Paul Waldman

The Unending Terror of the Red-State Democrat

An image from a new ad advocating universal background checks for gun purchases.

Over the weekend, we learned that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will spend $12 million airing ads in 13 states pushing senators to support expanded background checks for gun purchases. NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre, in his usual restrained fashion, described Bloomberg's engagement as "reckless" and "insane," but what's so remarkable is that this is something you need an ad war to accomplish. After all, universal background checks (which would extend such checks to gun shows and private sales) enjoy pretty much universal support, with polls showing around 90 percent of Americans in favor, including overwhelming majorities of Republicans and gun owners.

And yet, not only are lots of Republicans still holding back, but even some Democrats are afraid to take a position on universal background checks. Greg Sargent reports that at least five Democratic senators—Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagen (NC), Joe Donnelly (IN) and Heidi Heitkamp (SD)—are refusing to say where they stand on the issue. There's really only one reason why: the abject, soul-gripping fear of the red state Democrat.

Republicans Have Actual Good Idea to Improve Presidential Primaries

This couldn't get much worse.

During the 2012 presidential primaries, many conservatives complained about the media figures who moderated the 800 or so debates that the Republican candidates had to suffer through. Their beef was that these journalists, being journalists, were obviously in the tank for Barack Obama and could not be trusted to treat Republicans fairly. That wasn't really the problem, though. The problem was that most of the journalists who moderate presidential debates ask terrible questions, meant more to put candidates on the spot or produce a "gaffe" than to actually illuminate anything useful about them. I don't know how many times they have to ask inane questions like "What's your favorite Bible verse?" or whether the candidates prefer Elvis to Johnny Cash or deep dish to thin crust (yes, those were actually the topic of debate questions) before they start turning inward and wondering if they might be more substantive, but apparently the answer is never.

So the Republican National Committee is wondering whether it might take control of these things away from the media, both to reduce their number and to choose their own moderators, according to a story in the Daily Caller. Your first response might be, "Well, they just want their candidates to avoid the tough questions," but the truth is that this is a great idea.

The Super-Sexy Case Against Gay Marriage

When I get that feelin', I need Supreme Court amicus briefs.

Three years ago, in a column titled "It's Not You, It's Me," I noted that a rhetorical shift had occurred among opponents of gay rights. In earlier times, there was lots of talk about the immorality of homosexuality and how depraved gay people were, but now those sentiments have become marginalized. For more mainstream spokespeople, the argument against same-sex marriage is not about gay people at all but about straight people. The problem with same-sex marriage, they say, is the effect gay people's marriages will have on straight people's marriages. What that effect will be, they can't precisely say, but they're sure it'll be bad. Similarly, when we argued (briefly) about repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, their claims were not about whether gay soldiers could do their jobs, but whether their presence would make straight soldiers uncomfortable.

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on cases challenging California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in the state, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. There's little doubt that at least three of the justices (Scalia, Thomas, and Alito), and maybe more, will be staunch defenders of the legal status quo. But it will be interesting to hear what kinds of arguments the lawyers on their side come up with, particularly under questioning from the liberal justices. The original Prop. 8 trial was something of a farce, as the law's defenders proved unable to provide any rationale for it that could withstand a moment of cross-examination. So what are they going to say at the Supreme Court?

Why the Republicans Should Go Ahead and Have Their Civil War

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

Watching gleefully while your opponents tear themselves apart is a bipartisan Washington pastime. For many years, Republicans were able to do much more of it than Democrats, for the simple reason that Democrats tend to bicker among themselves more, and nothing produces such bickering like lost presidential elections. But now, having lost two such elections in a row, it's the Republicans who are at each other's throats, and Democrats who look on with a smile. I always find these arguments interesting, not because I enjoy giving a Nelson Muntz "Ha-ha!" to the GOP (OK, maybe just a little) but because their outcome ends up shaping our politics in the coming years.

So I have a message for my Republican friends: Ignore the Democrats laughing at you about the infighting. Squabbling amongst yourselves is exactly what you should be doing right now.

Asking Serious People Silly Questions

Erin Burnett, trying to keep from giggling.

I've written before about the media's inability to talk about the issue of marijuana legalization without turning into eighth graders, peppering their stories with references to Cheech & Chong and making generally idiotic stoner references ("Put down those Doritos and turn down that Dead bootleg—a new policy statement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy could be a serious buzz-cruncher!"). Whether this is changing now that Washington and Colorado passed decriminalization schemes in the last election and momentum is building in other states for similar measures, I'm not sure. But Mark Kleiman, who has done extensive research on the potential consequences of drug legalization and is now acting as a consultant to the state of Washington as it finds its way toward implementing the law the voters there passed, found himself confronted with a smirking Erin Burnett on CNN, who wanted to know whether he's a pot smoker or not, and handled it perfectly. "I don't think there's any ill will involved in asking the question," he wrote afterward, "journalists simply want to 'place' their sources culturally on the hippie-to-jock spectrum. But I want to resist the whole idea that drug policy should be a clash of cultural identities rather than a serious discussion of harms and benefits." Lo and behold, once he set her straight she had actual substantive questions to ask him, so it worked out fine.

This raises an interesting question, though. Just how capable are we of divorcing our beliefs about the people involved in public debate from the content of their arguments? And should we?

Stuck With Each Other

AP photo/David Goldman

Imagine you're a religious right activist, used to being a serious player within the Republican party, the kind of person candidates court and party chieftains huddle with. You've done well at making sure that just about every politician in your party has the right position on your issues. You may not always get everything you want as quickly as you want, but you know that you don't have to waste energy fighting rear-guard actions within the GOP.

But then bad things start to happen. We spend a couple of years talking about nothing but the economy and budgets, ignoring your favorite issues, and some in the party suggest that the real culture war isn't your culture war, it's an economic one. A couple of your favorite candidates get a little too candid with their views on rape, and end up losing at the polls, leading some influential strategists to suggest that the party needs to shift its focus away from your issues. Then one of your party's senators comes out in support of same-sex marriage, and even though it's only one senator, all the pundits agree that he won't be the last, and it's only a matter of time before your party abandons its insistence on "traditional" marriage entirely. Then some party bigwigs come out with a report on how the GOP can win future elections, and it says nothing about you and your issues. There's talk about how libertarian the party should become and how it can appeal to minority groups, young people, and women, but all that makes you feel pretty left out.

As McKay Coppins reports, that's leaving religious right activists more than a little peeved. But he puts his finger on a big reason that some in the party feel free to encourage a move in a leftward direction:

War of Cluelessness

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

I have a piece at today about what the press did and didn't learn from its performance leading up to the war that I wanted to expand on a little. You might remember Donald Rumsfeld's philosophical musings on "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," which I think offers a good way to look at how so many people got so much wrong, with such tragic results. There were things they knew they didn't know, but they decided that those things didn't matter (or that they just didn't care), and there were things they didn't know they didn't know. That applies to the Bush administration, its supporters, the frightened Democrats who went along, and to the press. Here's a bit of what I wrote:

Just How Bad Is Television News?

Every year, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism releases a huge report called "The State of the News Media," and this year's installment contains some surprising results, far beyond what you'd expect about declining newspaper revenues and the generalized slow death of journalism (though there's plenty of that). In particular, television news is undergoing some rapid changes, most of which are driven by finances and many of which look seriously problematic.

Let's start with local TV news (we'll get to cable in a moment)...

The Political Is Personal

AP Photo/Mike Munden

On Friday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio became the first Republican in the Senate to support same-sex marriage, explaining in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed that his change of heart came after his son told him he's gay. It was easy to be underwhelmed by Portman's announcement; as Michael Tomasky asked, "what if his son weren't gay?

Brief Hiatus


I won't be blogging for the remainder of this week; over the next couple of days my plans include climbing K2 solo, learning Icelandic, mastering the art of painting on grains of rice, and finding a cure for a rare but embarassing earlobe disorder. I'll be back Monday.

The Dubya Albatross

When he was performing his Full Jeb of Sunday show interviews over the weekend, Jeb Bush got asked everywhere whether he's running for president, and each time he gave the same practiced answer (not thinking about it yet). He also got asked whether his brother's disastrous presidency, and the fact that Dubya left office with abysmal approval ratings (Gallup had him in the 20s for much of 2008) would be a drag on him. Jeb gave the answer you'd expect: history will be kind to my brother, I'm very proud of him, and so on. Of course it's true that Jeb, what with his last name and all, would have to "grapple" with his brother's legacy more than other candidates. But when we think about it in those terms, I think we overlook something important about how the Bush legacy will continue to operate on Republicans, not just Jeb but all of them.

The Smart Strategy Behind Paul Ryan's Stupid Budget

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

For an ambitious politician, a spot on your party's presidential ticket is fraught with danger. On one hand, you immediately become a national figure, and if you win, you're vice president and you've got a good chance to become president. On the other hand, if you lose, you may wind up the target of contempt from forces within your own party and quickly fade away. Look at the list of recent VP losers: Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp. None of them had any political future after their loss.

And then there's Paul Ryan. You have to give him credit for one thing. Unlike, say, Palin, he didn't let his time on the national stage give him delusions of grandeur. Instead of proclaiming himself the leader of a movement, he went right back to what he was doing before: using the budgeting process to push an extraordinarily radical agenda, all couched in enough numbers and figures to convince naive reporters that he's a Very Serious Fellow, despite the fact that his numbers and figures are about as serious as an episode of The Benny Hill Show. But this act is what got him where he is, and he seems to have concluded, probably wisely, that his best move is to get back on that same track, which might eventually lead him to the White House.

Working for Free on TV

That's me working for free.

In the last week or so, the world of people who write and publish for a living has been consumed with the question of whether and when freelancers ought to work for free. As you probably know, the internet has killed journalism, and this has made it all but impossible to make a living as a writer. Not really, of course, but this whole thing started when an editor at The Atlantic asked a writer if he'd like to give her an edited version of a piece he'd previously written, which would be published on their site without any pay, and he responded, "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children." This then touched off a lot of soul-searching and navel-gazing among writers and editors, the most enlightening bit of which is probably this post from Alexis Madrigal.

I have my own (probably not particularly interesting) thoughts on whether and when one should write for free, but one angle I'd like to note is there are lots of exploitative relationships within the media, wherein one person takes advantage of another person's work for their own ends; for instance, as Ezra Klein Ezra Klein discusses, journalists use the work of experts (without paying them) to help them write their stories, and experts use the work of journalists (without paying them) to give their ideas exposure, generate donations to their organizations, and so on. But one are of what we might call exploitation doesn't get mentioned in these discussions a lot: television.

Politicians Awkwardly Dropping Pop Culture References

Wiz Khalifa, who recorded a song that Marco Rubio knows the title of. (Flickr/Sebastien Barre)

Can a United States senator be cool? As it happens, the current Senate has a number of members in their early 40s, and for at least some of them, that youth is a big part of what defines them. There was a time when as a 40-year-old in the Senate you'd worry about establishing your gravitas, but this group seems to be just as interested, if not more, in playing up their youth. That may be particularly true for the Republicans, since their party not only worries about its appeal to young people but wants to make sure it stays relevant in the future. But this can be tricky, especially since, with a few exceptions, the kind of person who becomes a professional politician probably wasn't the coolest person to begin with. After all, part of being cool is not looking like you're trying to be cool, and politicians usually look like they're trying too hard (because they usually are).

You may be asking, "Are you talking about Marco Rubio?" The answer is yes, but before we get to him, Rebecca Berg has an interesting story in Buzzfeed about Chris Murphy, at 39 America's youngest senator...

How Many Big-Time Pundits Are Plagiarists?

Juan Williams is obviously too busy to write his own columns. (Flickr/Nick Step)

Not long ago I was getting a shiatsu massage in my office when my assistant came in to tell me that he'd gathered the data on government spending that I'd asked for, and written it up in text form so I could drop it into my next column. When I read what he'd written, it looked suspiciously like turgid think-tank prose, so I asked him whether these were his own words or those of the source from which he got the data. When he began his response with "Um..." I knew he had failed me, so I flung my double espresso in his face, an act of discipline I thought rather restrained. Over the sound of his whimpering and the scent of burning flesh, I explained to him that real journalists don't pass off the work of others as their own. As part of his penance, I forced him to write my columns for me in their entirety for the next three weeks. The scars are healing nicely, and with my benevolent guidance he is well on his way to becoming the journalist I know he can be.

OK, that didn't actually happen. I don't have an assistant. I suppose if I resided at a higher tier of the Washington opinion journalism hierarchy, I would. Like Juan Williams, who finds himself in a spot of trouble today. As Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon reports, parts of a column Williams recently "wrote" for The Hill were lifted almost word-for-word from a Center for American Progress report on immigration: