Paul Waldman

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.

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Photo of the Day, Parched California Edition

This is Lake Oroville in California; the top photo was taken in 2011, and the bottom photo is from a few months ago. Maybe Jim Inhofe could send them one of his snowballs.

MSNBC and the Liberal Media Conundrum

Today was apparently time yet again for Dylan Byers, Politico's media reporter, to do one of his monthly "MSNBC Headed Down Tubes; Big Changes Coming" pieces. I'm not going to bother going through the article to discuss the things in it that I'd take issue with, but it does raise this question: If liberals haven't flocked like lemmings to MSNBC, then what do they really want from their media? And could TV provide it?

MSNBC has struggled to answer this question, but I think part of the problem is that they're always going to be compared to Fox, and liberals are just not going to line up in the way conservatives are. As evidence, look at this chart from the Pew Research Center on where people of different ideologies get most of their news:

When conservatives answer this question, they say Fox. When liberals answer this question, they say a whole bunch of things. Some like the New York Times, some like NPR, some like CNN, and yes, some like MSNBC. But no outlet has the kind of dominant position Fox has within the conservative brainspace.

Is that just because Roger Ailes is a genius, and if you could find an equally brilliant network chief he or she could propel MSNBC to a similar position? I really doubt it. I think that generally speaking, liberals like things like the Times and NPR, which reflect a broadly liberal world-view but also have a commitment to objectivity and are relatively information-dense. But that obviously doesn't hold for all of them. It may be that no outlet designed to appeal only to liberals is ever going to get huge numbers of liberals to embrace it.

Let's not forget that MSNBC still makes a lot of money. Of course, TV is a competitive business, and there's no getting around the comparison to Fox. But maybe that's a battle MSNBC just can't win.

Why Conservative Media Should Be Tough on Republican Candidates

Hugh Hewitt (Flickr/Jeremy Vaught)

When the RNC announced a few weeks ago that conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt was going to moderate a primary debate, many liberals ridiculed it as evidence that they wanted to shield their candidates from anything but softball questions. I argued that it was a good thing, first because the journalists (mostly from TV) who have moderated primary debates in the past have done such a terrible job, and second because primaries should be about what people within the party think. Someone with an interest in picking the best nominee might actually be tougher on the candidates, and would certainly have a better sense of what will matter to primary voters.

I don't listen to Hugh Hewitt, so I can't make any detailed assessment of his oeuvre, but though he's certainly a partisan Republican he has a reputation as one of the better interviewers on the right. Yesterday, he interviewed Ben Carson and seemed to expose some gaps in Carson's knowledge. This is being touted in some quarters as Carson showing his ignorance, but I actually think it's an example of what partisan media ought to do during a primary.

I don't know if Hewitt thinks of his mission this way, but if I were a conservative media figure like him, the last thing I'd want is a repeat of the nincompoop parade that was the 2012 GOP primaries. So doing some real vetting should be part of the job: asking difficult questions, exposing the areas of weakness that will eventually come up anyway, not to mention illuminating the real areas of distinctions that separate the candidates.

So did Hewitt ambush Carson? Maybe a bit, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with what he asked. In this case, it was about what might draw us into a war with Russia. Yes, Carson displayed some momentary confusion about NATO and the Baltic states, but candidates have done far worse (see here, for instance). And running for president ought to be hard. The job is hard. If we're going to give someone that kind of power, there's almost no question too tricky or detailed for them to be asked.

Now I'm no fan of Ben Carson, not by a long shot. But Hewitt asks him exactly the right question about being an amateur in politics, and Carson's answer isn't so terrible. Here's the exchange:

HH: And so what I worry about as a Republican, as a conservative, is that because you’ve been being a great neurosurgeon all these years, you haven’t been deep into geopolitics, and that the same kind of questions that tripped up Sarah Palin early in her campaign are going to trip you up when, for example, the gotcha question, does she believe in the Bush doctrine when it depends on how you define the Bush doctrine. And so how are you going to navigate that, because I mean, you’ve only, have you been doing geopolitics? Do you read this stuff? Do you immerse yourself in it?

BC: I ‘ve read a lot in the last six months, no question about that. There’s a lot of material to learn. There’s no question about that. But again, I have to go back to something that I feel is a fundamental problem, and that is we spend too much time trying to get into these little details that are easily within the purview of the experts that you have available to you. And I think where we get lost is not being able to define what our real mission is, and not being able to strategize in terms of how do we defeat our enemies, how do we support our allies? I could spend, you know, the next six years learning all the details of all the SALT treaties and every other treaty that’s ever been done and completely miss the boat.

HH: Well, that’s possible, and I want to be respectful in posing this. But I mean, you wouldn’t expect me to become a neurosurgeon in a couple of years. And I wouldn’t expect you to be able to access and understand and collate the information necessary to be a global strategist in a couple of years. Is it fair for people to worry that you just haven’t been in the world strategy long enough to be competent to imagine you in the Oval Office deciding these things? I mean, we’ve tried an amateur for the last six years and look what it got us.

BC: Well, if you go to, let’s say, a very well-run hospital, you’re going to have a president of the hospital or chief administrator. He probably doesn’t know a whole lot about cardiac surgery, probably doesn’t know a whole lot about neurosurgery or pediatric infectious disease. But he knows how to put together a structure where the strength of all those departments work effectively. And as far as having an amateur in the Oval Office in the last six years, I would take issue with that. I would say that this man has been able to accomplish a great deal. It’s maybe not the things that you and I want accomplished, but in terms of fundamentally changing this nation and putting it on a different footing? I think he’s done quite a masterful job.

Ben Carson obviously isn't going to be the GOP nominee; his run for the White House is part of a media strategy whose end point is a Fox gig or a talk radio show, supplemented by revenue from books revealing the shocking story of how liberals are destroying America. But you have to give him credit for pushing back on the idea so common in conservative circles that Barack Obama is some kind of incompetent dolt (he can't give a speech without a teleprompter, ha ha!).

In any case, this is how interviews from conservative talk show hosts ought to go. Carson can go on Sean Hannity's show and get a bunch of softball questions, and the answers will make the viewers nod their heads in agreement. But that doesn't do them any good. They'll be much better served if all their candidates get the toughest interviews possible now, and conservatives are the ones to do it.


Iowa's Bootheel of Oppression Weighs Heavily Upon Us

Tyranny's ground zero. (Flickr/Tumblingrun)

Many years ago, when I was a fresh-faced lad eager to get my start in the political world, I worked on the presidential campaign of a certain recently-retired Iowa senator. While I was stationed in the frozen barrens of northern New Hampshire and thus didn't get to experience the Iowa caucuses from ground level, I did meet many Iowans, who were as a group friendly and wholesome.

But that kind of thing shouldn't blind us to the tyranny the state imposes on the rest of us. It isn't just that candidates and political reporters have to practically take up residence there every four years and treat the fickle opinions of every Des Moines-area waitress like they were pronouncements from on high, deserving of Talmudic scrutiny and contemplation. It's that the people who demand this of the political world don't just want our obeisance, they want us to like it. To wit:

An aide to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's national political operation resigned late Tuesday after drawing heated criticism from the head of the Iowa Republican Party for questioning the state's early role in the presidential nominating process.

Veteran Republican strategist Liz Mair told The Associated Press that she was leaving Walker's team just a day after she had been tapped to lead his online communication efforts, citing the distraction created by a series of recent Twitter posts about Iowa's presidential caucuses.

"The tone of some of my tweets concerning Iowa was at odds with that which Gov. Walker has always encouraged in political discourse," Mair said in a statement announcing her immediate resignation. "I wish Gov. Walker and his team all the best."

You can read some of her tweets here, in which Mair criticizes Iowans, questions Representative Steve King, and, horror of horrors, mocks ethanol subsidies. So Walker had no choice but to show her the door. One is tempted to joke that if Scott Walker can't stand up to the Iowa Republican Party, how will he stand up to terrorists and freedom-haters?

Eight years ago, I penned a little rant about Iowa, that I think still holds up pretty well:

What no one involved in any campaign will acknowledge, and few commentators will either, is that this system is not merely curious or even unfair, it is utterly perverse. This isn't just because the rest of us get virtually no say in who the parties' nominees are. It's also because of this simple fact: No small group of Americans deserves this power, but if any does, it sure isn't the citizens of Iowa.

As you read this, some of the most important and powerful people in America are crawling through the Hawkeye State on their knees, pretending to know more than they do about corn, pretending that the deep fried Twinkie they had back at the state fair was just dee-licious, pretending that ethanol is the key to our energy future, and pretending that every precinct captain and PTA chair they meet is the very heart and soul of our nation, whose opinions the candidate is just dying to hear. And the good people of Iowa? They couldn't give a rat's ass.

If this is a typical election, somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of voting-eligible Iowans will bother to show up to a caucus. Yes, you read that right. Those vaunted Iowa voters are so concerned about the issues, so involved in the political process, so serious about their solemn deliberative responsibilities as guardians of the first-in-the-nation contest, that nine out of ten can't manage to haul their butts down to the junior high on caucus night. One might protest that caucusing is hard—it requires hours of time and a complicated sequence of standing in corners, raising hands, and trading votes (here is an explanation of the ridiculousness). But so what? If ten presidential candidates personally came to your house to beg for your vote, wouldn't you set aside an evening when decision time finally came?

I'd like to see a candidate who went to Iowa and said, "I'm interested to hear what you have to say, but you should know that I don't consider any American's interests more vital than those of any other American, wherever they happen to live. I'll tell you my vision for the future, but I'm not going to tell you ethanol is a wonderful thing just because you happen to vote first. If that makes you reject me, then so be it." 

Is the Outcome of the GOP Primaries Completely Predictable?

The 2016 Republican primary will be novel in a number of ways, but is the outcome also predictable? And if so, what does that say about all the attention we lavish on the campaign?

I'm going to have a column in The Week either later today or tomorrow on this topic, but there are some things I wanted to discuss first. To begin with, depending on how you look at it, this is the first Republican nomination contest of the modern era that doesn't begin with an overwhelming favorite. It's often said that Republicans have in the past nominated whoever was "next in line," but it's more particular than that: It's usually been the person who ran in the last contested primary and came in second. The only Republican candidate who got the nomination on his first try in this period was George W. Bush, and he seemed to benefit from the fact that a lot of voters early on confused him with his father. Just look at this list of contested primaries:

  • 1980: Reagan (3rd try) beats G.H.W. Bush
  • 1988: G.H.W. Bush (2nd try) beats Dole
  • 1996: Dole (2nd try) beats Forbes
  • 2000: G.W. Bush (1st try) beats McCain
  • 2008: McCain (2nd try) beats Romney
  • 2012 Romney (2nd try) beats clown car

The only potential candidates this time around who have run before are Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both of whom have a pretty hard ceiling on the amount of support they can get. The natural continuation of that pattern would be the nomination of Jeb Bush, the candidate who is raising huge amounts of money and fits the profile of past Republican nominees (older, choice of the donor class, conservative but not radical, etc.).

The same pattern has held in Democratic nomination contests too, although not quite as strictly, with the early frontrunner usually winning. The exception was 2008, when Barack Obama became the first candidate in this era to overcome a rival who was the overwhelming favorite. Is it possible that Scott Walker or Marco Rubio or somebody else could be this year's Obama? Sure, it's possible. But maybe not likely.

But if this pattern—early frontrunner is crowned, new and interesting challenger emerges, early frontrunner stumbles along the way but prevails—is so common, is there much point in all the time we put in analyzing the campaign? This is the same question raised by the "fundamentals" analyses of general elections, which say that just by knowing a few data points like economic growth, you can pretty accurately predict what the outcome of the general election will be.

The answer is yes, because election campaigns aren't just about who wins. In the course of the campaign, we learn a lot about the person who eventually becomes president. The parties define themselves in important ways. They set an agenda. (If Barack Obama hadn't spent so much time in the primaries debating health care reform with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, would he have felt compelled to pursue it so early in his presidency? Maybe not.) They help us understand the electorate.

And more than that, campaigns are fascinating, in all their chaotic, maddening, horrifying and occasionally even inspiring glory. Even if we're pretty sure how it's all going to end.