of their campaign promises. Barack Obama said he would enact health care reform, and he did; George W. Bush said he'd cut income taxes, and he did. When it comes to foreign policy, though, it can be a lot tougher to discern. First, candidates tend to be a lot less specific about what they intend to do. And second, much of foreign policy involves reacting to developments no one can foresee. So if you're trying to figure out what, say, Jeb Bush would do in foreign affairs, what do you have to go on? Well, you can ask a question like, "Would he be more like his father, or more like his brother?" Which will tell you very little. But Michael Crowley gives it a shot...

Mitch McConnell Is Still Mitch McConnell

With the new Congress about to take office, I suspect we're going to be seeing a lot of discussion about how Republicans, and Mitch McConnell in particular, are charting a new, productive path, now that they "need to show they can govern." Like this article in today's Washington Post:

Mitch McConnell has an unusual admonition for the new Republican majority as it takes over the Senate this week: Don't be "scary."

The incoming Senate majority leader has set a political goal for the next two years of overseeing a functioning, reasonable majority on Capitol Hill that scores some measured conservative wins, particularly against environmental regulations, but probably not big victories such as a full repeal of the health-care law. McConnell's priority is to set the stage for a potential GOP presidential victory in 2016.

"I don't want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that's going to be a scary outcome. I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority," the Kentucky Republican said in a broad interview just before Christmas in his Capitol office.

One of the nice things about McConnell is that while he can certainly spin with the best of them, he's also often unusually candid about the political strategy he's employing. It's actually refreshing to hear a politician not bother with all the "We just want to do the right thing for the American people" baloney, and just say: this is my political goal, and this is how I'm going to try to get there.

As Alec MacGillis argues in his book about McConnell, the guy really doesn't have much in the way of an agenda or a set of firmly held beliefs about policy — for him, it has always been about the next political goal. Gaining and then holding power is the end, not the means to an end. Did you know that McConnell started out his career as a pro-choice, pro-union moderate Republican? I didn't either, but it makes sense. At the time that was a perfectly fine thing to be, but when the center of gravity in the GOP shifted, McConnell shifted along with it.

While there are Republicans who hate Barack Obama with a burning passion, for McConnell it's business, not personal. He devised and implemented the strategy of total obstruction in the first six years of the Obama presidency not because he couldn't stand the president, but because he thought (correctly) that it would be the strategy most likely to get Republicans what they wanted. While it didn't stop Obama from being re-elected, it did help Republicans win control of Congress, and pick up huge spending cuts along the way.

Now that McConnell achieved his goal of winning control of Congress, he's looking to the next goal: getting a Republican president. He knows that while congressional Republicans don't have the power to make that happen, they can certainly screw it up by looking too crazy. So the new strategy is to look a little more sober and responsible — not so much that they actually do a lot of legislating and make substantive compromises with Obama, but just enough to avoid government shutdowns and anything else that might make the 2016 GOP nominee uncomfortable. As usual, it's pretty clever.

Torn Between Two Presidents

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
In the 2008 primary campaign, there was a moment when Democrats began to debate Bill Clinton's legacy. At one point, Barack Obama seemed to minimize the significance of the Clinton presidency when he said, "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." Hillary Clinton and her supporters reacted with horror, accusing Obama of thinking more highly of a conservative icon than a successful Democratic president (though that of course wasn't his point). In the end, that internal discussion—just how good a president was Bill Clinton?—never proceeded too far. But with Hillary Clinton still the prohibitive favorite to be the 2016 Democratic nominee, we could well have the full debate we never quite got in 2008, and in the context of the Obama presidency now entering its final phase. Hillary Clinton, it is said, has to distance herself from her former boss to convince voters that her presidency would be more than a...

Photo of the Day

The nursery of the future, as imagined in 1930. Note the fetching hat the woman is wearing, which I'm guessing allows her to control the nursery's robotic systems using only the power of Atomic Brain Wave Technology, leaving her free to watch a holo-vid while her clone baby is cared for by the robo-house. I wonder: when was it that we stopped imagining that in the future, everything from our furniture to our bodies would be clad in shiny silver? I think it may have been in the 1970s, when Hollywood started producing dystopian science fiction in which the future was often portrayed as grimy and miserable. About then people realized that whatever else happened, all fashion would probably not be eliminated in favor of the silver jumpsuit.

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