Thanks to the tireless efforts of the NRA and the gun manufacturers, 49 states now issue concealed carry permits to people for whom merely owning guns is not enough. As we focus our attention on military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, we need to remember that the most important change in recent years isn't in the equipment, but in the spread of a new kind of mentality among many gun owners, one that seeks to make fear the organizing principle of American society.
This has been the essential focus of gun advocates' work in recent years: changing laws so that as many people as possible can carry as many guns as possible into as many places as possible. Since the people who want to do so have driven the discussion and the laws on guns, it's important to understand where they're coming from. And frankly, it's an ugly place.
We're about to start the portion of this debate where we actually begin discussing specific actins the government might take to address gun violence. And as we do, particularly when it comes to those measures that concern the guns themselves (as opposed to measures focused on the people who can get them or the conditions of their purchase), it's likely that gun advocates will start complaining that there's a problem with all these effete urban northeastern liberals making laws governing guns they know nothing about. This isn't new; for instance, gun advocates have long hated the term "assault weapon," since it doesn't really mean anything in particular (after all, every gun is a weapon designed for assault).
We should be very wary of the argument that people who have a lot of experience with guns have some kind of greater moral claim to a voice in this debate (and we should also be wary, as Elsbeth Reeve writes, of coastal urbanite conservatives claiming to speak for "real America" about guns). Yes, having everyone get their facts straight is important. But every one of us is potentially affected by guns, whether we ever bother to pick one up or not. That's kind of the whole point. You don't have to know how to disassemble and clean a Glock to want your kid not to be shot by one.
It's safe to say that we've had more of a national discussion about guns in the last four days than we've had in the last fifteen years. The particular measures to address gun violence that are now in the offing run from those that are well-intended but likely to be ineffectual (renewing the assault weapons ban, for instance) to some that could have a more meaningful effect even if they're difficult to implement (universal background checks, licensing, and training). But the most useful change that may come out of this moment in our history is a change in the way we look at guns.
By that I don't mean that Americans will suddenly stop fetishizing guns, or that everyone will agree they're nothing but trouble. But if we're lucky, perhaps we could come to an agreement on something simple. Yes, our constitution guarantees that people can own guns, much as many of us wish it didn't. But even in the context of that freedom, we should be able to agree that guns are different. The freedom to own guns is different from other freedoms, and guns are different from other products. A sane society should be able to acknowledge that difference and use it to guide the choices it makes.
President Obama wipes away a tear as he discusses the shooting in Newtown.
Up until now, Barack Obama's record on guns has been one of the biggest disappointments for his liberal supporters. In his first term he signed two laws on guns, one allowing people to take their guns into national parks, and one allowing people to take their guns on Amtrak trains. But now there are some hints that the administration may be open to some modest measures to reduce the easy availability of some of the deadliest means of killing large numbers of people at one time. In particular, we could see a renewal of some version of the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. That law used a somewhat complicated flow chart of features to define an assault weapon, and also banned magazines that held more than 10 rounds. A ban on high-capacity magazines may be the easiest thing to pass today, because it's not hard to define and they are almost impossible to justify for any purpose other than killing people.
The easy argument against any new law, and one we'll certainly be hearing, is "That wouldn't have stopped Adam Lanza." And that's probably true. If someone is determined enough and takes enough time to plan, they can kill lots and lots of people. But the point of our policy shouldn't be solely to make sure that nobody ever shoots up a school again, it should be to reduce the appalling death toll that guns bring to our society. If the horror of 20 murdered children in Connecticut is the thing that leads us to finally attempt to do something about the 30,000 Americans who are killed with guns every year, then it will be fine if the next set of policies isn't focused on preventing precisely that kind of massacre.
We'll only do something meaningful if we think in the broadest of terms.
There has been yet another mass shooting, something that now seems to occur on a monthly basis. Every time another tragedy like this occurs, gun advocates make the same arguments about why we can't possibly do anything to restrict the weaponization of our culture. Here's a guide to what they'll be saying in the coming days:
1. Now isn't the time to talk about guns. We're going to hear this over and over, and not just from gun advocates; Jay Carney said it to White House reporters today. But if we're not going to talk about it now, when are we going to talk about it? After Sandy hit the east coast, no one said, "Now isn't the time to talk about disaster preparedness; best leave that until it doesn't seem so urgent." When there's a terrorist attack, no one says, "Now isn't the time to talk about terrorism." Now is exactly the time.
Hillary Clinton is basking in the warm glow of public affection. Her approval ratings have risen steadily since the 2008 campaign ended, and now stand at around 65 percent. She has gotten high marks from members of both parties for her work as Secretary of State. So naturally, since she'll be stepping down soon, speculation has begun about whether she'll run for president. I could add one more uninformed guess about whether she'll run, but what's the point? Nobody knows right now, maybe not even Clinton herself. One thing's for sure: 2016 is her last chance. She'll be 69 on election day, as old as Reagan was when he was first elected. But she's smart enough to know that the current esteem she enjoys will be cut back severely the instant she becomes a candidate. As Nate Silver has detailed, over the years her approval ratings have gone up and down in direct relation to how close she has been to the battle of partisan politics.
It's also tempting to forget, when looking at her today, just how much ugly sexist vitriol was aimed at her during her time as First Lady and, to a slightly lesser but still significant degree, in her 2008 campaign. If she runs again, and especially if she becomes the Democratic nominee, it will come back in greater force than ever. Ann Friedman laments Clinton's Catch-22:
Liberals often joke about how all it takes is one backbench Democratic member of Congress looking at another one funny to produce a "Dems in Disarray!" headline. But today the Republicans truly are in disarray. They just got whupped in a presidential election; they can't quite seem to figure out how to handle the current fiscal negotiations; their leading figure is a not-particularly-appealing House Speaker terrified of his own caucus; their agenda is clearly unpopular; they can't escape their image as the party of the rich; and they represent, almost exclusively, a demographic (white people) that is rapidly sliding toward minority status. It's not a good time to be a Republican.
Which is why, as a public service announcement, I thought I'd offer a little reminder...
There's been an odd change in Republican rhetoric in the last few weeks about taxes. As we all know, for a couple of decades now, particularly since George H.W. Bush went back on his "Read my lips" promise and agreed to a tax increase to bring down the deficit, Republicans have been uncompromising and dogmatic that taxes must never be raised in any form, ever. That's part of the pledge Grover Norquist has made nearly all of them sign—not just that rates should only ratchet down, but also that they will "oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates." With the bitter taste of defeat still lingering in their mouths, many have realized that there is going to be some increase in the wealthy's taxes. But to hear them talk now, you'd think that they don't much care how much people pay in taxes, so long as the top marginal income rate doesn't go up. Here's Karl Rove writing in the Wall Street Journal, explaining President Obama's nefarious plan to divide them:
But the president is now less interested in raising revenues than in raising marginal tax rates on top earners. He apparently believes that Republicans, in a weakened state and defending an unpopular position, might buckle on a central GOP tenet, opposition to any increase in marginal rates. That might kick off a Republican civil war, resulting in divisive party primaries in 2014 that leave the president's opposition even more weakened and produce more subpar candidates like this year's Republican Senate candidates in Indiana and Missouri.
So the "central GOP tenet" isn't opposition to tax increases, it's "opposition to any increase in marginal rates." That's like a baseball manager saying the point isn't whether his defense keeps the other team from scoring runs, it's just that they won't stand for homers.
This squirrel sees right through you, McConnell. (Flickr/Californian Em)
A few years ago, somebody (forgive me for forgetting who it was) suggested that newspapers should have a daily feature called "Things That Are Still True," which would remind readers of important facts that are still important even if they haven't generated news in the sense of being new. In that spirit, during the current budgetary debate it's a good time to remember what I think is one of the three or four most enduring and important facts about American politics and public opinion. Almost half a century ago, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril argued that Americans as a whole were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal, meaning that in broad terms they like "small government," but when one gets specific it turns out they like almost everything government does, and want it to do even more of it.
This fact explains practically everything about how the Republican and Democratic parties set about appealing to voters. Republicans talk in broad, ideological terms about small government and free enterprise, while Democrats talk in much more specific terms about programs, whether it's Medicare or Social security or education or what have you. The problem Republicans have is that if you're going to govern, eventually you have to get specific.
Now that Republicans have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that there is going to be some kind of tax increase for the wealthy, they're comforting themselves with the idea that come early next year, they'll still be able to reenact the lovely conflict we had over the debt ceiling in 2011 and hold the American economy hostage to their demands. President Obama has quite sensibly said that we ought to just get rid of the debt ceiling itself, since it serves no purpose and allows a party to engage in just this kind of economic blackmail if it's desperate and cynical enough. So Republicans are pushing back, none more so than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the process, McConnell has revealed that he has no idea how the debt ceiling actually works.
A look around the web today makes clear that the crisis of American conservatism in general, and conservatives' relationship to the media in particular, is clearly our topic. First, none other than William Kristol, the very axis about whom the Republican establishment spins, is extremely worried about what has become of his movement:
And the conservative movement—a bulwark of American strength for the last several decades—is in deep disarray. Reading about some conservative organizations and Republican campaigns these days, one is reminded of Eric Hoffer’s remark, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of refounding of the movement as a cause is necessary. A reinvigoration of the Republican party also seems desirable, based on a new generation of leaders, perhaps coming—as did Ike and Reagan—from outside the normal channels.
When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, it also gave Republican states a gift by saying they could opt out of what may be the ACA's most important part, the dramatic expansion of Medicaid that will give insurance to millions of people who don't now have it. While right now each state decides on eligibility rules—meaning that if you live in a state governed by Republicans, if you make enough to have a roof over your head and give your kids one or two meals a day, you're probably considered too rich for Medicaid and are ineligible—starting in 2014 anyone at up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible. That means an individual earning up to $14,856 or a family of four earning up to $30,657 could get Medicaid.
Republican governors and legislatures don't like the Medicaid expansion, which is why nine states—South Dakota, plus the Southern states running from South Carolina through Texas—have said they'll refuse to expand Medicaid (many other states have not yet said whether they'll do it). But some states asked the Obama administration whether they could expand Medicaid a bit—maybe not cover everyone up to 133 percent like the law says, but add a few people to the rolls. And yesterday, the administration said no. It's all or nothing: either you expand Medicaid up to 133 percent, or you get none of the new money. Was that the right thing to do? Well first, let's talk about that money.
Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, is not pleased with Hollywood. In particular, Manchin is upset with MTV, which is replacing the cancelled Jersey Shore with another sober anthropological exploration of youth culture in a unique sociocultural milieu. This time it's Manchin's home state, and the show is called Buckwild. As you might imagine, like their peers in the Garden State, the cast members of Buckwild look to be doing little to burnish their state's image; instead they'll be getting drunk, hooking up, fighting, and generally making fools of themselves, albeit in a characteristically West Virginian way (there's a preview for the show here).
President Johnson signing Medicare into law in 1965.
After a campaign in which Republicans attempted to pillory Barack Obama for finding $716 billion in savings from Medicare (via cuts in payments to insurance companies and providers but not cuts to benefits), those same Republicans now seem to be demanding that Obama agree to cuts in Medicare benefits as the price of saving the country from the Austerity Trap, aka fiscal cliff. Oh, the irony! You'd almost think that they weren't really the stalwart defenders of Medicare they pretended to be.
And there are some hints that the Obama administration is seriously considering agreeing to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of this deal. It's a dreadful idea, and as we discuss this possibility, there's one really important thing to keep in mind: Medicare is the least expensive way to insure these people. Or anybody, for that matter. In all this talk of the bloated entitlement system, you'd be forgiven for thinking Medicare was some kind of inefficient, overpriced big government program. But the opposite is true, and that's why raising the eligibility age is such a dreadful idea.
Those two guys in the front knew how to do it. (White House/Pete Souza)
Shaping the next phase in the history of the Republican party is an ongoing project that won't really be completed until they have another president, and their 2016 nominee could well be that person. Part of what makes this process interesting is that there is no obvious choice. Republicans are famous for nominating the person who is "next in line," usually someone who ran previously and lost. Every Republican nominee dating back to Richard Nixon has fit this pattern, with the exception of George W. Bush in 2000 (and Gerald Ford, who is obviously a special case). But the people who lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 revealed themselves to be an extraordinarily unappealing group; Paul Ryan didn't exactly emerge from the race looking like a giant; and there are multiple governors like Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels who could be strong competitors. So the next GOP nominee could be a hard-right conservative, or a relative moderate, or something in between.
As E.J. Dionne points out in his column today, when a party spend some time in the wilderness, its path back to power usually involves some ideological accommodation: