Paul Waldman

Land of the "Free Stuff," Home of the Brave

(AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
If you want to explain why your party lost a presidential election, there are a number of places to look. You can blame your candidate and his campaign (which usually means, "If only they had listened to me!"). You can blame your party and ask if it should examine its ideology or its rhetoric. You can blame the media. Or you can blame the voters. As the old political saw says, "The people have spoken—the bastards." And that is what one conservative after another has been saying over the last week. They aren't saying that the voters are uninformed, or that they allowed themselves to be duped. Instead, Barack Obama's re-election is said to be a moral failing on the part of the American public. They got what they wanted, conservatives are saying. And what was it they wanted? Universal health coverage, higher taxes on the wealthy, strong environmental regulations, legal abortion? Nope. They wanted free stuff. Because that's just how those people are. This was perhaps articulated most...

When "We Don't Like Your Kind" Becomes a Problem

New York, where not many Republicans live. (Flickr/iPhil Photos)
There are a lot of ways to parse a loss like the one the GOP suffered on Tuesday, but what ought to be increasingly clear to smart Republicans is that there's something fundamentally problematic in how they've gone about assembling their electoral coalitions. Conservatives are complaining a lot in the last couple of days that Obama ran a "divisive" campaign, I guess because he once called rich people "fat cats" or something, but the truth is that Republicans have been experts at division for a long time. Much of their appeal, at one level or another, has been "We don't like those kind of people." Sometimes it's welfare recipients, sometimes it's undocumented immigrants, sometimes it's people who come from big cities or have too much education or enjoy a coffee drink made with espresso and steamed milk. They've been very good for a very long time at telling voters, "We're just like you, because we both hate those people over there." As a political strategy, this can be very effective,...

A New Side of Barack Obama

Forty years ago, the campaign of Senator Ed Muskie, until then the presumed nominee of the Democratic party, effectively ended on a snowy day in Manchester, New Hampshire. Angered by the attacks on him and his wife by the conservative Manchester Union-Leader , Muskie held a press conference outside the paper's offices to denounce them. Reporters at the scene thought that Muskie was crying, though he later said the wetness on his face was only melting snow. But David Broder's story in the Washington Post about the press conference began, "With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion ... " He was obviously not presidential material. Eight years later, a different kind of president was elected, one who understood intimately how to convey emotions through television. Ronald Reagan wasn't afraid to get choked up at appropriate moments—when lauding the heroism of an ordinary person called to do something extraordinary, or just when speaking about how great America is...

Who's to Blame for the "Fiscal Cliff" Misnomer?

Flickr/su-lin
Now that the election is over, the next big item on the government's agenda is dealing with two sets of changes that are scheduled to begin at the start of 2013. The first involves changes to the tax code: The Bush income tax cuts will expire, bringing rates back to where they were during the Clinton years, and so will the payroll tax cuts enacted as part of the 2009 stimulus package and later extended. The second set of changes is the "sequester," under which a series of rather dramatic cuts to government spending will take place. Collectively, these events are being referred to by everybody as the "fiscal cliff," a term that is both misleading and dangerous. Which got me wondering: Where did it come from? And whose fault is it? I'll keep you in suspense on that for a moment, but here's a good brief explanation from Jonathan Chait about why the term "fiscal cliff" is such a misnomer: But here is a case where a bad metaphor has caused everybody to think about the matter in exactly the...

Are Conservative Media Only Hurting Conservatives?

Liberals like me have spent a lot of time in recent years mocking conservatives for the silliness of their media, wherein Steve Doocy is a star, Sean Hannity is an insightful analyst, and Rush Limbaugh is a brave crusader for truth. Beyond the jokes, we've talked a lot about the pathologies produced by the self-reinforcing worldviews propagated in the conservative media ether. One of the key features of those media, and what differentiates them from partisan left media, is the way they talk about the rest of the media. Liberals may like to watch MSNBC, but if you watch MSNBC you won't be reminded ten times an hour that everything you see in your newspaper or on another television station is a vicious lie concocted by conservatives to deceive you as part of their plan to destroy the country you love. But that is what you'll get if you watch Fox, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or consume many other kinds of conservative media. It's not just a diet of information congenial to your beliefs; it'...

A Grand Progressive Victory

An Obama rally on election eve. (Flickr/Becker1999)
Obviously, the most important thing that happened last night was President Obama's victory. But it's worth noting that this election was a victory for progressivism in so many ways. Some of the most infuriating conservative Democrats, particularly Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, are gone. And some of the new Democrats are more progressive than anyone would have wished for a few years ago. Elizabeth Warren is now a senator. So is Tammy Baldwin, the chamber's first openly gay member. And they were just two of a large group of Democratic women that won, including newly-elected senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Maggie Hassan, the next governor of New Hampshire (in addition to Hassan, New Hampshire now has an all-female congressional delegation, counting both senators and both House members). While there are plenty of Tea Partiers left, a few of the most odious ones, including Allen West and Joe Walsh, are free to pursue their careers in talk radio. We...

A Letter to Conservatives

Flickr/Macxbebe
Dear Friends, This is a hard time, I know. We've all been there—it hurts when your candidate loses, and you realize that all the people and policies you hate will be in place for the next four years. But let me suggest that while you're perfectly justified in crying, wailing, beating your breasts and rending your garments, you should try to keep your sanity. Not only will it be good for the country, it'll be good for you too. There are some in your party who will be driven insane by Barack Obama's re-election, and will try to pull you down with them into a pit of fear and hate where there is only suffering and political defeat to be found. They will be spinning out conspiracy theories and talking of impeachment. Don't listen to them. Barack Obama has done many things you don't like, and will continue to do so over the next four years. But being (something of) a liberal is not the same as being corrupt, and policies you disagree with are not the same as tyranny. If you can't tell the...

Relief We Can Believe In

White House/Pete Souza
Many years ago, legendary psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky used experiments to demonstrate the power of "loss aversion," the fact that losing something you have is more emotionally powerful than gaining something you don't. In other words, the misery of losing $100 is far larger than the pleasure of gaining $100. Which means that Democrats ought to feel even better today than they did in 2008. They probably don't, though. The election of 2008 was certainly the most extraordinary of my lifetime, and probably of yours as well. There were a few prescient voices at the time saying, "Don't get too excited, or you'll just be disappointed" (Paul Krugman was the most notable), but it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the moment, particularly because it came after eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. The emotion most Democrats are experiencing right now is not so much hope, or inspiration, but relief. It doesn't seem quite as likely to produce tears of joy...

What Is to Become of Mitt Romney?

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
I've often thought that there are few things worse than getting your party's nomination for president and then losing. To come so close to becoming the most powerful and important person on Planet Earth and then to fall short, and to boot, not only not getting a nice silver medal but being heaped with scorn, ridiculed, and condemned—that must just eat you up inside. Some losers, like John McCain, have a job to go back to, but most don't, and Mitt Romney hasn't had a job since he started running for president five years ago. Let's assume for the moment that all the polls are right, and tonight is going to end with Barack Obama getting re-elected. What will Romney do with himself? He certainly isn't going to run for office again. He couldn't get elected in Massachusetts, where he lives, and would he even want to? After you've reached for the brass ring, becoming a senator or even a governor would seem like going down to the minors. Is he going to go back to Bain Capital? That would seem...

U.S. Voter Turnout: Better Than You Might Think

For a long time, curmudgeonly commentators lamented the decline of voter turnout in America. Fewer and fewer of us found our way to the polls, distracted as we were by the love lives of motion picture celebrities or the latest models of sporting motor car. But then about a decade ago, something strange happened. First, some political scientists realized that everyone was measuring voter turnout wrong. The accepted rates, which said that fewer than half of Americans turned out on election day, were based on census data of the voting-age population (VAP). The problem is that there are a lot of people who are of voting age but aren't eligible to vote, either because they aren't citizens, or have had their voting rights taken away because they committed a felony (you can read about that in this article by Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin). When researchers looked at the population of voting-eligible citizens (VEP), it turned out that the numbers looked better than had been previously...

The Only Mandate That Matters

On Wednesday, we'll begin talking about whether whoever gets elected has a "mandate." We'll talk about it even more if Barack Obama is re-elected, because when a new president takes office we accept that he'll be doing all kinds of new things, changing course on almost every policy, replacing all the members of the other party who populate the executive branch with members of his own party, etc. With a re-elected president, on the other hand, there's a real question about where he goes from here and how much he can try to accomplish. There's a fundamental problem with the mandate idea, however, that makes it almost meaningless in today's Washington. The mandate notion assumes that the larger the president's margin of victory, the greater the proportion of the public has signed on to his policy agenda. That's not completely unreasonable, though in practice most voters have only the vaguest notion of what the person they're voting for wants to do. But the idea of the mandate is about...

Why the Romney Campaign Screwed Up

Mitt Romney's last-minute screw-up.
In the last week or so, Mitt Romney has accused Barack Obama of focusing his campaign on "small things," but let's be honest—at this point, everybody is focused on small things. And these small things are unlikely to make much of a difference with so little time left. Which is why it was odd to see the Romney campaign stumble so badly with the Jeeps being built in China attack. How did they manage to take a criticism that would likely have just glanced off Obama anyway, and turn it into something that not only had everyone talking about Obama's best case to Ohio voters (the auto bailout), but also made Romney look cynical and dishonest? Here's what I think happened. They heard the first, somewhat unclear report that Chrysler was going to be manufacturing Jeeps in China, without quite understanding what it meant, namely that they will be making them for the Chinese market (because of Chinese tarriffs, Chrysler would only be able to sell the Jeeps there if they make them there). By the...

The Future of Star Wars

Flickr/The Official Star Wars
Though it may be four days before a presidential election, I just don't feel I can let the issue of the future of Star Wars pass without comment. In case you don't pay particular attention to these things, Disney is buying the franchise from George Lucas, and plans to release more Star Wars movies. Our own Tom Carson responds without much enthusiasm, writing that though he was never particularly crazy about Star Wars , "I think one reason for the deep bond fans feel with Star Wars is the awareness that the whole stupid, nutty legend all came out of one man's head. Those tin-eared character names, goofball non-human sidekicks—Jar Jar Binks (boo) no less than Chewbacca (yay)—and inane narrative compulsions are all homely testimonials to an authorship that stayed idiosyncratic and personal even when Lucas hired other hands to direct four out of the six installments." I agree up to a point, and in Disney's hands the next installment will probably end up expertly executed but without the...

Conservatives Confidently Predict Romney Victory

Flickr/kpishdadi
There's a case to be made that people who write about politics should just avoid making predictions altogether. There are plenty of substantive matters to talk about, and one's readers aren't much enlightened by your average opinion-monger's call on what's going to happen on Election Day, or whether a particular bill will pass, or which country we'll invade next. There is certainly value to be had in systematic examinations of polling data, but is there really anything to be gained from your average ideological writer's call on what will happen on Tuesday? Maybe it's best left for the office pool. Yet the temptation is so strong. There's an equally powerful temptation to have your assessment of what is likely to happen be colored by what you want to happen. We're all extremely good at convincing ourselves that unlike everybody else, we've looked at things objectively. Yet if you look around at all the pundits and bloggers making predictions about the election, you'll find that almost...

Heckuva Job, Barry

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Although some may find it crass to speculate on the political impact of The Storm, I'm going to go ahead and do it, for two reasons. First, I've earned the right , and second, because complaints that things are "politicized" are almost always misconceived. Politics is important. It concerns choices that affect all our lives. And campaigns ought to be connected to the actual business of governing, so when an event occurs that implicates our government, it should be talked about. Problems sometimes arise not from the fact that something is politicized, but the way it's politicized. For instance, when in the 2002 election, Republicans charged that Democrats were on the side of al Qaeda because those Democrats favored a different bill establishing the Department of Homeland Security than the bill Republicans favored, it was despicable not because September 11 had been "politicized," but because of the manner in which it was politicized. Anyhow, back to the storm. This morning, an editor...

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