Paul Waldman

Republicans Mad that President They Despise, Obstruct, and Lie About Doesn't Call More Often

And not only that, he unfriended me on Facebook! (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)

Iowa senator Chuck Grassley is something of an odd character. As I've said before, he used to be considered a reasonable moderate, but in the last couple of years he has basically turned himself into a Tea Party wingnut, combining the ideological extremism, face palm-inducing stupidity, and general craziness that makes that political movement so charming (although I was recently told that even a couple of decades ago, before Grassley began publicly yelling at clouds, people in the Senate privately considered him kind of a nut).

Today, The Hill reports that Grassley, who has spent the last five years floating conspiracy theories, impugning Barack Obama's motives, and telling truly vicious lies about his policies, is upset that Obama doesn't call him more often. Seriously.

Let's Talk about Tax Reform

Flickr/tolworthy

A few Republicans out there, struggling to put the IRS scandalette in a larger context, are now saying it shows we need tax reform. It doesn't really, unless their argument is that we've been letting shamelessly political 501(c)(4) organizations get away with a scam and we ought to clarify the law on what such organizations can do. But that's not what they're saying. What they're saying is that the IRS matter shows we need to change the tax code to reflect the same policies they've advocated forever.

It wasn't as though this particular scandal arose because filing your personal income taxes is too complicated or because the corporate tax system is riddled with loopholes. It was something very specific, the law regarding how certain kinds of nonprofit organizations are allowed to operate. Frankly, there's no part of the tax code conservatives care less about. What they're interested in is changing personal and corporate taxes.

Why Republicans Can't Destroy Obama

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Over the past few years, liberals like me have pointed out countless times that the Republican party was being (or would be soon, as the case might have been) terribly damaged by the ideological extremism and general nuttiness of the faction that took over the party between 2009 and 2010. But we have to be honest and acknowledge that it didn't always work out that way. They were able to win a number of tangible victories despite the fact that the public doesn't look favorably on the things they wanted to do. In many cases, an extremist Republican ousted a perfectly conservative Republican in a primary, and now the extremist Republican is in possession of a safe seat. And of course, they won a huge victory in the 2010 elections. For all the fun we've had at the expense of people like Michele Bachmann, the damage they did to the GOP wasn't always as serious as we thought it would be.

But I think we're seeing the limits that the House Republicans' extremism imposes on their ability to accomplish a practical political task. The task in question is taking full advantage of an administration scandal or two in order to do maximum damage to the President. And they can't seem to manage it.

Senator Frank Lautenberg Dies

Flickr/Talk Radio News Service

Frank Lautenberg, the senator from New Jersey, died today. He wasn't the most charismatic guy around, and his record of legislation may not rival someone like Ted Kennedy, but he worked hard on a few issues that were important to him, particularly environmental protection and containing the spread of guns, and he was a reliable advocate for liberal values and programs over a long career spanning two tours in the Senate. A World War II veteran and one of the founders of payroll giant ADP, Lautenberg made millions in business, but unlike many others who take their wealth into politics, he didn't believe people should be punished for being poor. In the last year he made news mostly for some spats with Cory Booker, who was planning to run against him in next year's Democratic primary, and for spurring some debate on when a politician becomes too old to serve. But now, Chris Christie, of whom Lautenberg was none too fond, will be appointing his temporary successor.

Yes, it's crass and cynical to begin the political speculation the moment someone dies. But to paraphrase Hyman Roth, this is the business they chose. So what happens now?

Keeping the Grim Reaper at Bay

Grandpa? Is that you? (Wikimedia Commons/Gaetan Lee)

This Sunday's New York Times business section had a big article on a guy named Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multi-millionaire who is using some of his money to solve the problems of hunger, environmental degradation, and mortality by creating a world in which all of us have out consciousness uploaded into avatars, or robot bodies. He calls it the 2045 Initiative, since that's his target date for it all coming together. Sound like a good idea? My opinion on this is complicated, but let's hear from him first:

Your Next Car Will Be Part Robot

One of Google's self-driving cars. (Flickr/Guillermo Esteves)

Futurists have been predicting self-driving cars for decades, but for a long time it wasn't because the idea was a natural extrapolation of existing technology. Instead, from the standpoint of the 1950s or so, it just seemed like something we'd have in The Future, along with robot maids, vacations on the moon, and a spectacular network of vacuum tubes in every home. Today, almost all the technology necessary to allow cars to drive themselves is either already in existence or in the development process, and Google has already allowed its driverless cars to go hundreds of thousands of miles on their own. So the Department of Transportation has issued a policy statement laying out some of the issues that are likely to be confronted as these technologies develop, and establishing its research agenda to address the questions they'll need to answer in order to properly regulate driverless cars.

Cable News Is a Third of a Century Old

A snapshot from CNN's first hour on the air.

This Saturday marks one-third of a century since CNN debuted as the world's first 24-hour news channel in 1980 (if you're looking to get them a gift, the traditional 33rd anniversary gift is amethyst). Prospect intern/sleuth Eric Garcia came across this video of the network's first hour on the air, which begins with Ted Turner giving a speech about the new era of global understanding they're launching. He makes special note of the fact that he's standing under three flags: the U.S. flag, the Georgia flag (its old confederate version, which was adopted in 1956 as a protest to Brown v. Board of Education or to honor the nobility of the Confederacy, depending on your perspective), and...the flag of the United Nations! Cue conservative spit takes.

Back in those days, of course, the UN was considered a well-intentioned if often ineffectual organization, and not a sinister black helicopter-wielding global conspiracy to take your guns and impose a one-world government with George Soros as Supreme Ruler (and the UN was a particular cause of Turner's; he later gave the organization a billion dollars). But let's take a look at the video; once you get past Turner's speech, it doesn't look much different from what cable news remains today, apart from the fact that the anchors are reading off of actual papers on the desks in front of them and not off teleprompters (go to the 8 minute mark):

Not Too Shabby So Far: Obama's Judicial Legacy

flickr/The Library of Congress

Earlier this week, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would name nominees to fill three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court, touching off a new battle between the White House and Republicans over filibusters and presidential privileges. Despite the fact that appointing judges is one of the powers given to every president by the Constitution, some Republicans reacted as though Obama were doing something horrible by fulfilling this obligation. (You'd almost think they didn't accept the legitimacy of his presidency.) In any case, this argument is likely to heat up over the next few weeks, so we might benefit from some context as charges and counter-charges start flying.

What's Eating the Left's Media?

The liberal media may be in a funk. MSNBC is getting some of its worst ratings in years, and Digby tells us that liberal blogs have experienced serious declines in traffic since the election as well. So why might this be happening?

There are two answers, neither of which would give you much solace if your job depended on raising TV ratings or bringing in more ad revenue for your web site. The first is that outside events, in the form of the natural ebb and flow of the political world, have conspired against the liberal media. The second is that the model—liberals talking about politics—is affected by that ebb and flow in a way conservative media aren't.

Republicans Looking Sheepish On Obama Court Nominees

Flickr/NCinDC

One of the biggest criticisms activist liberals have had of the Obama administration is that they have not moved aggressively to put their stamp on the federal judiciary. While there has certainly been Republican obstruction of Obama nominees, in many cases the administration hasn't even bothered to nominate anyone to open seats. There are currently 82 vacancies on the federal bench, and in 58 of those, the administration has offered no nominee.

So it's good news that they have announced that they are about to offer nominations for the three vacancies on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, widely considered the second most important court in the nation, since it hears many critical cases involving the scope of government power. It looks like the administration is betting that the more nominations they put up at the same time, the more attention the issue will get if Republicans try to block them, and the more attention it gets, the more difficult Republican filibusters will be to maintain.

If you listen to what Republicans are saying so far, you'll notice they're not making the same argument they have in the past...

Atheists in Tornadoes and Foxholes

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

If you've watched the endless interviews with survivors of natural disasters, you may have noticed that the news media representatives, faced with someone who may be too shocked or nervous before the cameras to offer sufficiently compelling testimony, often do some gentle prompting. "When you saw your home destroyed, were you just devastated?" "You've never seen anything like this before, have you?" "Your whole life changed in that moment, didn't it?" Not everyone who survived a disaster is YouTube clip-ready, so some need to be coached. There was one such interview after the tornado ran through Moore, Oklahoma that got some attention. Interviewing a woman as they stood before the tangled pile of debris that used to be her home and discussed her family's narrow escape, CNN's Wolf Blitzer said, "You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?" When she hesitated, Blitzer pressed on. "Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?" She paused for a moment before responding, "I'm actually an atheist." Awkward laughs ensued.

Blitzer's assumption was understandable; most Americans profess a faith in God, and there is an awful lot of Lord-thanking after a natural disaster. Atheists find this puzzling, to say the least; if God deserves your thanks and praise for being so merciful as to allow you to live through the tornado, maybe He could have been kind enough not to destroy your home and kill 24 of your neighbors in the first place. But at times of crisis, everyone looks for comfort where they can find it.

Republican Overreach, Coming Soon

You can bet hey'll be hearing from these folks. (Flickr/SS&SS)

A number of people have asked whether the Republicans will overreach in their reaction to the current collection of scandal-ish controversies (by the way, someone really needs to come up with a name that encompasses them all). The answer to that question is, of course they will. Try to remember who we're talking about here. Overreaching is their thing. Congress will be going home this weekend, and I'll bet the Republicans are going to come back from their recess reassured that their constituents really, really want them to pursue Barack Obama to the ends of the earth. I'll explain why in a moment, but in the meantime the National Journal has details on their strategy:

Do Parties Really Need to Rebrand Themselves?

The Republican "rebranding" effort may be on temporary hiatus as all the party's factions come together in the vain hope that they may finally have something to impeach Barack Obama over, but as soon as these various non-scandals, faux-scandals, and mini-scandals fade, the GOP will surely get back to bickering over how it can pull itself out of its electoral doldrums. In wondering where they might go, The Atlantic's Molly Ball does the logical thing and seeks out some veterans of a prior party rebranding, the Democratic effort of the late 1980s and early 1990s, centered around the Democratic Leadership Council. Their take isn't too surprising—they think what the GOP needs now is to do what they did then. But I think there's an important point missing from this discussion and the way we talk about this history. The story everyone tells is that there are two paths to take, one of which leads to failure and one to success, and the argument is over which is which. Should the party be more true to its philosophy and sell that philosophy better, or should it reorient itself to respond to changing times? Here's how Ball's article closes:

Watching the GOP's struggles, former DLCers say they recognize all the old symptoms—the alibis, the search for a procedural panacea, the party committee dominated by diehards. But on the question of whether the Republican Party has just been through its version of 1988, they're not so sure. As Will Marshall put it: "They know they have a political problem—that's obvious. But I don't think they've come to grips with the fundamental issue, which is their governing philosophy. I think they're going to have to lose one more."

Sounds reasonable enough. But I think the degree to which political success comes from the public agreeing with you on issues is being dramatically overstated. If you look at the ups and downs of the parties over the last 20 years, a couple of other factors—timing, and what your opponents do—matter a whole lot more.

Conservative Billionaires, Oppressed by Liberal Thugs

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

Fear not, billionaire super PAC and 501(c)(4) funders. You may feel oppressed, you may fear the pitchforks and torches of the unwashed masses gathering at the gate of your manse, you may wake in the night in a cold sweat and bellow to your footman, "Dare I give Paul Ryan $10 million for his 2016 presidential race, lest some bearded plebian pen a vicious blog post aimed at my very heart?" If nothing else, Mitch McConnell has your back.

Today, McConnell takes to the pages of the Washington Post to defend the right of America's millionaires and billionaires to pour their funds into campaigns while remaining anonymous. Those with long memories may recall that when the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was being debated, McConnell and others said that the answer to the problem of money and politics was disclosure: Let the wealthy give as much as they want, but disclose contributions quickly, and with everything out in the open we could forestall the possibility of corruption. But with McCain-Feingold safely struck down and Citizens United inaugurating a new dawn of American liberty, disclosure is now McConnell's enemy:

The Forever War, Still Forever

White House photo by Eric Draper

Today, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny.

Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush's administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda or even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone could use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win.

Nevertheless, when Barack Obama was running for president, you might have thought that five years into his presidency there wouldn't be much of a War on Terror left. Most visibly, he wanted to get us out of Iraq, then wrap up Afghanistan. Mission, well, sort of maybe eventually accomplished. But the War on Terror lives on, at our airports, in government budgets, and in our laws.

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