Paul Waldman

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Photo of the Day, Starstruck Washington Edition

The Capitol Hill media were absolutely captivated by this hearing about foreign aid to Africa, which surely had nothing to do with the presence of an extremely wealthy man and an extremely handsome man. 

What Happened to Chris Christie?

Remember when Republicans were over the moon for Chris Christie? There was a period when YouTube videos of him shouting down some uppity teacher or other constituent were gleefully forwarded from conservative to conservative; here was a guy who knew how to put liberals in their place! He was a tough-talking former prosecutor who knew how to win in a blue state! Before the 2012 election, GOP megadonors were imploring him to run for president, but he decided to hold off for 2016. And now, no one's begging. In this poll in New Hampshire, he comes in sixth, with 4.6 percent of the vote. In this Iowa poll, he's tied for seventh place, with 4 percent.

So what the heck happened? It isn't that hard to figure out. Most broadly, people actually began thinking about the presidential campaign. Primary voters thinking about the presidential campaign had other potential candidates they could compare Christie to. And as it turns out, whoever you are and whatever your priorities, there's at least a candidate or two who is more appealing than Christie. Looking for a conservative fire-breather? There's Cruz or Huckabee or Carson or any number of others. Want an older, steadier type? Jeb Bush is your man. Looking for a governor? You've got Walker or Jindal or Bush. In short, nothing about Christie is unique, other than his attitude.

And it turns out that attitude doesn't wear all that well. Christie's tough-talkin' schtick, while great for generating momentarily compelling video clips, doesn't have a lot of purchase on the primary campaign trail, where you spend most of your time not sparring with constituents but begging your own people to vote for you.

I suppose it's possible that once the candidates start debating, Christie can yell at his opponents and remind Republican voters of what they liked about him, namely that he's kind of a jerk. But that's probably not enough to build a campaign on.

How Rand Paul Is Losing His Distinctiveness

As the 2016 presidential race has swung into motion in the last couple of months, we've heard a lot about Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker, and even Ted Cruz. But there hasn't been a lot of news about Rand Paul, whom many people considered the most interesting candidate in the race. Paul has proven adept at gaining positive news coverage, and the fact that he's a quasi-libertarian makes him a little less predictable than other candidates. In fact, that's the core of his appeal. He can't argue that he has a lengthy list of accomplishments; his 2010 Senate campaign was the first time he ran for any office, and he hasn't authored any important legislation. Being different is what makes Rand Paul compelling.

But there's only so different you can be. The guy who was supposedly so skeptical of the overuse of American military power is now proposing a huge increase in military spending:

The move completes a stunning reversal for Paul, who in May 2011, after just five months in office, released his own budget that would have eliminated four agencies—Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Education—while slashing the Pentagon, a sacred cow for many Republicans. Under Paul’s original proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.

We should have seen this coming. Last August, I wrote that while Paul may have a few positions that don't fit neatly into traditional Republican conservatism, the more central an issue is, the more likely he is to take the expected GOP line:

Even if being a little less ideologically predictable is part of Paul's appeal, it turns out that there are some positions that are negotiable for a Republican presidential candidate trying to win over primary voters, and some that aren't. A true libertarian can start off telling those voters that he favors low taxes and small government, and they'll cheer. He can tell them he's concerned about the militarization of the police, as Paul recently wrote eloquently about, and they might say, "I still think we need law and order, but I get what you're saying." He can tell them that government surveillance of Americans is getting out of control, and they might decide he has a point, even if they're still concerned about fighting terrorism. But if the libertarian candidate goes on to say that because he believes in maximal personal freedom, he also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of drugs, they'll raise their eyebrows and say, "Hold on there, buddy."

That's not what Rand Paul will be saying; on those last three issues, he ranges from firmly Republican (he opposes abortion rights) to essentially Republican (he opposes same-sex marriage but says it should be left up to the states) to somewhat less Republican (he opposes legalization but has suggested some sensible reform of marijuana laws). In other words, he's about as libertarian as an ambitious Republican can be: pushing the GOP a bit on issues where the party is pulled by competing impulses (like law and order vs. skepticism of state power), but safely in the fold on every issue where there's consensus in the party.

Why is Paul making this proposal now? It's partly because the presidential race is getting going, but mostly because this intra-Republican argument over the budget has brought the issue of military spending back near the top of the agenda. If he wants to be competitive in the presidential race, Paul has to get on the right side.

Contemporary conservatism has four main pillars: low taxes, small government, "traditional" social values, and a large military. No one who wants to be the GOP presidential nominee can stray from any of them in any serious way. And this is Rand Paul's dilemma: His distinctiveness as a candidate comes from the fact that there are areas in which he questions Republican orthodoxy, but if he questions parts of that orthodoxy that Republicans fervently believe in, they'll reject him. But when he does things like propose a large increase in military spending, he ends up looking just like every other Republican.   

Photo of the Day, Everybody Needs a Hobby Edition

This is Volker Kraft of Saalfeld, German, with the apple tree he and his wife have decorated with 10,000 Easter eggs. It's his thing, I guess. You may think this is silly, but what's your thing? Forwarding stupid Vines to your stupid friends? If you bring as much pleasure into the world as Volker does, then you can talk. 

Jeb Bush and the Two Types of Electability Arguments

Not that it matters much now, with all the fascinating campaigning still to come, but I still think that Jeb Bush is the most likely Republican nominee, for reasons I outlined here. Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal, however, says that one of the cornerstones of Jeb's appeal to Republican primary voters—that he's the electable candidate—isn't something they're buying, partly because there isn't a whole lot of evidence for it, other than the fact that Jeb is the kind of candidate who would seem to be more able to appeal to a general electorate. Ed Kilgore follows up:

Electability is supposed to be the Republican Establishment's ace-in-the-hole, the argument carefully conveyed over time that wears down "the base's" natural desire for a True Conservative fire-breather. In your head you know he's right is the not-so-subtle message. But Jeb's electability credentials are as baffling to regular GOP voters as they are obvious and unimpeachable to elites. And unless Jeb's backers can supply some more convincing evidence than "trust [us] on this," these doubts may never be quelled, particularly when you've got somebody in the field like Scott Walker who can boast of three wins in four years in a state carried twice by Obama—and without compromising with the godless liberals like Jeb wants to do.

Looking at it more generally, the jury is out as to whether the appropriate precedent for Jeb is somebody like Mitt Romney, who gradually won over intraparty skeptics by dint of money, opportunism, and a ruthless ability to exploit rivals' vulnerability, or somebody like Rudy Giuliani, a guy who looked great until actual voters weighed in. And even that contrast may not capture Jeb's problem: Rudy did well in early polls.

To the extent that Jeb does ultimately rely on an electability argument, he's in danger of resembling a much earlier precedent: Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, whose late push to displace Richard Nixon was instantly destroyed by polls showing him performing more weakly than Tricky Dick in a general election. That's actually where Jeb is right now. Unless and until his general election numbers turn around, and he's running better against Clinton than anybody else, it's going to be tough for him. All the money and opinion-leader endorsements and MSM adulation in the world cannot win the nomination for a candidate unless these resources at some point begin to translate into actual votes by actual voters. If they don't like Jeb to begin with and think he's a loser to boot, that may never happen.

Here's the thing about electability: If you're making an electability argument based on type, it's probably full of holes, whereas if you're making the argument based on this particular individual, it stands a better chance of being true. To take just one example, in 2008 there would have been a lot of good arguments for why a candidate like Barack Obama was unelectable. A senator hadn't become president since John F. Kennedy, Obama only had a few years in office, he was young, and, oh yeah, he was black. But all of those were reasons why a candidate like Barack Obama wasn't electable. That particular Barack Obama, however, turned out to be extremely electable.

There's an anti-Jeb electability argument based on someone like Jeb, which says that when the GOP has nominated moderates it has lost, but when it has nominated conservatives it has won. This is basically Ted Cruz's argument, and it's true in some ways but very wrong in others. The anti-Jeb electability arguments based on this particular Jeb, especially the fact that his last name creates problems that Walker or Rubio wouldn't have, are much more persuasive.

The electability debate figures into every primary campaign at some point, and there may be other ways in which Jeb can argue that he's really the electable one. I still think that he's more Romney than Giuliani, but this is obviously something he's going to have to spend some time thinking about so he's ready to answer the inevitable questions he'll get from voters about it.

Judging Candidates By Their Fake Musical Tastes

This is how you do it right. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

The first rule an aspiring writer learns in any fiction workshop is, "Don't tell me, show me." You can't create compelling characters just by saying, "Bob was mean" or "Alice was generous." You have to show it, through the the things those characters do and say. And the same goes for candidates trying to craft an appealing persona. Ted Cruz does not seem to understand this, which is why we're probably going to see more stuff like this from him:

In an interview Tuesday on "CBS This Morning," the Texas senator told his TV hosts that he "grew up listening to classic rock" but that that soon changed.

"My music taste changed on 9/11," Cruz said.

"I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn't like how rock music responded," he said. "And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me."

Cruz's comments came during a lightning round of interviews the morning after he announced his candidacy for president in 2016 in a John Lennon-inspired, "Imagine"-themed speech.

Cruz did not mention any specific country music that resonated with him or which rock artists did not respond well to the terror attacks.

"I had an emotional reaction that said, 'These are my people,'" Cruz said. "So ever since 2001, I listen to country music.

Oh, Ted. That's not how you do it. This telling-not-showing is a lot like the time in 1992 when George H.W. Bush read his thematic notes as though they were the text of a speech and said to a group of New Hampshire voters, "Message: I care." You're not supposed to just come out and say, "My choice of music is an expression of cultural identity that expresses a bond of affinity between myself and certain kinds of Americans." That's supposed to be implied. If you say it explicitly, it sounds incredibly phony.

The "What music do you listen to?" question is always a dangerous one. Not only do politicians tend to be extremely uncool people, but there's no consumer choice we make that is more identity-defining than our music. Every musical artist in the world carries with them a strictly defined set of associations: these are the kind of people who listen to this band, and this is what it says about you if you listen to them. Every teenager knows how critical it is to have a nuanced grasp of how those associations shift, so you can stay abreast and adjust your choices accordingly. For instance, in eighth grade I was totally into Rush, which was reasonably cool because few people in George Washington Junior High listened to Rush; then for some reason in ninth grade everybody was listening to Rush, which meant that they were on the express train out of Coolville, so I stopped listening to them.  

Obviously, the fact that we even ask politicians what music they like is kind of ridiculous, since they aren't in fact running for ninth grade class president. But Democrats haven't exactly been deft with the question either. For a long time, when they got asked what was on their iPods (this was back when people had iPods), they would invariably answer "Bruce Springsteen." Springsteen is the perfect choice for a Democrat: working-class cred, all-American, and sufficiently uptempo to say, "I'm not a total square." But after every Democrat says that, it begins to sound phony too, and they don't know where to go beyond that (although President Obama is smart enough to stick with the classics).

Ted Cruz should learn from this that what you're supposed to do isn't to explain the political context behind your alleged love of country music; just say you like country, then drop a couple of artist's names. Then Republican primary voters will say, "Ted Cruz likes Toby Keith? Hey, I like Toby Keith, too! He sounds like a heckuva guy, that Ted Cruz." Bond: forged.

Photo of the Day, Dogs of War Edition

That's Books, a bomb-sniffer dog, enjoying some snuggle time with his Marine buddy in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

They're All Steve Forbes Now

In his speech announcing his presidential campaign yesterday, Ted Cruz repeated his advocacy for "a simple flat tax that allows every American to fill out his or her taxes on a postcard." While a flat tax hasn't gotten a lot of attention lately, in recent years it's become something most Republicans agree to without much thought. It's notable that an idea about taxes that by definition involves a large tax cut for the wealthy is so popular in a party constantly struggling against its image as the party of the rich. Yet as more candidates officially join the race, we're almost guaranteed to see a bunch of flat tax plans released. Before that happens, we ought to remind ourselves of what a truly dreadful idea the flat tax is.

When Steve Forbes made a flat tax the centerpiece of his 1996 campaign for president, it was met with a certain degree of puzzlement. Here was a guy who inherited a huge fortune, talking about how the rich shouldn't have to pay so much in taxes. (In a weird coincidence, his plan would have saved him a couple of billion dollars in taxes over the course of his lifetime.) But before long, in Republican circles the flat tax became, if not quite dogma, then certainly the default option for candidates.

Let's look at what the potential 2016 candidates have said on this issue:

* Marco Rubio recently released a tax plan that contains only two rates, 15 percent and 35 percent (in addition to eliminating all taxes on stock dividends and capital gains). But he admitted that what he really wanted was a flat tax: "In an ideal world, it would be a simple one rate for everyone. Hopefully we’ll move in that direction as a nation. We think this is achievable in the short term...If I got to start our country over from scratch, I would either have a flat tax or a consumption tax."

* Jeb Bush has said he's open to a flat tax, but hasn't gotten into details.

* Rand Paul advocates a flat tax, and supposedly would like the rate to be no higher than 17 percent, which would cause a drastic reduction in revenues.

* Rick Perry proposed a 20 percent flat tax when he ran in 2012; I'd guess he'll be saying something similar this time.

* Ben Carson supports a flat tax, though he hasn't provided any details, and like Cruz wants to "eliminate the IRS"; presumably the flat tax will be collected by the Tooth Fairy.

* Mike Huckabee advocates replacing income taxes with a "fair tax" on consumption, which would be flat in that everyone would pay the same rate.

* Bobby Jindal supported Rick Perry's flat tax plan in 2012, but he hasn't issued a proposal for this election (although he did try to eliminate all Louisiana income and corporate taxes and replace the lost revenue with an increase in sales taxes).

* In 2012, Rick Santorum had a plan with just two tax rates; we'll see if he bids down to a flat tax this time.

* When Chris Christie ran for governor in 2009, he criticized his primary opponent's flat tax plan (heresy!). But recently in Iowa, he said he wanted to make the tax system "flatter and fairer." He hasn't provided any details.

* Mike Pence proposed a flat tax in 2010.

As long as you don't think about it for more than a moment or two, a flat tax sounds good. It's simple and easy to understand: Everyone pays the same tax rate on their wage income. Republicans often say they'd like to see the tax system become "flatter" without bothering to go into detail, as though that were self-evidently a good thing.

But a flatter system means one of three things: Either those with high incomes pay less, those with low incomes pay more, or both. And in practice, it's always both.

Here's why. There are currently seven brackets for wage income, ranging from 10 percent up to 39.6 percent. If you set your one flat rate down near 10 percent, the government would bring in only a fraction of the revenue it does now, and wouldn't be able to do nearly anything that we want it to do. You could set your one rate up near 39.6 percent so no rich people got a tax cut, but that would be a spectacular increase in taxes for most people. Or you could set it to bring in a similar amount of revenue as it does now, which would mean your flat rate would be in the middle somewhere. And that means a big tax increase for those who can least afford it, and a big tax cut for the rich.

Given that, you'd think that the flat tax would be something Republicans would like but would be skittish about proposing, since it opens them up to the charge that they just want to help rich people. But in fact, almost every potential GOP presidential contender has at the very least expressed support for tax flattening, and most of them have come out and endorsed a flat tax.

When politicians take a position that carries with it unusual political risk, it's a good sign that they're sincere about it. And all these Republicans genuinely believe it would be good for America if rich people paid less in taxes, while everyone else paid more. Just so we have that clear. 

Photo of the Day, Tiny Adorable Scientists Edition

President Obama meets with some six-year-old Girl Scouts who participated in the White House science fair. They designed an electric page-turner to help people who are paralyzed or have arthritis to read. Also they're adorable, though in and of itself that isn't enough to get you invited to the White House. I'm not sure why they're wearing capes, but as a general matter I think more people should wear capes.

Ted Cruz Is the Fightin'-est Presidential Candidate

If you woke up this morning feeling as though America might be on the cusp of a new birth of freedom, it wasn't your imagination. It was because Ted Cruz has formally announced his campaign for president. Although Ted Cruz will not, in fact, become president, he's still an interesting character for any number of reasons. Let's take a moment to look at his two-minute announcement video:

It's nice to see that he's doing his part to support America's stock footage industry. And if you were wondering how a guy with Cruz's record of legislative non-achievement might run for president, your answer is here. About 30 seconds in he says, "That's why I've worked so hard to lead the fights to defend these cherished values." I always perk up whenever I hear a candidate say he "led the fight" on something, because many years ago I spent some time writing campaign flyers for candidates, and "led the fight" was a rhetorical mainstay. The question I was often confronted was, Where is the line between "I fought for X" and "I led the fight for X"? What it usually came down to was that if all a legislator did was cast a vote, then he "fought for" that admirable thing, while pretty much anything more than that could count has having "led the fight." You didn't need to actually write a piece of legislation to engage in fight-leading; sometimes, having a press conference or appearing on television was all that it took to establish leadership. After all, a fight can have lots of leaders.

So which fights has Cruz led? Let's keep listening:

"That's why I've worked so hard to lead the fights to defend these cherished values. Like the historic battle to defund Obamacare. Standing up to the leadership from both parties to fight a debt ceiling increase. And putting everything on the line to stop President Obama's illegal and unconstitutional amnesty."

You may have noticed that Cruz lost all these fights he led. Obamacare is still funded, the debt ceiling was raised, and Obama's executive actions on immigration stand, for the moment anyway. Now "Ted Cruz: A Record of Principled Failure" might not be the best campaign slogan, but as far as he's concerned, the outcome is secondary; what matters is the fight itself.

So he goes on: "Your fight is my fight," he says, and near the end, "I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight." So now you know what Ted Cruz's campaign will be about. It's about fighting, and leading fights, and standing together while you and he lead fights, or at least he leads the fight while you gaze up admiringly at his fight-leading.