Paul Waldman

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Sarah Palin Achieves Peak Palin, and It's Spectacular

I know a professor who can turn to a teaching assistant on the way down to the classroom and ask, "What's today's class about?" and then upon hearing the answer, walk in and give a flawless and fascinating three-hour lecture without notes, and without a hint of hesitation or uncertainty anywhere along the way. Politicians are about the only people who are called upon to speak extemporaneously as often as teachers, and some are better at it than others. But it's important to know how good you are at it, so that when you've agreed to give a speech before a sizeable crowd and a bank of television cameras, you consider beforehand whether it might be a good idea to prepare a speech. Some people, however, don't have the self-awareness to say to themselves, "Maybe I'd better have something written out, or else it could go badly." That self-awareness could be particularly important if you're the kind of person who has to write notes on your hand in order to remember your main talking points.

You or I might have that kind of foresight, but thankfully, Sarah Palin does not. In a short career full of public-speaking train wrecks, her speech Saturday at Steve King's Iowa conservative-o-rama may be the most amazing yet. Behold:

That's just a one-minute excerpt. Here's the whole speech if you've got the time and inclination. The speech is a spectacular, baffling wonderment, a roiling melange of mixed metaphors, non sequiturs, grammatical flights of fancy, and awkward transitions. Click anywhere in there and within 30 seconds you'll hear something that'll make you say, "What the hell did she just say?" For instance, this was a passage I liked (it comes around 22 minutes):

That must be that 800-pound elephant in the room at the White House, that the radical left won't even name, they won't even name the threat to our way of life today. We'll hit it, we'll name it. It is any Muslim who would choose evil, whose loyalty to a death-cult perversion is so darkened and has deceived their soul that they actually think that they're welcome here to transform here? No. What we do, we strengthen our military, we respect our troops, and we let them—our troops as our gatekeepers—we let them tell jihadists, "Uh-uh, this is our house, get the hell out!"

That last bit was met with shouts and applause while a self-satisfied smile crept over Palin's face, as though she was saying to herself, "Yeah—nailed it." But you have to watch it to really get the flavor of how she's constantly teetering on the verge of utter incoherence, casting about desperately to find her way out of each sentence when she's plainly forgotten how she got in.

By the way, the use of the word "transform" there is very intentional—conservatives constantly refer to the fact that in 2008 Barack Obama said he wanted to "transform" America as evidence that his nefarious plan to take America on the road to a socialist nightmare was evident from the beginning. In other words, those evil Muslim terrorists have the same goal as Barack Obama. But then you already knew that.

A Republican Sister Souljah Fantasy

This weekend, no fewer than eight potential Republican presidential candidates, along with some party media stars like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Donald Trump, will head to Des Moines for the Iowa Freedom Summit, an event organized by anti-immigrant nincompoop and member of the U.S. House of Representatives Steve King. In my Plum Line Post today, I wondered what might happen if one of those candidates decided to do something unexpected:

What if one of those eight candidates got up at this event and said, “Representative King, I appreciate you inviting me here, but I’m going to have to be honest and tell you that you and people who think like you do are killing this party that we all love. There are some things we can agree on, like the need for a more secure border. But every time we rain contempt down on immigrants, we push away millions of voters that we ought to be reaching out to instead. If we’re ever going to win back the White House, that has to change.”

Would that lose the candidate some votes? You bet. But it would also be an earthquake. The media (who will be at the Freedom Summit in force) would go crazy—there’s nothing they love more than a “maverick” who’s willing to start fights within his or her party. The candidate who said it would lead the news and be on the front page of a hundred newspapers the next day. It would be worth tens of millions of dollars in publicity.

Of course it won't happen. But it would be something if it did.

Chart of the Day, Anti-Clinton Sexism Edition

This comes from Aaron Blake at the Washington Post:

The fact that fully 24 percent of Republicans say that Clinton's gender makes them less likely to vote for her is pretty striking. Of course, the number of Republicans who were going to vote for Clinton anyway is tiny. Blake has an explanation for why this number would be so large: "When these Republicans hear the name 'Hillary Clinton,' their impulse is to say 'no' in whatever way possible—even if that means saying that her gender is a problem for them. They might never have considered what a female president would actually mean, but they know they don't like Clinton. Hence, 'less likely.'"

Maybe. It's also possible, even probable, that there are a lot of people who do have a problem with Clinton's gender but won't say that to a pollster. That's called "social desirability bias," and it comes up on many kinds of poll questions. They know it's considered inappropriate to say that you won't vote for a woman, even if you probably wouldn't. How many of those are there? There's no way to know.

But sexism is going to be like a driving bass line to this campaign, underneath everything all the time, and occasionally breaking out for a noticeable solo. I've said for a long time that her candidacy is going to bring out some of the ugliest misogyny that you can imagine, just as she always has. It'll come from the conservative media stars like Rush Limbaugh, and from the odd GOP operate or officeholder here and there, and it will work to her advantage by turning moderate women away from the Republican candidate, whether he actually does anything to encourage it or not.

You can bet that Clinton's pollsters are going to test and probe and examine and assess the question of her gender to within an inch of its life. We'll be able to see the results of that research in the way she talks about it, both when she gets asked and when she gets confronted with it in less polite ways. For instance, here's an incident that occurred in January 2008, when a heckler got up and started chanting "Iron my shirt!" at her (he even had a sign saying the same thing), and she was perfectly forthright about what was going on:

So in the past she's never been particularly shy about talking about sexism. But in this campaign I wouldn't be surprised if she pursues a strategy of discussing it gently—not dismissing it, but being careful not to sound like she's complaining, and mentioning it just often enough to keep it salient among women voters. Not that she'll need to wait too long before it comes up.

Marco Rubio Moves Ahead With Campaign for Vice President

For the last couple of months, I've been skeptical about whether Marco Rubio is actually going to run for president. The most important reason is that he's up for re-election in 2016, and in Florida you aren't allowed to run for two offices at the same time. (Rand Paul is facing the same problem, but he's hoping he can convince the Kentucky legislature to pass a law that would enable him to do it, just because they like him.) So for Rubio it's a huge risk. If he gives up his seat to run but doesn't get the GOP nomination, his career would take a huge hit. It wouldn't necessarily be over, but he would have suffered a major setback, and getting back on track would require something like becoming Florida governor. And since he's only 43, he has plenty of time. He could run in 2024 if Hillary Clinton wins, or in 2024, or really any time between now and 2040.

But perhaps Rubio has concluded that fortune favors the bold, much as it did an ambitious first-term senator from Illinois eight years ago:

Sen. Marco Rubio has begun taking concrete steps toward launching a presidential bid, asking his top advisors to prepare for a campaign, signing on a leading Republican fundraiser, and planning extensive travel to early-voting states in the coming weeks, ABC News has learned.

"He has told us to proceed as if he is running for president," a senior Rubio advisor tells ABC News.

Leading the effort to raise the $50 million or more he’ll need to run in the Republican primaries will be Anna Rogers, currently the finance director for American Crossroads, the conservative group started by Karl Rove that raised more than $200 million to help elect Republicans over the past two elections.

Rubio is certainly a talented politician, but he's no once-in-a-generation talent. And unlike Obama in 2008, who knew there was really only one person he had to beat, Rubio is facing a huge field with some serious candidates in it (mixed in with a dozen nutballs). He has a better shot than some, but it's still going to be a tough slog.

However, what if the whole idea is for Rubio to be this election's John Edwards? He runs a respectable presidential campaign, being careful not to be too mean to the guy who wins, and then he gets chosen as that person's running mate. After all, he must know that he'd be a terrific VP pick. Youthful, Hispanic, from a key swing state—it's hard to think of a Republican who checks more boxes. So while he may have only a 20 percent chance of getting the nomination, he's probably got a 50 percent chance of being the running mate.

Of course, he doesn't have to run for president in order to be put on the ticket. So maybe he's just bored in the Senate. 


Photo of the Day, Bipartisan Outreach Edition

White House photo by Pete Souza

"OK, here's how this is going to work. I'm going to do a bunch of stuff that not only will you hate but will also make you look bad, while you whine and complain. But I'm going to do it anyway, because I'm the guy with the big office. Then I'll pass that office off to Hillary Clinton, who as I understand it is really looking forward to kicking your ass around town some more. How's that sound?" 

I'm just guessing that's what he said, judging by the grimace on McConnell's face. This photo was actually taken just after the 2014 election, but things haven't changed that much in the intervening two and a half months.

Let's Stop Pretending On Israel

So John Boehner knew how he could get back at Barack Obama: by inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to come before Congress and unload on the administration over its negotiations with Iran, which both Republicans and Likudniks find insufficiently belligerent. In my Plum Line post today, I suggest that maybe this is a good thing, if it finally gets us to all admit that Israel is a partisan issue, and American and Israeli politicians are partisan participants in each other's politics. Here are some excerpts:

For years we've had one party (the Republicans) that is fervently committed to the right-wing Likud's vision for Israel, and another party (the Democrats) that is much more committed to the Israeli Labor party's vision. When each holds the White House, they put those beliefs into policy. But both will say only that we all have a bipartisan commitment to "support" the Jewish state, as though what "support" means is always simple and clear….

Benjamin Netanyahu is the leader of his country, but he's also the leader of that faction, and at the moment he's in the midst of an election campaign (one the Obama administration would be all too happy to see him lose). If Congressional Republicans want him to come be a spokesperson for the Republican position in the debate over Iran, that's fine. But we should use the occasion to allow ourselves a little honestly. Yes, the United States and Israel are close allies whose core interests are aligned. But in neither country is there agreement about how to serve those interests. There's no such thing as a "pro-Israel" position on this issue, because Israelis themselves have a profound dispute about it, just as there's no such thing as one "pro-America" position on anything we argue about.

So we can call this speech what it is: an effort by one conservative politician to help a bunch of other conservative politicians achieve their preferred policy. Maybe afterward, John Boehner can return the favor and cut some ads advocating Netanyahu's reelection.

Here's the rest. And if you haven't had enough of me today, here's my first column for The Week, about "American Sniper" and the latest wave of political arguments over pop culture. Also, very soon I'll be doing leash reviews for Dog Fancy and bunsen burner analysis for the Journal of Fluid Dynamics

Santorum '16 Will Be Neither Kinder Nor Gentler

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Mike Huckabee used to say "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad about it," a line that always got a knowing chuckle. But let's say you like Huckabee's uncompromising social conservatism, but you aren't so keen on supporting a candidate for president in 2016 who's personally friendly and affable. Is there someone out there advocating cultural revanchism who also hasn't smiled since Ronald Reagan left office? Whose vision of the future is built on disgruntlement and disgust? Why yes there is:

Rick Santorum met today with advisors to map out a possible new presidential bid aiming to avoid some of the mistakes that doomed his last candidacy.

A socially conservative former senator who was one of Mitt Romney's biggest rivals for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Santorum is taking more steps toward another run, meeting Wednesday with a group of advisers who would join a possible campaign, planning some of the details and laying out what a bid might look like.

The four-plus hour meeting was described to ABC News by an aide who attended as a discussion of "lessons learned" from the 2012 campaign that they could use to improve their operation if he "makes the leap." The group also got into more detailed planning that never happened before his last run, the aide said.

Among the topics discussed were Santorum's potential timeline for a decision and possible roll-out, finance and fundraising plans, possible staff additions, early-state movements, communications strategy, political discussions, and putting the experiences and lessons from 2012 "into practice." The goal would be to turn some of the "roadblocks" they faced into "speed bumps."

The biggest roadblock is that Santorum is a deeply unpleasant person, which would be a problem even if his views were acceptable to a majority of the electorate, which they aren't. But he apparently wants to change. Benjy Sarlin reported the other day that Santorum's 2016 message "puts less stock in bashing gay marriage and more in bashing immigration," which could reflect an evolution among Santorum's potential voters. That great-uncle of yours who listens to Limbaugh, watches O'Reilly, and is in a perpetual state of near-rage over how the America of his youth is gone? Maybe he's starting to accommodate himself, just a little, to the march of the gays.

Not that he's any less repulsed by them and their desire for domestic tranquility, mind you, but he's come to understand that that particular battle is just about over. Immigration, on the other hand, has more urgency than ever. He sees it all around him—people speaking Spanish everywhere he goes, cowardly Republicans talking about "reaching out" to voters who aren't even real Americans, and if he hears "Para español, oprima dos" one more time he's going to blow his top.

Rick Santorum hears those voters, and wants to be the vessel for their outrage. Nevertheless, the idea that he could go through an entire campaign without talking about sex and sin is absurd. It's his thing. People are going to ask him about it, and he's going to answer. And that will no doubt be entertaining.

I think having Santorum in the race is quite salutary. Even if his chances of winning the nomination are miniscule, he represents a significant portion of the GOP electorate (don't forget, he won the Iowa caucus in 2012). His is a perspective that should be heard and understood, even if most party leaders would rather he disappeared.

Photo of the Day

First Lady Michelle Obama indoctrinates innocent children in some kind of bizarre communist-inflected cult; you can tell by the fact that the hats, which one assumes are used for the purpose of breaking the children's spirits through humiliation, are in fact red. The liberal media will continue to ignore this story.

The Bread Bags of Empathy

Imagine going to the doctor and saying, "My back is killing me. I can barely move. What can you do to help me? Should we do an X-ray? Physical therapy? Medication?" And the doctor responds, "Yeah, I hurt my back once. It was awful. So I know exactly what you're feeling. Anyway, thanks for coming in—just see the receptionist on the way out to pay your bill."

That's not too far off from what we heard from Senator Joni Ernst in the GOP response to the State of the Union address last night. I'm particularly interested in this part:

As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardees.

We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning.

You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry.

But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.

Our parents may not have had much, but they worked hard for what they did have.

These days though, many families feel like they’re working harder and harder, with less and less to show for it.

Because America is still the home of the world's most creative and inspiring strivers, within minutes people were not only posting pictures of themselves with bread bags on their feet to Twitter, some even crafted shoes out of bread to photograph. But what, precisely, is the point of the bread bag story supposed to be?

The point is affinity, saying to ordinary people, in Christine O'Donnell's immortal words, "I'm you." I understand your struggles and fears, because I've experienced them. I don't need to walk a mile in your shoes to feel your pain, because I've already done it, though mine were covered in bread bags. At a time like this, Ernst's ability to tell stories about her hardscrabble roots is no doubt one of the big reasons Republican leaders chose her to deliver their response.

There's a second part of this message that no Republican is going to lay out too explicitly, and Ernst certainly doesn't, which is that because I'm just like you, when it comes time to make decisions about the policies that will affect you, I will have your interests at heart.

But there's a problem with that, because despite the years she spent trudging through the snow in her bread bag feet, Joni Ernst's beliefs about economics are no different from Mitt Romney's, Jeb Bush's, or those of any other Republican whose childhood feet were shod in loafers hand crafted from the finest Siberian tiger leather. There's almost perfect unanimity within the GOP on economic issues, an agreement that the minimum wage should not be raised, that taxes on the wealthy are onerous and oppressive and should be reduced, that regulations on corporations should be loosened, and that government programs designed to help those of modest means only serve to make them indolent and slothful, their hands so atrophied that bootstrap-pulling becomes all but impossible.

But now that both parties agree that they must address economic inequality and stagnant wages, you really need to follow up the tale of long-ago hard times with some specifics about what you want to do now. And this is where things break down. When Ernst got to laying out the GOP economic agenda, here's what she offered: First, the Keystone XL pipeline, which as an economic stimulus is a joke. For whatever combination of reasons—the fact that environmentalists hate it is the most important—Republicans have locked themselves into arguing that a project that will create at most a few thousand temporary jobs is the most important thing we can do to boost the American economy. Second, Ernst said, "Let's tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific." Kind of vague there, but nobody likes trade barriers. She didn't elaborate, however. And finally, "Let's simplify America's outdated and loophole-ridden tax code." Which, again, nobody disagrees with in the abstract, but I doubt there are too many struggling families saying that their biggest problem is that the tax code is riddled with loopholes.

So that isn't much of a program. But she did close by saying that America is "the greatest nation the world has ever known." And it's inspiring that someone like Joni Ernst can start life in the most modest of circumstances, fitted as a baby with tiny booties made from Hostess Twinkie wrappers, then graduate to bread bags as she learned to castrate hogs (they do help keep the blood off your one good pair of shoes), and eventually grow up to do the bidding of the nation's noblest plutocrats. It shows what's possible in this great country of ours. 

Photo of the Day, Republican of Tomorrow Edition


Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) rehearses her response on behalf of the GOP to President Obama's State of the Union address. Odds of a subtle yet unmistakable reference to hog castration are currently running at 1-4.