Paul Waldman

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Maybe Unity Is the Last Thing Republicans Need

It's the season for pandering to the base, which is as good a time as any to ask whether the glorious, fascinating mess that is today's Republican Party can ever unify enough to win back the White House—or whether unity is something they should even be after. Because it may well be that a fractured, contentious GOP is the only kind that can prevail next November.

You probably missed it, but over the weekend nearly all the Republican presidential candidates (with the notable exception of Jeb Bush) hotfooted it back to Iowa to participate in the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Forum, where they testified to the depths of their love for the Lord and their hatred for His enemies, particularly Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The entreaties to this band of the base—important in primaries everywhere, but critically so in Iowa, where 57 percent of the attendees at the Republican caucuses in 2012 identified as born-again or evangelical Christian—are a good reminder of the internal and external challenges the candidates face.

According to multiple reports, the biggest ovations were given to two candidates who are almost certainly not going win the primaries: Bobby Jindal, who has already made clear that he wants to be the most sectarian candidate in the race, and Carly Fiorina, whose pitch many of the assembled probably hadn't heard before. But Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, was enthusiastically received as well. Walker's message, the New York Times reported, "is that in an unusually fractured Republican field, with 10 or more candidates potentially on the ballot in the Iowa caucuses next year, he is best positioned to unite the party."

And he may well be, since he is liked by everyone from evangelicals to Tea Partiers to the plutocrats waiting to anoint the candidates with a shower of cash. The problem is that if you haven't ticked off some faction of the Republican Party, you've probably put yourself in a dangerous place for the general election.

Think about where Republican candidates have gotten in trouble within their party. Jeb Bush has been attacked for talking about undocumented immigrants with compassion, and Marco Rubio alienated many by seeking comprehensive immigration reform. Rand Paul ruffled feathers by questioning whether a return to Cheneyite foreign adventurism is really in America's interests. Ted Cruz got criticized for attending a fundraiser at the home of two gay supporters. Rick Santorum (yes, he's back) raised eyebrows by advocating an increase in the minimum wage.

What do all these little dissents and blasphemies have in common? In every case, the thing that the candidate did to upset Republican primary voters would make him more attractive to voters who aren't Republicans—and the Republican nominee will need a healthy chunk of them to win. So the candidate who can unify the Republican Party may by definition be the one who will start the general election at a disadvantage.

Not that any candidate wants significant portions of his party disgruntled and disillusioned after a bitter primary campaign. But by next summer, unifying the party with real enthusiasm from all sides will probably mean proposing tax cuts for the wealthy, last-ditch opposition to marriage equality, an interventionist foreign policy, a crackdown on immigration, and doing nothing on climate change (among other things)—and doing so with the zeal of the true believer. That's not a program likely to win many converts who aren't already committed to the conservative cause.

The response that most Republicans are gravitating toward (which has been expressed most forcefully by Cruz and Walker) is that this isn't really a problem at all, because capturing independent votes isn't about lining up with them on issues, it's about having confidence in your conservatism. It's the kind of advice you can find in a hundred self-help books: Keep your chin up and your chest out, walk in like you own the room, give everyone a firm handshake and a hearty clap on the back, and they'll be drawn to your powerful electoral charisma, with success inevitably to follow.

This argument has obvious appeal. It says that winning is about attitude, and requires no compromise on the things you (or the primary voters) find important; even if an independent voter disagrees with you, they'll be so impressed by your firm gaze that they'll rally to your side. And there's some truth to it, at least insofar as voters don't just tally up a checklist of issues and determine which candidate they agree with more.

The irony is that winning the primary is in significant part about issues. Primary voters are paying attention, and with so many candidates to choose from, they've got plenty of opportunities to eliminate some based on even one area of disagreement. Stray from what they want to hear, and you can be punished—and it won't do much good to say that a year from now, independent voters might find precisely that heresy appealing.

So anyone who could be a uniter will also be a divider: Unite the party and you'll put up a wall between yourself and the general electorate. In the right circumstances and from the right candidate, that wall might be low enough to leap over. But it might be better to leave behind at least a few bruised feelings and ideological doubts.

Photo of the Day, Departure Edition

Attorney General Eric Holder says goodbye to Justice Department employees on his last day on the job. Tonight on Fox: What crimes has Attorney General Loretta Lynch already committed, and what is she covering up?

Ted Cruz Is So Done With the Senate

Ted Cruz was the only senator to miss the vote on Loretta Lynch's confirmation as attorney general, despite his vociferous objections to her nomination, because he was on his way to a fundraiser—a circumstance that generated some predictable mockery. Yet as Philip Bump tells us, Cruz has actually missed lots of votes—70 percent of them this month, more than any other senator. Bet let me defend the gentleman from Texas.

Obviously, we want our senators to vote on bills and nominations. That's a big part of what we send them to Washington to do. At the same time, there are very few votes where one senator's vote makes the difference, and the outcome of this particular conflict was clear to all. Cruz's opposition to Lynch would have been made no more emphatic had he actually been there to offer his official thumbs-down.

The fact that Cruz has missed more votes than anyone else isn't too shocking either, not only because he's running for president—an enterprise that takes up a lot of one's time—but also because legislating never really was his first priority to begin with. He's a show horse, not a work horse, and he sees his job not as passing legislation but as using his position as a platform to advocate the things he believes in. He's certainly not alone in that.

And at a time when Congress accomplishes very little, there aren't that many votes of consequence to begin with. Lynch's confirmation may have been one of them, but as a general matter, not much depends on whether Ted Cruz is there to vote or not.

So go ahead, Senator—skip it. We don't need to pretend that you're really trying to legislate. That's not your thing, and that's OK. Of course, your constituents might not feel exactly the same way I do.

How the Media Rig the Presidential Primaries

The primary game, I'm afraid, is rigged. In a perfect world, all contenders would start from the same point, equally able to assemble a compelling candidacy and make their case to the voters. In this world, however, the reporters who cover the race have already decided that only a few candidates are really worth thinking too much about, despite the fact that the first votes won't be cast in over nine months and even the supposed front-runner garners only 15 percent in polls.

This, from the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter, is a pretty good statement of the media wisdom of the moment:

At the end of the day, when you put all the assets and liabilities on the table, it's hard to see anyone but Rubio, Bush or Walker as the ultimate nominee. Sure, one of them could stumble or come up short in a key early state. It's also highly likely that someone like Huckabee, Paul, Cruz and even Perry could win in Iowa. But, when you look at the candidate vulnerabilities instead of just their assets, these are the three who are the most likely to win over the largest share of the GOP electorate.

Nothing Walter says here is wrong. And I don't mean to single her out—I've seen and heard other reporters say the same thing, that Bush, Walker, and Rubio comprise the "top tier." I've written some similar things, even predicting that Bush will probably be the nominee. So I'm part of the problem too.

This judgment isn't arbitrary—there are perfectly good reasons for making it, based on the candidates' records, abilities, and appeals, and the history of GOP primary contests. But it does set up an unfair situation, where someone who hasn't been declared in that top tier has to work harder to get reporters' attention. Or at least the right kind of attention, the kind that doesn't come wrapped in the implication that their candidacy is futile.

The candidates who aren't put in that top tier find themselves in a vicious cycle that's very difficult to escape from. Because they're talked about dismissively by the media, it becomes hard to convince donors to give them money, and hard to convince voters to consider them. They end up running into a lot of "I like him, but I need to go with someone who has a real shot." Their more limited resources keep their poll numbers down, which keeps their media attention scarce, which keeps their support down, and around and around. The media's prophecy is self-fulfilling.

That isn't to say that it's impossible for a candidate who isn't granted a higher level of attention by the press to find a way to break through. It happens from time to time; Howard Dean in 2004 is a good example of someone who wasn't considered top tier to begin with, but was able to work his way into it. The 2012 Republican primaries were a crazy free-for-all where there wasn't a real top tier for most of the time; the race was led in the polls at one time or another by five different candidates. Any one of them might have held on if they hadn't been such clowns.

Nevertheless, the press has now decided that the only candidates who are worth giving extended attention to are Bush, Rubio, and Walker. As I said, there are justifiable reasons for that judgment, and they do it for their internal reasons as well—most news organizations don't have the budget to assign a reporter to each of ten different candidates, for instance, and if they assign a reporter on a semi-permanent basis to only three or four candidates, then there are going to be many more stories written about them than about the others. However understandable, though, the granting of that elevated status is like an in-kind contribution worth tens of millions of dollars, whether it's truly deserved or not. 

Photo of the Day, Wrath of Nature Edition

View from Puerto Varas, southern Chile, of a high column of ash and lava spewing from the Calbuco volcano, on April 22, 2015. Chile's Calbuco volcano erupted on Wednesday, spewing a giant funnel of ash high into the sky near the southern port city of Puerto Montt and triggering a red alert. Authorities ordered an evacuation for a 10-kilometer (six-mile) radius around the volcano, which is the second in southern Chile to have a substantial eruption since March 3, when the Villarrica volcano emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava. (Giordana Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trouble With Drone Strikes

Today, President Obama revealed that a drone strike in Pakistan killed two aid workers who were being held by al Qaeda, one an American named Warren Weinstein, and the other an Italian named Giovanni Lo Porto. This is obviously generating news because there was an American killed, while the accidental deaths of innocent civilians don't usually merit notice here. As we note what a terrible tragedy this was, we shouldn't forget that this is the kind of war on terror we asked for.

Even as he ended the war in Iraq and began winding down the war in Afghanistan, Obama greatly increased the use of drones. Thousands of people have been killed in these strikes, and the number of civilians killed is in the hundreds. Perhaps because many people see drones as the only alternative to large-scale military operations where death tolls are much higher, support for the strikes has remained high, so long as they're occurring in foreign countries and not targeted on Americans. For instance, here's a Gallup poll from 2013:

Gallup

As it happens, this strike did kill an American member of Al Qaeda, Adam Gadahn, or so the administration says. My suspicion is that the number of people who fall into the majority in that second category—opposing drone strikes against a U.S. citizen living abroad who is a suspected terrorist—would be lower once you personalize it in one individual who proclaims his membership in al Qaeda, as opposed to a hypothetical American who might or might not be guilty.

It's also important to know just how despised the American drone program is around the world. Take a look at this graph from the Pew Research Center:

Widespread Opposition to Drones

The only countries where a majority approve of the strikes are the U.S., Kenya, and Israel. Why are people around the world so opposed to a program that most Americans would say is justified and restrained? It's the civilian casualties, but I think it's probably also something else: the idea that the United States retains for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone anywhere at any time. To people in other countries, that represents America's arrogance and disregard for the sovereignty of other countries. You can say, "Well, isn't it better than us invading them?", but they don't find that very convincing.

Don't Get Bored With the 2016 Campaign Yet

Cheryl Colan/Flickr

Yesterday, The New Yorker's George Packer pronounced himself bored with the 2016 campaign in particular and American politics in general, and though I think he's wrong, I understand where he's coming from. But if those of us who have devoted our lives to politics can't find enough about it to sustain our interest, what hope is there for the citizens who have better things to do with their time? This isn't an easy question to confront, but I'll give it a shot.

First, this seems pretty understandable:

American politics in general doesn't seem like fun these days. There's nothing very entertaining about super PACs, or Mike Huckabee's national announcement of an imminent national announcement of whether he will run for President again. Jeb Bush's ruthless approach to locking up the exclusive services of longstanding Republican political consultants and media professionals far ahead of the primaries doesn't quicken my pulse. Scott Walker's refusal to affirm Barack Obama's patriotism doesn't shock me into a state of alert indignation. A forthcoming book with revelations about the Clintons' use of their offices and influence to raise money for their foundation and grow rich from paid speeches neither surprises me nor gladdens my heart.

I know what he means; I confess that I found myself feeling something between gloom and despair after the seventh or eighth shutdown/default crisis, like we were trapped in an endlessly repeating and miserable cycle, and it wasn't easy to do my job of examining the situation and writing something both informative and interesting about it. But that passed. And the thing is, it's up to those of us who write about politics to make it interesting. That's what we're here for.

Would a Clinton-Bush matchup lack novelty? In some ways, sure. But there are still things that make each of them, familiar though they might be, interesting characters. Their paths to this point and what voters think of them now tell us a lot about American politics and America itself. And this election will be hugely consequential. The next president is probably going to shape the Supreme Court's path for decades to come (there are four justices over the age of 76). The fate of the Affordable Care Act, and the health of tens of millions of Americans, hangs in the balance, as does the question of whether we're going to have another war in the Middle East and whether we're finally going to address decades of rising inequality.

Elections can be interesting (or even fun) for a lot of reasons. It becomes interesting if it's close, as this one is almost sure to be; the uncertainty of a conflict's outcome always heightens the dramatic tension. Beneath even the most practiced and cautious candidate lies a complex party with factions and internal divisions that can be explored. Every presidential campaign features uses of technology to reach voters that didn't exist four years before. Yes, the daily repetitive grind of the campaign trail and the latest micro-scandal or "gaffe" can enervate the spirit. But there's plenty more going on if you're willing to go deeper.

Maybe what's eating Packer is the lack of a collective sense of fun about politics and the campaign. I suspect this may be a hangover from 2008, which for liberals was, and probably always will be, the most interesting and fun campaign of their lives. You had a charismatic new candidate who got liberals excited and motivated to cast off the ennui that had overtaken them after eight years of George W. Bush, and in the midst of a horrible economic crisis it seemed like the future was filled with hope and possibility. Many of the elite liberals I know are now greeting the Clinton candidacy with an attitude of, "Well, I guess so." And if the people you know don't seem excited, it can be hard to get excited yourself.

I'm sure George Packer has plenty of other things he can write about if the campaign isn't grabbing his fancy. But if you're going to write about it and it doesn't yet look interesting, then you just have to look a little harder.  

Photo of the Day, Choo-Choo Edition

This is a Central Japan Railway maglev train returning to the station after setting a new speed record of 603 kilometers per hour, or 374 mph. And you pay extra to get on a pokey Acela just to get to New York 15 minutes faster. 

Sincerity Is Overrated

We spend an awful lot of time in campaigns talking about a set of personal qualities candidates may or may not possess that revolve around honesty. Is the candidate truthful, honest, sincere, candid, authentic? The New York Times asked yesterday whether Hillary Clinton's focus on inequality was sincere: "the former secretary of state must persuade voters that she is the right messenger for the cause of inequality, not simply seizing on it out of political expedience." My colleague Greg Sargent argued that if it represents a change in emphasis for Clinton, it's only because her party's agenda has evolved, and that's what the process is for. Matt Yglesias said that it's absurd to think that anyone who understands and agrees with Clinton on the issue of inequality isn't going to vote for her because she's been talking about it more lately than she used to. Jonathan Bernstein agreed, but argued that sincerity could matter for primary voters:

The primary campaign is a different story. A voter who agrees with a candidate's positions down the line may defect to another contender who is more convincing as a true believer. Nominations often involve candidates who seem identical. Can you tell Scott Walker from Marco Rubio from Bobby Jindal from Rick Perry based only on what they've said about where they stand on the issues?

Primary voters as well as the party actors who are involved in a campaign's earlier stages need to find a way to choose. They might see experience as the best indicator of who might be the most effective president. Or they might use ethnicity, gender or other demographic traits as a guide, or something to identify with the candidate personally. They might be drawn to the best speaker or debater, either because they are inspired or because they assume those skills will produce the strongest general-election candidate.

So it wouldn't be unlikely if primary voters look for the candidate who is most likely to stick to his or her promises and discount promises that seem targeted for transient electoral appeal.

I agree that some number of voters will make their choice this way, but I'd argue that doing so is foolish. As we know well, presidents tend to keep the vast majority of the promises they make while campaigning, and most of those they don't keep are merely the ones they tried and failed to do. The actual number of broken promises, a la "Read my lips: no new taxes" is incredibly small. If a candidate says he's going to do something, he's probably going to at least try to do it. This is particularly true when the thing he's proposing is of vital importance to his party. And it's true even if it was something he wasn't all that enthusiastic about, but adopted out of political opportunism.

That isn't to say that sincerity is completely irrelevant—a president will pursue some goals with more zeal than others depending on what he or she cares most about—but if primary voters have managed to extract a promise from every candidate to do something, they can probably consider their work on that issue done, and base their decision on something else. For instance, every Republican is going to say he wants to cut taxes. If you're a Republican, should you waste your time figuring out which of them is more deeply, emotionally, fundamentally committed to cutting taxes? Probably not. The next Republican president, no matter who he is, will try to get a tax-cutting plan through Congress. You'd do better to figure out who has the best shot of winning the White House and who might have the skill to guide that tax-cut plan into law. You don't need a president who's sincere, you just need one who'll do the things you want.

Only Connect, Says Rick Perry, Only Connect

It's a little strange that Rick Perry has gotten so little attention so far in the presidential race. OK, so his 2012 run was kind of a disaster, but the guy was the governor of the country's second-biggest state for 14 years, and he's as conservative as they come. Why should he get less notice than, say, Ted Cruz?

Well RickPAC, the totally non-affiliated and non-coordinating organization that exists to help conservatives like Rick Perry, though, legally speaking, not Rick Perry in particular, is hoping to change that. They just came out with a slick video that gives a hint at where Perry is coming from. Do you like Enya? Then you'll love this:

The theme here seems to be that if his predecessor George W. Bush was The Decider, Rick Perry is going to be The Connecter. "I grew up 16 miles from the closest place that had a post office, in a house that didn't have running water," he says. "If I can't get down there and connect with the blue-collar worker, then no one can. That's where I came from."

We then see a headline touting Perry's ability to connect with the business and tea party wings of the GOP, and we see him connecting with all sorts of people who apparently are hungry for connection. Old folks, young folks, men and women, black, white and Hispanic, Rick Perry is connecting with them all. He's shaking their hands, laying a comradely hand on their shoulders as he passes, putting his arm around them, connecting, connecting, connecting. And also walking quickly — but not too quickly to connect! — suggesting that a Perry White House might have some of that "West Wing" walk-and-talk feel to it.

Does this foreshadow the theme of the upcoming Perry campaign? "Rick Perry: People Person"? After all, Jeb Bush likes to tell people he's an introvert, so while he's back in his house poring over wonky think tank reports, Rick Perry can be out there connecting with people. I guess there are worse things to build a campaign around.