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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The Poison in Which Conservatives Marinate

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

If you look at poll results saying that most Republicans think Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim enacting a secret plan to destroy America and think, "What the hell is wrong with these people?", you have to understand that it gets reinforced day after day after day by media sources they believe to be lonely islands of truth amid a sea of lies. Yes, they hear it from politicians like Rudy Giuliani, who seems to be on some kind of mission to prove himself to be America's most despicable cretin. But that only reinforces the river of political sewage that flows into their ears each and every day.

To wit, here's Republican uber-pundit Erick Erickson, filling in for Rush Limbaugh and telling his millions of listeners what they want to hear:

"Barack Obama believes that for the world to be more safe the United States must be less safe. For the world to be more stable the United States must be less stable. Barack Obama believes the United States of America is a destabilizing, arrogant force in the world, we need our comeuppance and we need to be humbled. And so everything Barack Obama does domestically and in foreign policy is designed to humble the arrogant crackers who have always run the United States."

Yes, that's right, "arrogant crackers." How on earth anyone could get the idea that the attacks on Obama by people like Erickson are meant to stoke their audience's racial resentments, I have no idea.

As a general rule, whenever you hear a conservative pundit start a sentence with "Barack Obama believes…" you're about to hear something that not only bears no plausible relationship to reality but is also meant to play on the worst instincts of his or her audience. And it is simply impossible to overstate the ubiquity of this particular theme in conservative media: Barack Obama hates not just America but white people in general, and all of his policies are meant to exact racial vengeance upon them. This is the rancid stew of fantasy, hatred, and yes, racism in which millions upon millions of conservatives have spent the last six years marinating.

To my conservative friends: I know that you are obsessed with the idea that conservatives are constantly being unfairly accused of racism. And there are certainly times when some liberals are too quick to see racist intent in a comment that may be innocuous or at worst unintentionally provocative. But you make heroes out of people like Giuliani, Limbaugh, and Erickson. You applaud them, honor them, extol them, and when other people occasionally notice the caustic hairballs of bile they spit onto waiting microphones, the most you can say is, "Well, I wouldn't go that far." So you have nothing to complain about.

Republicans Return To Tax Cut Fantasyland

You see, Sean, when a billionaire takes a crap in a solid gold toilet, that creates economic rainbow sparkles that shower down on the working poor. It's good for everybody. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

One surprising thing about the campaign Mitt Romney ran in 2012 was that cutting taxes, a theme you might have expected from someone of his profile, wasn't at the center of it. Perhaps wary of getting painted, even more than he already was, as the representative of the rich, Romney proposed a tax cut plan that was, by Republican standards anyway, rather modest. But those were the bad old days—tax-cut fever is back in the GOP, with a vengeance. From Bloomberg's Richard Rubin:

The campaign for the Republican nomination for president is poised to become a race to the biggest tax cut.

More than a dozen candidates are vying for attention from donors and the party's base voters, and they aren't letting the U.S. budget deficit get in their way.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida kicked off the competition with his plan to boost economic growth by slashing taxes on investments, wages and business income. Even the plan's proponents concede it would reduce tax collections by at least $1.7 trillion in the first decade, largely favoring the top 1 percent of Americans over the middle class.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky says he will propose the biggest tax cut in U.S. history. Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, both considering repeat presidential campaigns, ran on reducing taxes four years ago and would be expected to do so again.

The shrinking deficit—it's less than half of what it was four years ago—creates an opening for Republicans to return to the tax-cut politics that propelled Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush into the White House.

"It focuses on the right question at the right time, which is: How will we grow more rapidly?" Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said of the proposal Rubio released last week with Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Holtz-Eakin acknowledged that the tax cuts require spending reductions to keep the deficit in check.

Holtz-Eakin is not just wrong about that, but wrong in two separate ways. First, how we grow more rapidly is not at all the right question. The question everyone is asking now is how we spread the gains of a growing economy more widely. And second, even if the question were how to grow more, tax cuts would not be the answer.

You have to admire one thing about the Republican perspective on this issue: their unflagging insistence, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that the best and perhaps only way to affect the economy is by adjusting the tax rate paid by wealthy people. Here's a quick history review of the last two decades: In 1993, Bill Clinton signed a budget that included tax increases. Republicans unanimously said it would bring a "job-killing recession." It didn't; in fact, almost 23 million jobs were created during Clinton's two terms. Then George W. Bush got elected and signed two rounds of enormous tax cuts. Republicans promised these cuts would super-charge the economy. They didn't; job growth was weak throughout Bush's term. Then at the end of 2012, the deal ending the "fiscal cliff" allowed the top income tax rate to revert back to what it had been during the Clinton years. Republicans grumbled that this increase would hamper job growth. That didn't happen either; in the two years since, the economy has created 5 million jobs.

In other words, the Republicans' essential theory about upper income taxes—increasing them destroys jobs and smothers growth, while cutting them explodes growth and creates huge numbers of jobs—is not just wrong, but demonstrably, obviously, spectacularly wrong. Yet they keep saying it.

The reason isn't all that difficult to concern. For conservatives, cutting upper-income taxes isn't a practical imperative, it's a moral imperative. It's just the right thing to do. Taxes are an inherent moral evil, and taxes on those who have proved their industriousness and virtue by being rich are the most profound moral evil of all. This is a very different argument from the practical one, which says that if we cut taxes for the wealthy then good things will happen to everyone as a consequence.

Republicans know that the moral argument has appeal to only a very small number of Americans, mainly those would benefit directly from upper-income tax cuts. So the practical argument is the one they must offer, even if it happens to be utterly false.

So here's the question they ought to be asked: "Every argument Republicans have made in the last 20 years about taxes has turned out to be wrong. Now you're saying if we cut upper-income taxes, it will produce terrific growth. Why would that be true now when it hasn't been true before?"


Photo of the Day, Back From the Heavens Edition

A Soyuz spacecraft carrying American astronaut Barry Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova back to earth after six months aboard the International Space Station (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Hillary Clinton and the Faith of Republicans

When it comes to Hillary Clinton, Republicans have faith. They don't think they're going to have to rely on some kind of clever messaging in order to undo her presidential candidacy; all that will be necessary is to uncover the truth. This faith springs from the belief, which they hold as firm and true as the Pope holds that Jesus was the son of God, that Clinton, like her husband, is corrupt from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. Which is why they're about to embark on an orgy of congressional investigations and hearings; the emails will be just the beginning. In my Plum Line post today, I explain why I'm skeptical this is going to produce much:

I promise you this: As she contemplated her political future back in 2009 when she became secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spent at least a few moments considering the idea of future congressional hearings on what she did as a federal employee. She’s no dummy, and she lived through the 1990s, when congressional Republicans started as many investigations and held as many hearings about her husband’s alleged misdeeds as there are stars in the sky.

Clinton may be telling the truth when she says that she decided to use her personal email for State Department business purely because it would be more convenient. But it’s almost impossible to believe that she didn’t also consider the fact that it would give her more control over her communications, and make them less open to the inevitable FOIA requests and congressional examinations. That isn’t because she was intending to plan and execute horrible crimes via email; as she learned again and again in the 1990s, there doesn’t have to be any underlying malfeasance for there to be an endless and politically damaging investigation.

You can apply the same two-handed logic to her decision to delete her private emails. On one hand, she’s right when she says that anyone, even a public official, deserves to have some privacy; no one has a need to read personal missives between her and her friends and relatives if they had nothing to do with official business. On the other hand, she made the decision to delete those emails precisely because that meant they’d never be read by Republicans in Congress, by reporters, or by the public.

How you judge that decision will probably depend on whether you assume that what’s in the emails is benign or nefarious. But unless Republicans want to start sending subpoenas to everyone Hillary Clinton knows on the off chance that they might have gotten an email from her some time in the last six years and that that email might contain evidence of some wrongdoing (which, who knows, they might want to do), then they’re probably going to be out of luck. Whatever you think the email story reveals about Hillary Clinton’s character, it just won’t amount to something that Republicans in Congress can use to bring her down.

In a weird way, this is to the Republicans' credit. While they had plenty of arguments they thought would sting Bill Clinton to the core, they always had faith that what would ultimately lead them to defeat him was substance. Their triumph would come when they finally revealed him for the monster he is. Yes, you might point out that they pursued a whole series of trumped-up fake scandals, but I'd bet that they believed in every one, or nearly so. They thought that once all the facts were known about Whitewater or the travel office or the fundraising excesses or whatever, then all Americans would recoil in disgust and send Bill Clinton packing.

When that didn't happen, they saw it not as their failure to adopt a sufficiently dextrous political strategy, but as a moral failure on the part of the American people themselves. After all, did they not prove that Clinton was a lecher, preying upon White House interns? And yet the public shrugged its shoulders and said, "Whatever—the economy's good."

Despite that experience, the Republicans' faith remains undimmed. They will pursue this email issue because they know in their hearts that if they could just get their hands on all the emails, we'd all be horrified by what they contain. As David Von Drehle writes, "A key page in the Clinton rule book is the one that reads: When in doubt, drive your enemies crazythen sit back and watch them implode." That's only possible because Republicans have such faith that the truth will set them free, free from the Clintons. When it doesn't, they're driven mad again.

Time For Everyone to Dial It Back On the Iran Letter

I don't remember the last time a letter from a bunch of senators generated as much news as the one Senator Tom Cotton and 46 other Republicans sent on Monday to the government of Iran. It's quite a coup for Cotton himself, and something of a black eye for the Republicans, given that it has generated so much criticism from across the political spectrum. But it's time that everyone take a breath on this. Was the letter a terrible idea? Yes. Does it reflect the Republicans' essential contempt for Barack Obama and their unwillingness to accept his legitimacy? Yes. But let's try to keep our heads here. The word "treason" is getting tossed around a lot, and that's just ridiculous.

That particular ball got rolling with the front page of Tuesday's New York Daily News, which you've seen by now. The hashtag #47traitors quickly became huge on Twitter. News outlets started running "Is This Treason?" stories (see here or here or here). Somebody started a petition on to charge the 47 senators with treason; as of now it has mroe than 200,000 signatures.

I certainly contributed, in some small way, to making this a big story. On Monday, shortly after the letter was released, I wrote this post about it at the Plum Line, which turned out to be extremely popular, generating lots of clicks and nearly 5,000 comments. I attribute that less to any razor-sharp insight the post contained than to good timing and the fact that it had some outrage, which frankly readers love. I'm not sorry I wrote it—I still think the letter was wildly inappropriate. But it wasn't anything resembling treason.

Liberals ought to be particularly sensitive about this, given how conservatives treated us in the early 2000s. It was common to hear people who objected to the Iraq War or the USA PATRIOT Act described as pro-terrorist, pro-Saddam, anti-American, and yes, treasonous. It was a vile calumny, and not just because it was mean. What we objected to so strongly at the time was the conservative contention that if you said that the policies of the current administration were wrong, that meant you were taking a stand against America itself. That's a profoundly undemocratic idea.

Republicans still believe that, as long as it's a Republican president we're talking about. For instance, if you ask them for evidence for their belief that Barack Obama hates America, the best thing they'll be able to come up with is a few quotes in which he criticized the policies and decisions of previous administrations, like the Bush administration's torture program. That they can say that and in the next breath issue fiery denunciations of the current administration's policies is a feat of truly spectacular hypocrisy, but doesn't provide any justification for liberals using the same rhetorical tactics.

To repeat, the Republican senators' attempt to torpedo the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program was certainly abominable. They can object to what they think the deal will look like all they want, and if they choose to they can try to stop it through legislation or some other means within their power. But to communicate directly with the Iranian government in order to sabotage the deal during the negotiations is way beyond the bounds of reasonable behavior.

That doesn't make it treason, however. Not even close. Calling it that doesn't do this administration or any liberal ideal any good at all.