• Choosing the Right Filter for Presidential Image Making

    This man was not actually a cowboy. (White House photo)

    On Friday, Larry Speakes died. If you're under 35 or so the name probably doesn't mean that much to you, but for many people, he'll always be the symbol of a particular transformation in American politics. Whenever I think of Speakes, who served as White House spokesperson during the Reagan years, I think of a particular quote, one of those timeless utterances that sums up something fundamental about politics or a particular era. It came about because his boss, Ronald Reagan, liked to tell stories to make arguments about policy, or just to entertain people. The problem was that many of these stories were made up, and many others seemed to have come from movies he saw.

    One of the latter was a story Reagan told in a speech to a group of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, about an old soldier in World War II who was in a plane that was on its way to crash after being damaged by antiaircraft fire. Everyone began bailing out, but one terrified young soldier was caught in the gun turret. "He took the boy's hand," Reagan said of the older man, "And said, 'Never mind, son, we'll ride it out together.' Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded." Though the story has been retold in many fictional contexts, it never actually happened. When columnist Lars-Erik Nelson asked Speakes about it, the spokesman said, "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." It would be hard to come up with a better motto for the entire Reagan presidency, and for its legacy to American politics.

  • The "Internet of Things," Still a Long Way Off

    Behold the future of home refrigeration. (Flickr/David Berkowitz)

    As you've heard a zillion times if you pay attention to this sort of thing, the hot technology trend of 2014 is "wearables," i.e., technology that you wear. I'm more than a little skeptical, the main reason being that wearables seem to be around five years away from not completely sucking. OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but at this stage, they're not transformative yet, unless you hear about a watch that monitors your heartbeat or a pair of $400 ski goggles with a heads-up display and say, "Oh my god, life as we know it will never be the same."

    But the next hot technology trend, and one that has been the next trend for a while, is the "Internet of things," in which all our previously dumb and superficially mundane devices will become "smart" and connected to the web. Ask yourself: how amazing would it be if your refrigerator scanned its contents, realized you were low on milk and eggs, and placed an order to a store which delivered them, without you ever needing to be involved?

    Once again, I have to say that the answer is, not really all that amazing.

  • Economic Outlook Remains Depressing

    Every month at this time when the jobs report comes out, we get reminders not to put too much stock in any one month's numbers. This is wise counsel, first because there's some inherent volatility in month-to-month movements—for instance, December numbers may have been affected by bad weather—and second because these figures often get revised later as more data come in. So the pretty bleak numbers from December don't, in and of themselves, tell us much about how the recovery is going.

    But those numbers are indeed pretty bleak. Only 74,000 new jobs were created in December, compared to a monthly average of 182,000 for the year. The unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent, but that's because so many people dropped out of the labor force. The labor force participation rate is now 62.8 percent, its lowest rate since 1978. Some of that is a long-term decline due to an aging population, but most of it comes from people deciding there's no point in looking for work.

    So let's look at the big picture.

  • The Answers to Two Big Questions about the Christie Bridge Scandal


    Since there are probably only so many posts you want to click on about Chris Christie's Bridgeghazi (or Bridgegate or Bridgeica Bridgewinsky or whatever you want to call it—the scandal is not yet big enough to get its own name, at least one that doesn't reference another scandal), this post actually concerns two separate issues. If you're only interested in the question of why this is getting so much media attention, go ahead and scroll down. But first…

    Yesterday, in writing about this issue, I suggested that it was entirely possible that Governor Christie knew nothing about the intentionally created traffic tie-ups, since whatever else you think of him, "he isn't an idiot, and only an idiot would think screwing over a small-town mayor in so public a fashion, just before an election you're going to win in a walk, would be a good idea." Since then, a number of colleagues and friends have suggested that this is pretty tenuous logic, and I have to admit that they have a point, so I decided to revisit the question.

  • The GOP's Poverty Problem

    Poverty is all the rage among conservatives this week, and will be for, oh, another few days at least. My guess is that this is happening largely because Democrats have made clear that income inequality is the issue they'll be pressing from now until the November midterm elections, and Republicans are concerned that it might work. So they're going to head it off by showing voters that they care about people who are struggling, too. The question is, how do you do that when you're fighting against extending unemployment benefits, trying to cut food stamps, preventing poor people from getting health insurance through Medicaid, and arguing against increasing the minimum wage?

  • 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?