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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Republicans Pleased About the Return of Foreign Policy

(Photo: Staff Sgt. Chuck Burden/U.S. Army)

Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, speaks at a "Situation in Afghanistan" testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., February 12, 2015.

 

Republican candidates are apparently encouraged by the fact that the world seems like a more dangerous place than it was a few months ago, even if it may not actually be a more dangerous place. Why is this encouraging? Because it allows them to get back on simpler, safer ground, as I explain in my Plum Line post today:

The GOP candidates are likely to see the increasing salience of foreign policy as a gift, not only because it allows them to show how tough and strong they can be, and not only because they know the applause they can get for promising to go fight swarthy foreigners, but also because it doesn’t require any creative thinking or complex policy proposals. “What will you do about the economy?” has become a complicated question to answer, since the jobs picture is excellent but wages are still stagnant, and people want to hear new ideas. The question, “What should we do about ISIS?”, on the other hand, is much easier to answer, at least for a Republican. You can just say, “Kill ‘em all!” and everyone will cheer.

There are also poll results showing that Republican voters are becoming more eager for a land war in the Middle East, a sentiment the candidates are responding to. Perhaps they think that we can redeem the Iraq War, get everything right this time and finally bring about that flowering of freedom and stability that Bush and Cheney promised us twelve years ago. Or perhaps all they know is that there are Bad Guys over there, and when there are bad guys you have to go get 'em. Either way, it makes for wise policy decisions. 

Why Walker Is Surging and Bush Is Struggling in Iowa, in One Chart

A new poll of Iowa Republicans from Quinnipiac has some terrifically good news for flavor-of-the-month Scott Walker, and though I know you're saying, "Who cares about a poll for an election that's 11 months away?" this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of just how unusual Iowa Republicans are. They have a terrible record of picking not just presidential winners but GOP nominees, and when you look at their demographics, you can see why.

We'll get to that—and a chart!—in a moment, but first, this poll's results. Walker has jumped in front of the field with 25 percent, well ahead of Rand Paul at 13 percent, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson both at 11 percent, and Jeb Bush at a mere 10 percent. Perhaps more notable are the favorability ratings. Walker stands at 57 percent favorable and only 7 percent unfavorable, with 3 percent saying they definitely wouldn't vote for him. But Bush's ratings are 41-40 favorable/unfavorable, with 26 percent saying they definitely wouldn't pick him. Chris Christie fares even worse; his ratings are unfavorable by 30-54, with 26 percent saying they wouldn't vote for him.

All of that could change, of course, and probably will in one way or another. Voters don't yet know very much about Walker. But Iowa is an unusual place. Yesterday, Alec MacGillis made an important point about Walker's Wisconsin: "Wisconsin is not politically purple because it is full of voters who straddle party lines and swing back and forth from election to election. It is purple because it is divided into two strikingly cohesive and fiercely energized camps." Something similar is true of Iowa, another "swing" state. Iowa Democrats are extremely liberal; it was a hotbed of opposition to the Iraq War, and they sent Tom Harkin to Washington for 40 years.

Iowa's Republicans, on the other hand, are extremely conservative and religious, which is why the caucuses are so friendly to candidates who appeal to that portion of the Republican electorate. Since 1980, there have been six contested GOP caucuses in Iowa; the eventual nominee won only twice, in 1996 and 2000. Candidates who focused on the evangelical vote have always found friendly territory there, either winning outright like Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, or doing surprisingly well, like Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Pat Robertson in 1988.

Walker could win over these voters—he's an evangelical himself, and the son of a Baptist minister—or Huckabee could hold the voters he won eight years ago. Right now we have no way to know. But understanding the Iowa caucus requires an acknowledgment of how different the Republican caucus-goers are. Which brings us to the chart, which I've made using entrance poll data from the 2012 caucuses and exit poll data from the 2012 general election:

It isn't just that these voters are different from the voting public as a whole; they're different from other Republicans. They're whiter, older, more male, more evangelical, and much more likely to call themselves conservative.

So yes, Jeb Bush isn't too popular with them, just as other front-running, establishment candidates weren't in the past. That didn't stop most of them from getting the nomination.  

Photo of the Day, Bad to the Bone Edition

On the day I was born
The nurses all gathered 'round
And they gazed in wide wonder
At the joy they had found
The head nurse spoke up
Said "leave this one alone"
She could tell right away
That I would change Senate rules to allow certain executive branch nominations to proceed on a simple majority vooooooote!

The sunglasses are of course related to the eye injury Senator Reid recently suffered. But still, I think that even after he's fully recovered he should keep them on for all future press conferences.

Why It's a Good Thing GOP Debates Will Be Moderated by Conservatives

In August 2013, the RNC said it was considering having its 2016 presidential primary debates moderated not by some blow-dried, vacuous, allegedly-objective-but-actually-liberal TV news personalities, but by its own blow-dried, vacuous, openly conservative personalities. At the time, many liberals ridiculed the idea as yet another example of the closed right-wing information bubble. Well, now they've followed through:

The Republican National Committee on Tuesday announced that CNN is partnering with Salem Media Group to host three GOP 2016 presidential primary debates sanctioned by the RNC.

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt will moderate the first debate, which is scheduled to air Sept. 16 on CNN, according to a release.

"I am delighted to be included with journalists posing questions as part of one of America's finest political traditions—the presidential debate," Hewitt said in a statement. "These debates come at a critical time, and good questions will allow Republican primary voters the opportunity to see and hear their would-be nominees provide answers to issues that genuinely concern them. Any reporter who is also a political junkie welcomes the chance to be on such a panel, which of course I do."

CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who previously served as as White House correspondent for ABC News, will co-moderate, according to a source familiar with the partnership.

I actually think it's a much better idea to have conservatives moderate Republican primary debates than the kind of journalists who have been doing them up until now, for two reasons. First, they couldn't do any worse. With only a few exceptions, when your Blitzers and Coopers and Kings moderate primary debates, the result is usually a parade of inane questions that are meant to elicit something revealing or compelling but actually produce nothing of the sort. What's your favorite Bible verse? Do you prefer the Yankees or the Red Sox? What costume are you going to wear for Halloween? Those are all questions candidates actually got asked in debates in 2008. And in 2012, we got this scintillating discussion of vital issues facing America:

 

I love how seriously Newt takes the "Dancing With the Stars, or America Idol?" question, like he's thinking, "I have to show strength and resolve here..."

The second reason I think it would be good to have conservatives moderate debates among Republicans (and liberals do the same for Democrats) is that they're more likely to explore the things that actually differentiate the candidates. They'll be more familiar with conservative ideology, where the important rifts are, and what's animating primary voters. Sure, it's possible they might just throw softballs ("Barack Obama: terrible president, or the terriblest president?"), but I doubt it. A committed conservative will have an interest in pushing the GOP candidates to clarify things for voters and get rid of the chaff.

So the Republicans should do more of this, and so should Democrats. 

Bill O'Reilly Is Not Going Anywhere, You Far-Left Pinheads

Bill O'Reilly suffers from the same malady as Brian Williams: a tendency to embellish stories of the dangers and horrors he has faced as a journalist (though in O'Reilly's case, his career as a journalist was brief, before he discovered his true calling). They may have had a slightly different motivation; my interpretation of Williams' tall-tale-telling is that he wanted to portray himself as heroically journalistic, in the center of the action, bringing people the most important news of the moment. I suspect that for O'Reilly, on the other hand, it's more of a macho thing—he's as tough as anyone, and if you doubt it he'll shout you down like the pinhead you are.

But while Williams was suspended for six months and may never make it back to the anchor chair, nothing of the sort is happening to O'Reilly; Fox News has stood behind him, which won't change no matter how much evidence emerges showing that he has lied repeatedly about his "war" record. The simple explanation for the difference many believe is that NBC News cares about facts and Fox News doesn't. Which is true up to a point, but it isn't the whole story.

To catch you up, last week David Corn and Daniel Schulman of Mother Jones published this article documenting all the times O'Reilly has claimed that he has reported from "war zones" and "combat." In fact, the closest O'Reilly ever got to combat back when he was a reporter was filing dispatches from Buenos Aires during the Falklands war—1,200 miles from the actual fighting. When confronted with this fact, O'Reilly has claimed that he was in the war zone because he covered a violent protest in Buenos Aires. That would be ridiculous on its own terms, but it turns out that even his account of that protest is likely bogus as well; while the protest was certainly chaotic and violent, no other news report from the time, from CBS News (for whom O'Reilly worked) or any other organization, substantiates his claim of Argentine soldiers "gunning these people down," and in the days since a number of his former CBS colleagues have challenged his description of the events.

So it's pretty clear what's going on here. Desperate to paint himself as a macho globe-trotting journalist who's seen danger and laughed in its face, O'Reilly has for years been saying that he saw "combat" and served in a "war zone," when the closest he got was more than a thousand miles away. During the time of the Falklands War. The Falklands. And as Lloyd Grove noted, O'Reilly has been caught lying about his own awesomeness before, as when he claimed falsely to have won two Peabody awards for his work on that paragon of serious journalism, Inside Edition. That didn't hurt his career, either.

So why not? Let's look at Williams again. NBC didn't suspend him because their profound integrity and commitment to the truth demanded it. They suspended him because they were afraid that he had been compromised among his viewers, and if they had left him on the air those viewers would desert the network's news program. In other words, it was a financial decision. Williams' success depends on a combination of personality and credibility; viewers want to know they can trust him, but mostly they tune in because they like him. Take away the credibility, and they won't like him so much anymore.

You could say that O'Reilly depends on the same two factors, personality and credibility. But his credibility comes from an entirely different place, and it's the reason he not only wouldn't but couldn't apologize, or even admit that he had exaggerated his combat derring-do. For O'Reilly, credibility means not that he's a source of truthful information but that he's a source of information and opinions his audience finds pleasing. Almost nothing is more important for him than to standing up to liberals, sticking it to 'em, fighting the secularists and the America-haters and the welfare coddlers with his usual brio. O'Reilly's persona is all anger and defiance; he may be sitting behind a desk, but he wants viewers to believe that he's ready at any moment to come out from there and punch somebody in the face if they need to be taught a lesson. He's the person they want to be, channeling their rage and their resentments.

For O'Reilly, a loss of credibility wouldn't come from being dishonest, it would come from showing weakness, from opposing liberals with anything less than maximal militance. As far as he and his angry old white viewers are concerned (the median age of O'Reilly's viewers is 72), nothing shows weakness more than apologizing to your enemies. Which is why he has reacted to the charges with a stream of invective (calling David Corn a "far-left zealot" and a "guttersnipe") and an insistence that he never made a single mistake. And the facts? Well, as Stephen Colbert said, the facts have a well-known liberal bias.

It isn't just liberals who are O'Reilly's enemies, it's also the media—all of it. So when O'Reilly is being criticized, whether it's from Mother Jones or The New York Times, it just proves how right he is about everything and how much of a threat he is to the craven comsymps of the liberal elite. So when a reporter from The New York Times contacted him about the story, he told her that if he didn't like what she wrote, "I am coming after you with everything I have. You can take it as a threat." Just try to imagine Brian Williams, or anyone who wants to maintain a reputation as a journalist of any sort, objective or opinionated, saying such a thing and not losing their job.

An episode like this plays right into the centerpiece of Fox's ideology, its very raison d'être: the idea that Fox News is not just a brave outpost of truth-telling but the only place to get the real scoop uncontaminated by liberal bias. It tells its viewers that everything they hear from any allegedly non-partisan or objective source is nothing but a steaming pile of lies; the only thing you can trust on the TV dial is Fox. So when O'Reilly comes under fire, the viewers know two things: the substance of the criticism is bogus by definition; and the whole episode just proves what Fox has been saying all along. They are the righteous ones, which is why the forces of darkness are out to get them.

The bottom line for Brian Williams' bosses at NBC News is money, and journalistic integrity is necessary to keep that money flowing. For Bill O'Reilly's boss, Roger Ailes, things are just a bit more complicated. Ailes's genius has always been his ability to make his network simultaneously serve two purposes: making money, and advancing the goals of the Republican Party. An on-air personality could lose his job if he threatened either of those goals, but O'Reilly hasn't. 

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