Paul Waldman

Beware Of "Ties"

Flickr/Fernando de Souza
Something to think about as we learn more in the coming days about both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother Tamerlan. Everything investigators have released so far suggests that they acted alone, and you can easily find instructions to make the kind of bomb they used on the Internet. But as details get fleshed out about where they went, what they did, and whom they met in the last few years, there's a phrase we'll be hearing a lot: "ties to al-Qaeda." So before people start saying the brothers had "ties to al-Qaeda," we should make sure we know exactly what we're saying when we use that term. We still don't know much about why the Russian government contacted the FBI regarding Tamerlan, and what he did on an extended trip to Chechnya and Dagestan in 2012. Who knows, maybe Ayman al-Zawahiri himself went to Grozny to meet with him, told him how to make the bombs, and ordered him to carry out the attack. But probably not. It's a lot more likely that we'll find out about some far...

Pete Williams Is a Good Journalist, But He's Not a Hero

At one point during its coverage of the events in Boston on Friday, NBC News brought in a feed from a local station, and it seemed to be recording not the station's broadcast but someone talking on the phone, perhaps a reporter or someone in the control room. "Oh, you're not listening?" the person being recorded said to whomever he was talking to. "We don't know shit." After a pregnant pause, Brian Williams returned to say smoothly, "Well, that was a fortuitous time to dip into the coverage of New England cable news." But it was a pretty fair summary of television news' overall performance through the course of this whole drama. There was one part of NBC's coverage, however, that came in for a great deal of praise. At a time when the New York Post was publishing one piece of false information after another (including splashing a photo of two completely innocent men on its front page and accusing them of being suspects) and CNN was coming in for much-deserved ridicule for its hours of...

Boston Changed Nothing

Flickr/Pete Tschudy
We've all seen how the bombing in Boston, as so often happens with events like this, brought out the best in the people who were there. But it also—not surprisingly either—brought out the worst in some other people who were back in Washington. It gave them the opportunity to let loose their most vulgar impulses, the satisfaction they get from stoking fear, and their absolute disdain for so many of the things that make America what it is, has been, and continues to be. You'll recall that after September 11, the phrase "this changes everything" was repeated thousands of times. In too many cases, what that meant was, "This gives me the opportunity to advocate changes pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, the things I never would have dared suggest before. This is our chance." We can toss aside those pesky constitutional amendments that protect against unreasonable search and seizure or provide for due process, because we never liked them anyway. Hell, we can even torture...

Substituting Identity for Motivation

A religious right leader offering his insights.
Let's be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be … well, we don't really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they're literally Caucasian, but they're also Muslim. Most importantly, as of yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind. But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity. The sentiment coming from a lot of people on the right today runs to, "See! See! Mooslems!!!" Some...

Obamacare's Delicious Ironies

We don't have health insurance, suckers! (Flickr/Elvert Barnes)
As the various "gangs" in the House and Senate were writing their immigration proposals, it became clear that to win the support of Republicans, the provisional legal status undocumented immigrants were going to get had to be punitive. No coddling those law-breakers; if they're going to get on a path to citizenship, it had better be an unpleasant path. It had to last for a long time—ten years, in the end. And there had to be a requirement that during that time, you couldn't get any federal benefits like food stamps or welfare. But this has produced a rather amusing irony. Republicans insist that one of the benefits those with provisional status must be barred from receiving is the subsidies that people of moderate incomes will get through Obamacare to buy insurance. As you'll recall, Republicans also believe that Obamacare's individual mandate is the most oppressive, liberty-destroying policy in the history of the republic; for instance, Wisconsin senator and Ayn Rand acoloyte Ron...

Marco Rubio's Life Is about to Get Complicated

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Marco Rubio has had a pretty charmed political life. He rose quickly through the ranks in the Florida legislature, won a Senate seat without too much trouble at the tender age of 39, then suddenly found himself the " Republican savior " a mere two years after arriving in Washington. At a time when the GOP is desperate to appeal to Latinos, he's a young, smart, dynamic Latino who could be their presidential nominee in 2016. What could go wrong? Immigration reform, that's what. Many elite Republicans feel, and not without reason, that while supporting comprehensive reform might not win them the votes of Latinos, opposing it will pretty much guarantee that those votes will be lost to them. And Rubio almost has no choice but to be one of the leaders, if not the leader, of the party in that effort. He can't be the Great Latino Hope if he isn't. Trouble is, lots and lots of rank-and-file Republicans, particularly the kind who vote in presidential primaries, don't much like reform the way it...

It Isn't Just Boston

Sunset at Fenway. (Flickr/slack12)
We've heard many inspiring and heartwarming stories from Boston about how people acted in the aftermath of Tuesday's bombing—rushing to aid the injured, opening up their homes to strangers, being kinder and more considerate than they would have been a week ago, in ways small and large. Many people elsewhere have expressed solidarity with the city of Boston, and I think that's great. But amidst it all there are some strange expressions about how all that admirable response is somehow uniquely Bostonian. I'm not trying to condemn anyone, but it's something we always seem to fall into when there's a shocking and tragic event like this one. It certainly happened after September 11, when stories of heroism and generosity were so often followed with the sentiment that "Nowhere else in the world" would people have acted in such praiseworthy ways, as though had a similar tragedy happened in Tokyo or Copenhagen or Johannesburg, people would have just left each other to die on the sidewalk. I'm...

Is the Single-Issue Gun Voter Another Myth?

Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin-Toomey background-check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem...

Call It What You Will

President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.
Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching. From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not...

The Trouble with Scoops

Flickr/Aaron Tang
It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, The Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why? I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point . When Americans are looking to...

The Gosnell Case and the Two Kinds of Media Criticism

Fox is on it.
As you might have heard, conservatives are up in arms that the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with multiple murder counts, hasn't gotten more coverage. They claim that the media have ignored the story because of their pro-choice bias. You should read Scott Lemieux's five lessons of the case, but a lot of liberals have been shaking their heads over conservatives' complaints, because the right's argument about the case is wrong in almost every one of its particulars. The truth is that though there hasn't been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media until now, many feminist writers have written about the case at length. And what allowed this horror to happen is exactly what conservatives want more of: a system where there are few (or no) legitimate abortion providers, sending poor women with few options to the back alleys, where they can be preyed upon by people like Gosnell. But I want to talk about the media angle to all this. As Kevin Drum points...

I Want Your Tax

Flickr/soukup
Today is tax day, the yearly opportunity for millions of Americans to shake their fists at the government and declare their contempt for the ideas of mutual concern and collective responsibility. So on this most practical of days, it's good to remind ourselves of some realities. First, the taxes we pay are, by international standards, fairly modest. Second, despite what some would have you believe, the wealthy are not crushed by the burden of taxation. And third, though nobody particularly enjoys giving part of their income to the government, taxes are the price we pay for having an advanced, democratic society. If you like living in a place where you aren't afraid of foreign invasion, if you like knowing that when you retire you'll get Medicare and Social Security, if you like living in a country with parks and roads and police and air traffic controllers and a legal system and food inspectors and water and sewage systems and schools and a thousand things you weren't thinking about...

Rand Paul Is a Genius

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
When your party is in power, the lines of authority are very clear. The White House is in charge, and though a certain amount of freelancing is always possible, the media's attention tends to be focused on those at the top. They'll always seek out the White House first as the party's voice, and after that the congressional leadership. But when you're out of power, there's more room for political entrepreneurs to get attention for themselves. Lots of them try—every day in Washington there are a zillion poorly-attended press conferences—but you have to be clever to break through that clutter and get yourself on the evening news. When he first got elected two years ago, Rand Paul wasn't exactly known as the sharpest tool in the shed. An opthamologist with no prior political experience, he seemed to get elected to the Senate almost entirely through a combination of blind luck and because his father is a famous crank. A kind of selective libertarian (he's opposed to most government...

Left Behind

Phyllis Schlafly (Flickr/Gage Skidmore). If you want to reach out to young people, she's obviously the person to talk to.
Social conservatives are getting awfully worried about this new push in the Republican Party to modernize, sideline the knuckle-draggers who can't help but offer their opinions on the functioning of ladyparts, show minorities that they don't hate them, and find a way to appeal to young people. So how can they respond? The most obvious way is to do what they do after every Republican loss, which is to tell the party's leadership that a) we lost the last election because you didn't listen to us; and b) if you don't start paying us sufficient deference, we'll abandon the GOP. As everybody knows, it's a threat they never follow through on and never will, but the obviously feel like they have no choice but to make it. So all the usual religious right suspects—Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, Lou Sheldon—who have been playing this game at least since the 1980s, sent a letter to RNC chairman Reince Priebus warning him not to abandon them. As tired as this ritual may...

Closing the Gun Show Loophole: Better Than Nothing?

Flickr/Brittany Randolph
Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey and NRA favorite Joe Manchin got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh. Toomey and Manchin's proposal would close the "gun-show loophole," meaning if you buy a gun at a show you'll have to submit to a background check. It also covers sales over the Internet. What it doesn't cover is private sales between one person and another. You've probably heard the figure that 40 percent of gun sales happen outside licensed dealers, and while the evidence for this figure is thin , nobody really knows if it's too high or too low. Furthermore, nobody knows what proportion of that 40 percent...

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