Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

The Ridiculous Lure of the Amateur Politician

All the news stories about yesterday's entrants into the Republican presidential field, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, mention they are extremely unlikely to win. Yet the fact that they decided to run at all, and that many in their party will consider them carefully and give them money and attention, testifies to an ongoing delusion, not only among Republicans but among many in the press, as well. It says that the notion that someone with no experience in government should be taken seriously as a contender for the most important job in government is something other than absurd.

Ben Carson was an excellent doctor, and Carly Fiorina certainly knows a lot about the profit potential of printer cartridges (even if her tenure as CEO of HP was something of a disaster). But neither of them has ever held elective office, or any position at all in government at any level. Yet we accept that they could step into an entirely unfamiliar environment and operate with at least some level of competence. It isn't that they won't be asked about their lack of government experience, because they will (and already have been). But when they and other amateur politicians answer that what really matters is vague things like "judgment" and "values," we accept the answer as good enough and move on.

But do you know how many of America's 44 presidents arrived at that office without extensive government experience? Zero. Not a one. Not counting George Washington, only five had held no elected office before becoming president. Like Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower were generals, meaning that they spent their careers in the employ of the federal government and had years to learn its ways from the inside. William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover had been cabinet secretaries. Every other president had been a member of Congress or a governor.

Of course, some of them were excellent presidents and some were terrible. But the ones revered by both Democrats and Republicans came to the job with lengthy preparation. Ronald Reagan was governor of our largest state for eight years, and finally made it to the White House after his third presidential run. Franklin Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy and then governor of New York.

While the attraction to amateur politicians exists in both parties, it's much more intense on the Republican side. There are a few Democrats here and there who come to high office having never run for anything before—the occasional rich guy (like former Minnesota senator Herb Kohl) or celebrity (the current Minnesota senator Al Franken). But Republicans positively ache for the outsider who will come to Washington and use his common sense and familiarity with the "real world" to clean house and fix everything that's wrong. That's partly because many of those amateurs come from the business world, and Republicans tend to view successful businesspeople as the most admirable among us, their intellect, competence, and virtue proven by the size of their bank accounts. But it's also because Republicans are the party that despises government, so it's only natural that they would believe that the most noble and talented people can be found outside it.

The reason that outsider politicians usually fail in their bids for lower offices, and always fail when trying to get elected president, isn't so much that the voters realize that governing is hard and so they shouldn't elect someone who has never done it before. It's that running for office is also hard, and like anything else, doing it well takes experience and knowledge. It also takes things that are built up over time, which candidates like Fiorina and Carson don't have, like networks of allies for whom you've done favors, relationships with other politicians that can produce endorsements, and so on. But it also takes something else: practice. If you do it for the first time on the biggest possible stage with the most scrutiny and the highest stakes, chances are you aren't going to be very good at it, no matter how smart you are. Which is what saves us from having an amateur actually get to the White House.

Photo of the Day, Announcement Edition

That's Ben Carson, announcing his campaign for a radio talk show and higher speaking fees ... I mean president! Announcing his campaign for president. Wherever he goes in this campaign, he will bring his circular red rug, which channels his power and allows him to mesmerize audiences. 

Multiple GOP Presidential Candidates Now Investigating Nutball Conspiracy Theory

As we discussed last week, conspiracy theorists in Texas are convinced that a multi-state training exercise the military is soon to conduct called Jade Helm is actually preparation for the declaration of martial law across the Southwest, with all manner of ungodly consequences to follow, including the confiscation of people's guns and perhaps forced internment in re-education camps where patriotic Americans are forced to watch episodes of "Girls" with their eyes pried open "Clockwork Orange"-style and fed a diet of borscht and stale bread. Governor Greg Abbott, perhaps after noting continued healthy sales of tinfoil hats throughout the Lone Star State, announced that he had instructed the National Guard to "monitor" the exercise, just to make sure there's no funny stuff going on. Last week Rand Paul told a radio host he'd look into it, and on Saturday, Ted Cruz made clear that he's on the case:

"My office has reached out to the Pentagon to inquire about this exercise," Cruz, a Texas senator, told Bloomberg at the South Carolina Republican Party's annual convention. "We are assured it is a military training exercise. I have no reason to doubt those assurances, but I understand the reason for concern and uncertainty, because when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don't trust what it is saying."

If the question you're asking is, "Why would people believe something so preposterous?", then what Cruz is saying almost makes sense. His argument is essentially that ordinary folks would never have contemplated such a thing a few years ago, but after Barack Obama went on his socialist rampage, trying to get people health coverage and imposing restrictions on Wall Street's ability to obliterate the American economy again, it's only natural that people would become so alarmed that it seems perfectly plausible to them that Obama would have sent the army to take over Texas.

But there's a big difference between saying "Here's an explanation for why some people might be taken with this insane idea" and saying "I too am taken with this insane idea." Cruz is planting himself somewhere in the middle — he's not endorsing it, but he's not dismissing it either, which is why he instructed his staff to communicate with the Pentagon and inquire whether they are in fact about to launch some kind of coup.

Not only does Cruz not come out and say the conspiracy theory is absurd (he only goes so far as to say that "I have no reason to doubt" that martial law is not in the works), he seems to imply that it's perfectly reasonable, based on the Obama administration's record, for people to assume that something like that would actually be happening.

But it isn't. You can have a thousand objections to actions this president has undertaken, but if you genuinely think that an army training exercise is actually a cover for a military coup, you're a loon and there is not a single reasonable thing about what you believe. Like Greg Abbott and Rand Paul, Ted Cruz knows perfectly well how crazy this is. But he's a man of the people, so he'll just pass on what the people are telling him. 

Drafting the Script of Campaigns: Reporters Define Candidates' Flaws, Real or Imagined

(Rex Features via AP Images)
W hich of Hillary Clinton's character flaws do you find most troubling? If you're a Republican, you may not have quite decided yet, since there are any number of things about her you can't stand. But if you're hoping to defeat her, you'd do well to home in on whatever journalists think might be her primary character flaw, because that's what will shape of much of their coverage between now and next November. The determination of that central flaw for each of the presidential candidate will soon become one of reporters' key tasks as they construct the frames that are going to guide their coverage of the race. And the idea that Clinton can't be trusted is an early contender for her central defect, the one journalists will contemplate, discuss, explore, and most importantly, use to decide what is important and irrelevant when reporting on her. Take a look at the lead of this article by Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post , titled " For Hillary Clinton, a trust deficit to dismount ":

When Reporters Decide a Candidate's Supposed Character Flaw 'Raises Questions,' Watch Out

Which of Hillary Clinton's character flaws do you find most troubling? If you're a Republican, you may not have quite decided yet, since there are any number of things about her you can't stand. But if you're hoping to defeat her, you'd do well to home in on whatever journalists think might be her primary character flaw, because that's what will shape of much of their coverage between now and next November.

The determination of that central flaw for each of the presidential candidates will soon become one of reporters' key tasks as they construct the frames that are going to guide their coverage of the race. And the idea that Clinton can't be trusted is an early contender for her central defect, the one journalists will contemplate, discuss, explore, and most importantly, use to decide what is important and irrelevant when reporting on her.

Take a look at the lead of this article by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, titled "For Hillary Clinton, a trust deficit to dismount":

Is Hillary Clinton honest enough to be president?

That question—phrased in a thousand different ways but always with the same doubts in mind—sits at the heart of a campaign that will span the next 18 months and on which billions upon billions of dollars will be spent.

If Cillizza was trying to write a campaign-defining piece that will be cited in histories of 2016 as representative of the press's perspective on Clinton, he couldn't have done much better. This happens in every presidential race: Each candidate is reduced to one or two flaws, the things about them that are supposed to "raise questions" and make us all wonder whether we'd be comfortable with them in the Oval Office. Republicans are surely hoping that reporters will lock in a frame in which Clinton is presumed to be dishonest, because once that happens, they will pay far more attention to the veracity of everything she says and highlight every point of divergence from the truth, no matter how trivial. This is how character frames operate, and the process works the same for Republicans and Democrats.

It's a double-edged sword for candidates, because it means that an absurd amount of attention will be given to some things they do and say, while others that might get a different candidate in trouble will be ignored or downplayed. Look back at almost any recent election and you can see it in action. For instance, in 2012, Mitt Romney was defined as an uncaring plutocrat (who was also stiff and awkward), so when he said something that seemed to highlight this flaw—like "Corporations are people, my friends"—it would be replayed and repeated over and over in news reports. But Romney was also a spectacularly dishonest candidate, and despite the efforts of some on the left, dishonesty never came to define him. He might have claimed he was being unfairly treated on the first count, but on the second he got something of a pass.

Let's take another example to show why this selection of frames matters. In no election in my lifetime was there more discussion about honesty than the one in 2000, which reporters essentially presented as a contest between a well-meaning and forthright simpleton on one side, and a stiff and dishonest self-aggrandizer on the other. Once those frames were settled (and it happened early on), reporters sifted everything Al Gore said about his record like prospectors panning for gold, trying to find anything that would suggest an exaggeration. They even went so far as to make some up; Gore never said he "invented the Internet," nor did he say many of the other things he was accused of having said.

Gore did mangle his words from time to time, but when he did, reporters didn't bother to write a story about it. Likewise, George W. Bush said many things that weren't true, but because he was supposed to be the dumb one, not the liar, reporters didn't give them much attention. Even when they did, it would be in the form of a simple correction: The candidate said this, while the actual truth is that. What reporters didn't do was say that a false statement from Bush or a bit of linguistic confusion from Gore "raised questions" about either's fitness for the presidency; those "questions" (almost always left unspecified, both in who's asking them and what they're asking) are only raised around the central character flaw that reporters have settled on.

Bush's lies during the 2000 campaign actually turned out to be quite revealing, which demonstrates that the problem isn't simply the way the media focuses on one or two character flaws, but how shaky their judgment is of what matters. While Gore did occasionally exaggerate his importance in events of the past, Bush lied mostly about policy: what precisely he did as governor of Texas, what was in the plans he was presenting, and what he wanted to do. It turned out that as president, he deceived the public on policy as well, not only on the Iraq War, but also on a whole host of issues.

This demonstrates an important principle that seldom gets noticed. When a candidate gets caught in a lie, people often say, "If he'll lie about about this, what else will he lie about?" The most useful answer is that a candidate is likely to lie about things that resemble what you just caught him lying about. Bill Clinton, for instance, wasn't particularly forthcoming in 1992 about whose bed he had or hadn't shared, and when he was president, that's exactly what he lied to the country about. Bush, on the other hand, spun an absurd tale about how his tax-cut plan was centered on struggling workers, and when he got into office, sold his upper-income tax cuts with the same misleading rationale.

One of the reasons reporters gravitate to discussions of "character" is that such examinations allow for all kinds of unsupported speculation and offering of opinions, served up with the thinnest veneer of objectivity. A supposedly objective reporter won't go on a Sunday-show roundtable and say, "Clinton's tax plan is a bad idea," but he will say, "Clinton has a truth problem." Both are statements of opinion but, for reporters, statements of opinion about a candidate's character are permissible, while statements of opinion about policy aren't.

So is Hillary Clinton less trustworthy than Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or any other politician? Maybe, but maybe not. The problem is that reporters often answer the question just by choosing to ask it for one candidate, but not for another. 

Pages