Paul Waldman

Voter Turnout in 2012: Meh

Flickr/zzazazz
Thanks to Michael McDonald at George Mason University, we have the final turnout statistics for the 2012 presidential election, and the verdict is ... eh. Not too bad, not too great. A total of 129,058,169 votes were counted, out of an eligible population of 221,925,820, for a turnout figure of 58.2 percent. How does that compare to previous years, you ask? Or rather, can you show me a chart comparing that to previous years? Why yes. Yes I can. Last year's turnout was right in the middle of the 17 elections presented in this chart—better than eight, but worse than eight. It was a bit down from that of 2008, which at 61.6 percent was the highest since 1964. And it's important to remember that there's a huge variation in turnout among the separate states. The friendly and civic-minded people of Minnesota always have the nation's highest turnout, and this year an admirable 75.7 percent of them came to the polls. At the other end, four states came in below 50 percent: Texas, Oklahoma,...

Can We Live Without the Assault Weapons Ban?

Flickr/mr.smashy
So yesterday, Harry Reid hinted that he'll be introducing a gun-control measure that doesn't include a new ban on assault weapons. If we assume for a moment that other proposed measures eventually pass, but an assault-weapons ban doesn't, how bad an outcome would it be? Let's start by stipulating that it is utterly insane that in this country, anybody can walk into a gun shop and walk out a few minutes later with a military-style rifle whose sole purpose is to enable its user to kill human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible. They're not for hunting, and they're not for defending your home, unless you're Tony Montana. The fact that a lot of people find shooting them fun shouldn't carry any weight as a policy argument. And as we know all too well, they turn mass shootings more deadly. On the other hand, one of the arguments gun advocates make is that the kind of weapons that would be outlawed (for future sales, anyway) under an assault-weapons ban don't kill all that many...

How the NRA Is Helping to Pass Gun Control

We're in the early stages of a lengthy process that will involve hearings, competing bills, horse-trading, and the usual ugliness of life in the Capitol Hill sausage factory, but the contours of gun legislation are beginning to take shape. Though President Obama is out campaigning for the full package of reforms he has been advocating, there are indications that the assault weapons ban may get dropped in order to forestall a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and a bipartisan group is about to introduce a bill in the House on gun trafficking and straw purchases. (I'll discuss the assault weapons question in a later post). In other words, the actual legislative process is getting underway. And though it's by no means assured that some gun measures will pass Congress, if any do, we'll partly have the NRA to thank. That's because, I believe, the organization fundamentally misread the role it plays in the minds of the average voter. They've become more extremist in the last two decades...

Free "Super-Wifi" Everywhere? Don't Hold Your Breath.

Flickr/CollegeDegrees360
We spend a lot of time arguing about whether government should be big or small, which is almost always the wrong question. Among the right questions are how government should go about doing what it has to do, and on whose behalf it ought to operate. I bring this up because of a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission, discussed in this article in today's Washington Post , to open up a big chunk of spectrum to spread wifi hither and yon, potentially creating a nirvana of free internet and cell phone access. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, it is. But here's how the Post described it: The federal government wants to create super WiFi networks across the nation, so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month. The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission has rattled the $178 billion wireless industry, which has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to...

He's Not Here to Make Friends

President Obama meeting with grim-faced members of Congress. (White House/Pete Souza)
If you walked into the home of an acquaintance and found yourself facing a wall of dozens of pictures of him shaking hands with powerful people, you'd probably think, "What a pompous ass. And how insecure do you have to be to put these things up on your wall? I get it, you're important. Sheesh." In Washington, however, these "brag walls" can be found all over town, particularly on Capitol Hill, where nearly every member of Congress has one. Maybe some offices do it just because that's what everyone else does, but you'd think that if you're a senator or member of Congress, the fact that you're an important person would be self-evident, and it wouldn't be necessary to make sure everyone who comes into your office knows that you've been in the same room as presidents and other high-ranking officials. There are some commercial establishments, like your local deli, that might put up pictures on their walls with the celebrities who have stopped in, but that's an understandable marketing...

New Term, New Truthers, Same Obama

(Flickr/The White House)
If I had to pick my favorite political ad of the last few years, a strong contender would be the one from 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, in which she looked into the camera and said sweetly, "I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." The combination of a hilarious lack of subtlety with a kind of sad earnestness made it unforgettable. And it's the message that almost every politician tries to offer at one point or another (the "I'm you" part, not the part about not being a witch). They all want us to think they're us, or at least enough like us for us to trust them. So when the White House released a photo over the weekend of President Obama shooting skeet, the smoke of freedom issuing forth from the barrel of his gun, you could almost hear him saying, "I'm not an effete socialist gun-hater. I'm you." If "you" happen to be one of the minority of Americans who own guns, that is. Even at this late date, Obama and his aides can't resist the urge, when...

Is Obama Moving to the Left?

President Obama sets his radial plan in motion (White House/Lawrence Jackson)
Is Barack Obama moving to the left in his second term, and what is he risking by doing so? That's what Ron Brownstein asks in a long National Journal article, and though Brownstein is as comprehensive and careful as ever, there are some fundamental flaws in his premises. But here's what he says: On issues from gay rights to gun control, immigration reform, and climate change—all of which he highlighted in his ringing Inaugural Address last week—Obama is now unreservedly articulating the preferences of the Democratic "coalition of the ascendant" centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women. Across all of these issues, and many others such as the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the ban on women in combat, Obama is displaying much less concern than most national Democratic leaders since the 1960s about antagonizing culturally conservative blue-collar, older, and rural whites, many of whom oppose them. Near as I...

Can Conservatives Change How They Talk about Immigrants?

For many years, it's been obvious conservatives do a better job of manipulating language than liberals, not only because they seem good at coming up with new terms to describe things, but more importantly because once they decide on a new term, they very quickly get everyone on their side to use it. One of the classic examples is how they took the "estate tax," with its evocation of a white-haired gentleman named something like Winthrop Flipperbottom III sipping brandy from a gigantic snifter while petting his afghan hound as he looks over the vast gardens of his estate, and renamed it the "death tax," which evokes a cruel IRS agent bursting in on your family mourning the death of your beloved uncle and making off with his lovingly amassed collection of vintage baseball cards. You will never, ever hear a conservative call the tax anything but the "death tax," because they all understand the utility of language. How much these kind of linguistic efforts really affect the outcome of...

Homophobia in Sports and Changing Hearts

49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, celebrating his newfound respect for gay people. (AP photo by Paul Spinelli)
Almost all of us, at some time in our youth, had the experience of saying something that turned out to be way more inappropriate than we thought it was, whereupon people turned to us and said, "Dude. Not cool." In most cases, it concerned something we just hadn't thought that much about, and it often occurs when you move from one milieu to another with different mores and ideas, like going from high school to college. Or existing in a world of football players and suddenly finding yourself quoted in the media on a sociopolitical topic because your team is in the Super Bowl, which is what happened to San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. When it happens in your dorm room, someone will explain to you why the joke you made or the term you used was out of line, and you'll probably say, "Huh—I hadn't thought about it that way, but OK." And armed with that knowledge, you'll adapt to your new surroundings and the changing times. But Culliver found himself in hot water when he was on...

The Wrong Kind of Immigration Spending

AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Robert Sutton
The Republican party's abysmal performance among Latino voters in the 2012 election, and the ensuing realization among many in the GOP that they need to change their stance on immigration or risk more defeats, have made it a real possibility that passage of the first comprehensive immigration reform bill in over a quarter-century could happen soon. The debate will no doubt be intense, so as it begins, some facts about the recent and not-so-recent history of immigration in America will be important to keep in mind. Immigration had its first peak in the first decade of the 20th century, when over 8 million people from other countries became legal permanent residents of the United States, a number that wasn't exceeded again until the 1990s. By the 1960s, however, immigrants from North America (mostly Mexico) exceeded those from Europe; Asian immigrants exceeded Europeans in the 1970s. (These data, and many more, can be found in the Department of Homeland Security's annual yearbook of...

Why "Make Them Learn English" Is the Key to Immigration Reform

New Americans taking the oath of citizenship. (Flickr/Grand Canyon NPS)
Among the provisions in the immigration-reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to "learn English and civics." They don't detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there'd be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it's completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it's an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform. The reason it's unnecessary is that every wave of immigrants follows basically the same pattern when it comes to English. People who immigrate as adults tend not to learn much beyond the most basic words and phrases, and continue to speak their native language at home. Their children grow up bilingual, speaking one language at home and another at...

Why Playwrights Aren't Political Analysts

Flickr/David Shankbone
During last year's presidential campaign, journalist Buzz Bissinger got some attention for writing an opinion piece explaining that he was voting for Mitt Romney because Barack Obama hasn't done enough to end poverty, which is kind of like saying you're switching from salad to Big Macs for lunch because you're trying to lose weight and salad has calories. For people familiar with Bissinger's extraordinary reportage, including books like Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City (one of the best books about big-city politics ever written), it was a shock. How could such a great reporter produce something so infantile and bereft of the simplest familiarity with logic? Then people took a look at Bissinger's Twitter feed and discovered that he spews out a puzzling combination of incomprehensibility and general assholishness. (sample tweet: "Romney lost was a suck candidate as it turned out. But every fucking liberal who whines about pro football should be forced to play it." Um,...

We'll Miss You, Sarah Palin

It seems like such a long time now, but it was only four and half years ago that America was introduced to Sarah Palin, who came down from the wilds of Alaska to set conservative hearts aquiver. Long after she ceased to be listened to for any other reason than that she said something offensive, Sarah Palin's star has faded so far that even Fox News has no more use for her. Her umbilical cord to influence—the connection between the studio Fox built in her house and the network's headquarters in New York—has been severed, her contract not renewed. Some of Palin's allies anonymously informed reporters that the decision was hers and not the network's, but I don't believe that for a second. Roger Ailes is not a sentimental man, and when necessary he won't hesitate to cut loose an asset whose usefulness is exhausted. And if you've ever seen her talking to Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, you know that she was actually terrible at TV commentary. Neither articulate nor insightful, she stumbled...

Will the GOP Vote-Rigging Effort Invite a Backlash?

This must not stand.
Over the last 12 years (since the Florida debacle of 2000), I've argued repeatedly that politics in America is characterized by an Audacity Gap. It may not hold in every situation and every controversy, but most of the time, Republicans are willing take actions both small (shouting at the president that he's a liar during the State of the Union) and large (filibustering everything or holding the economy hostage over the debt ceiling) that Democrats are far too timid to even consider. Often it occurs when Republicans decide to violate a norm of how business had been done previously, safe in the knowledge that since what's at issue is a norm and not a rule, there's really nothing to stop them. As I put it some time ago, Republicans are the party of "Yes we can," while Democrats are the party of "Maybe we shouldn't." It doesn't always work to Republicans' advantage, but much of the time it does. When it works, it's often because the public doesn't know, doesn't understand, or doesn't...

Republicans Puzzled as to Why They Didn't Slay Hillary Clinton Yesterday

Hillary Clinton making a point to Republicans at a hearing on Benghazi yesterday.
Today, Republicans are wondering why they didn't manage to make Hillary Clinton fall whimpering into a fetal position of the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, then get up and admit that the Obama administration had engaged in a massive cover-up of their terrible crimes in Benghazi. Senator Ron Johnson, one of the most intellectually challenged members of that august body, with whom Clinton had an exchange that ran on all the news programs, triumphally told a reporter he had got "under her skin," and said, "I think she just decided before she was going to describe emotionally the four dead Americans, the heroes, and use that as her trump card to get out of the questions. It was a good way of getting out of really having to respond to me." Diabolical indeed, that she managed to evade your skillful cross-examination. John McCain, on the other hand, blamed an "adoring media" for not helping the Republicans stick it to Clinton. Could be. Or it could be that when...

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