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

Mitt Romney and the Republican Challenge On the Economy

Like many liberal bloggers, I can barely contain my glee at the prospect of yet another Mitt Romney presidential campaign. I say that not because I look forward to mocking him (though I'm not going to deny that), but because I genuinely find him to be a fascinating character, and I know there will be plenty to write about with him in the race. The fact that he's willing to go through another campaign after losing in 2012 demonstrates that within Mitt there burns a fire of ambition and persistence that is either incredibly admirable or completely deranged.

But what will the Romney '16 campaign be about? Here's a quote from Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann's article about it: "Besides a focus on helping the poor, the other two pillars he's told people he would build a new campaign around are supporting the middle class and a muscular foreign policy, an area where he believes he was strongly vindicated from his 2012 campaign against President Barack Obama." A "muscular" foreign policy, obviously—Mitt smash!—but the other two pillars of the campaign will be helping the poor and supporting the middle class. Remember, this is Mitt Romney we're talking about.

If you think it's going to be awfully hard for any Republican, but particularly Mitt, to convince voters that the GOP is the party of the little guy, you aren't alone. I have a post over at the Plum Line about this today; here's an excerpt:

Republicans start out at a significant disadvantage in this debate for a number of reasons. First, they tend to talk about the economy from a level far removed from that of ordinary people. Enact policies like low taxes and light regulation on corporations, they say, and the result will be growth that ends up benefiting everyone. But now they're acknowledging that they have to talk about middle class and even poor people, and offer them something more specific. That runs into their second problem, that because they believe in small government, unlike Democrats they aren't likely to support policies that offer direct, immediate benefits.

The policies they do support, furthermore, will immediately be characterized by their opponents as being one of two types: attacks on the poor being deceptively offered as efforts to help them (like devolving responsibility for safety net programs to the states) or moves to help rich people being deceptively offered as a boon to the middle class (like most Republican tax cuts).

Republicans will, of course, say that these criticisms are unfair. But the default assumption voters have is that the GOP is the party of the rich. That means that in order to persuade them, Republicans can't can't just come up with some reasonable policy ideas, they have to offer something twice as compelling as what Democrats are proposing. And when Democrats are saying something straightforward, like "Our plan is to give you a thousand bucks and pay for it by taxing Wall Street," while Republicans are trying to explain how block grants would bring a more efficient allocation of benefits, it isn't hard to see who's going to win the argument. Just try to imagine how much work someone like Mitt Romney—he of Bain Capital and the "47 percent"—is going to have to do to convince voters that he's really the one who's on the side of the middle class.

Maybe Mitt's advisers are right, and they and their candidate are going to correct everything they did wrong in 2012, show America how committed he is to regular people, and ride on to the White House. I guess anything's possible.

Can Elizabeth Warren Lead the Left to Greater Influence?

Every president ends up having a few appointments he has to withdraw after controversy erupts. Sometimes it's because the nominee wrote something shocking years before, or because she had a nanny she didn't pay Social Security taxes on; sometimes it's because he was a drunk. And sometimes it's because the president's own party base doesn't like the pick. That's what happened when George W. Bush tried to name his friend Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. But it had only happened a couple of times to Barack Obama, most notably in the case of Larry Summers, whom he wanted to appoint as chairman of the Federal Reserve; he eventually gave in to an intense campaign to appoint Janet Yellen instead.

The relative lack of retreats on appointments due to pressure from the Democratic base can be explained by two factors: first, the left has been reasonably satisfied with most (though not all) of Obama's appointments to key positions, and second—and more importantly—the left hasn't been able to organize the necessary pressure to force Obama to change course even when they were unhappy with one of his picks. But yesterday they scored a pretty significant win:

Antonio Weiss, a senior investment banker at Lazard, has withdrawn his name from consideration to be a high-ranking Treasury Department official, but will serve as a counselor to the secretary of the Treasury, Jacob J. Lew, according to the White House.

Mr. Weiss, nominated to be under secretary of the Treasury for domestic finance, had run into a buzz saw of opposition, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, who opposed a Wall Street pick for the key post.

Don't weep for Weiss; that "counselor" position could be quite influential. But this is still an important victory for liberal Democrats. And the reason it happened basically comes down to Elizabeth Warren.

If you aren't immersed in the world of liberal activists, you may not appreciate just how much attention, admiration, and outright worship Warren gets there. She has become the focus of an extraordinary amount of strategizing and organizing on the left, so when she declared that she was going to fight Weiss' nomination, the left picked up the ball and ran with it. For instance, the liberal group Credo Action got 163,000 signatures on a petition to oppose Weiss. But look at the petition: The headline on the page reads, "Stand with Elizabeth Warren: No Wall Street bankers running Treasury," and features a picture of the Massachusetts senator. Or check out the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, one of the leading groups seeking to elect liberal Democrats and push the Obama administration to the left. On PCCC's home page, Warren's name appears eight times; its blog has posts with such titles as, "How to Win Like Elizabeth Warren" and "PCCC and Allies Amplify Elizabeth Warren's Message." Talk to a liberal activist about what progressives ought to be doing, and you'll only have to wait about 10 seconds before Warren's name comes up.

So are Warren's influence and the left's ability to pressure the Obama administration rising in tandem? It's possible. In the past there have been plenty of times when liberals tried and failed to get media coverage for their objections to something the Obama administration was doing, but having a figure like Warren leading their charge makes attention from the press much more likely. Reporters find her to be an interesting character, and they're always more likely to explore a story that can be framed as a conflict between individual antagonists. "Obama vs. Warren" is a far more compelling story to journalists than "Obama vs. disparate collection of activists and a few senators you've barely heard of." The more press coverage there is of an issue like the Weiss nomination, the more pressure the White House feels.

There's a danger, however, in liberals relying too much on Warren to lead them into battle against the administration. She has her own agenda, and there may well be times when liberal activists want to push the White House to do something, but Warren just isn't interested. There will also come a point where the tantalizing prospect of her running for president is no longer an issue, and that could diminish the attention she can get. On the other hand, if she is not just a media star, but a leader with an army behind her—one that can be activated quickly and has practice mobilizing—then there could be more occasions like the Weiss nomination, in which she and the left get their way in a conflict with the White House.

Photo of the Day

Yesterday was No Pants Day, an occasion for people all over the world to ride the subway with no pants. The photo above comes from Prague. Why, you ask, would people ride the subway with no pants? If you have to ask, you're obviously some kind of fuddy-duddy pants fascist. 

On Obama's Absence From the Paris March

As you may know, in addition to my work here for the Prospect I write a piece every day for The Plum Line at the Washington Post. Today's is about the criticism the Obama administration is getting for the fact that the highest-ranking American official present at the march yesterday in Paris was the American ambassador, and not our president or Secretary of State. There were a lot of condemnations not only from conservatives, as you'd expect, but also from journalists. Of particular note is the fact that CNN's Jake Tapper said he was "ashamed" of the fact that the top American leadership was absent:

Maybe my memory's faulty, but I don't recall any other journalist committed to the ideal of "objectivity" saying he was "ashamed" about the fact that millions of Americans have no health coverage, or about the 30,000 Americans killed by guns every year, or about our ample contributions to global warming. It's precisely because those things are about real people's lives that it would be considered deeply inappropriate for a mainstream journalist to express such an opinion. But you can say you're ashamed about something entirely symbolic—and in the long run essentially meaningless—like the fact that the American ambassador attended a march when it would have a bigger deal had the Secretary of State or the Vice President been there.

That isn't to say that symbolism is unimportant. Much of politics is about the creation and dissemination of symbols. But what exactly is the damage that has been done by the fact that a (supposedly) insufficiently high-ranking American official represented our government at this event? Will the peoples of the world no longer believe that America is an advocate for freedom of speech, or that Americans abhor terrorism? I doubt it.

Read the rest here.

Why Not Mitt?

Flickr/Austen Hufford

Everyone—man, woman, Democrat, Republicanwho runs for office has a healthy quantity of ambition. And to run for president, your ambition has to be nearly pathological. But if you manage to become your party's nominee then fall short in the general election, you'll find yourself not only bearing the psychological weight of what might have been, but scorned by former allies, or at best treated like someone with a communicable conditioncall it loseritisthat few want to catch by getting too close to you. Most who suffer that fate go quietly into private life, eventually finding a place where they can cope with having come so close to reaching politics' ultimate prize and failing. No matter how powerful that ambition was, it can't survive the crushing disappointment.

But then there's Mitt Romney. After losing to Barack Obama in 2012, he barely lost a step, traveling the country to support GOP candidates and popping up periodically in the media to offer his wise counsel on the issues of the day. Oddly enoughand this might be related to their spectacular contempt for the man to whom Romney lostRepublicans seemed happy to have him still around.

Perhaps it's the indefatigable drive and optimism that led a man so plainly uncomfortable interacting with his fellow humans to become a politician in the first place, or perhaps it's a low opinion of the coalescing 2016 field, but whatever the reason, Mitt Romney is now moving toward a third run for the White House. No failed nominee since Richard Nixon has lost a general election and then run again, but Mitt is apparently (almost) ready to give it another go.

All that stands in his way is another man who, like Romney, grew up as the chosen heir of a famous politician, a son about whom those currying favor with his father surely said "This boy'll be president some day!" from the time he was but a wee lad. Could we be so lucky as to watch Mitt and Jeb Bush tear each other to pieces in the coming months? Philip Rucker and Robert Costa describe how the two are eyeing each other:

In recent weeks, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush have been quietly trying to ascertain the other's motives and playbook. Bush has asked Romney's former donors about what Romney is up to, while Romney met shortly before Christmas with Bush strategist Mike Murphy and inquired about Bush's preparations, according to political consultants who know Romney and Bush.

Romney has said little publicly about Bush, but in exchanges with intimates, he has focused on Bush’s past advisory work for Lehman Brothers and Barclays, two major financial institutions. He argued that it makes Bush vulnerable to the same kind of Democratic attacks that he faced in 2012 over his career as Bain Capital co-founder and chief executive. He also has voiced doubts about Bush's political skills and ability to beat likely Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The idea of Romney running again may not be as crazy as it sounds. Just because no one has pulled off this trick since 1968 doesn't mean it can't be done. There may not be a hunger for another Romney candidacy sweeping the nation, but Republican primary voters have never been much taken with the fresh new thing. The only candidate in recent decades to get the GOP nomination without having been prominent in national politics for years or even decades was George W. Bush in 2000, and he had the benefit of being a president's son. So if no former nominee has gotten the nod again, it may be just because none of them tried.

Try to imagine the situation from Romney's perspective. According to most reports, his opinion of Jeb Bush is middling at best, and he probably isn't too impressed with the rest of the field, either. In 2012 he outlasted a collection of clowns to become the GOP nominee (when your major competition comes from the likes of Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum, you don't exactly have to be a virtuoso campaigner to prevail), and from where he sits the 2016 field may not look much stronger.

More importantly, Romney surely believes that he could have won in 2012 had just a few breaks gone his way. Whatever else you might think of him, this is not a man lacking in self-confidence. He thinks he understands what he did wrong and how he could correct his mistakes. And he hasn't stopped believing that he could be a great president, or that America needs him. So he may be looking at the race and saying to himself something like the following: I can beat Jeb to become the establishment candidate. I can raise more money and lock up more endorsements than him. After that it'll just be a matter of bumping off the same kind of knuckleheads I beat in 2012. Then it's on to whip Hillary in the general. It may not be a sure thing, but it's a winnable race.

It's better to regret something you did than something you didn't do, and right now Mitt Romney may be looking at a future where he is haunted by both kinds of regret. Imagine if Hillary Clinton becomes the next president. If the Republican she defeats is Jeb Bush, Romney will say to himself that he would have been a much better representative of the party's establishment, and could have beaten her. And if she defeats a nominee who comes from the ranks of the younger Republicans, like Marco Rubio or Rand Paul, Mitt will know that if he had been in the race he would have dispatched those neophytes just like he did in 2012, and run a better general election campaign.

Meanwhile, everyone around himfamily members, friends, former and future campaign aidestells him all the time how terrific he is and what a great president he'd be. As a group of Politico reporters wrote on Saturday, "Romney's allies often insist that there's a clamor for him to run again, and that they hear it broadly." Whether that's true or not, it's certainly what Mitt is hearing.

And if there's one other thing you can say about Mitt Romney, it's that he's persistent. He lost in his first run for office, a Senate race against Ted Kennedy in 1994, then came back eight years later and won a race to become Massachusetts governor. He lost to John McCain in his first run for president in 2008, then came back four years later and got the Republican nomination. So why couldn't he lose the general election in 2012, then win it all in 2016? To him, it probably makes perfect sense.