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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The Circle of Scam Spins On

In my Plum Line post today, I took a look at this interesting report from John Hawkins of Right Wing News on how some of the conservative PACs meant to funnel money to Republican candidates have actually been just keeping the donations they get—most or even all them—for the people who run the PACs. What's different about this is that while lots of liberals (myself included) have talked about this kind of thing—I found this recent case of Mike Huckabee scamming his fans into buying secret biblical cancer cures particularly despicable—there haven't been a lot of conservatives willing to talk openly about it. Hawkins explains how the most up-to-the-minute exploitation of campaign finance rules can be worked to line some people's pockets:

For example, let me tell you how conservatives can be (and have been) ripped off by scam groups. Let’s say Ronald Reagan is still alive and someone starts the Re-Elect Ronald Reagan To A Third Term PAC. Because people love Reagan, let's suppose that conservative donors pony up $500,000 to help the organization. However, the donors don't know that Ronald Reagan has nothing to do with the PAC. Furthermore, the real goal of the PAC is to line the pockets of its owner, not to help Ronald Reagan. So, the PAC sets up two vendors, both controlled by the PAC owner: Scam Vendor #1 and Scam Vendor #2. Let’s assume it costs $50,000 to raise the half million the PAC takes in. Then, the PAC sends $100,000 to the first company and $100,000 to the second company to "promote Ronald Reagan for President." Each of the companies then goes out and spends $1,000 on fliers. The "independent expenditures" that show up on the FEC report? They're at 40%. That’s because the FEC doesn't require vendors to disclose how much of the money they receive is eaten up as overhead. The dubious net benefit that Ronald Reagan receives from an organization that raised $500,000 on his name? It's $2,000. On the other hand, the net profit for the PAC owner is $448,000. Is that legal? The short answer is, "It's a bit of a grey area, but, yes, it is legal."

One particularly vivid example Hawkins found was the National Draft Ben Carson for President PAC, which isn't affiliated with Ben Carson, yet raised nearly $13 million in 2014 to promote his candidacy, only a half-million dollars of which actually went to promoting his candidacy. Even if it's technically legal, it's a scam. If I was a conservative, this stuff would enrage me. But similar things have been going on for a long time—lists of conservatives used as repositories of gullible people that can be mined for cash, whether you're selling a phantom political organization or a snake-oil medicine. I wonder when we'll see prominent Republicans condemn it?

Photo of the Day, Astronauts Are Awesome Edition

This is the official—and I stress that, official—photo released by NASA for an upcoming expedition to the International Space Station. The awesomeness is so extraordinary it can't be contained by one measly class M planet. And if you know what's wrong with that last sentence, you earn your geek badge of the day. 

How Republicans Will Use Scott Walker's Lack of a College Degree To Stir Class Resentment

Since we're now all fascinated by Scott Walker, there's been some discussion in the past few days of the fact that Walker would be the first president in many decades who didn't have a college degree. He left Marquette after four years, and though he apparently was quite a few credits short of graduating, most people would regard it as an unwise career move when you've come that far. Nevertheless, Walker did fine for himself, and some conservatives are now holding up his example as a triumphant rebuke to liberal elitism. Anticipating the scorn Walker will receive from those elitists, they rattle off lists of the high-achievers who didn't get a degree, like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.

From what I can tell, the only liberal who has actually said that Walker's lack of a degree is problematic was Howard Dean, in an appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe. But Dean's one comment keeps getting cited (see Glenn Reynolds or Deroy Murdock or Charles C.W. Cooke or Chris Cillizza) as evidence that "liberals" are looking down their snooty noses at Walker, and by extension, at the majority of Americans who don't have a college degree.

Which leads me to believe that this is a vein Republicans may be tapping into repeatedly, particularly if Walker becomes the GOP nominee. It wouldn't be anything new, though if he himself indulged in it, Walker could come by resentment of pointy-headed intellectuals a little more honestly than, say, George H.W. Bush, graduate of Phillips Andover and Yale, who sneered in 1988 that Michael Dukakis represented the "Harvard boutique." Walker also recently started battling the University of Wisconsin (beloved within the state, but about which voters in Iowa have no similar feelings, I'm guessing), which should help him portray himself as a crusader against the tenured enemies of real Americans.

Anti-intellectualism has often been an effective way for Republicans to stir up class resentment while distracting from economic issues. It says to voters: Don't think about who has economic power and which party is advocating for their interests. Don't aim your disgruntlement at Wall Street, or corporations that don't pay taxes, or the people who want to keep wages low and make unions a memory. Point it in a different direction, at college professors and intellectuals (and Hollywood, while you're at it). They're the ones keeping you down. You got laid off while the CEO took home $20 million last year? Forget about that: The real person to be angry at is a professor of anthropology somewhere who said something mean about Scott Walker because he doesn't have a degree.

There are going to be more than a few Republicans who see in that argument a handy way to shift the discussion away from economic inequality while still sending the message that they're on the side of ordinary folks. Here, for instance, is Rush Limbaugh yesterday:

The stories are legion of all the great Americans, successful, who have not graduated from college. And of course the two names that come to people's mind right off the bat are me and Steve Jobs. And then some people throw Gates in there. So there are three people who have reached the pinnacle, who have not gone to college, and those two or three names get bandied about all the time in this discussion.

But it doesn't matter. To the elites, that doesn't matter, it doesn't mean that they are qualified to be in the elite group. And the elite group in Washington is what we call the ruling class or the D.C. establishment, both parties, or what have you. And it's especially bad in the Drive-By Media. That is one of the most exclusive and I should say exclusionary groups of people that you can imagine.

If you look at it as a club and look at the admittance requirements, it is one of the most exclusives things to get into. It doesn't matter how successful you are, doesn't matter how much money you make, whether you're more successful than they are, whether you earn more than they do, whether you have a bigger audience than they, doesn't matter, you are not getting in that club.

Something tells me that somewhere at the RNC there's an intern who just got an assignment to monitor every bit of mainstream and social media she can for any moment where a liberal says something condescending about Walker. Then Republicans can wave it about like the bloody shirt of liberal elitism. It's a lot easier than coming up with an economic plan that doesn't involve upper-income tax cuts.

Back to the Future in 2016

White House photo by Pete Souza

It's never long in a presidential race before one candidate or another says, "This election isn't about the past—it's about the future." But the 2016 election is probably going to be even more about the past than most, particularly given that there will be no incumbent running.

I thought of that late last week when I heard that Rick Perry—who promises to once again provide more than his share of unintentional comic relief over the next year or so until he drops out—told attendees at an event in New Hampshire that Abraham Lincoln was a great advocate of states' rights. "Abraham Lincoln read the Constitution, and he also read the Bill of Rights, and he got down to the Tenth Amendment, and he liked it," Perry said. "That Tenth Amendment that talks about these states, these laboratories of democracy."

That's certainly a novel perspective, to characterize Lincoln as a Tenth-Amendment fetishist like today's tea partiers. But I suppose one can forgive the impulse, given how far the GOP has traveled from what it was in the time of the first Republican president. Pop quiz: If they had been alive in the 1860s, how many of today's Republicans would have been on the side of the North? Not too many. Rick Perry sure as hell wouldn't have.

But the history we're going to argue much more about in 2016 isn't so distant, and its protagonists—and their family members—are still around. Last week, a prominent Republican economist came up with what may be the most biting message any Democrat could hope for:

"When Hillary Clinton runs, she's going to say, 'The Republicans gave us a crappy economy twice, and we fixed it twice. Why would you ever trust them again?' " said Kevin Hassett, a former economic adviser to GOP nominees Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. "The objective for the people in the Republican Party who want to defeat her is to come up with a story about what's not great" in this recovery, especially wage growth, he said.

Now imagine that Jeb Bush is the Republican nominee, and replace "The Republicans gave us a crappy economy twice" with "The Bushes gave us a crappy economy twice." It hits even harder.

Is that unfair? In the sense that Jeb Bush can't be held directly responsible for what his father and brother did in office, sure. Or at least, he's no more responsible for it than any other Republican. It isn't as though there's a distinct Bushian strand of economic policy within the GOP, one that differs in some meaningful way from what other Republicans advocate. Although nobody has released detailed campaign policy papers yet, it's all but guaranteed that the things Jeb Bush would do as president don't differ too much from what the other candidates would do. They'd all like to cut taxes, particularly on investments; they'd reduce regulations on corporations; and they'd do what they could to roll back the policies of the Obama years in areas like labor and environmental enforcement. It's possible that one candidate or another has some spectacularly creative new idea that will completely transform the American economy in ways no one has imagined. But probably not.

If the debate around the economy truly has changed, from a focus on what will produce growth to a focus on how to make the economy's fruits more widely and equitably distributed, then it's even less clear what Republicans will have to offer. Hillary Clinton can say that the years of her husband's administration were the only period in recent decades that saw real (if not overwhelming) growth in wages for people in the middle and the bottom. If Jeb Bush were her opponent, it would offer an opportunity to have a historically grounded discussion about everything that has happened since his father was president.

Because I've yet to hear Republicans explain that history. If they tried to, they'd have to confront the fact that at every key point, their predictions about what effect policy changes would have turned out completely wrong. When Bill Clinton passed his 1993 budget with an increase in the top income tax rate, they all said that a "job-killing recession" was sure to result (I assume the phrase came from Newt Gingrich, because its use was so ubiquitous during that time). What actually ensued was not a recession but a rather remarkable boom; there were nearly 23 million more Americans working when Clinton handed off the White House to George W. Bush than when Clinton took office eight years before. Bush then committed himself to cutting taxes, particularly those affecting the wealthy—not just income taxes but taxes on investments and large inheritances as well. Republicans predicted that these policy changes would produce an economy practically bursting with wonderful new jobs for all.

That, of course, didn't happen. Total job growth during the Bush years was a meager 1.3 million. Even if we're unusually kind to Bush and go back to the high point of jobs in his administration (the end of 2007, before the Great Recession), he would only score a 5.6 million increase, or around one quarter of what Clinton managed.

Then Barack Obama allowed some of those top-tier tax cuts to expire, despite Republicans' protestation that doing so would create a ball and chain dragging the economy down. Once again, disaster did not ensue; 2014 was the best year for job growth since 1999.  

Like a number liberals before me, I'll take pains to note that this history doesn't demonstrate that increasing taxes on the wealthy produces job growth. What it does show is that relatively small changes in the wealthy's taxes have little effect on the economy one way or the other. Yet the idea that altering the tax burden on the wealthy produces enormous economy-wide effects is still central to conservative economic thinking. And it's about as fanciful as the idea that Abraham Lincoln was a states' rights advocate.

Unlike some of the policy debates we engage in, this history of the last couple of decades is pretty easy for voters to understand, since most of them lived through it. And nothing would make it more obvious than a general election between Bill Clinton's wife and George W. Bush's brother. 

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. 

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