Archive

  • 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.

  • Dan Cantor's Machine

    Timothy Devine

    Election night, New York City, November 5, 2013. Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, the candidate for both the Democratic and Working Families parties, is racking up a huge victory after running on a platform that calls for raising taxes on the rich and raising wages for workers. Shunning the usual Manhattan-hotel bash, de Blasio has decided to celebrate in a Brooklyn armory, where his supporters have gathered to mark the end of the Michael Bloomberg era and, they hope, the birth of a national movement for a more egalitarian economy.

  • 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).

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