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

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 whitehouse.gov 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.

Photo of the Day, Old-Timey Washington Edition

District of Columbia Public Library Commons

This photo is from the White House Easter Egg Roll, circa 1905. It was apparently taken not long after passage of the All Americans Must Wear Hats Act, a controversial piece of legislation that President Theodore Roosevelt signed despite not being much of a hat-wearer himself. It was repealed during World War I, to the great relief of a nation oppressed by mandatory hat-wearing, as part of the Headgear To Wargear program, under which hats were cut into pouches in which soldiers could carry spare ammunition.

Don't Worry About Jeb Bush — He'll Be Fine

A lot of the news around Jeb Bush of late has concerned his potential hurdles and the skepticism he supposedly inspires among the Republican base. So we get articles with titles like "In Iowa, Jeb Bush Risks Support With Unpopular Stances" and "NBC News Poll: Republicans Are Divided Over Jeb Bush Candidacy," which are true for the moment, but Jeb has far less cause for concern than it might appear.

Let's start with Iowa. Jeb Bush is probably not going to win the Iowa caucus, because Iowa Republicans are not only not like other Americans, they aren't even like other Republicans. Which is OK for Jeb, because all he has to do is lose respectably there, after which it'll be on to the much friendlier ground of New Hampshire. Just like Mitt Romney did in 2012 and John McCain did in 2008. We tend to forget, in all the attention Iowa gets, that winning there has little if any relationship to getting the nomination.

Second, it's true that many Republicans are looking askance at Jeb now; in that NBC poll, 49 percent said they could see themselves voting for him, while 42 percent said they couldn't. Those aren't good numbers, but when Republicans get asked a question like that today, they're comparing their imaginary perfect candidate with Jeb—whom they don't really know all that well, but do know is another Bush (i.e. old news) and do know has some less conservative positions on a couple of issues. When only 17 percent say they couldn't see themselves voting for Scott Walker (compared to 53 percent who could) it's largely because while they don't know much about Walker, they haven't heard anything they didn't like. So as far as they're concerned, he might turn out to be that fantasy candidate.

As the race goes on, the field will begin to winnow down, and the answers to that question will get more concrete. When there are only, say, six candidates still running and only two that get any discussion in the press, voters will be focused on a choice, which isn't how they're focused now. And they haven't even begun to get into the electability argument, which inevitably plays a role in every presidential primary.

By the time you get to the late stages of that process, what seemed like deal-breakers back in March 2015 don't seem so important anymore. Voters become willing to compromise. As I've argued before, they're ideological satisficers: They don't need the perfect candidate, they just need a candidate who's good enough.

I'm not saying Jeb Bush is guaranteed to get the nomination; it's way too early to make that prediction. But a lot of Republicans who are turning their noses up at him now will probably be perfectly fine with him a year from now. 

The Absurdity of Asking Whether Hillary Clinton Can 'Satisfy Her Critics'

If you watched or read the coverage of Hillary Clinton's press conference yesterday, there's a phrase you heard, in one variation or another, over and over. "Clinton's email explanation won't placate critics," said the AP. "Her defense...is unlikely to satisfy her critics or stop the questions," said The Washington Post. Democrats, said National Journal, "worry her approach does little to quiet the critics."

Oh, please. Short of committing seppuku right there in front of the cameras, there wasn't anything Clinton could have done to placate, satisfy, quiet, mollify, or otherwise ease the minds of her critics. Let's not pretend we don't all know exactly how this game is played.

Whether it's because they honestly believe that she is guilty of horrible crimes that we might find if only we looked hard enough, or because they just know that keeping up a relentless stream of faux-outrage bleating is good strategy, Republicans will, for each and every day Hillary Clinton remains in public life, not be quieted. That's politics, and that's fine. But it's positively inane to ask "Can Clinton satisfy her critics?" It's as though in the Super Bowl pregame show, one sportscaster turned to another and said, "Jim, what can the Patriots do to satisfy the Seahawks' concerns?" That's not what they're there for. They're trying to win.

To be clear, I'm not trying to defend Clinton's decisions about her email or the things she said yesterday. I have some problems with both. But the question journalists are asking is clear evidence that they think "Republicans criticize Clinton" is itself a newsworthy event deserving of further coverage and discussion. It isn't, any more than the sun setting tonight and rising tomorrow.

That Republicans will criticize Clinton over this and every other issue is a given. So journalists have to then determine whether the criticisms have any merit. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they won't. If they do, then go ahead and cover it. If they don't, then there's no reason to give them more attention than they deserve. It's called exercising news judgment. We might want to give it a try. 

Pages