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.

Recent Articles

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.

Photo of the Day, Election Fever Edition

Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog, who hopes to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, captured in a totally natural and not-at-all-awkward moment as he casts his ballot in today's election. My favorite part is the security guy on the right—Israeli security guys all look the same, you can spot them from a mile away—thinking to himself, "Should I tear out that photographer's trachea? Not yet, but maybe."

Chartsplosion: Defense Spending

Republicans are gearing up for a new push to increase military spending, one that will be justified on the basis that America's military has been "hollowed out," what with us spending a mere half-trillion dollars a year on wars and preparing for wars. Is there any truth to that argument? To help answer that question, I've created some charts using the Office of Management and Budget's glorious historical tables.

Our first chart tells a story, in part, of America's wars: an explosion of spending in World War II, followed by a dramatic drop, then rising again for the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Then there was a  If we look at just the money we've spent on defense, it looks like spending shot up in the 1980s, followed by the "peace dividend" of the 1990s, followed by the large increases of the 2000s associated with the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars:

Even with the decline since the recent peak of 2011, we're still spending more in inflation-adjusted terms than we have since World War II. But maybe that doesn't tell the whole story. Let's try another measure, the proportion of the federal budget that went to defense:

That's a very different picture. It may not surprise you that during World War II almost the entire budget was going to the military, but even during Vietnam we were spending almost half the federal budget on defense.

That number has its limitations, too. Over time the federal government hasn't just gotten bigger, it's doing more things. For instance, before 1965 there was no Medicare; the program has since grown to around 14 percent of the federal budget. So the fact that the military is getting smaller as a proportion of the budget reflects the increasing responsibilities of the government as a whole, not a reduction in our commitment to buying lots of guns and planes and tanks.

So perhaps it would be better to look at military spending as a proportion of GDP:

That looks like it's gone to nothing! Which of course is a function of the scale created by the presence of World War II, when spending on the military accounted for over a third of the entire economy. So let's look just at the last 35 years:

Has it come down during Barack Obama's time in office? Yes it has, for two reasons: the end of the Iraq War, and sequestration. But none of this actually tells us what military spending should be. Should it be pegged to a certain percentage of GDP? Although that has been proposed by some in the past, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If we have a year of great economic growth, that doesn't necessarily mean we should spend more on weapons, any more than going into a recession necessarily means we should cut military spending.

A better question might be: what do we want to use our military for? If the answer is, "We'd like to be ready to invade and occupy a country like Iran, in a war that could last for a decade"—and we've actually agreed that that's what we want to do — then we should spend what's necessary to do that. On the other hand, if we're just going to say "The world is on fire!" and therefore we need to spend as much as we possibly can, then we haven't exactly made a reasoned judgment.

Photo of the Day, Not-Dead Strongman Edition

Vladimir Putin—or, if you're of a certain bent, the actor portraying him—attempts a smile at his meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, the first time the Russian leader had been seen in many days.

A Brief Note On Hillary Clinton's 'Ambition'

It would be hard for anyone to argue that male and female political candidates don't get treated differently. While sometimes this can work to women's advantage—they're assumed to be compassionate and caring, even if they aren't—most of the time the result is that women are asked questions a male candidate would never get asked (like "Who's taking care of your kids while you're out running for office?") and get judged by a bunch of double standards.

I want to point to just one today, because I think we're going to be hearing some version of it a lot. This is from Maureen Dowd's column yesterday:

If you, Hillary Rodham Clinton, are willing to cite your mother’s funeral to get sympathy for ill-advisedly deleting 30,000 emails, it just makes us want to sigh: O.K., just take it. If you want it that bad, go ahead and be president and leave us in peace. (Or war, if you have your hawkish way.) You’re still idling on the runway, but we’re already jet-lagged.

If Maureen Dowd is bored of writing about Hillary Clinton, she has two choices: find another line of work, or maybe—and see if you can keep with me here—don't write about Hillary Clinton. There are plenty of things to write about. She can go with Tom Friedman to plumb the wisdom of Bangalore cab drivers, or debate David Brooks on dime-store sociology. And if you're looking for a slightly angrier version of her argument, you can read Kevin Williamson in the National Review, who calls Clinton a "monster" who is "addicted to political power."

This may be partly because some people just hate Hillary Clinton, for reasons of varying legitimacy. But the idea that a politician is to be condemned for being too politically ambitious is applied way more often to women than to men.

Does Hillary Clinton want to be president? Yes, she does. Does she want it desperately? I'm sure. But you know who else wants it just as bad? Every single person running for president, that's who. Clinton is no more ambitious than Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Scott Walker or any of the other candidates. There's something almost pathological about a willingness to do the things necessary to reach the White House, and they all share that pathology.

We pretend that if a candidate thinks the same way we do about issues, then their ambition is in the service of a noble cause and therefore not problematic. But they're all ambitious. That's why they're running.