Paul Waldman

A Scandal We Can Sink Our Teeth Into

The scene of the crime. (Flickr/Shinya Suzuki)

During the Lewinsky scandal, our nation's brave pundits spent a good amount of time fluttering their hands in front of their faces and expressing dismay that they had to spend so much time talking about something so lurid. The truth was that they loved it like a labrador loves liverwurst, but some scandals are just more fun than others. Does it concern a lot of dull policy arcana, or something a little more human? Is there room for lots of speculation about people's motivations? Are there interesting characters—your Gordon Liddys, your Linda Tripps—to liven up the proceedings? These are the things that make a scandal.

We haven't yet met the people at the heart of the Chris Christie George Washington Bridge scandal, but since they're people in New Jersey politics, I'm guessing that if we ever get them in front of the cameras, a new media star or two would be born. And what I find glorious about this story is that the action in question had no practical purpose whatsoever. It didn't enrich anyone or give anyone an unfair political advantage. It was just for spite.

The Doomed Wars

White House photo by Pete Souza.

Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir, and even if a memoir doesn't actually tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it actually sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound pretty familiar.

Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I thought: the president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out." Well let's see. Should Obama have trusted David Petraeus? I can't really say. Hamid Karzai is corrupt, incompetent, and possibly mentally unstable. As to whether he believed in his own strategy (the "surge" of extra troops), by then there were plenty of reasons to doubt that it would work. The war wasn't his—it had been going on for over seven years before he even took office. And "it's all about getting out"? Well wasn't that the whole point? The reason the administration undertook the "surge" in the first place was to create the conditions where we could get out.

Another thing Gates writes is, "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission," and that that is a problem for the troops in the field. I'm sure it can be, to a degree, and morale can be undermined if you think the president doesn't believe you're going to succeed. I would also imagine that if you were a soldier in Iraq in 2005 or so and you saw George Bush on TV all the time talking about how great everything was going, you'd think your Commander in Chief was an idiot, and that might not be so good for morale either. But the real point is that in neither case was the president's confidence going to make much of a difference. The problem was never the president's disposition, or the particular decisions made in one year or one month. It was launching the war in the first place.

The Circle of Scam

Step right up! (Wikimedia Commons/ZioDave)

I've long held that what William Goldman said about Hollywood—"Nobody knows anything"—is equally true of Washington. At the same time though, people in politics are particularly adept at finding those who know even less than they do, and scamming them into giving over their political support or their money, or both.

I thought of this when reading the long investigation the Washington Post published the other day on the byzantine network of organizations the Koch brothers have established or funded to funnel their ample resources into politics.

The Moral Calculus Underlying the Debate Over Unemployment Insurance

The FDR memorial's depiction of Depression-era moochers. (Wikimedia Commons/Stefan Fussan)

The Senate is working its way toward (possibly) overcoming a Republican filibuster of an extension of long-term unemployment insurance, after which the measure will die when John Boehner refuses to bring it up for a vote in the House. Or perhaps not; Boehner's current position is that he's "open" to allowing a vote if the cost of the benefits is offset, presumably by taking money from some other program that helps the less fortunate. Boehner might also allow a vote in exchange for a fun-filled afternoon in which a bunch of orphans and widows are brought to the Capitol building so Republicans can lecture them about their lack of initiative, then force them to watch while members of the Banking Committee and a carefully selected group of lobbyists eat mouth-watering steaks flown in from an exclusive ranch in Kobe, Japan.

I kid. But there is a particular kind of moral clash at play in these negotiations, one that we don't think about very often. It has to do with the question of what makes liberals and conservatives distressed and angry.

Liz Cheney Goes Home to Washington

Liz Cheney takes a break from campaigning to spend a few minutes thoughtfully considering America's future.

Liz Cheney, who was trailing in polls by somewhere between 30 and 50 points, announced today that she is ending her Senate primary campaign against Republican Mike Enzi, a campaign that had been launched on the premise that Enzi, a man with a 93 percent lifetime American Conservative Union score, was a bleeding-heart liberal whose efforts in the upper chamber were not nearly filibustery enough. Cheney cited "serious health issues" in her family, implying that it has to do with one of her children, though she couldn't help wrapping it some gag-inducing baloney: " My children and their futures were the motivation for our campaign and their health and well being will always be my overriding priority." In any case, if one of Cheney's children is ill, everyone certainly wishes him or her a speedy recovery. But what can we make of the failure of Cheney's campaign?

The Media's Morality Play and Melissa Harris-Perry

From Mitt Romney's Twitter Feed

Here's a can't-miss prediction for 2014: Some time this year, a media figure will say something offensive about someone who does not share their political ideology. There will be a chorus of feigned outrage. Apologies will be demanded, then grudgingly offered. Those insincerely expressing their displeasure at the original statement will criticize the apology for its insufficient sincerity.

In fact, this little routine will happen multiple times this year (and next year, and the year after that). It will happen with both media figures and politicians. That's just how we do it in America. There's so much umbrage taken in politics that it practically constitutes its own industry.

Last week we saw one more of these cases, but it was different from most, in that the eventual apology not only contained what an actual apology should, it was obviously earnest as well.

David Brooks and the Modern Marijuana Confession

I've long held that much of American politics is a never-ending argument between the hippies and the jocks, as Baby Boomer politicians and commentators replay over and over the cultural conflict of their youth. And no issue brings that conflict more clearly to the fore than the question of marijuana legalization. Today, David Brooks wrote a predictably mind-boggling column on the topic, in which he reveals that he smoked pot as a teen but thinks legalization would mean "nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be." I'm not going to spend time dealing with Brooks' argument, since plenty of people have done that already (if you want to read one takedown, I'd recommend Philip Bump's), but there is one aspect of this debate I want to take note of: the change in the nature of marijuana confessions.

Why Medicaid Patients Using the ER More Isn't a Bad Thing

Flickr/Rob Nguyen

As they argued that we needed to get coverage for the millions of Americans without health insurance, one of the problems advocates pointed to was the fact that many of the uninsured ended up showing up at the emergency room with relatively minor ailments, because they don't have regular doctors they can see and they know the hospital will have to treat them regardless of whether they'll be able to pay. This leads to crowded ERs and lots of uncompensated care, which is bad for everybody. So what happens when you give a bunch of formerly uninsured people Medicaid? According to a new study from the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, a unique data set around a randomized experiment made possible a few years back when the state of Oregon distributed new Medicaid enrollments by lottery, people went to the ER more once they got on Medicaid.

Liberals might find this disheartening. But not only is it not all that surprising, it doesn't undermine the case for Medicaid expansion at all.

The Trouble with Moore's Law Determinism

Flickr/Paul Hocksenar

You've probably heard of Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip doubles every 18 months to two years, give or take. It has held true since Intel's Gordon Moore made the conjecture in 1965, and though it might not go on forever, the exponential rise in computing power has driven all kinds of technological change. But there's something that's been bugging me for a while in the way people reference Moore's Law, and I figured the new year was as good a time as any to get it off my chest.

The error is in the assumption that a very specific exponential curve regarding change in the power of transistors and circuits is the same as change in technological innovation, which is the same as societal change driven by technology. It isn't.

The Two Americas Will Be the Defining Trend of 2014

The 2000 election, when we were cast out of the Eden of national unity.

This morning, one of my editors suggested that I might comment on what I thought the big issues of the coming year are going to be. When it comes to the things that will dominate political discussion, most of it we can't predict. There could be unforeseen crises, natural disasters, war breaking out somewhere, or the emergence of previously unknown yet charismatic political figures. A baby might fall down a well, or a little boy could pretend to float up in a balloon, or a young singer might stick out her tongue and move her hips in a sexually suggestive manner, precipitating a national freakout.

But one trend I do think will shape people's lives this year and in years to come is the increasing divergence between the places where lots of Democrats live and the places where lots of Republicans live. Yes, it sounds trite and overdone to talk about Two Americas, but it is true, and it's becoming more true all the time. And one question I'm curious about is whether we'll see an increase in people picking up and moving to places where public policy either accords better with their values or offers them important benefits they need to live their lives (or both).

What Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson Can Teach Us about Empathy

Yes, I have something to add to the Duck Dynasty controversy, wherein reality TV star Phil Robertson got in trouble for expressing anti-gay views, was suspended by A&E, and has now become the cause celebre of nitwit conservative politicians from across the land. This won't take long.

I'm not even going to bother addressing the idiocy of the "constitutional conservatives" who think the First Amendment guarantees you the legal right to a cable reality show. Nor am I going to talk about Robertson's anti-gay statement, except to say that nobody buys you couching your bigotry in "biblical" terms just because you call yourself a Christian and throw out some scriptural references. Once you start campaigning to have people who eat shellfish and the sinners who work on the Sabbath executed (the Bible says so!) then we'll accept that you're just honoring your religion.

It's Robertson's comments about how happy black people were living under Jim Crow that deserve our attention, because they have something to teach us about empathy and individual change.

Meet the GOP's New Black Friend

Mia Love in one of her many appearances on Fox News.

When Allen West was defeated in the 2012 election and Tim Scott was appointed to serve out the term of retiring South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, that left Republicans back where they had usually been in the past, with not a single black Republican in the House of Representatives. This is something they aren't particularly pleased about, which is why in the coming year you're going to be hearing a lot about Mia Love, a candidate from Utah's 4th district. Barring some shocking scandal, come November she'll be bringing that number from zero up to one, and she's going to become a right-wing celebrity. Mia Love is the Republicans' New Black Friend.

You may remember Love from the 2012 Republican convention, where she gave a not-particularly-memorable speech. She couldn't beat Jim Matheson, the conservative Democrat who represented the district, despite the fact that Mitt Romney won there by a 37-point margin. But now Matheson has just announced that he's retiring, which makes Love's election in what was supposed to be a rematch all but certain. So get ready: Mia Love is going to be the most famous Republican House candidate in the country. She'll be on Fox News more often than Sean Hannity. She'll be touted by all the conservative radio hosts. I'm betting they'll put her on the cover of National Review. Because that'll show those liberals.

It's Not Washington, It's You

The seat of evil, circa 1835. (Wikimedia Commons)

I wasn't going to write about this, but then something shocking happened: Chris Cillizza wrote something I agreed with. So now I have little choice.

Here's what I'm talking about: a reporter named Sam Youngman wrote a piece for Politico about how despicable Washington journalistic culture is and how he's so glad he went back to Kentucky to be a real reporter after his heady days of flying around on Air Force One. Now you might think that as someone who is often critical of the Washington press corps and sometimes of Washington in general (although it's complicated I would be saying "Right on, brother!" But I'm not.

Say Thanks to a Republican Idea Day

Don't be afraid. (Flickr/House GOP Leader)

When John McCain ran for president in 2008, he offered up a health reform plan. Nobody paid all that much attention to it, because it was pretty clear that health care was an issue McCain didn't care about at all, and much like the "patient's bill of rights" George W. Bush had touted when he ran for president eight years earlier, it would be forgotten as soon as he took office. Four years later, Mitt Romney had something resembling a health care plan too, but once again, nobody paid much attention to what it contained, because any time health care came up, the only question was how Romney could square his stated position that the Affordable Care Act was a poisonous hairball of misery coughed up by the Prince of Darkness himself, while the plan it was modeled after, often referred to as "Romneycare," was a wonderful thing that everyone in the state where it was implemented seems to like.

Both McCain's and Romney's plans were mostly an amalgam of ineffectual half-measures and truly terrible ideas, but mixed in there were a few proposals that might actually be beneficial. And now that we're just days away from the full implementation of the ACA, some conservatives will be offering up similar reform proposals again (here's one).. The problem they face is that once millions of people have been enrolled in new insurance plans, you can no longer just propose to repeal the law, because that would mean kicking them off the insurance they have. "Repeal it!" only works as a battle cry when you can pretend no one would be harmed. So they have two choices: stop talking about health care entirely, or have some kind of plan you can claim you're proposing to put in its place. And Democrats can respond by actually agreeing to one or two of the Republicans' ideas. It sounds crazy, I know. But hear me out.

NYT Mag Offers Inexplicable 2006 John McCain Cover Profile in 2013

The cover of the next New York Times Magazine

In the last couple of years, every time something John McCain says makes "news," my immediate reaction—sometimes on Twitter, sometimes just in my head—is, "Remind me again why anybody should give a crap what John McCain thinks about anything?" I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer to this question. And here comes star reporter Mark Leibovich, author of the well-received This Town, with a 6,634-word cover profile of McCain for next week's New York Times Magazine. Do we need another one of these? I would have answered "no" before reading, but after, I'm even more sure.