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

Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Need to "Distance" Herself from Barack Obama

For a number of reasons, it has proven extremely difficult in recent history for a presidential candidate to win after eight years in which his party controlled the White House. Only one candidate has done it since 1948—George H.W. Bush in 1988. This fact would make a Hillary Clinton victory next year an unusual event, and there will be lots and lots of discussion between now and next November about how her candidacy is affected by the complex legacy of the Obama administration. The early form that discussion is taking seems to be that Clinton's essential challenge is to "distance" herself from Barack Obama, which will be difficult because she served in his administration for four years. Comparisons are being made to John McCain, who was dragged down by George W. Bush in 2008 despite the fact that McCain hadn't actually worked for Bush, but was just a senator (and a "maverick" at that, an idea that was essentially bogus but ubiquitous), as well as to Al Gore, who never found quite the right way to describe how his candidacy related to the administration in which he served.

This is a topic that I'm sure I'll be returning to, because how the electorate thinks about Barack Obama and feels about the last eight years is going to be a central theme of the campaign. But my feeling right now is that it might not be as much of a problem for Clinton as so many people seem to think.

First, let's dispense with the two main comparisons everyone is making: 2008 and 2000. Barack Obama's popularity right now is pretty middling, in the high 40s. Would it be better for Clinton if it were higher? Sure. But it's still worlds away from where George W. Bush was in 2008. In Gallup's last poll before the 2008 election, Bush's approval was at 25 percent. His administration was judged by Democrats, independents, and even many Republicans as an abysmal failure, because of both the disaster in Iraq and the financial cataclysm that had just hit. McCain was one of the war's biggest supporters, and was offering essentially the same economic policies as Bush. That's why it was easy for Obama to say that McCain offered more of the same, while he offered change—not only was there substance to the charge, but "more of the same" was something almost everyone agreed they wanted to avoid.

Today, people are less than satisfied with the way many things are going, but we aren't in the throes of a disaster. The economy is recovering rather nicely, and attention has turned to long-standing problems like inequality and wage stagnation. Republicans can say that Obama didn't fix these problems and Clinton won't either, but they'll have much more trouble saying that their remedy—essentially a return to George W. Bush's economic policies—will produce something better.

As for 2000, the comparison is even less apt. Al Gore struggled to get out of Bill Clinton's shadow and prove he was his own man, and because of the Lewinsky scandal he had a certain reluctance to embrace the successes of the administration. But nobody is going to plausibly say that Hillary Clinton isn't her own woman or would just reproduce everything about the Obama years.

Nevertheless, in many ways, a Hillary Clinton presidency would probably look like a combination of her husband's and the one she worked in. If you're a Republican you think that sounds dreadful, if you're a Democrat you think it sounds great, and if you're an independent there are probably some things you'd like about it and some you wouldn't. But it isn't some nebulous mystery onto which Republicans can project a bunch of fears. A Hillary Clinton presidency is, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, a known known.

Things can change, of course—maybe there will be another recession, or some huge scandal that covers Obama in eternal shame. But if we proceed along as we're going now, I doubt the Obama legacy is going to prove much of a problem for Clinton. It may even help her.

Hillary Clinton is Just as Polarizing as Every Other Major Political Figure -- No More, No Less

Contrary to popular pundit belief, among 2016 contenders, Hillary is easily the most popular.  

I 'm guessing that you may have heard that Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the White House Sunday in this video . Before that even happened, you may also have heard that lots of people don't like Hillary Clinton. In the coming months, each new poll showing substantial disapproval, dislike, or disquiet with the prospect of a Clinton presidency is going to be greeted with articles analyzing the public's hesitancy about the former secretary of state, complete with quotes from Republicans gleefully arguing that everyone hates her and their candidate will inevitably win the election. And while there's some truth to the basic idea that Clinton is "polarizing," the fact is that she's no more distrusted than anyone else in politics. To be clear, I'm not here to argue that she is destined to win. She might, but she might not. It depends on many things. But there are a lot of people who will say that Clinton has unique problems with the electorate, and that's the part that's false...

Hillary Clinton Is Just As Polarizing As Every Other Major Political Figure -- No More, No Less

 

I'm guessing that you may have heard that Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the White House Sunday in this video. Before that even happened, you may also have heard that lots of people don't like Hillary Clinton. In the coming months, each new poll showing substantial disapproval, dislike, or disquiet with the prospect of a Clinton presidency is going to be greeted with articles analyzing the public's hesitancy about the former secretary of state, complete with quotes from Republicans gleefully arguing that everyone hates her and their candidate will inevitably win the election. And while there's some truth to the basic idea that Clinton is "polarizing," the fact is that she's no more distrusted than anyone else in politics.

To be clear, I'm not here to argue that she is destined to win. She might, but she might not. It depends on many things. But there are a lot of people who will say that Clinton has unique problems with the electorate, and that's the part that's false.

If you want to understand the state of American politics, take a look at this page, where HuffPost Pollster collects favorability ratings on various American political figures. I'll reproduce it here in miniature, which will be enough to see the point I'm making:

 

The disapproval lines are in red, and approval is in black. Clinton is second from the right (in the second row, if you're looking at the page on HuffPost); her aggregated approval is 48 percent, two points higher than her disapproval. She has declined about 10 points from where she was a couple of years ago, which isn't surprising as she moved toward a candidacy (her approval has always closely tracked her distance from partisan politics). But those two points make her the only major figure whose disapproval is lower than her approval. Some people are closer to net approval than others—for instance, Marco Rubio comes in at 30-31, while Nancy Pelosi is at 31-50—but as a general matter, the American electorate dislikes everyone in politics. Every Republican presidential candidate is under water in their approval, as are both parties and all the congressional leaders. As far as the public as a whole is concerned, there are no good guys. Or rather, the only good guys are on your side.

That isn't to say that individuals don't matter. Not only does every presidential candidate bring his or her own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, those can change over the course of the long campaign. But the fundamental fact is that Republican voters are going to hate whoever the Democratic nominee is, and vice versa. If there's a Republican candidate you don't already despise, it's only because you haven't gotten to know him yet.

I say that not because they're all despicable, but because that's how the process works. By the time we get to next November, if you're a liberal you will have learned all kinds of objectionable things about that GOP nominee, many of which you aren't yet aware of. You'll also hear them make arguments and advocate policies that you emphatically reject, on matters foreign and domestic. And you'll hear the people you like and trust—politicians, writers, commentators, pundits—tell you all the reasons why this person is a dire threat to the things you hold dear. The vaguely ill feeling you have toward them today will become disgust and fear of the highest urgency.

So by the time we get to the end of this campaign, the Republican nominee will be every bit as polarizing a figure as Clinton, even if I suspect he won't be regularly described that way. And I can promise you that whichever nominee wins, he or she will be one of the three most polarizing presidents in the history of polling, joining Barack Obama and George W. Bush. When Gallup gathered together the most polarizing years for presidential approval (defined as the difference between Republicans' approval of the president and Democrats' approval of him), the top ten all occurred during the last two presidencies. Tied for first were 2012, when Obama's approval was 86 percent among Democrats and 10 percent among Republicans, and 2004, when Bush's approval was 15 percent among Democrats and 91 percent among Republicans. In their last poll, Obama's approval was 84 percent among Democrats and 8 percent among Republicans.

That's what Hillary Clinton's profile will look like, too, not because there's something uniquely polarizing about her, but because people in both parties already know her, so the Democrats like her and the Republicans hate her. In a recent Washington Post poll, 84 percent of Democrats said they had a favorable impression of her; 86 percent of Republicans said their impression was unfavorable.

If Clinton ends up winning, Republicans will be shocked that such a thing could have happened. They still can't quite believe the voters elected Barack Obama twice, and if anything, their loathing of Clinton runs even deeper. But barring some spectacular circumstance or truly ghastly scandal, the 2016 election will be a close one, and somewhere right around half the electorate—neither much more nor much less—will vote for Hillary Clinton. No matter how many people say today that they don't like her.

Photo of the Day, Consumer Mania Edition

These young people in Tokyo are dispassionately assessing the new offerings from the Apple corporation. Will they buy an Apple Watch? Perhaps they will, but only after a long, thoughtful process of consideration in which they are assured that the product will be of sufficient benefit to justify its high price.

Republican Candidates Troop to Festival of Paranoia and Fear-Mongering

The National Rifle Association starts its annual convention today, and there will be plenty of time spent bashing both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, not least because the speakers include Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, and even Donald Trump. The only major Republican presidential candidates who won't be there are Chris Christie and Rand Paul, but according to Politico, Paul was snubbed because of his association with the National Association for Gun Rights, a smaller organization that apparently thinks the NRA is a bunch of wimps and compromisers when it comes to the Second Amendment.

Jeb Bush is one of the only candidates who doesn't himself own a gun, but as The Wall Street Journal reminds us today, he's got a trump card: Bush is the man who gave America George Zimmerman. In 2005, he happily signed Florida's "stand your ground" law, which has proven such a smashing success. As an investigation by The Tampa Bay Times found in 2013, "In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim—and still went free." And sure, stand your ground laws are associated with higher rates of homicide, but that's the price you sometimes have to pay for freedom.

I'm not sure if Jeb will bring that up in his speech—unlike most of his opponents, he seems to have an awareness that when there are TV cameras pointed at you, doing what you can to win over the room isn't always the best idea in the long run. But one thing none of the candidates is likely to say is that when it comes to guns, it really doesn't matter who the president is.

Even if you agree with the NRA that Barack Obama is an obsessive gun-grabber who would rip the .22 from a toddler's outstretched arms if he could, he's been spectacularly unsuccessful at actually grabbing anybody's guns. Even in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, we couldn't get the most reasonable expansion of background checks passed. The ATF just pulled a proposal to ban a certain kind of armor-piercing ammunition because of the concerns of "sportsmen" (because what are you going to do when you come across a beautiful ten-point buck and it turns out he's wearing Kevlar?).

The NRA is telling people that if Hillary Clinton is elected, then watch out—she's coming for your guns. Which of course means you should really start stocking up now, in addition to donating to the NRA. But if the last few years have taught us anything, it's that the bully pulpit is no match for a lock on Congress. I don't get the sense that Clinton has much of a stomach for a fight on guns, whatever her personal views are, but it wouldn't matter even if she did. If there isn't going to be any gun control legislation passed after 20 elementary school kids get slaughtered, when is it going to happen?

Of course, the NRA can't say that. Without the threat of future gun-grabbing, you can't keep your constituents in a state of fear. It's a parallel to the way they imagine the world in general—Wayne LaPierre is always talking about the "killers, robbers, rapists, gang members who have spread like cancer in every community across our nation," as though Americans were living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape that makes Mad Max look like some sort of whimsical Noel Coward play.

What I wonder is whether the NRA members who hear that really believe it anymore. Do they still think that America is just one election away from the jackbooted government thugs kicking down your door to confiscate the rifle your grandfather gave you (and the 20 others in your collection)? Maybe they do.

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