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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Photo of the Day, Media Edition

New York Times media columnist David Carr, speaking at an event yesterday. He died later that evening after collapsing in the Times newsroom. 

It's Going to Be Hard to Convince Voters of Republicans' Compassion On the Economy

In recent months, Republicans have been searching for ways to talk about the economy that go beyond their traditional supply-side focus on growth, which says that if we do a few key things (cut taxes, reduce regulations), the economy will grow and everyone will benefit. Since the conversation about economics has shifted to things like inequality and wage stagnation, potential 2016 candidates want to show that they're concerned about more than growth; this need is particularly acute in the wake of 2012, when Mitt Romney was caricatured as a ruthless plutocrat crushing the dreams of regular people in order to amass his vast fortune, all while heaping contempt on the "47 percent."

Many Republicans believe that this entirely explains Romney's loss, and if they can convince voters that they understand their struggles and have ideas to help them, then victory in 2016 is possible. But that would require them to counter some powerful and deeply ingrained stereotypes about their party. As Brendan Nyhan explains today, there is some political science research into the question of whether it can be done, under the heading of "issue ownership" and "issue trespassing":

The Republican focus on inequality could address this vulnerability by helping the party look more caring, reducing the G.O.P.'s "damaging reputation for caring only about the economic interests of the rich," as National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru put it.

But there is risk in issue-trespassing of the sort that the Republicans are attempting. One political science study found that the strategy is rarely successful and that voters tend to rely on party stereotypes instead — a conclusion that is reinforced by miscues like the infamous Dukakis tank ride. Democrats are already likening Jeb Bush to Mr. Romney in an attempt to buttress the stereotype of the G.O.P. as the party of the rich.

And even if the move to address inequality lessens Republican image problems, it will be only a stopgap. Assuming the economy continues to improve, Republicans will be forced to pursue what Lynn Vavreck, an Upshot contributor, calls an "insurgent" strategy in 2016, trying to focus the election on another issue in which its presidential candidate has an inherent advantage.

Unfortunately, good insurgent issues are hard to find. Inequality doesn't look like a winner for Republicans in this election. That's why Mr. Bush, like Mr. Dukakis, has struck some analysts as sounding like a technocrat — he can’t run on the economy and doesn't have a good alternative issue or trait to emphasize (unlike his brother George, who successfully ran as the Not Clinton candidate in 2000).

The Dukakis example is an interesting and revealing one. In 1988, at the end of a huge military build-up, Dukakis tried to argue that the question wasn't whether our military was big, but whether we were making smart decisions about what weapons we purchased and what we did with them. Then somebody thought it would be good for him to take a ride in a tank, just to show that he liked big things that go boom just as much as any Republican, ignoring the fact that it would violate the most important rule of presidential campaigning, which is "No hats." You candidate should never, ever put on a hat. The Republicans made an ad mocking him for riding in a tank, and suddenly the discussion on defense was back on the strong/weak axis, not on the smart/dumb axis Dukakis wanted.

In 2016, all it's going to take is one thing to undo months of careful attempts by the Republican candidate to show he's compassionate and understands people's economic needs. Maybe it'll be an infelicitous remark the candidate makes, or it might even be something someone else says. But the Democrats will be waiting to show the voters that the nominee is just like every other Republican, and when it happens they'll be on it like white on rice. 

Friday Linguistic Digression


Since it's Friday, we'll begin the day with a non-political digression on language. I've been meaning to put together my thoughts on this story that came out a couple of weeks ago from Britt Peterson of the Boston Globe on the "quotative like," the now-common use in which the word "like" indicates someone saying something, as in, "I was like, no way." It drives lots of people nuts, but the message from America's linguists is, tough luck. Not only has it spread to every English-speaking country on earth, it isn't going anywhere:

As the recent studies show, the spread of both flavors of "be like" is a result of the phrases' dazzling variety of uses. "I'm like," in particular, has clearly taken firm root, with even Michelle Obama using it recently on "The Tonight Show" to talk about the problems of going out on a date with the president's entire motorcade: "He's like, 'I'm going to take you, and we're going to go out on a romantic dinner.' And I'm like, 'Is the ambulance coming?'" As Cukor-Avila said, "I tell my students, eventually all the people who hate this kind of thing are going to be dead, and the ones who use it are going to be in control."

I understand why some people find the quotative like grating. It's because it originated with young people, and older people are often bothered by new language uses that come from the young. It makes them feel, well, old. And out of touch. And on their way out.

The question this raises for me is, when is it reasonable to condemn a new linguistic development like this one? It's obviously absurd to say that English should be frozen in all the terms and usages that were common whenever you happened to have grown up; language is constantly changing. To hold otherwise is to be an insufferable fuddy-duddy. On the other hand, there are some usages or expressions that there are good reasons to denounce.

For instance, my personal linguistic pet peeve is the expression "I could care less," which some time in the last couple of decades all but replaced its antecedent, "I couldn't care less." The reason it infuriates me is that when you say "I could care less" you're actually saying not just something other than what you mean, you're saying the opposite of what you mean. Although I understand that I've lost the battle on this one, I'm going to keep saying "I couldn't care less," even if eventually it marks me as some kind of weirdo.

In this case, I think I have a perfectly good case that the old expression is better than the new expression. You could argue that everyone understands that when you say "I could care less" you actually mean the opposite of what you're saying, and you'd be right, but at least I have a sound reason for my position. And that's what most language complaints lack. For instance, if "I was like" to mean "I said" bothers you, can you offer a reason why, beyond, "That's not how people should talk"? Probably not.

The danger, however, is that if we're too open-minded, and say that since English is a gloriously evolving system where anything goes, we'll lose our willingness to say that some words and expressions are better than others, because of how they describe an idea, or even just how they sound. It would be no fun if you greeted every newly minted word with a thumbs-up just because we want to let a thousand language flowers bloom. For example, when Sarah Palin invented the word "refudiate," the problem was that she just meant to say "repudiate"—it wasn't some new idea that incorporated elements of both refuting and repudiating. She uses it just to mean repudiate, as in deny, denounce, etc., and not to mean refute, as in make an argument in opposition to. And, of course, instead of just saying "I made a mistake—who doesn't when talking sometimes?" she asserted that she meant to say that all along, which was plainly ridiculous.

It's true that we still associate "I was like…" with the informal speech of younger people, and you wouldn't use it in something like a news article ("Today, President Obama announced a new national security strategy. He was like, 'America faces many threats'..."). But in and of itself that doesn't make it problematic. In fact, it's even a little richer than "I said" because it evokes a meeting of feeling and language—"I was like" isn't just about what came out of your mouth, it also implies a state of mind.

Anyhow, thinking about this has reminded me that the impulse to sneer at new usages just because people like you didn't come up with them is usually wrong, unless you can come up with a good reason to do so. But I still reserve my right to get mad at "I could care less."

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Photo of the Day, Canine Absurdity Edition

One of the competitors at next week's Westminster Kennel Club show meets the paparrazi. His (her?) name is Ugo, which is a pretty cool name, even if that's just ridiculous hair for any animal to have. But here's a tip: If you're a dog person and you haven't been to a dog show, you should try to do it. They let everyone walk around backstage where all the dogs are waiting, getting brushed and combed, and doing whatever it is they do. You can walk right up and check them out, maybe even pet them. It's like going to a major league baseball game and getting to hang out in the locker room. 

The War Authorization Farce

Every parent has had this experience: You catch your kids doing something problematic. They say, "Is it OK if I do this?" You reply, "How can you ask me permission? You're already doing it." They respond, "Yeah, but is it OK?" That's kind of what Barack Obama did yesterday, by sending Congress a proposed text of a resolution authorizing him to use force against ISIS, which he's already been doing for six months. Except if they say "No, it isn't OK," then he doesn't actually have to stop.

Let's be honest here: Congress's power to check the president's ability to wage war is a joke. Neither this president nor any other is going to be constrained in whatever military action they want to take because of what the legislative branch thinks.

That isn't to say there's absolutely nothing of value in the resolution the White House drew up. It does repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that authorized the Iraq War. But it leaves in place the more sweeping 2001 AUMF passed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, which basically allows the president to do anything he wants with the military anywhere in the world so long as he says it has something to do with fighting terrorism. That isn't so much a product of the text of that AUMF, but rather how it was later interpreted by the Bush administration (more on that here). The point remains that Barack Obama has never felt particularly limited in where he could take military action. And he's a guy who would plainly rather not do so most of the time, even in many cases where he has. Just think how President Walker or President Cruz would interpret it.

So the fact that Obama's proposed ISIS AUMF would expire after three years doesn't make much of a difference because, thanks to the earlier 2001 authorization that would remain in place, a future president can say that whoever he wants to fight—whether it's ISIS or anyone else—is connected by the infinite web of "associated forces" to someone who's connected to connected to al-Qaeda, and therefore there are no constraints. Furthermore, the language in Obama's proposal is completely vague on all its critical points. For instance, it says the resolution "does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations." As Obama said in announcing it, there might be some cases where you'd need to use a small number ground troops—say, if we found out about a meeting of all the top leaders of ISIS, and we wanted to send in a special forces team to get them, that would still be allowed. That sounds perfectly reasonable, but what does "enduring" mean? It could mean anything. A president could say, "Yeah, I'm sending a quarter of a million troops to invade Iran, but we'll take care of this thing in a few weeks, so it won't be enduring."

The resolution also authorizes the president "to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces." It even helpfully defines that term:

In this joint resolution, the term "associated persons or forces" means individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.

"Or any closely-related successor." There's that infinite web again—you could use that to justify almost any attack against almost anyone.

Today it's hard even to contemplate a future situation in which a president is eager to undertake a significant military operation, but Congress steps in to stop him or her. Were it a limited operation, the president would say that as commander in chief, I have all the authority I need. If it were a major war like Iraq, it wouldn't be all that hard to whip up the frenzy required to get Congress to go along.

My guess is that Congress is going to tinker with the language a bit, then pass an authorization by huge margins. Democrats will vote for it because they want to support Obama and they don't want to look weak. Republicans will vote for it because it'll give Obama's successor, who they hope will be a Republican, the ability to wage more war. Heck, they may even try to take out the three-year time limit. There aren't many guarantees in American politics, but it's almost certain that the next president (and the one after that, and the one after that) will be sending American forces to invade somebody or bomb somebody or engage in kinetic freedom-bestowing actions against somebody. And what Congress wants or doesn't want won't make any difference.