Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.
I'm not even going to bother linking to the new trailer for the new Star Wars movie, because it's been out since yesterday, and if you haven't watched it already there's obviously something wrong with you. I'll just give you this picture of cookies.
What leads a man to look in the mirror and say, "I could be president of the United States"? Anybody can say they should be president, of course—after all, aren't all your ideas the right ones?—but it takes a remarkably optimistic spirit to think that you can do what it takes to make it to the White House. Can you raise all that money, run that huge organization, out-strategize your opponents, overcome the inevitable stumbles and controversies, have the stamina and fortitude and cleverness to do it all better than anyone else, and convince the American people that you're the one?
Somebody has to do it, of course. But if you're a politician who last ran for office thirteen years ago, who had a relatively undistinguished record, who represents a wing of your party that no longer exists, and whom nobody ever accused of being charismatic in the first place, what makes you look in that mirror and say, "Yeah. I'm ready. Let's do this"?
America, I give you George Elmer Pataki:
Ready to get on that train to Victorytown? No? No matter, Pataki is in New Hampshire, pressing the flesh and winning hearts and minds. And he's not the only one with visions of electoral glory dancing through his head:
Mike Huckabee, who stepped down from his Fox News Channel show, "Huckabee," in January, is expected to return to Fox this evening to make his 2016 presidential campaign official. Huckabee said Friday he is "moving toward" announcing a second bid for the White House.
Huckabee told reporters in Washington this morning he would make a little news on "Special Report with Bret Baier," which airs on FNC at 6 p.m. ET.
Huckabee's bid is, if equally destined for failure, at least a little easier to understand. Unlike Pataki, Huckabee isn't a walking Ambien, and he's kept in touch with the Republican electorate since his last run in 2008 by being a ubiquitous presence on radio and television. But he's also a con artist who seems to spend most of his time devising ways to separate gullible conservatives from their money. Not only is that likely to be raised by his opponents should he actually gain any momentum in the primaries, running for president isn't a good way to make money, at least in the short term. He already had what I assume is a lucrative career. So he must really believe he can win. After all, Huckabee is a man of fervent and sincere faith.
Maybe it's the imperfections of the announced candidates that lead people like Pataki and Huckabee to give it a shot. After all, Jeb Bush is a Bush, Marco Rubio is a whipper-snapper, Scott Walker is untested nationally—if you were motivated enough, you could come up with a scenario in which everyone else falls and you're left as the obvious choice. But these guys? I'm sure Hillary Clinton is quaking in her boots.
Jeb Bush, you may or may not be aware, spent much of his adult life as a "businessman." I put that word in quotes because from what we've learned so far Bush doesn't seem to have risen in the business world the way we normally think of people doing, by creating some kind of product or service that can be sold to people, by managing a growing operation, and so on. Instead, his work, such as it was, consisted of opening doors and making deals, something a succession of partners brought him in to do because of his name.
Which isn't in itself a sin. I'll get to that in a minute, but first, an article in today's Times discusses some of Bush's deals that didn't turn out so well, and how he reacted:
Yet a number of his ventures before he entered politics have invited criticism that Mr. Bush traded on his family's name and crossed ethical lines. His business involvement, as the son of a president, was inevitably vetted in public view, subjecting Mr. Bush to so many questions that he angrily accused the news media of treating him unfairly.
"By definition, every single business transaction I am involved with may give the appearance that I am trading on my name," Mr. Bush wrote in The Wall Street Journal during the final days of his father's re-election campaign in 1992, responding specifically to stories about his involvement with the sale of M.W.I.'s water pumps. "I cannot change who I am."
Months earlier, he had written a 1,400-word defense of his business dealings in The Miami Herald in which he condemned reporters for having "gone too far in delving into the private lives of the families of public figures."
"Being part of America's 'First Family' is both wondrous and challenging," he wrote in the newspaper, adding that he desired to have his successes or failures "measured by his own performance and behavior, not those of his parents."
There isn't necessarily anything wrong with making money the way Bush did. He had a famous name and connections that that name produced, and people were willing to give him large quantities of money to use it to their advantage. Every once in a while we hear of some wealthy heir who gives away all their inheritance and makes a fresh start with nothing, but most of us wouldn't have the guts to do that. Connections and renown were Bush's inheritance, an invaluable currency that could be traded for riches and power. He accepted that inheritance, like most people would.
But what I'd like to know is how Bush himself thinks of his career, and how self-aware he is today. At the 1988 Democratic convention, Jim Hightower said of Jeb's father that he "was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." What does Jeb think he hit?
I'm sure he would like to believe that every dollar he ever made came because of his skills, smarts, and hard work. But it didn't. Like his brother George (who had a similar business career in which people lined up to give him money), Jeb had opportunities that are available to almost no one else in America.
So imagine if he said, "Look, I know that my career has been different from most people's. My grandfather was a senator and my father was the president. Did that ease my way? Of course. It would be ridiculous of me to claim otherwise. But I tried to operate as honestly as I could, work hard, and learn as much as possible in the business world." If Bush said that, he could earn a lot of respect, even from his political opponents.
When he was born, Jeb Bush won the lottery. We don't condemn anyone for winning the lottery, but we do judge what they do afterward. Some people win it, buy a nice house, and then set up a foundation to help other people. Other people win the lottery and blow the whole thing on hookers and cocaine. Bush's history seems to be somewhere in between.
Most of the people Bush is running against in the primaries are the dreaded "career politicians," and those who have made their careers outside of business (Ted Cruz was a lawyer, Rand Paul and Ben Carson were doctors). Since Republican ideology has it that businesspeople are the most noble and heroic among us, it will be tempting for Bush to tout his business experience as a key credential during the primaries. It will also be tempting for his opponents to criticize him as a scion of the elite, particularly since it fits well into the narrative that he's the "establishment" candidate while they're representatives of the grassroots. The question is whether Bush will deny that he's any different from any other successful businessman.
A bunch of politicians at a press conference, you say? Nay, this is something far more momentous. This is Democrats and Republicans at a ceremony signing the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, better known as the "doc fix" bill, or more properly, the bill that ends the annual absurdist ritual that was the doc fix. Democrats and Republicans. Together. Agreeing. Mark it well, for you may not see its like any time soon. I do think the photo captures Boehner's and McConnell's enthusiasm for sharing a podium with Nancy Pelosi, however.
Chris Christie still harbors hopes of becoming the Republican nominee for president, and in search of a way to convince conservatives that he's one of them—and reinforce the idea that he's a bold truth-teller who doesn't care whose feathers he ruffles, and you might not agree with him but you'll always know he's telling it like it is—Christie has announced a plan to cut Social Security benefits. He would do it in two ways. First, he would means-test benefits, reducing them for those who have over $80,000 in income and phasing them out entirely past $200,000 in income. Second, he would raise the retirement age to 69 (it's currently 66 and will soon rise to 67).
As Matt Yglesias explains, the cut in upper-income benefits is getting most of the attention, which works to Christie's benefit because it sounds like his plan hurts rich people. But in fact, the number of people affected would be fairly small, while increasing the retirement age would be devastating to people of modest incomes. That's particularly true of people who do manual labor, which in your late 60s becomes increasingly difficult. So Christie is proposing a plan that is actually an attack on retired poor and middle-class people, but it's being described as an attack on the rich.
I should point out that even means-testing benefits can be a clever way to undermine the program as a whole. It eliminates the understanding that it's a program for everyone and instead changes it to a program just for people of modest incomes, which then opens it up to further cuts and changes in the future. This is why most liberals oppose means-testing, even though it sounds like something they would support.
In any case, I want to return to this idea that Chris Christie is willing to tell the hard truths. Every story about Social Security mentions that it is the "third rail of American politics," meaning you can't touch it without being zapped. Anyone who would do so naturally deserves praise for their courage and for doing what's right despite the risk. But why is touching Social Security dangerous?
It isn't because of some magical incantation that FDR spoke over the bill as he signed it. It's because, with the possible exception of Medicare, Social Security is the most successful and therefore beloved social program in American history. Before Social Security, aging was almost a guarantee of falling into poverty. If you're below a certain age, you've probably never heard the cliché of old ladies eating cat food to survive, but at one time in America that was an actual thing.
But don't we need to do something before Social Security goes broke? No. Social Security is not going broke, and if we want to fix the funding problems that we will confront a few decades from now there are relatively easy ways to do it; I discussed that years ago in this piece, and not much has changed since.
But back to Christie: Is it courageous to propose a policy change that would be tremendously cruel to millions of Americans? I guess it is in a way. But that doesn't make it praiseworthy.