Paul Waldman

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Rootin' Tootin' Shootin' Presidential Candidates

There was a time not too long ago when Republicans knew that when an election got tight, they could trot out "God, guns, and gays" to drive a cultural wedge between Democrats and the electorate, since the GOP was the party that, like most Americans, loved the first two and hated the third. It's more complicated now, both within the parties and between them, but there's no doubt that 2016 will feature plenty of culture war sniping. For better or worse, Democrats and Republicans really do represent two different Americas.

I thought of that this weekend reading this article in the Washington Post about the personal relationships the potential Republican candidates have with guns. That they are all opposed to any limits on gun ownership is a given, but more interesting is the role guns play in their own lives. With a couple of important exceptions, the potential Republican candidates fall into one of two categories when it comes to guns: those who grew up with them, and those who embraced them once their political ambitions matured.

Some of them have been building their collections since childhood. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) is up to 12 now, including an AR-15 assault weapon that he has talked about using if law and order ever breaks down in his neighborhood. Former Texas governor Rick Perry is so well-armed, he has a gun for jogging.

Others were city kids who didn't own guns until later in life. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) bought a .357 magnum revolver in 2010, the year he ran for Senate, saying the gun was for protection… [Ted Cruz] grew up in the suburbs of Houston and got his first exposure to guns at summer camp. But, as an adult, Cruz bought two guns: a .357 magnum revolver and a Beretta Silver Pigeon II shotgun, according to a spokeswoman… In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker also didn't grow up hunting. But he got his first guns in his mid-30s: a shotgun he won in a raffle and a rifle he got as a gift, said a spokeswoman for his political committee. Now he hunts deer, pheasants and ducks with his motorcycle-riding buddies… Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal purchased a snubnosed, laser-sighted Smith & Wesson .38 revolver after Hurricane Katrina. He still keeps it for home defense, although his home is now the heavily guarded Governor's Mansion. 

Far be it from me to question the sincerity of any politician's enthusiasm for firearms, but buying a gun does seem an awful lot like the kind of thing a Republican politician does just because that's what Republican politicians are expected to do. But there's gun rights, and then there's contemporary gun culture. The two are not at all the same, and it's the latter some Republicans seem so eager to embrace.

There's an important context here, which is that gun ownership has been steadily declining for about four decades now. Yet even as fewer and fewer people own guns, gun sales are increasing, which means that the people who do own them are buying more and more. Ask a certain kind of gun owner how many he owns, and he'll say, "More than I need, but not as many as I want."

And it's that culture that many Republican politicians feel the need to make their own. You could see it as part of a general conservative nostalgia for a time that's passed, when the law was a distant force and a man might have to protect his homestead from rustlers and thieves. The trouble is that for many gun owners today, guns are less tools with everyday uses than fetish objects. It's the very fact that they serve no practical purpose in most gun owners' lives that makes them so emotionally powerful. When a guy like Lindsey Graham says that needs his AR-15 in case "there was a law-and-order breakdown in my community," he's living in a land of fantasy, where a middle-aged guy who wears a suit every day is actually an agent of heroic violence, the very embodiment of physical capability and potency.

But the bare fact is this: there are places in America where gun ownership is common and expected, and places where it isn't. And more Americans live in the latter. So when Republicans proclaim themselves representatives of the first type of place – in both ideas and habits – they put themselves at an immediate disadvantage.

But not all of them do. Jeb Bush, for instance, has the appropriate Republican policy stance when it comes to guns (along with an A-plus rating from the NRA), but he does not himself own a gun (the only other potential candidate who doesn't is Chris Christie). Which makes perfect sense if we think about gun ownership being so much a function of geography. Unlike some of his opponents – the emphatically Texan Rick Perry, the extremely Midwestern Scott Walker – Jeb isn't really from any particular place. As a member of the Bush clan, he grew up travelling a kind of elevated platform of wealth and power that traverses the country. Connecticut, Texas, Florida – wherever it was, it was essentially the same. That isn't really his fault; when your grandfather is a senator and your father becomes president, and you go to Andover and summer at Kennebunkport, that's the world you're from. And it isn't a world where people view guns as a vital cultural totem. If Jeb walked out on a stage holding a rifle over his head, he'd look even dumber than Mitch McConnell did.

We don't think about Hillary Clinton representing any particular place either. She grew up in Illinois but left it behind, spent almost two decades in Arkansas then left for Washington, and now lives in New York, but doesn't embody any of those places (or even try to). That's fine with liberals, whose demands for cultural affinity are served well enough by someone who moved around a lot. The president she's trying to succeed most definitely represented a particular place, though it was less Chicago specifically than American cities in general, the dense and diverse places liberals either live or want to live.

And that's where all the Republicans have a problem. They continue to romanticize rural and small-town life, but the number of Americans who actually live in those places is small and getting smaller. Even if plenty of suburban Republicans still imagine themselves out on the range, that isn't the American reality. Planting your flag there may seem necessary to win the Republican nomination, but it won't do you much good the day after.

Photo of the Day, Human-Powered Locomotion Edition

Megan Giglia of the Great Britain Cycling Team in action during the bronze final of the Women's C-3 3km Pursuit on day two of the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for British Cycling)

Scott Walker Sees Things With Own Eyes, Emerges Wiser (Or Not)

Last July, President Obama took a fundraising trip to Texas and, to the feigned outrage of conservatives, did not go visit the border. Passing up the opportunity to stand next to a border patrol agent gesturing off into the distance, or to walk thoughtfully along a section of border fence, just showed how unserious Obama is about fixing the problem of illegal immigration. He even turned down an invitation to tour the border with his good friend then-governor Rick Perry. Had only Obama gone and "seen for himself" the situation, Republicans were sure, he would have completely changed his beliefs and policies on immigration to be more in line with theirs.

Scott Walker will not be so foolish, and here's the evidence:

 

 

And what insights about the border did Governor Walker glean from his time there? Probably that, as Governor Abbott says, the federal government has failed to secure it. Which is exactly what he would have said yesterday.

Look, I'm all in favor of politicians learning things and seeing things. But at this point, Scott Walker is a presidential candidate, which means that every place he goes is carefully chosen for its PR value. When he gets there, he sweeps in with a retinue of aides (not to mention members of the press) and everyone he talks to is pre-screened to make sure they aren't going to say anything that'll make him uncomfortable, and the whole thing will be judged a success if they get a few good pictures out of it.

Which is what campaigning is, of course, but I'm sure that the next time the subject of immigration comes up, Walker will say, "You know, when I was at the border…" to establish that unlike some people who might just talk about this stuff, he's seen it with his own eyes, and therefore his judgment is based on a deep understanding of the issue. But while there are some things you can learn about immigration by gazing across the border, those things make up a miniscule portion of everything one might want to know about the topic in order to formulate good policy.

There's nothing wrong with seeing things for yourself; the problem comes when you convince yourself you've seen everything you need to.

Jeb Bush to Continue Family Tradition of Pretending to Be a Reg'lar Fella

Just a few ordinary guys, hangin' out.

It's presidential campaign time, which means that I will have ample opportunity to fulminate against my many pet peeves of political rhetoric in the months to come. There are few higher on that list than the repeated claim politicians make that they aren't really politicians—they don't really think or know much about politics, and they're both repulsed by and unfamiliar with this strange and sinister place called "Washington, D.C." that they just happen to be so desperate to move to. Obi-Wan Kenobi may have said of Mos Eisley, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy," but he didn't follow that up with, "But I don't really know anything about the place, which is why I'm the best person to guide you through it." Because that would have been ridiculous. Not so our politicians, however. And here's the latest:

Jeb Bush isn't a New York Times reader.

The former Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate appeared on Fox News Radio on Thursday and, when asked to respond to a quote in the paper, said he doesn't read it.

"I don't read The New York Times, to be honest with you," Bush told Fox's Brian Kilmeade.

The quote in question came from Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who was quoted in the Times saying that the Christian right should begin discussing which candidate to back as an alternative to Bush, because he didn't represent their views….

Kilmeade later asked, "Would [Perkins] be somebody you'd approach. Would you say, Tony, you're misunderstanding me. We need to talk. I read that column today in The New York Times?"

"Maybe I'll give him a call today, I don't know," Bush said. "I don't read The New York Times. But if you're going to force me to do so...."

You'll notice that Bush points out that he doesn't read The New York Times not once, but twice. Can I say for sure that this is a lie, and Jeb Bush does in fact read The New York Times? Of course not. But the point is that instead of just saying, "I didn't see that article," he has to make a point of letting people know he doesn't read the Times, as some high-falutin' elitist would.

Nobody has to read The New York Times in particular. It does remain the most important news outlet in America, not because its audience is the largest but because it has more influence than any other. When a story appears in the Times, it can set the agenda for the entire news media (media scholars have actually documented this effect). Unless you're Sarah Palin, if you're a politician it's part of your job to keep abreast of what's going on, which means you'll at least glance at the Times, The Washington Post, and probably The Wall Street Journal. I'm sure that one of Jeb Bush's staffers assembles for him a collection of clips that he can look at every day so he knows what's happening in the world.

But Bush feels the need to display his own (alleged) ignorance and disinterest, lest anyone believe that this guy—whose grandfather was a senator, whose father and brother were both president, who was a governor, and whose entire life has been wrapped up in American politics—might actually be so crass and cynical as to keep up with the news.

In this, Bush is following a family tradition of pretending to be "jus' folks." George H.W. did it in typically hamhanded fashion, by letting everyone know he loved pork rinds. George W. was far more adept at it; in 1999, in advance of his run for the White House, he bought a "ranch" to which he would go for vigorous brush-clearing sessions, conducted in the appropriate cowboy costume (boots, hat, belt-buckle). I believe that the sole agricultural product the ranch produced was brush, which Bush would "clear," i.e., move from one place to another, so that he could be photographed in action.

There are reasons one might vote for Jeb Bush, and reasons one might vote against him. But nobody is going to be convinced that he's an outsider who will come to Washington, shake up the system, and bring his real-world common sense to bear on all those politicians and bureaucrats. So let's drop the Unfrozen Caveman Politician bit, shall we?

Photo of the Day, Starstruck Washington Edition

The Capitol Hill media were absolutely captivated by this hearing about foreign aid to Africa, which surely had nothing to do with the presence of an extremely wealthy man and an extremely handsome man. 

What Happened to Chris Christie?

Remember when Republicans were over the moon for Chris Christie? There was a period when YouTube videos of him shouting down some uppity teacher or other constituent were gleefully forwarded from conservative to conservative; here was a guy who knew how to put liberals in their place! He was a tough-talking former prosecutor who knew how to win in a blue state! Before the 2012 election, GOP megadonors were imploring him to run for president, but he decided to hold off for 2016. And now, no one's begging. In this poll in New Hampshire, he comes in sixth, with 4.6 percent of the vote. In this Iowa poll, he's tied for seventh place, with 4 percent.

So what the heck happened? It isn't that hard to figure out. Most broadly, people actually began thinking about the presidential campaign. Primary voters thinking about the presidential campaign had other potential candidates they could compare Christie to. And as it turns out, whoever you are and whatever your priorities, there's at least a candidate or two who is more appealing than Christie. Looking for a conservative fire-breather? There's Cruz or Huckabee or Carson or any number of others. Want an older, steadier type? Jeb Bush is your man. Looking for a governor? You've got Walker or Jindal or Bush. In short, nothing about Christie is unique, other than his attitude.

And it turns out that attitude doesn't wear all that well. Christie's tough-talkin' schtick, while great for generating momentarily compelling video clips, doesn't have a lot of purchase on the primary campaign trail, where you spend most of your time not sparring with constituents but begging your own people to vote for you.

I suppose it's possible that once the candidates start debating, Christie can yell at his opponents and remind Republican voters of what they liked about him, namely that he's kind of a jerk. But that's probably not enough to build a campaign on.

How Rand Paul Is Losing His Distinctiveness

As the 2016 presidential race has swung into motion in the last couple of months, we've heard a lot about Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker, and even Ted Cruz. But there hasn't been a lot of news about Rand Paul, whom many people considered the most interesting candidate in the race. Paul has proven adept at gaining positive news coverage, and the fact that he's a quasi-libertarian makes him a little less predictable than other candidates. In fact, that's the core of his appeal. He can't argue that he has a lengthy list of accomplishments; his 2010 Senate campaign was the first time he ran for any office, and he hasn't authored any important legislation. Being different is what makes Rand Paul compelling.

But there's only so different you can be. The guy who was supposedly so skeptical of the overuse of American military power is now proposing a huge increase in military spending:

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.

We should have seen this coming. Last August, I wrote that while Paul may have a few positions that don't fit neatly into traditional Republican conservatism, the more central an issue is, the more likely he is to take the expected GOP line:

Even if being a little less ideologically predictable is part of Paul's appeal, it turns out that there are some positions that are negotiable for a Republican presidential candidate trying to win over primary voters, and some that aren't. A true libertarian can start off telling those voters that he favors low taxes and small government, and they'll cheer. He can tell them he's concerned about the militarization of the police, as Paul recently wrote eloquently about, and they might say, "I still think we need law and order, but I get what you're saying." He can tell them that government surveillance of Americans is getting out of control, and they might decide he has a point, even if they're still concerned about fighting terrorism. But if the libertarian candidate goes on to say that because he believes in maximal personal freedom, he also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of drugs, they'll raise their eyebrows and say, "Hold on there, buddy."

That's not what Rand Paul will be saying; on those last three issues, he ranges from firmly Republican (he opposes abortion rights) to essentially Republican (he opposes same-sex marriage but says it should be left up to the states) to somewhat less Republican (he opposes legalization but has suggested some sensible reform of marijuana laws). In other words, he's about as libertarian as an ambitious Republican can be: pushing the GOP a bit on issues where the party is pulled by competing impulses (like law and order vs. skepticism of state power), but safely in the fold on every issue where there's consensus in the party.

Why is Paul making this proposal now? It's partly because the presidential race is getting going, but mostly because this intra-Republican argument over the budget has brought the issue of military spending back near the top of the agenda. If he wants to be competitive in the presidential race, Paul has to get on the right side.

Contemporary conservatism has four main pillars: low taxes, small government, "traditional" social values, and a large military. No one who wants to be the GOP presidential nominee can stray from any of them in any serious way. And this is Rand Paul's dilemma: His distinctiveness as a candidate comes from the fact that there are areas in which he questions Republican orthodoxy, but if he questions parts of that orthodoxy that Republicans fervently believe in, they'll reject him. But when he does things like propose a large increase in military spending, he ends up looking just like every other Republican.   

Photo of the Day, Everybody Needs a Hobby Edition

This is Volker Kraft of Saalfeld, German, with the apple tree he and his wife have decorated with 10,000 Easter eggs. It's his thing, I guess. You may think this is silly, but what's your thing? Forwarding stupid Vines to your stupid friends? If you bring as much pleasure into the world as Volker does, then you can talk. 

Jeb Bush and the Two Types of Electability Arguments

Not that it matters much now, with all the fascinating campaigning still to come, but I still think that Jeb Bush is the most likely Republican nominee, for reasons I outlined here. Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal, however, says that one of the cornerstones of Jeb's appeal to Republican primary voters—that he's the electable candidate—isn't something they're buying, partly because there isn't a whole lot of evidence for it, other than the fact that Jeb is the kind of candidate who would seem to be more able to appeal to a general electorate. Ed Kilgore follows up:

Electability is supposed to be the Republican Establishment's ace-in-the-hole, the argument carefully conveyed over time that wears down "the base's" natural desire for a True Conservative fire-breather. In your head you know he's right is the not-so-subtle message. But Jeb's electability credentials are as baffling to regular GOP voters as they are obvious and unimpeachable to elites. And unless Jeb's backers can supply some more convincing evidence than "trust [us] on this," these doubts may never be quelled, particularly when you've got somebody in the field like Scott Walker who can boast of three wins in four years in a state carried twice by Obama—and without compromising with the godless liberals like Jeb wants to do.

Looking at it more generally, the jury is out as to whether the appropriate precedent for Jeb is somebody like Mitt Romney, who gradually won over intraparty skeptics by dint of money, opportunism, and a ruthless ability to exploit rivals' vulnerability, or somebody like Rudy Giuliani, a guy who looked great until actual voters weighed in. And even that contrast may not capture Jeb's problem: Rudy did well in early polls.

To the extent that Jeb does ultimately rely on an electability argument, he's in danger of resembling a much earlier precedent: Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, whose late push to displace Richard Nixon was instantly destroyed by polls showing him performing more weakly than Tricky Dick in a general election. That's actually where Jeb is right now. Unless and until his general election numbers turn around, and he's running better against Clinton than anybody else, it's going to be tough for him. All the money and opinion-leader endorsements and MSM adulation in the world cannot win the nomination for a candidate unless these resources at some point begin to translate into actual votes by actual voters. If they don't like Jeb to begin with and think he's a loser to boot, that may never happen.

Here's the thing about electability: If you're making an electability argument based on type, it's probably full of holes, whereas if you're making the argument based on this particular individual, it stands a better chance of being true. To take just one example, in 2008 there would have been a lot of good arguments for why a candidate like Barack Obama was unelectable. A senator hadn't become president since John F. Kennedy, Obama only had a few years in office, he was young, and, oh yeah, he was black. But all of those were reasons why a candidate like Barack Obama wasn't electable. That particular Barack Obama, however, turned out to be extremely electable.

There's an anti-Jeb electability argument based on someone like Jeb, which says that when the GOP has nominated moderates it has lost, but when it has nominated conservatives it has won. This is basically Ted Cruz's argument, and it's true in some ways but very wrong in others. The anti-Jeb electability arguments based on this particular Jeb, especially the fact that his last name creates problems that Walker or Rubio wouldn't have, are much more persuasive.

The electability debate figures into every primary campaign at some point, and there may be other ways in which Jeb can argue that he's really the electable one. I still think that he's more Romney than Giuliani, but this is obviously something he's going to have to spend some time thinking about so he's ready to answer the inevitable questions he'll get from voters about it.

Judging Candidates By Their Fake Musical Tastes

This is how you do it right. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

The first rule an aspiring writer learns in any fiction workshop is, "Don't tell me, show me." You can't create compelling characters just by saying, "Bob was mean" or "Alice was generous." You have to show it, through the the things those characters do and say. And the same goes for candidates trying to craft an appealing persona. Ted Cruz does not seem to understand this, which is why we're probably going to see more stuff like this from him:

In an interview Tuesday on "CBS This Morning," the Texas senator told his TV hosts that he "grew up listening to classic rock" but that that soon changed.

"My music taste changed on 9/11," Cruz said.

"I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn't like how rock music responded," he said. "And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me."

Cruz's comments came during a lightning round of interviews the morning after he announced his candidacy for president in 2016 in a John Lennon-inspired, "Imagine"-themed speech.

Cruz did not mention any specific country music that resonated with him or which rock artists did not respond well to the terror attacks.

"I had an emotional reaction that said, 'These are my people,'" Cruz said. "So ever since 2001, I listen to country music.

Oh, Ted. That's not how you do it. This telling-not-showing is a lot like the time in 1992 when George H.W. Bush read his thematic notes as though they were the text of a speech and said to a group of New Hampshire voters, "Message: I care." You're not supposed to just come out and say, "My choice of music is an expression of cultural identity that expresses a bond of affinity between myself and certain kinds of Americans." That's supposed to be implied. If you say it explicitly, it sounds incredibly phony.

The "What music do you listen to?" question is always a dangerous one. Not only do politicians tend to be extremely uncool people, but there's no consumer choice we make that is more identity-defining than our music. Every musical artist in the world carries with them a strictly defined set of associations: these are the kind of people who listen to this band, and this is what it says about you if you listen to them. Every teenager knows how critical it is to have a nuanced grasp of how those associations shift, so you can stay abreast and adjust your choices accordingly. For instance, in eighth grade I was totally into Rush, which was reasonably cool because few people in George Washington Junior High listened to Rush; then for some reason in ninth grade everybody was listening to Rush, which meant that they were on the express train out of Coolville, so I stopped listening to them.  

Obviously, the fact that we even ask politicians what music they like is kind of ridiculous, since they aren't in fact running for ninth grade class president. But Democrats haven't exactly been deft with the question either. For a long time, when they got asked what was on their iPods (this was back when people had iPods), they would invariably answer "Bruce Springsteen." Springsteen is the perfect choice for a Democrat: working-class cred, all-American, and sufficiently uptempo to say, "I'm not a total square." But after every Democrat says that, it begins to sound phony too, and they don't know where to go beyond that (although President Obama is smart enough to stick with the classics).

Ted Cruz should learn from this that what you're supposed to do isn't to explain the political context behind your alleged love of country music; just say you like country, then drop a couple of artist's names. Then Republican primary voters will say, "Ted Cruz likes Toby Keith? Hey, I like Toby Keith, too! He sounds like a heckuva guy, that Ted Cruz." Bond: forged.