Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

When the World Is Your iPhone

If your iPhone is the center of your existence, you might be wondering what life is going to look like in a couple of decades as this kind of technology advances. Corning, the company that you might associate with things like dishes, but these days makes things like the glass on that iPhone, has the answer. Unlike, say, Kodak—another large upstate New York-based company that flourished in the 20th century—Corning has managed to adapt to recent technological changes and find its niche (although it had a fourth quarter slump, the company is still extremely profitable). And guess what they think the future is: more glass! Everywhere! Just take a look at the glass-based techno-utopia they're promising in this video:

It may not turn out exactly like this, but it actually seems a pretty plausible projection of where we're headed. I'd be pretty surprised if 20 years from now we're still carrying around powerful computers in our pockets, each of which has huge amounts of storage space to hold software and things like music. It seems more likely that the devices themselves will become far simpler, providing little more than a connection—to a vastly more complex Internet, and to thousands of other devices in our homes, cars, the businesses we interact with, and so on, while most of the storage and actual computing is done in the cloud. This is what's known as "the Internet of things," when everything in our environments, from our phones to our toasters to our shoes to the ground we walk on, is all connected. In visions like Corning's, of course, it's all clean and friendly and full of wonder. What they don't show is a couple using their beautiful glass interface to go over their iTunes bill. All that cool stuff ain't gonna be free. And if you think there are privacy concerns now because Google is recording your web history, just wait until every step you take and interaction you have is instantly turned into trackable, sortable data.

The Church, Taxes, and Health Insurance

The Bishops have never seen one of these.

The other day Tim Noah used the occasion of the Senate's vote on allowing any employer to prevent their employees' insurance from covering anything and everything the employer doesn't like (which every Republican senator except Olympia Snowe voted for) to argue that this is yet more evidence that employers ought to get out of the business of providing health coverage, and we ought to just have the government do it. In a single-payer system, these kinds of decisions can be made by our democratic process, and not by every employer individually.

There's just one note I want to make about this. Conservatives have been talking a lot about the importance of preserving the "conscience" of the Catholic Church, their right not to participate in any way in anything that violates their beliefs. That, of course, is a privilege that the rest of us, being citizens of a democracy, don't enjoy. We pay taxes, which go to a lot of things we dislike. I don't like the fact that our government spends as much on the military as every other nation on earth combined. I also don't like the money we spend on tax subsidies for oil companies. My conservative friends don't like the fact that the government gives food stamps to poor people, and pays the EPA to make sure our air and water are clean. But we all pay taxes, because that's how it works—we don't get to pick and choose each line item we want to pay for and which ones we don't.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, like all religious institutions, doesn't pay taxes. Nor do their affiliated organizations like hospitals and universities, because they are non-profit organizations. So if we had a single-payer system, the Church wouldn't be involved in anybody's insurance. The only way they could influence the law would be the way they do on other issues: not by demanding that the law give them yet more special treatment, but through their moral persuasion on how they think the rest of us should act. And you can imagine how much force that would have.

What's Behind the Slut-Shaming

The Tree of Death and Life, Berthold Furtmeyr, 1481

As leading Republicans have been asked about Rush Limbaugh's typically despicable attacks on Sandra Fluke, the law student who testified before congressional Democrats about the importance of health insurance coverage for contraception, they've offered some pretty weak responses. Mitt Romney said that when Limbaugh called Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," "it's not the language I would have used." Perhaps he meant that he would have called her a "harlot" or a "trollop." Rick Santorum, whose opposition to contraception is well-established, said that Limbaugh was "being absurd, but that's, you know – an entertainer can be absurd." Before we move on to this week's controversy, it's important to note just what kind of venomous beliefs this episode has brought to the fore. Republicans are insisting that this isn't really about contraception, it's about religious freedom. But for some people, it's about something much more fundamental: the dire threat of uncontrolled female sexuality.

Limbaugh is indeed an entertainer, and he's an entertainer who understands his audience very well. Does anyone think that when he called Fluke a "slut" that millions of his listeners didn't nod in agreement? The real threat, as Limbaugh sees it, the thing that must be shamed and ridiculed, is the idea that a woman might be in control of her own sexuality. As Limbaugh said, "So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here's the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you post the videos online so we can all watch." In other words, her sexuality is only acceptable if it can be placed in a context where it exists for his pleasure and not hers...

America Needs a Good Mitt Romney Impression

(SNL/NBC)

A year and a half ago, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that it's kind of hard to make fun of Barack Obama. Naturally, conservatives responded that I was saying that because I'm an Obama shill, and I thought he was so terrific that he was impossible to mock. But here was my actual point:

Politicians who make good targets for humor tend to have a personality feature or physical characteristic, like a particular accent or a distinctive set of gestures, that are easily identifiable and thus can be exaggerated to make the politician look foolish, because exaggeration is what impressions and satire are built on. Some of these are simple and straightforward, like Bush's tendency to mangle his words. Others are more complicated but no less distinct, like Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" charm, which simultaneously made you suspect you were being conned and like it.

The trouble with Obama is that he doesn't easily lend himself to mockery. He's famously cool -- never too hot, never too cold. And coolness itself is nothing if not a concerted effort to avoid being mocked. The most successful impressions -- like Darrell Hammond's Clinton or Will Ferrell's Bush -- may or may not perfectly ape the target's speech (Ferrell certainly didn't), but they capture something essential and absurd about the target, something that is seldom cool. The presidential impression currently featured on Saturday Night Live, by Fred Armisen, is a good re-creation of the president's way of talking. It just isn't all that funny.

And today, this satirical crisis threatens to get even worse. The Republican party is about to nominate someone who may be eminently mockable in many ways (goodness knows I've been trying to do my part). But it seems almost impossible to do a funny impression of Mitt Romney.

Just look at the version of Romney that Jason Sudekis does on SNL. In fairness, Sudekis isn't an impressionist. But it's like he's not even trying to capture Romney's speech, let alone use it to create something insightful or funny. He's just reading the words, and adding some bit of nasal tone to his voice, which doesn't sound like Romney at all:

Romney does have a particular way of speaking, but he doesn't have an accent or a distinctive voice. That makes it a challenge to imitate him, but a creative comedian should be able to do something to capture that essential Romneyness that makes him what he is. But other than Sudekis, there is no one out there doing a Mitt Romney impression, much less a good one. America's comedians need to step up.

Ken Mehlman's Regrets

(Flickr/Kat Ruddy)

In 2005, the chairman of the Republican National Committee went before the NAACP and told them that the "Southern Strategy" the GOP had been employing for the previous few decades was, for all its political benefits, a moral misjudgment. "I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong," he said. That chairman—Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election—didn't get a lot of love from conservatives for what became a virtual apology tour (he gave multiple versions of the same speech to African-American audiences), and it didn't seem to have any impact on his party.

And today, Tom Schaller interviews Mehlman about same-sex marriage, and hears similar notes of regret about the way Bush's 2004 campaign used the issue as a wedge to paint visions of a homosexual threat and get conservatives to the polls:

"At a personal level, I wish I had spoken out against the effort," he says. "As I’ve been involved in the fight for marriage equality, one of the things I've learned is how many people were harmed by the campaigns in which I was involved. I apologize to them and tell them I am sorry. While there have been recent victories, this could still be a long struggle in which there will be setbacks, and I'll do my part to be helpful."

I have to be sympathetic to Mehlman, who came out as gay after leaving politics. As a closeted man back then (though his sexuality was widely rumored at the time), and one who had reached the apex of any political operative's career (running the president's re-election campaign) at only 38, it would have been a lot to expect him to stand up and say, "We shouldn't be doing this." The GOP has a long history of tolerating closeted men, so long as they stay firmly in the closet, but once you're exposed you're cast out (see Craig, Larry). Had he tried to change the campaign's course, he could well have destroyed his political career.

But I'll bet that within a decade or two, as support for same-sex marriage spreads, it will become the majority opinion even within the GOP. At that point—just as they do with race today—they'll do what they can to whitewash their history and pretend that they were the real advocates of equality all along.

Pages