Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

Show-Off Nation

How our consumer obsession with originality and authenticity affects our taste in political candidates.

Last week, Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson thrust his intellectual rapier at Toyota Prius drivers, those supercilious owners of "hippie cars" who care only about their image. "Prius politics is mostly about showing off," Samuelson wrote, "not curbing greenhouse gas emissions." As Ben Adler noted on TAPPED , there's no reason why you can't show off and reduce carbon emissions at the same time, and Prius owners are certainly doing the latter, no matter what their motivations. But Samuelson's attack on the eco-righteous raises a larger question: why is it that we assume that people we disdain are consumed with how they look to the rest of the world, while we, and those who agree with us, are all about substance? I'm not arguing that Prius owners aren't concerned about what image they project. As the New York Times reported a month ago, the Prius has outpaced other hybrid cars in sales precisely because, unlike its competitors, it looks distinct from an ordinary car...

Seventeen Candidates in Search of a Story

Only a few of the '08 frontrunners have grasped the importance of the campaign narrative and built a successful story around their candidacies.

Last week, I described how successful presidential contenders construct their candidacies as a three-part narrative: part one tells what's wrong with the country and its government, part two describes the place they want to take the country, and part three explains why they, and only they, can deliver us from the bleak present to the brighter tomorrow they promise. It's now time to look at what kind of a job the current presidential candidates are doing in constructing the broad campaign narrative that tells voters not just who they are and what they want to do, but what a vote for that candidate means. It is the last feature of the campaign narrative -- what my vote says about me -- that is most important, and most often ignored. Let's start with the Republicans. In recent years, Democrats have marveled at their opponents' skill at campaigning, their deft media management, and their finely honed message. But one can scour the '08 GOP field in vain for anything resembling a coherent...

WHAT WE THINK ABOUT WHEN WE THINK ABOUT EDWARDS' HAIR.

WHAT WE THINK ABOUT WHEN WE THINK ABOUT EDWARDS' HAIR. Watching the coverage of John Edwards has been pretty depressing lately. It's obvious that a significant proportion of the political press corps has decided they just don't like him, and they're going to do whatever they can to destroy his candidacy. The principal vehicle through which this destruction is currently taking place is the haircut story, the vivid, emblematic tale that is supposed to tell us all we need to know about what a big, fat phony Edwards is. They drop it into story after story, no matter what the context is about, just as a reminder. This could be lethal. It brings to mind the lie that " Al Gore said he invented the internet," which appeared in literally thousands of stories during the 2000 race. The Gore campaign never figured out how to handle it. At first they tried to explain that it wasn't true, but reporters just didn't care -- they kept repeating it anyway. Then they tried to joke about it, and that...

IT'S NOT WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT POVERTY...

IT'S NOT WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT POVERTY... Garance makes some interesting observations in her piece about John Edwards and low-income voters, but I have to say, I doubt Edwards is banking on a huge groundswell of support for his candidacy from poor Americans. That's not really the political point of his emphasis on poverty. Before we get to why, let me say emphatically that I don't doubt for a second Edwards' sincerity on this issue. It's plain that he cares about it deeply, and that's why he's spending so much time talking about it. At the same time, though, he is running for president, so he has obviously thought about the politics involved. So if he isn't looking for the votes of lower-income Americans, what's the calculation? To understand, we can revisit something Mark Schmitt wrote back in 2004, in an all-time classic post : If I were running the issues department of the Kerry campaign, or any campaign, the sign above my desk would not be James Carville 's "It's the Economy Stupid...

The Power of the Campaign Narrative

All successful candidates have had a coherent, appealing story, while the losers tell bad stories -- or more often, no story at all. Plus, a gallery of narrative campaign ads.

On November 4, 1979, Senator Ted Kennedy, preparing to announce his primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter, sat down for an interview with Roger Mudd of CBS News. Polls showed Kennedy far ahead of the beleaguered incumbent, and many political experts at the time expected the youngest son of America's political royal family to take the mantle from his two slain brothers and charge to the White House. But when Mudd asked him a simple question -- "Senator, why do you want to be president?" -- Kennedy could not offer a simple response. His rambling, muddled answer dealt his campaign a terrible blow. It may seem strange that someone who had made the decision to run for president couldn't sum up in a few sentences what the purpose of his candidacy was. Kennedy's problem was not that he didn't have a good reason to run -- he had plenty of them. His problem was the way he thought about that run. He thought about issues, he thought about the weaknesses of the president he was trying to...

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