Paul Waldman

Is Obama Moving to the Left?

President Obama sets his radial plan in motion (White House/Lawrence Jackson)
Is Barack Obama moving to the left in his second term, and what is he risking by doing so? That's what Ron Brownstein asks in a long National Journal article, and though Brownstein is as comprehensive and careful as ever, there are some fundamental flaws in his premises. But here's what he says: On issues from gay rights to gun control, immigration reform, and climate change—all of which he highlighted in his ringing Inaugural Address last week—Obama is now unreservedly articulating the preferences of the Democratic "coalition of the ascendant" centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women. Across all of these issues, and many others such as the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the ban on women in combat, Obama is displaying much less concern than most national Democratic leaders since the 1960s about antagonizing culturally conservative blue-collar, older, and rural whites, many of whom oppose them. Near as I...

Can Conservatives Change How They Talk about Immigrants?

For many years, it's been obvious conservatives do a better job of manipulating language than liberals, not only because they seem good at coming up with new terms to describe things, but more importantly because once they decide on a new term, they very quickly get everyone on their side to use it. One of the classic examples is how they took the "estate tax," with its evocation of a white-haired gentleman named something like Winthrop Flipperbottom III sipping brandy from a gigantic snifter while petting his afghan hound as he looks over the vast gardens of his estate, and renamed it the "death tax," which evokes a cruel IRS agent bursting in on your family mourning the death of your beloved uncle and making off with his lovingly amassed collection of vintage baseball cards. You will never, ever hear a conservative call the tax anything but the "death tax," because they all understand the utility of language. How much these kind of linguistic efforts really affect the outcome of...

Homophobia in Sports and Changing Hearts

49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, celebrating his newfound respect for gay people. (AP photo by Paul Spinelli)
Almost all of us, at some time in our youth, had the experience of saying something that turned out to be way more inappropriate than we thought it was, whereupon people turned to us and said, "Dude. Not cool." In most cases, it concerned something we just hadn't thought that much about, and it often occurs when you move from one milieu to another with different mores and ideas, like going from high school to college. Or existing in a world of football players and suddenly finding yourself quoted in the media on a sociopolitical topic because your team is in the Super Bowl, which is what happened to San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. When it happens in your dorm room, someone will explain to you why the joke you made or the term you used was out of line, and you'll probably say, "Huh—I hadn't thought about it that way, but OK." And armed with that knowledge, you'll adapt to your new surroundings and the changing times. But Culliver found himself in hot water when he was on...

The Wrong Kind of Immigration Spending

AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Robert Sutton
The Republican party's abysmal performance among Latino voters in the 2012 election, and the ensuing realization among many in the GOP that they need to change their stance on immigration or risk more defeats, have made it a real possibility that passage of the first comprehensive immigration reform bill in over a quarter-century could happen soon. The debate will no doubt be intense, so as it begins, some facts about the recent and not-so-recent history of immigration in America will be important to keep in mind. Immigration had its first peak in the first decade of the 20th century, when over 8 million people from other countries became legal permanent residents of the United States, a number that wasn't exceeded again until the 1990s. By the 1960s, however, immigrants from North America (mostly Mexico) exceeded those from Europe; Asian immigrants exceeded Europeans in the 1970s. (These data, and many more, can be found in the Department of Homeland Security's annual yearbook of...

Why "Make Them Learn English" Is the Key to Immigration Reform

New Americans taking the oath of citizenship. (Flickr/Grand Canyon NPS)
Among the provisions in the immigration-reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to "learn English and civics." They don't detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there'd be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it's completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it's an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform. The reason it's unnecessary is that every wave of immigrants follows basically the same pattern when it comes to English. People who immigrate as adults tend not to learn much beyond the most basic words and phrases, and continue to speak their native language at home. Their children grow up bilingual, speaking one language at home and another at...

Why Playwrights Aren't Political Analysts

Flickr/David Shankbone
During last year's presidential campaign, journalist Buzz Bissinger got some attention for writing an opinion piece explaining that he was voting for Mitt Romney because Barack Obama hasn't done enough to end poverty, which is kind of like saying you're switching from salad to Big Macs for lunch because you're trying to lose weight and salad has calories. For people familiar with Bissinger's extraordinary reportage, including books like Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City (one of the best books about big-city politics ever written), it was a shock. How could such a great reporter produce something so infantile and bereft of the simplest familiarity with logic? Then people took a look at Bissinger's Twitter feed and discovered that he spews out a puzzling combination of incomprehensibility and general assholishness. (sample tweet: "Romney lost was a suck candidate as it turned out. But every fucking liberal who whines about pro football should be forced to play it." Um,...

We'll Miss You, Sarah Palin

It seems like such a long time now, but it was only four and half years ago that America was introduced to Sarah Palin, who came down from the wilds of Alaska to set conservative hearts aquiver. Long after she ceased to be listened to for any other reason than that she said something offensive, Sarah Palin's star has faded so far that even Fox News has no more use for her. Her umbilical cord to influence—the connection between the studio Fox built in her house and the network's headquarters in New York—has been severed, her contract not renewed. Some of Palin's allies anonymously informed reporters that the decision was hers and not the network's, but I don't believe that for a second. Roger Ailes is not a sentimental man, and when necessary he won't hesitate to cut loose an asset whose usefulness is exhausted. And if you've ever seen her talking to Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, you know that she was actually terrible at TV commentary. Neither articulate nor insightful, she stumbled...

Will the GOP Vote-Rigging Effort Invite a Backlash?

This must not stand.
Over the last 12 years (since the Florida debacle of 2000), I've argued repeatedly that politics in America is characterized by an Audacity Gap. It may not hold in every situation and every controversy, but most of the time, Republicans are willing take actions both small (shouting at the president that he's a liar during the State of the Union) and large (filibustering everything or holding the economy hostage over the debt ceiling) that Democrats are far too timid to even consider. Often it occurs when Republicans decide to violate a norm of how business had been done previously, safe in the knowledge that since what's at issue is a norm and not a rule, there's really nothing to stop them. As I put it some time ago, Republicans are the party of "Yes we can," while Democrats are the party of "Maybe we shouldn't." It doesn't always work to Republicans' advantage, but much of the time it does. When it works, it's often because the public doesn't know, doesn't understand, or doesn't...

Republicans Puzzled as to Why They Didn't Slay Hillary Clinton Yesterday

Hillary Clinton making a point to Republicans at a hearing on Benghazi yesterday.
Today, Republicans are wondering why they didn't manage to make Hillary Clinton fall whimpering into a fetal position of the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, then get up and admit that the Obama administration had engaged in a massive cover-up of their terrible crimes in Benghazi. Senator Ron Johnson, one of the most intellectually challenged members of that august body, with whom Clinton had an exchange that ran on all the news programs, triumphally told a reporter he had got "under her skin," and said, "I think she just decided before she was going to describe emotionally the four dead Americans, the heroes, and use that as her trump card to get out of the questions. It was a good way of getting out of really having to respond to me." Diabolical indeed, that she managed to evade your skillful cross-examination. John McCain, on the other hand, blamed an "adoring media" for not helping the Republicans stick it to Clinton. Could be. Or it could be that when...

The Glory of Earned Media

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
A few years ago, the political operatives whose job it is to handle press coverage decided that the traditional dichotomy between "paid media" (ads you buy) and "free media" (press coverage you get) was insulting to their efforts. So they stopped using the term "free media" and began referring instead to "earned media." Because after all, when their boss got a glowing write-up in a newspaper, it didn't come for free, that press secretary and her staff earned it! And somebody sure as heck earned this piece in The Washington Post about Louisiana governor and likely 2016 hopeful Bobby Jindal. "Bobby Jindal Speaking Truth to GOP Power," reads the headline, establishing Jindal as outsidery, honest, and brave. The subject is a speech he'll be delivering to the RNC tonight, helpfully previewed to the Post 's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake, who could be guaranteed to run their "scoop" without the barest shred of skepticism. Shield your eyes, lest the bright light of his truth-telling blind...

Women to Serve In Combat Units

Flick/U.S. Marine Corps
Today, acting on the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that he is lifting the ban, in place since 1994, on women serving in combat roles in the United States military. One has to wonder how much longer this would have taken had we not had the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but the reality on the ground—that women have been fighting and dying alongside their male colleagues for the last decade—made this almost inevitable. What changes now is that women can serve in units like infantry that are designated as combat units. I'm sure some conservatives are going to start hemming and hawing about how the lack of upper body strength among your average lady-type means this will accelerate the wussification of the U.S. military, and how it was just inevitable under Barack Obama's plan to destroy America. No doubt we'll hear that from Rush Limbaugh, who probably couldn't do a push-up if there was a capital gains tax cut waiting at the top of it...

How Old Is Too Old?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Just how old can a politician be before he's too old to do his job effectively? This is a question that a number of politicians are going to be grappling with soon. For starters, Vice President Joe Biden is making some noises suggesting the possibility of a run for president in 2016. Before we get to the question of his age, let's get this out of the way: Of course Biden wants to be president. That's not a guarantee that he'll run, but he ran twice before so he has obviously wanted it for a long time, his profile has never been higher, he probably feels like he saved his boss's bacon in his debate with Paul Ryan, he's plainly having a great time as a highly influential VP working on a broad range of issues both foreign and domestic, and like any reasonably successful politician, he no doubt thinks he'd be great at the job. But Biden will turn 74 in 2016, which would make him the oldest president in American history. Ronald Reagan was just shy of 74 when he took the oath for his second...

Bill Clinton, Still Wrong about Guns

Flickr/Tim Hamilton
I've spent a good deal of time in the last year pushing back against the twin myths that the NRA delivered Congress to the Republicans in 1994, and then delivered the White House to George W. Bush in 2000. And no one is more responsible for the propagation of those myths, and the fear they inspire among Democratic office-holders, than Bill Clinton. For years, he has told anyone who'd listen that Democrats lost the House in 1994 because he passed an assault weapons ban and gun owners punished his party for it. He'll also say that guns were the reason Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000. And now, at a moment when the prospects for meaningful restrictions on gun proliferation are greater than they have been in two decades, he's at it again. In a speech to Democratic donors, Clinton said the following: Clinton recalled Al Gore's 2000 campaign against George W. Bush in Colorado, where a referendum designed to close the so-called gun show loophole shared the ballot with the presidential...

Can Obama Be to Democrats What Reagan Is to Republicans?

As I watched Barack Obama's speech yesterday, I couldn't help thinking of Ronald Reagan and what he has meant to conservatives since the day 32 years ago when he delivered his first inaugural address and said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." Some have lamented the fact that no single line from Obama's speech stands to be repeated as often as that one. But could this speech, and the four years to follow, make Barack Obama into the Democrats' Reagan? I don't necessarily mean that Obama will be treated with the kind of creepy fetishism Republicans treat Reagan. But the question is whether, like Reagan, Obama can define an era that continues even after he leaves office (in many ways, the Age of Reagan didn't end until January 2009), and give succor and guidance to his followers for years and even decades. Just think about Reagan's first inaugural and how it persisted in the conservative imagination. He may have said...

Barack Obama, Student of Power

EPA/Pool/Sipa USA/dapd
EPA/Pool/Sipa USA/dapd E very time during his first term that Barack Obama stumbled, had difficulty getting a piece of legislation passed, or got mired in the ugly realities of contemporary politics, conservatives could be counted on to say, "Ha! Where's your hope and change now, huh? Huh?" It's true that his 2008 campaign was an unusually idealistic one, both in its lofty rhetoric and in what it inspired in his supporters, so much so that the mundane realities of governing were bound to be disillusioning for many. As his second term begins, there's no question that Obama has learned a great deal. He understands Washington better, he understands Congress better, and he certainly understands the Republican party better. And that may just make for a more effective second term, despite all the obstacles in front of him. Before we get to why and how, let's take a moment to remind ourselves that for all its drama and all its compromises, Obama's first term was one of remarkable...

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