Paul Waldman

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Photo of the Day, Ordinary Bloke Edition

That's British prime minister David Cameron, helping out with some bricklaying ahead of tomorrow's election, like a regular chap would do. Man of the people and all that, wot wot.

Don't Sweat the Iowans, Jeb

So Quinnipiac has a new poll out showing Jeb Bush with ongoing problems among Republicans in Iowa, but I don't think he should be worried. I'll let Ed Kilgore explain:

What do the internals say about Jeb Bush's basic standing among Iowa Republicans? They really don't much like him, though not as much as they don't like Chris Christie. Jebbie's favorable/unfavorable ratio among likely caucus-goers is at 39/45 (down from 41/40 in February). Christie's is at 32/56. The only other underwater proto-candidate is Lindsey Graham, at 15/37. Ben Carson's at 53/9; Ted Cruz: 59/19; Carly Fiorina: 26/8; Mike Huckabee: 64/27; Bobby Jindal: 45/9; John Kasich: 20/8; Rand Paul: 59/23; Rick Perry: 51/30; Marco Rubio: 69/9; Rich Santorum: 56/28; Scott Walker: 59/11.

As compared with QPac's February poll, Bush has now passed Christie as the guy most named as someone likely caucus-goers definitely will not vote for, at 25%. Forty-five percent say Bush's positions are “not conservative enough,” more than for any candidate other than Christie (52%).

That, not "Bush fatigue," seems to be the problem (at least among Republicans—I'm guessing revulsion at his last name is a big factor in general election trial heats, which in turn affects his electability street cred among Republicans, but none of that is measured here). W.'s favorability ratio is a robust 81/16, and Poppy's is 80/13.

So what's their problem with Jeb? I'll get to that in a moment, but first let's look at a poll that just came out from the New York Times:

While Mr. Bush has faced questions about whether he is conservative enough to win a Republican primary, only 22 percent of Republican voters said his views were not conservative enough. Further, 60 percent of Republican voters said having the right experience was more important in a presidential candidate, while only 27 percent said they thought offering fresh ideas was more valuable.

What could also help Mr. Bush—along with the other governors or former governors seeking the G.O.P. nomination—is that 73 percent of Republican voters said they preferred candidates with experience outside Washington.

Now it's true that in that poll, 38 percent of Republicans say they wouldn't consider voting for Bush, but that's about the same number received by a number of other candidates, including Huckabee, Paul, Santorum, and Perry. But Bush doesn't need 100 percent of Republicans to consider voting for him in the primaries, he just needs enough to get a plurality in one state after another.

To return to the Iowans, my suspicion is that while caucus voters may not have heard enough about any of the candidates yet, they know that Bush is supposed to be the establishment choice, and that's not what they're looking for. Let me repost a graph I made a couple of months ago:

Iowa Republicans not only aren't like other Americans, they aren't even like other Republicans. They're more conservative, more white, more male, and more likely to be evangelical. Jeb can lose them and be just fine, just like Mitt Romney and John McCain were. Would he rather win the Iowa caucus? Of course. But losing it is both to be expected and not much of a blow to the rest of his candidacy.

Why Hillary Clinton Can Move Left on Immigration

Back in 2008, I tried (without much success) to convince everyone that John McCain's reputation as a "maverick" was built on a fundamental misconception. It isn't that he didn't sometimes go against the prevailing Republican position on a given issue, because he did, even if those occasions were actually quite rare. It's that when he did so, it was always on an issue where the Republican position was vastly unpopular with the public as a whole. So his maverickizing inevitably put him on the right side of public opinion, winning him the best of both worlds: He could win plaudits from his admirers in the press for being allegedly courageous, but also do the popular thing.

I thought of that today looking at Hillary Clinton, who last night made her first detailed remarks on immigration since becoming a candidate—not because I'm trying to argue that Clinton is as phony as McCain (maybe, maybe not, but not what I'm interested in right now), but because of the complex interplay of sincere belief, primary considerations, and general election worries that operates on an issue like this one. While it was expected that Clinton would be firmly in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, her comments yesterday were surprising because they put her to the left of Barack Obama. Not only does she support the executive actions he has taken on immigration, she said she'd go further, by moving to suspend deportations of the parents of "dreamers," undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. (Obama's policy covers undocumented immigrant parents of those who were born in the U.S., but not the parents of those who came here as children.)

There's a long way to go in this campaign, but it looks so far like Clinton is emerging as a more liberal candidate than we expected, particularly given that, for most of her career, she's been known as a center-left Democrat. I think Steve Benen describes the situation well:

But as her candidacy takes shape, note how consistently she's positioned herself as a progressive champion of late. Clinton delighted much of the left, for example, with her remarks on criminal-justice reform last week. The Democratic base was equally pleased to hear about Clinton's 50-state strategy, her willingness to buck Wall Street, and her consideration of a constitutional amendment on campaign financing.

And now Clinton has done it again on immigration.

Some critics on the left will likely note, with cause, that she's adopted a far more progressive vision than the one she used to espouse. There's some truth to that, though where she is arguably matters more than where she was. President Obama has helped shift the national debate to the left a bit on many of these key issues; the Democratic coalition has become more unified around a progressive agenda; much of the American mainstream is far more likely to embrace the left's proposals than it was eight years ago; and Clinton has clearly evolved on these issues, ending up right where most of her party—and much of her country want her to be.

As I've argued before, ultimately irrelevant is the question of whether Clinton is sincere on any particular issue on which her position has changed; presidents govern as the candidates they were, whatever might be in their hearts. And I have no trouble believing that she genuinely believes in what she's espousing now. It's not as though she underwent some kind of wholesale, Romney-esque reinvention; in some cases she's just putting a new emphasis on things she already believed, and in others (like marriage equality) she evolved along with most of the country. Furthermore, issues themselves change over time, and often there is a different set of options on the table now than there were ten or twenty years ago. And there are certainly issues we haven't yet gotten into where her more centrist impulses might come to the fore. She hasn't said a lot about foreign policy yet, and she has always been one of the more hawkish Democrats.

What may matter most is that Clinton has room to be more liberal if that's what she wants. Consider the contrast on the issue of immigration with the candidates running on the Republican side. Clinton has an advantage they don't, not only because she isn't worried so much about winning the primaries but also because the things that will win her support from Democrats will also serve her well in the general election. The Republicans face have a difficult challenge: they have to appear tough on immigration in order to appeal to primary voters, but doing so runs a serious risk of alienating the general electorate, particularly Hispanic voters. (I discuss this in more detail in my column today at The Week.)

Clinton has no such fears. Although public opinion on immigration is complicated, there's a clear majority in favor of a path to citizenship, and the people who would be most angered by what she said yesterday aren't going to be voting Democratic anyway. So she can simultaneously cheer her base, assure Hispanic voters, and risk nothing with white moderates.

That's true to varying degrees on many other issues as well, for the simple reason that in most (not all, but most) cases, the consensus position within the Democratic Party is more popular than the consensus position within the Republican Party. It's a nice place for Clinton to be.

Photo of the Day, Across the Pond Edition

I thought of posting a photo of Mike Huckabee announcing his presidential candidacy, but this one is just so much more fun. Britons go to the polls this week, and that's George Osborne of the Conservative Party, who is currently Chancellor of the Exchequer, visiting with some hard-working constituents to tell them to vote Tory. He's more excited about this generator part than Kim Jong Un at a lubricant factory. I imagine that woman saying, "Let's not try to break it then, shall we luv?"

The Ridiculous Lure of the Amateur Politician

All the news stories about yesterday's entrants into the Republican presidential field, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, mention they are extremely unlikely to win. Yet the fact that they decided to run at all, and that many in their party will consider them carefully and give them money and attention, testifies to an ongoing delusion, not only among Republicans but among many in the press, as well. It says that the notion that someone with no experience in government should be taken seriously as a contender for the most important job in government is something other than absurd.

Ben Carson was an excellent doctor, and Carly Fiorina certainly knows a lot about the profit potential of printer cartridges (even if her tenure as CEO of HP was something of a disaster). But neither of them has ever held elective office, or any position at all in government at any level. Yet we accept that they could step into an entirely unfamiliar environment and operate with at least some level of competence. It isn't that they won't be asked about their lack of government experience, because they will (and already have been). But when they and other amateur politicians answer that what really matters is vague things like "judgment" and "values," we accept the answer as good enough and move on.

But do you know how many of America's 44 presidents arrived at that office without extensive government experience? Zero. Not a one. Not counting George Washington, only five had held no elected office before becoming president. Like Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower were generals, meaning that they spent their careers in the employ of the federal government and had years to learn its ways from the inside. William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover had been cabinet secretaries. Every other president had been a member of Congress or a governor.

Of course, some of them were excellent presidents and some were terrible. But the ones revered by both Democrats and Republicans came to the job with lengthy preparation. Ronald Reagan was governor of our largest state for eight years, and finally made it to the White House after his third presidential run. Franklin Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy and then governor of New York.

While the attraction to amateur politicians exists in both parties, it's much more intense on the Republican side. There are a few Democrats here and there who come to high office having never run for anything before—the occasional rich guy (like former Minnesota senator Herb Kohl) or celebrity (the current Minnesota senator Al Franken). But Republicans positively ache for the outsider who will come to Washington and use his common sense and familiarity with the "real world" to clean house and fix everything that's wrong. That's partly because many of those amateurs come from the business world, and Republicans tend to view successful businesspeople as the most admirable among us, their intellect, competence, and virtue proven by the size of their bank accounts. But it's also because Republicans are the party that despises government, so it's only natural that they would believe that the most noble and talented people can be found outside it.

The reason that outsider politicians usually fail in their bids for lower offices, and always fail when trying to get elected president, isn't so much that the voters realize that governing is hard and so they shouldn't elect someone who has never done it before. It's that running for office is also hard, and like anything else, doing it well takes experience and knowledge. It also takes things that are built up over time, which candidates like Fiorina and Carson don't have, like networks of allies for whom you've done favors, relationships with other politicians that can produce endorsements, and so on. But it also takes something else: practice. If you do it for the first time on the biggest possible stage with the most scrutiny and the highest stakes, chances are you aren't going to be very good at it, no matter how smart you are. Which is what saves us from having an amateur actually get to the White House.

Photo of the Day, Announcement Edition

That's Ben Carson, announcing his campaign for a radio talk show and higher speaking fees ... I mean president! Announcing his campaign for president. Wherever he goes in this campaign, he will bring his circular red rug, which channels his power and allows him to mesmerize audiences. 

Multiple GOP Presidential Candidates Now Investigating Nutball Conspiracy Theory

As we discussed last week, conspiracy theorists in Texas are convinced that a multi-state training exercise the military is soon to conduct called Jade Helm is actually preparation for the declaration of martial law across the Southwest, with all manner of ungodly consequences to follow, including the confiscation of people's guns and perhaps forced internment in re-education camps where patriotic Americans are forced to watch episodes of "Girls" with their eyes pried open "Clockwork Orange"-style and fed a diet of borscht and stale bread. Governor Greg Abbott, perhaps after noting continued healthy sales of tinfoil hats throughout the Lone Star State, announced that he had instructed the National Guard to "monitor" the exercise, just to make sure there's no funny stuff going on. Last week Rand Paul told a radio host he'd look into it, and on Saturday, Ted Cruz made clear that he's on the case:

"My office has reached out to the Pentagon to inquire about this exercise," Cruz, a Texas senator, told Bloomberg at the South Carolina Republican Party's annual convention. "We are assured it is a military training exercise. I have no reason to doubt those assurances, but I understand the reason for concern and uncertainty, because when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don't trust what it is saying."

If the question you're asking is, "Why would people believe something so preposterous?", then what Cruz is saying almost makes sense. His argument is essentially that ordinary folks would never have contemplated such a thing a few years ago, but after Barack Obama went on his socialist rampage, trying to get people health coverage and imposing restrictions on Wall Street's ability to obliterate the American economy again, it's only natural that people would become so alarmed that it seems perfectly plausible to them that Obama would have sent the army to take over Texas.

But there's a big difference between saying "Here's an explanation for why some people might be taken with this insane idea" and saying "I too am taken with this insane idea." Cruz is planting himself somewhere in the middle — he's not endorsing it, but he's not dismissing it either, which is why he instructed his staff to communicate with the Pentagon and inquire whether they are in fact about to launch some kind of coup.

Not only does Cruz not come out and say the conspiracy theory is absurd (he only goes so far as to say that "I have no reason to doubt" that martial law is not in the works), he seems to imply that it's perfectly reasonable, based on the Obama administration's record, for people to assume that something like that would actually be happening.

But it isn't. You can have a thousand objections to actions this president has undertaken, but if you genuinely think that an army training exercise is actually a cover for a military coup, you're a loon and there is not a single reasonable thing about what you believe. Like Greg Abbott and Rand Paul, Ted Cruz knows perfectly well how crazy this is. But he's a man of the people, so he'll just pass on what the people are telling him. 

When Reporters Decide a Candidate's Supposed Character Flaw 'Raises Questions,' Watch Out

Which of Hillary Clinton's character flaws do you find most troubling? If you're a Republican, you may not have quite decided yet, since there are any number of things about her you can't stand. But if you're hoping to defeat her, you'd do well to home in on whatever journalists think might be her primary character flaw, because that's what will shape of much of their coverage between now and next November.

The determination of that central flaw for each of the presidential candidates will soon become one of reporters' key tasks as they construct the frames that are going to guide their coverage of the race. And the idea that Clinton can't be trusted is an early contender for her central defect, the one journalists will contemplate, discuss, explore, and most importantly, use to decide what is important and irrelevant when reporting on her.

Take a look at the lead of this article by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, titled "For Hillary Clinton, a trust deficit to dismount":

Is Hillary Clinton honest enough to be president?

That question—phrased in a thousand different ways but always with the same doubts in mind—sits at the heart of a campaign that will span the next 18 months and on which billions upon billions of dollars will be spent.

If Cillizza was trying to write a campaign-defining piece that will be cited in histories of 2016 as representative of the press's perspective on Clinton, he couldn't have done much better. This happens in every presidential race: Each candidate is reduced to one or two flaws, the things about them that are supposed to "raise questions" and make us all wonder whether we'd be comfortable with them in the Oval Office. Republicans are surely hoping that reporters will lock in a frame in which Clinton is presumed to be dishonest, because once that happens, they will pay far more attention to the veracity of everything she says and highlight every point of divergence from the truth, no matter how trivial. This is how character frames operate, and the process works the same for Republicans and Democrats.

It's a double-edged sword for candidates, because it means that an absurd amount of attention will be given to some things they do and say, while others that might get a different candidate in trouble will be ignored or downplayed. Look back at almost any recent election and you can see it in action. For instance, in 2012, Mitt Romney was defined as an uncaring plutocrat (who was also stiff and awkward), so when he said something that seemed to highlight this flaw—like "Corporations are people, my friends"—it would be replayed and repeated over and over in news reports. But Romney was also a spectacularly dishonest candidate, and despite the efforts of some on the left, dishonesty never came to define him. He might have claimed he was being unfairly treated on the first count, but on the second he got something of a pass.

Let's take another example to show why this selection of frames matters. In no election in my lifetime was there more discussion about honesty than the one in 2000, which reporters essentially presented as a contest between a well-meaning and forthright simpleton on one side, and a stiff and dishonest self-aggrandizer on the other. Once those frames were settled (and it happened early on), reporters sifted everything Al Gore said about his record like prospectors panning for gold, trying to find anything that would suggest an exaggeration. They even went so far as to make some up; Gore never said he "invented the Internet," nor did he say many of the other things he was accused of having said.

Gore did mangle his words from time to time, but when he did, reporters didn't bother to write a story about it. Likewise, George W. Bush said many things that weren't true, but because he was supposed to be the dumb one, not the liar, reporters didn't give them much attention. Even when they did, it would be in the form of a simple correction: The candidate said this, while the actual truth is that. What reporters didn't do was say that a false statement from Bush or a bit of linguistic confusion from Gore "raised questions" about either's fitness for the presidency; those "questions" (almost always left unspecified, both in who's asking them and what they're asking) are only raised around the central character flaw that reporters have settled on.

Bush's lies during the 2000 campaign actually turned out to be quite revealing, which demonstrates that the problem isn't simply the way the media focuses on one or two character flaws, but how shaky their judgment is of what matters. While Gore did occasionally exaggerate his importance in events of the past, Bush lied mostly about policy: what precisely he did as governor of Texas, what was in the plans he was presenting, and what he wanted to do. It turned out that as president, he deceived the public on policy as well, not only on the Iraq War, but also on a whole host of issues.

This demonstrates an important principle that seldom gets noticed. When a candidate gets caught in a lie, people often say, "If he'll lie about about this, what else will he lie about?" The most useful answer is that a candidate is likely to lie about things that resemble what you just caught him lying about. Bill Clinton, for instance, wasn't particularly forthcoming in 1992 about whose bed he had or hadn't shared, and when he was president, that's exactly what he lied to the country about. Bush, on the other hand, spun an absurd tale about how his tax-cut plan was centered on struggling workers, and when he got into office, sold his upper-income tax cuts with the same misleading rationale.

One of the reasons reporters gravitate to discussions of "character" is that such examinations allow for all kinds of unsupported speculation and offering of opinions, served up with the thinnest veneer of objectivity. A supposedly objective reporter won't go on a Sunday-show roundtable and say, "Clinton's tax plan is a bad idea," but he will say, "Clinton has a truth problem." Both are statements of opinion but, for reporters, statements of opinion about a candidate's character are permissible, while statements of opinion about policy aren't.

So is Hillary Clinton less trustworthy than Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or any other politician? Maybe, but maybe not. The problem is that reporters often answer the question just by choosing to ask it for one candidate, but not for another. 

Photo of the Day, Cool Energy Edition

That's a Tesla superfan (which apparently is a thing) posing in front of the company's new Powerwall battery, which Elon Musk unveiled today. Meant for homes and businesses, the battery will allow users to store energy from their solar panels, windmills, or whatever else they're using to charge up their cars and power their homes without any help from the grid. Chris Mooney explains why this could be a really big deal as we head toward our promising future of distributed energy.

Riots and Results

Yesterday, I wrote about how the explanation Baltimore police gave for the death of Freddie Gray was almost impossible to believe, and apparently, state's attorney Marilyn Mosby felt the same way after her investigation, because she announced today that she is charging six officers with crimes ranging from negligence to second-degree murder (you can watch her statement here). In a post at the Plum Line this morning, I raised the question of whether you could argue that the violence that occurred in Baltimore on Monday led to this prosecution and therefore produced some of the accountability people in Baltimore want so desperately. Here's a piece of that post:

The violence led to a huge increase in media attention, and even if much of that coverage was sensationalistic, there was also a lot of attention paid to the substantive issues involved. Those included the Baltimore police's record in dealing with the public generally, and in particular the use of "rough rides" as a method of abusing suspects, which is a likely explanation for how Freddie Gray came to have his spine broken in the back of a police van.

All that national attention put every public official under pressure to not only bring calm but also to confront the issues that have the people of Baltimore so angry: The police commissioner, the mayor, the governor, and yes, the state's attorney. While every official would like to believe that he or she would make all the same decisions regardless of whether there are people chanting in the streets and news cameras parked outside their office, they can't possibly be immune.

I have to confess I'm not completely sure what the answer to the basic question is. I'm not at all comfortable endorsing violence as a political tactic, particularly since it not only claims innocent victims, it also tends to be less effective than nonviolent protest over the long run. But there's no question that Monday's rioting instantly made Baltimore and Freddie Gray a national issue.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that if the nonviolent protests had simply continued and grown, there would still have been a prosecution. Though I know very little about Mosby, she doesn't seem like she's being forced into this against her will. One important question is how the rest of the Baltimore officials who are also under a microscope respond. What kind of police reforms are they going to initiate, and how effective will they be? We probably won't know the answers until long after the national media's attention has shifted elsewhere.

There's also the question of whether the events in Baltimore, including this prosecution, have any impact on what happens in police departments around the country, with regard to both police abuse and accountability for it. Suspects die in police custody all the time, after all, and prosecutions are pretty rare. Changing both of those things will take a long time, but the next time a suspect dies, the people in the community where it happened may now be more likely to take the streets, and the prosecutors are going to be asked why they aren't issuing an indictment like the prosecutor in Baltimore did.