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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Judging Candidates By Their Fake Musical Tastes

This is how you do it right. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

The first rule an aspiring writer learns in any fiction workshop is, "Don't tell me, show me." You can't create compelling characters just by saying, "Bob was mean" or "Alice was generous." You have to show it, through the the things those characters do and say. And the same goes for candidates trying to craft an appealing persona. Ted Cruz does not seem to understand this, which is why we're probably going to see more stuff like this from him:

In an interview Tuesday on "CBS This Morning," the Texas senator told his TV hosts that he "grew up listening to classic rock" but that that soon changed.

"My music taste changed on 9/11," Cruz said.

"I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn't like how rock music responded," he said. "And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me."

Cruz's comments came during a lightning round of interviews the morning after he announced his candidacy for president in 2016 in a John Lennon-inspired, "Imagine"-themed speech.

Cruz did not mention any specific country music that resonated with him or which rock artists did not respond well to the terror attacks.

"I had an emotional reaction that said, 'These are my people,'" Cruz said. "So ever since 2001, I listen to country music.

Oh, Ted. That's not how you do it. This telling-not-showing is a lot like the time in 1992 when George H.W. Bush read his thematic notes as though they were the text of a speech and said to a group of New Hampshire voters, "Message: I care." You're not supposed to just come out and say, "My choice of music is an expression of cultural identity that expresses a bond of affinity between myself and certain kinds of Americans." That's supposed to be implied. If you say it explicitly, it sounds incredibly phony.

The "What music do you listen to?" question is always a dangerous one. Not only do politicians tend to be extremely uncool people, but there's no consumer choice we make that is more identity-defining than our music. Every musical artist in the world carries with them a strictly defined set of associations: these are the kind of people who listen to this band, and this is what it says about you if you listen to them. Every teenager knows how critical it is to have a nuanced grasp of how those associations shift, so you can stay abreast and adjust your choices accordingly. For instance, in eighth grade I was totally into Rush, which was reasonably cool because few people in George Washington Junior High listened to Rush; then for some reason in ninth grade everybody was listening to Rush, which meant that they were on the express train out of Coolville, so I stopped listening to them.  

Obviously, the fact that we even ask politicians what music they like is kind of ridiculous, since they aren't in fact running for ninth grade class president. But Democrats haven't exactly been deft with the question either. For a long time, when they got asked what was on their iPods (this was back when people had iPods), they would invariably answer "Bruce Springsteen." Springsteen is the perfect choice for a Democrat: working-class cred, all-American, and sufficiently uptempo to say, "I'm not a total square." But after every Democrat says that, it begins to sound phony too, and they don't know where to go beyond that (although President Obama is smart enough to stick with the classics).

Ted Cruz should learn from this that what you're supposed to do isn't to explain the political context behind your alleged love of country music; just say you like country, then drop a couple of artist's names. Then Republican primary voters will say, "Ted Cruz likes Toby Keith? Hey, I like Toby Keith, too! He sounds like a heckuva guy, that Ted Cruz." Bond: forged.

Photo of the Day, Dogs of War Edition

That's Books, a bomb-sniffer dog, enjoying some snuggle time with his Marine buddy in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

They're All Steve Forbes Now

In his speech announcing his presidential campaign yesterday, Ted Cruz repeated his advocacy for "a simple flat tax that allows every American to fill out his or her taxes on a postcard." While a flat tax hasn't gotten a lot of attention lately, in recent years it's become something most Republicans agree to without much thought. It's notable that an idea about taxes that by definition involves a large tax cut for the wealthy is so popular in a party constantly struggling against its image as the party of the rich. Yet as more candidates officially join the race, we're almost guaranteed to see a bunch of flat tax plans released. Before that happens, we ought to remind ourselves of what a truly dreadful idea the flat tax is.

When Steve Forbes made a flat tax the centerpiece of his 1996 campaign for president, it was met with a certain degree of puzzlement. Here was a guy who inherited a huge fortune, talking about how the rich shouldn't have to pay so much in taxes. (In a weird coincidence, his plan would have saved him a couple of billion dollars in taxes over the course of his lifetime.) But before long, in Republican circles the flat tax became, if not quite dogma, then certainly the default option for candidates.

Let's look at what the potential 2016 candidates have said on this issue:

* Marco Rubio recently released a tax plan that contains only two rates, 15 percent and 35 percent (in addition to eliminating all taxes on stock dividends and capital gains). But he admitted that what he really wanted was a flat tax: "In an ideal world, it would be a simple one rate for everyone. Hopefully we’ll move in that direction as a nation. We think this is achievable in the short term...If I got to start our country over from scratch, I would either have a flat tax or a consumption tax."

* Jeb Bush has said he's open to a flat tax, but hasn't gotten into details.

* Rand Paul advocates a flat tax, and supposedly would like the rate to be no higher than 17 percent, which would cause a drastic reduction in revenues.

* Rick Perry proposed a 20 percent flat tax when he ran in 2012; I'd guess he'll be saying something similar this time.

* Ben Carson supports a flat tax, though he hasn't provided any details, and like Cruz wants to "eliminate the IRS"; presumably the flat tax will be collected by the Tooth Fairy.

* Mike Huckabee advocates replacing income taxes with a "fair tax" on consumption, which would be flat in that everyone would pay the same rate.

* Bobby Jindal supported Rick Perry's flat tax plan in 2012, but he hasn't issued a proposal for this election (although he did try to eliminate all Louisiana income and corporate taxes and replace the lost revenue with an increase in sales taxes).

* In 2012, Rick Santorum had a plan with just two tax rates; we'll see if he bids down to a flat tax this time.

* When Chris Christie ran for governor in 2009, he criticized his primary opponent's flat tax plan (heresy!). But recently in Iowa, he said he wanted to make the tax system "flatter and fairer." He hasn't provided any details.

* Mike Pence proposed a flat tax in 2010.

As long as you don't think about it for more than a moment or two, a flat tax sounds good. It's simple and easy to understand: Everyone pays the same tax rate on their wage income. Republicans often say they'd like to see the tax system become "flatter" without bothering to go into detail, as though that were self-evidently a good thing.

But a flatter system means one of three things: Either those with high incomes pay less, those with low incomes pay more, or both. And in practice, it's always both.

Here's why. There are currently seven brackets for wage income, ranging from 10 percent up to 39.6 percent. If you set your one flat rate down near 10 percent, the government would bring in only a fraction of the revenue it does now, and wouldn't be able to do nearly anything that we want it to do. You could set your one rate up near 39.6 percent so no rich people got a tax cut, but that would be a spectacular increase in taxes for most people. Or you could set it to bring in a similar amount of revenue as it does now, which would mean your flat rate would be in the middle somewhere. And that means a big tax increase for those who can least afford it, and a big tax cut for the rich.

Given that, you'd think that the flat tax would be something Republicans would like but would be skittish about proposing, since it opens them up to the charge that they just want to help rich people. But in fact, almost every potential GOP presidential contender has at the very least expressed support for tax flattening, and most of them have come out and endorsed a flat tax.

When politicians take a position that carries with it unusual political risk, it's a good sign that they're sincere about it. And all these Republicans genuinely believe it would be good for America if rich people paid less in taxes, while everyone else paid more. Just so we have that clear. 

Photo of the Day, Tiny Adorable Scientists Edition

President Obama meets with some six-year-old Girl Scouts who participated in the White House science fair. They designed an electric page-turner to help people who are paralyzed or have arthritis to read. Also they're adorable, though in and of itself that isn't enough to get you invited to the White House. I'm not sure why they're wearing capes, but as a general matter I think more people should wear capes.

Ted Cruz Is the Fightin'-est Presidential Candidate

If you woke up this morning feeling as though America might be on the cusp of a new birth of freedom, it wasn't your imagination. It was because Ted Cruz has formally announced his campaign for president. Although Ted Cruz will not, in fact, become president, he's still an interesting character for any number of reasons. Let's take a moment to look at his two-minute announcement video:

It's nice to see that he's doing his part to support America's stock footage industry. And if you were wondering how a guy with Cruz's record of legislative non-achievement might run for president, your answer is here. About 30 seconds in he says, "That's why I've worked so hard to lead the fights to defend these cherished values." I always perk up whenever I hear a candidate say he "led the fight" on something, because many years ago I spent some time writing campaign flyers for candidates, and "led the fight" was a rhetorical mainstay. The question I was often confronted was, Where is the line between "I fought for X" and "I led the fight for X"? What it usually came down to was that if all a legislator did was cast a vote, then he "fought for" that admirable thing, while pretty much anything more than that could count has having "led the fight." You didn't need to actually write a piece of legislation to engage in fight-leading; sometimes, having a press conference or appearing on television was all that it took to establish leadership. After all, a fight can have lots of leaders.

So which fights has Cruz led? Let's keep listening:

"That's why I've worked so hard to lead the fights to defend these cherished values. Like the historic battle to defund Obamacare. Standing up to the leadership from both parties to fight a debt ceiling increase. And putting everything on the line to stop President Obama's illegal and unconstitutional amnesty."

You may have noticed that Cruz lost all these fights he led. Obamacare is still funded, the debt ceiling was raised, and Obama's executive actions on immigration stand, for the moment anyway. Now "Ted Cruz: A Record of Principled Failure" might not be the best campaign slogan, but as far as he's concerned, the outcome is secondary; what matters is the fight itself.

So he goes on: "Your fight is my fight," he says, and near the end, "I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight." So now you know what Ted Cruz's campaign will be about. It's about fighting, and leading fights, and standing together while you and he lead fights, or at least he leads the fight while you gaze up admiringly at his fight-leading.