Paul Waldman

Romney's Lost Opportunity to Demonstrate Empathy

Mitt Romney's high school yearbook photo.
Allow me one more point on this whole Romney bullying thing. If you haven't read my previous post on it, that's here , but today I have a piece on CNN.com arguing that this was a real missed opportunity for Romney. Here's the key passage: A candidate who has struggled with seeming human, as Mitt Romney has, could have done himself a favor by using this as an opportunity to show a little more of himself. He could have said: Yes, it happened. It was stupid and cruel. I wish I could go back and undo it. But part of growing up is realizing where you failed when you were young, and learning from your mistakes so you can become a better person. Most importantly, Romney could have said something that indicated he had a conception of how horrible the assault must have been for John Lauber, the victim. His only mention of Lauber, who died in 2004, was to say "I had no idea what that individual's sexual orientation might be." By referring to Lauber as "that individual" he makes Lauber a...

Friday Music Break

"Small Change," by Tom Waits
I considered making this Friday Music Break an edition of Party Like You're In Eighth Grade Again and going with Def Leppard's "Photograph," which was certainly my favorite song in eighth grade. But then I watched the video , which features a comely young woman dancing around in a darkroom in her underwear (to her credit, she manages to put some effort into developing her photos even as she dances) and determined that this being a family magazine, it would be completely inappropriate. So we're going with something a bit more sedate: Tom Waits, in a terrific 1977 live version of "Tom Traubert's Blues."

Every Time He Thinks He's Out, They Pull Him Back In

Jerry Falwell, on whom Mitt Romney will be heaping praise tomorrow.
There was a time not long ago when Democrats feared the culture war. They'd try to make campaigns about things like economic fairness, and just when things seemed to be going their way, Republicans would jump out from behind a bush and shout "God! Guns! Gays!" Voters would scream in alarm and pull the lever for the GOP. But here we are today, with Republicans desperately trying to change the subject away from gay marriage and back to the economy. Whodathunkit? Just a few days ago, most people thought it would be too risky for President Obama to come out and support marriage equality. But now not only has he come out in support, his campaign has released a web ad touting his support for it and slamming Romney for not supporting even civil unions. It uses George W. Bush (!) saying he supports civil unions, and hits Romney for supporting a constitutional amendment to forestall marriage equality. "President Obama is moving us forward," the ad concludes. "Mitt Romney would take us back."...

Connecting With the People

The President communing with ordinary Americans.
Any speechwriter knows that in constructing persuasive rhetoric it's important to take big, abstract ideas and communicate them through the stories of people. It isn't always easy, and you can't make every speech one long story about your Aunt Gladys, but if your speeches are nothing but facts and figures then they make it very hard for your audience to connect to what you're saying on an emotional level. From what I've seen, Mitt Romney doesn't do this very often when he's on the stump. When he does touch on individuals, it's often vague and brief, the "I met a guy the other day..." who illustrates a point and then is quickly abandoned. This is notable because the whole connecting-with-people thing is something Romney has a bit of a political problem with. And it's certainly something the Obama campaign is emphasizing. Look at this ad the campaign just released discussing the auto bailout: You'll notice, first, that Obama is in shirtsleeves. Then we see him, dressed similarly...

Is Mitt Romney a Bully?

Students at Mitt Romney's alma mater.
The presidential campaign story of the day is Jason Horowitz's lengthy portrait of Mitt Romney's days as a student at the elite Cranbrook prep school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. While the story contains a lot of detail that paints the picture of who the youthful Mitt Romney was and what kind of environments he grew up in, the headline-grabbing part is Romney's leading role, corroborated by several witnesses, in a vicious assault on a classmate whom everyone thought was gay. Partisan Democrats are certainly going to use this to make the case that the incident gives us important insight into Romney's character. I'll get to what I think this does and doesn't tell us about him in a moment, but here's the key passage: Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not...

Why Obama Won't Be Punished For His "Evolution" On Marriage Equality

President Obama discussing same-sex marriage.
If you were Mitt Romney right now, you'd probably feel like you're the victim of a double-standard. When you have changed your position on an issue in the past, everyone took it as proof that you have no core of beliefs and you'll flip-flop whenever the situation demands. But when Barack Obama does the same thing, he gets to say he has "evolved" and nobody takes it as proof of a character flaw. Surely, Mitt might be saying to himself, Americans will see this for the craven, politically motivated flip-flop it is and punish Obama for it, no matter what they think about gay marriage. I'm afraid Mitt is going to be out of luck on this one. Obama's evolution will be treated differently than Romney's changes in position, for one important reason: because millions of people have gone through a similar evolution in the last few years. Most of us haven't changed our opinions about abortion or cap and trade or gun control recently (if ever), but most Americans have changed the way they think...

Lies Politicians Tell Children

A candidate delivers some baloney to a group of teenagers, who are appropriately unimpressed.
Massachusetts senator Scott Brown has released his first ad of the fall campaign, and it's a fairly anodyne message about how Brown is independent, since Republicans aren't too popular in the Bay State. But there is something highly objectionable in the ad (it's at the bottom of this post if you want to watch it), which is when we see Brown telling a bunch of teenagers, "There's absolutely nothing in this world that you can't get if you work hard at it." There may be no single piece of advice that politicians deliver to young people more often than this. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Tories, no matter who they are, you stick 'em in a room with a bunch of kids and before long they'll deliver the sage insight that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Well, I'm here to say: bullshit. I'll spare you the disquisition on rising inequality and the imperfections of capitalism. But just as a message delivered from a grown person to a young person, is there anything more...

Hey Dems! Chill Out About the Super PACs.

My morning paper: note the two headlines.
So I open up my dead-tree edition of The New York Times today, and see an article entitled "Liberal Donors' Plan Worries Top Democrats," about how the fact that some rich Democratic donors have decided to put their money into grassroots organizing instead of the kind of super PAC Republicans have, where nearly every penny goes to fund television ads, has got some Democrats fuming. The article quotes exactly one complainer, Harry Reid's chief of staff, who says, "Why go off and build a redundant grass-roots and get-out-the-vote organization that the Obama campaign is clearly invested in?...Why would they rule out this tried-and-true medium?" The Republicans will be investing so much on TV, and Democrats will be outgunned! Right below that story, on the same page of the Times , is a profile of Obama campaign ad guru Jim Margolis, discussing all the groovy ads he's going to create for the Obama campaign to destroy Mitt Romney with. Which is a good reminder that Democrats fretting about...

The Lost Cause

It's only a flesh wound!
The current controversy over the state of President Obama's "evolution" on same-sex marriage is one of those things that once it happens seems inevitable. After all, most everyone, both conservative and liberal, assumes that in his heart Obama does believe everyone ought to have the same marriage rights, but he thinks it's too risky to make that step before this fall's election. It's not exactly a profile in courage to say that you're in the process of changing your mind, but you haven't quite changed it yet. Perhaps he thought that the same answers he's been giving up until now would be sufficient to put off the time when he'd have to confront the issue more directly, but now that his vice president has put him on the spot and every cabinet secretary is going to get asked for his or her opinion at every interview, he really can't hold out much longer. All of which made me wonder, how does this look from the vantage point of the right? There's a bit of crowing about Obama being...

The Difference Between Republican Moderates and Democratic Moderates

Dick Lugar hanging out with some Hollywood liberal. (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)
Today in Indiana, Senator Richard Lugar will probably be defeated in a Republican primary by State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, three-time failed congressional candidate, and Tea Party favorite. Lugar might be the single most respected member of the Senate, a guy who has been in office for 35 years, has carved out areas of interest and expertise that don't bring with them anything in the way of contributions or votes (foreign affairs, nuclear proliferation), and finds areas where he can work with Democrats. And that, of course, was his undoing. Perhaps Lugar's greatest sin in their eyes was that he maintained a good relationship with Barack Obama (horrors!). The Tea Party may be fading, but it had enough left in its tank to knock Lugar out. So what do we learn? Michael Tomasky argues that we shouldn't shed any tears for Lugar, since he had the chance to confront his party's extremism and chose not to; had he done so, he could have gone out with some more dignity. But he didn't try to...

Oh Good, Another Candidate's Book

Not what will determine the outcome of this election.
Making clear (if it wasn't already) that he'll be running for president in 2016, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has decided to write a book, in which he'll lay out his vision for America. America no doubt awaits with bated breath. Which got me wondering: When was the last time a sitting politician actually wrote a book worth reading? We'll have to consult the historians on whether the answer is "never," but it certainly hasn't happened in a long, long time. Last year, in what I came to think of as a courageous act of public service, I suffered through and then reviewed the campaign books written by Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin. The latter two decided not to run in the end, but their homespun wisdom and common sense surely left untold numbers of Americans more optimistic about the future of this great land. These books can occasionally become problematic, as Mitt Romney discovered when the paperback edition of No Apology deleted a line from...

Disillusioned on Wall Street

Flickr/Matthew Knott
I can't say I know much about the psychology of the typical stock analyst or bond trader, so I've been as bewildered as anyone when I see stories quoting denizens of Wall Street complaining about the Obama administration. Not about, say, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—that's not surprising, since it's an agency created to rein in their abuses, and so it directly impinges on their financial interests—but about how their feelings have been hurt. After Wall Street gave more money to Obama than to John McCain, these days those masters of the universe feel put upon. As former Prospect writer Nicholas Confessore wrote in the New York Times Magazine about a discussion an Obama representative had with some of them not long ago, "They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession. It was a few weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, with mass protests against the 1 percent springing up all around the country, and they blamed...

It's the Economy, Smartypants

Flickr/DonkeyHotey
Karl Rove's signature contribution to campaign politics was the insight that the most effective way to defeat an opponent was not to attack his greatest weakness, but to attack his greatest strength. (There's some vivid detail from Joshua Green's classic 2004 article on Rove's history as a campaigner. Sample: Your client's opponent volunteers to help abused children? Spread rumors that he's a pedophile!) There's no doubt that at the moment, Mitt Romney's greatest strength is the idea that as a successful businessman, he will do a good job stewarding the American economy. In fact, that may be his only strength. He's stiff and awkward, he has a well-earned reputation for changing his stated beliefs to suit the political moment, he just went through a primary campaign in which he took numerous unpopular positions in order to please an extremist party base, the severe unpopularity of his party in Congress will drag him down, he has nothing particularly compelling to say about foreign...

The Problem of Motive Questioning

Divisive? Me?
The questioning of motives is one of the most common and most pernicious of rhetorical habits in political debate. It's pernicious because it encourages people to conclude not that your opponents are wrong about whatever matter it is we're discussing, but that they're bad people . When you question someone's motives you're automatically calling them a liar (since they will have offered an entirely different justification for why they are advocating what they're advocating), and you're also saying they're untrustworthy, cynical, and driven by some nefarious goal. We see this all the time, and I'm not saying I've never questioned anyone's motives, because from time to time I have. But we have to acknowledge that someone can take a different position from the one we do without the disagreement coming from some place of evil. To see what I'm talking about, here's today's column by Charles Krauthammer, probably the most admired columnist on the right. Appalled that President Obama is now...

Friday Music Break

Back to Basics
Since Tuesday was May Day, I thought I'd give you a little Billy Bragg, with "World Turned Upside Down" from 1985. It sounds like he's singing about Occupy Wall Street, but the song is actually about a seventeenth-century agrarian socialist movement in England, which I'm guessing wasn't embraced by the economic leaders of that day, either.

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