Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Daily Meme: The Fog of Donald Rumsfeld

You may recall an infamous news conference in February 2002 — a year before the invasion of Iraq—when reporters packed the Pentagon Briefing Room, hoping to wring some answers about Saddam Hussein's shadowy weapons of mass destruction program from senior defense officials. Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, decided that the reporters did not deserve the benefit of the English language. "As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know," Rumsfeld said. "We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know." The remark was, at the time, widely mocked . But in time, it became so synonymous with Rumsfeld's tenure that he eventually used it to title his memoir . Now, Rumsfeld, years out of office, is the subject of a new documentary by Errol Morris , the filmmaker who captured another infamous defense secretary, Robert McNamara, expounding upon...

Is the "Mend It" Period of the Affordable Care Act's Evolution Beginning?

All of a sudden, people in Washington seem to want to fix the Affordable Care Act. And regardless of their motivations, that should be—well, maybe "celebrated" is too strong a word, but we can see it as a necessary and positive development. Is it possible that the arguments about whether the ACA was a good idea or should have been passed in the first place are actually going to fade away, and we can get down to the businesses of strengthening the parts of it that are working and fixing the parts that aren't? It might be so. Sure, cretinous congressional candidates will continue to display their seriousness by pumping paper copies of the law with bullets , probably for years to come. But with this year's open enrollment period coming to an end in a few days, a particular reality is starting to set in, namely that, however you feel about the law, millions of Americans have now gotten health insurance because of it. Repealing it would mean taking that insurance away. So let's look at...

George Takei, Living Long and Prospering from Social Media

AP Images/Wong Maye-E
O n March 20, in between jokes—“You can’t spell ‘diet’ without ‘die,’” and sharing a picture of a man dressed as a giant iron (Iron Man, get it?)—George Takei put up a serious post on his Facebook feed. Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, known for its vitriolic picketing at the funerals of soldiers and gay people, had just died. “He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many,” Takei wrote to his nearly 6.5 million followers. “Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.” To newcomers, the abrupt change of tone might sound odd. But Takei's followers weren’t likely surprised; in the midst of humor, they know, he often delivers wise and solemn messages to fans. For decades, Takei, who turns 77 in April, was most famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series (catchphrase: “Oh my!”). But since he started his Facebook page in 2011, the actor has been a social-media whiz. He’s got more than a million Twitter...

Daily Meme: Points of Clarification

The modern world is so confusing. Fortunately, there are lots of people out there trying to clarify things for you, so in today's meme, we're seeking and finding clarity on what bedevils us. Are you a Supreme Court justice who doesn't quite understand how different birth control methods work, what with all those confusing ladyparts going on? Salon has a handy guide to help clear up your confusion. Benjy Sarlin has a great story on Georgia Senate candidate Paul Broun, who is a member of the House because he was personally called upon by God to run for Congress. So if you're wondering whom the Big Guy is supporting in that race, it's been clarified for you. Chris Christie has been totally vindicated by a report from a law firm examining the "Bridgegate" affair. We should clarify that the firm was hired by Christie. Nate Silver and Paul Krugman are apparently in an escalating battle over just how much data can clarify the great questions of the day. If Jeff Gillooly hits Krugman in the...

Is It Time to Take Rand Paul Seriously?

You're up to something, aren't you, you naughty boy? (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Some candidates come to a presidential race with a résumé that demands that they be immediately treated like serious contenders—a governor, a long-serving senator, a former or current vice president. Others have the less tangible quality we might refer to as "talent," which reporters can easily identify and can make up for a shorter list of accomplishments (e.g. Barack Obama in 2008). And there are usually one or two candidates who have the résumé but turn out to be duds on the trail, failing to raise significant money or win over significant numbers of voters (think Tim Pawlenty in 2012 or Chris Dodd in 2008), eventually getting downgraded from "serious" to "we no longer have to pay attention to this guy." But what do you do with someone like Rand Paul? Of course, at this stage you don't have to actually decide how seriously to take him—it isn't as though news outlets are stretched to the breaking point with all the reporters they've assigned to cover the campaign and need to make...

Yet Another Legal Attack on Obamacare

AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
On Tuesday, federal courts heard two of the seemingly endless ad hoc legal challenges generated by Republicans opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Most of the attention was captured, for good reason, by the arguments at the Supreme Court , which concerned the claims by Hobby Lobby and other corporations that they should be exempt from the Affordable Care Act's requirements that insurance cover contraceptives. But a lawsuit with the potential to do far greater damage to the Affordable Care Act went before the D.C. Circuit as well. In a more rational universe, these arguments would be laughed out of court—but the oral arguments suggest that there are still numerous Republican judges willing to damage the Affordable Care Act by any means necessary , even if it means accepting arguments virtually nobody would have taken seriously five years ago. This challenge to the ACA is based on a drafting error in the law. In addition to a major expansion of Medicaid (which the Supreme Court severely...

No, Fracking Is Not Making the U.S. More Secure

AP Images/Brennan Linsley
AP Images/Brennan Linsley W hen it rains, it pours, so they say, but pouring rain is not exactly what you want in a drought. The big storm that hit the parched American Southwest at the end of February only scratched the surface of the problem. The land is far too dry and hard-packed to absorb the deluge; instead of recharging the earth, much of the water bounced off the dirt, turning into wasted runoff and even flash floods. These dry lands are dryer than they would otherwise be because of global warming-driven climate change . As it turns out, its not just the burning of oil, gas, and coal that's accelerating the loss of available freshwater, but also the drilling for two of the fuels themselves. A report by Ceres, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainability, found that almost half of the wells that were dug between January 2011 and May 2013 to hydraulically fracture (or "frack") shale rock to extract natural gas and "tight" oil were located in regions with "high or...

Your Virtual Future

Flickr/Sergey Galyonkin
Don't be alarmed—I'm delivering the traditional Friday technology post a day early, because I want to talk a bit about virtual reality (VR). Facebook just spent $2 billion to buy Oculus, a company that as of yet has essentially no revenue and no customers, since its first product, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, is still in its development stages (game developers have models, but they haven't been sold to the public). Facebook thinks it's buying the future. Is it? And should you care? Well, Oculus itself may or may not be the future, but virtual reality is, for real this time. And yes, you should care. It's reasonable to be skeptical, since we've been told that virtual reality is coming any day now since the mid-1980s or so. But now it really is around the corner. The hardware is getting there (the Oculus Rift has gotten the most press, but Sony is also developing its own version), and the technical problems (like the "lag" between moving your head and seeing the images move...

The Conversation: Joshua Steckel and Andrew Delbanco

AP Images/Mel Evans
I n the fall of 2006, Joshua Steckel left his job as a college counselor at an elite private school in Manhattan for a public high school in Brooklyn. His new work, guiding low-income students, put him on the front lines in the effort to bring more socioeconomic diversity to the nation’s selective four-year campuses. Far from assuming that college was a choice, many of the students who entered Steckel’s cubicle had internalized the message that higher education was a world from which they were excluded. Steckel’s book, Hold Fast to Dreams ( New Press, March 25), folds his students’ stories into a larger social perspective on the barriers that exclude low-income teenagers from the nation’s colleges. The book, a collaboration between Steckel and his wife, the writer Beth Zasloff, follows ten of Steckel’s students as they apply to and then enter college. The students’ challenges are vast and varied. Mike lives in a homeless shelter, caring for his younger brothers while his mother,...

Daily Meme: The Man From Oops

While the Republican presidential contest for 2016 is delightfully, crazily up for grabs, you probably figured there was one thing you could bank on: Rick Perry would never run again after humiliating himself so memorably in 2011 and 2012. Think again! The Man from Oops is back, now sporting a pair of "make-you-look-smarter" glasses and becoming a regular media darling. Last week he was charming Jimmy Kimmel on a broadcast from SXSW. Then he was sounding reasonably alert on Morning Joe, making Eugene Robinson gush and giggle . And voila! Next thing you knew, Perry was popping up on Fox and Friends , making sure to remind everybody of his Official Story About What Happened in 2012: "You know I had major back surgery six weeks before the election kicked off." The Rick Revival began in earnest at CPAC , where the four-term Texas governor brought 'em stomping to their feet with such stirring lines as this old chestnut, about the few things government should do: “Defend our country,...

Are Iowa Farmers Better Than the Rest of Us?

Flickr/Paul Adams Photography
With the midterm elections just over seven months away, it's kind of remarkable that we've gotten this far without being sucked down into the land of endless ridiculousness that is the Republic of Gaffes, where no expression of outrage is too insincere to be dismissed and no faux controversy is too silly not to occupy the press' attention for a few days. Do I speak of the horror of Mitch McConnell and the microsecond of Duke , in which a montage of all-American stock footage in an ad showed, to the particularly eagle-eyed, a flash of the hated Blue Devils? Or the betrayal of his opponent's NCAA bracket, which had Wichita State beating Kentucky? Indeed—obviously, neither of these two care at all for their home state or are fit to lead. But they stand a much better chance of moving past their controversies than Iowa Representative Bruce Braley, who, we now know, hates farmers. Braley, you see, got taped at a fundraiser with a bunch of lawyers, telling them that if Republicans took over...

Hobby Lobby and the Return of the "Negro Travelers' Green Book"

Jalopnik
V ictor Green loved to travel. Being a mail carrier in the mid-20th century was a good, solid job, and the heyday of the American automobile was just beginning. Americans felt more mobile than ever before, especially once Eisenhower's interstate highway system expanded like a web through the country. The freedom of the open road beckoned. But Victor did not feel particularly free. As an African American, much of the nation was closed off to him and his family. Hotels rented rooms only to whites; restaurants wouldn't take his money; shops and markets kept their doors shut. Jim Crow was everywhere. So he wrote the first travel guide for African Americans, listing restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and even private homes that would aid the “Negro Traveler.” Known as The Green Book, it was an essential part of African American life for more than 20 years. By 1952, it had expanded its listings to include barbershops, bars, and nightclubs. Such a guide was essential, since each particular...

The Political Roots and Ramifications of the Hobby Lobby Case

Flickr/Sara C
The Supreme Court has completed the quasi-religious ritual of oral argument in the Hobby Lobby case, which will decide whether a corporation can declare its piety and thus absolve itself of the need to follow laws it finds unworthy of divine blessing. Now all we need do is wait for Anthony Kennedy to deliver his judgment, and the question will be settled. The consensus of those watching yesterday's arguments ( see here , for example) was that though nothing is certain, Kennedy seemed to be leaning toward the position of the plaintiffs, and thus of every Republican in America. And it's that last part I want to talk about. It's easy to know why the owners of the company themselves wanted to bring this case. Hobby Lobby's ownership mistakenly believes that if you use an IUD, you're committing little abortions left and right, and therefore that if their insurance covers IUDs (and a few other forms of contraception) then they're complicit in abortion. But what I'm wondering is, why is it...

Daily Meme: Stopping the NSA Madness This March

In January, President Obama gave a speech at the Justice Department that was basically an acknowledgement that the shady ex-girlfriend stuff that the NSA has been doing to Americans, like going through our phone records and mining our internet activity, was indeed pretty damn shady. He promised, in that vague way that politicians do, to take some action. Well, this week is action central! On Friday , the court order that authorizes the NSA's current data-collection program expires, and the administration wants to initiate a new process, via legislation, that would, in the words of Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian , "significantly curtail the practice [of mass phone data monitoring] but lower the legal standards for the collection of such information." The New York Times has the details : "The N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for...

If a Candidate Goes to Iowa and No Reporter Pays Attention, Has the Presidential Campaign Begun?

Flickr/Angela Radulescu
There's a ritual we go through around this time, in which reporters and commentators start writing about the next presidential campaign, but while making sure to alert their readers that they feel kind of guilty about it. It's absurd to talk about this stuff when the actual election is still two and a half years away, and now that we've admitted that, let's go ahead and dive deep into who are the leading candidates to be Hillary Clinton's field director! After the midterm elections in November, the obligatory mea culpas, which were never all that sincere to begin with, will begin to disappear from the articles. I say they weren't sincere because those of us who do this for a living love writing about presidential campaigns, no matter how far away the next one is. It's our thing. That, in fact, was number 6 on a 7-point listicle I wrote all the way back in August of last year, explaining why there's so much coverage of the presidential campaign so early. And today, Alex Seitz-Wald of...

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