Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

The New York Times Finally Comes Around on "Torture"

An enhanced interrogation chair from the Inquisition. (Flickr/Anguskirk)
The New York Times has finally decided, only a decade or so too late, that it will now use the word "torture" to describe the torture techniques used during the Bush years by the United States government on prisoners believed to be connected to terrorism. While we should certainly be glad that they've finally come around, the statement by Executive Editor Dean Baquet explaining their decision shows just how wrongheaded the editors' thinking this issue has been all along. You should read the whole thing (it's pretty brief), but here are some particularly troubling parts: When the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky. The details about what the Central Intelligence Agency did in its interrogation rooms were vague. The word "torture" had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of "torture." The Times described...

The Inevitability of Republican Reactions

This is never going to be Barack Obama and John Boehner. It just isn't. (Flickr/RayMorris1)
Ron Fournier of the National Journal has become (to liberal bloggers anyway) the embodiment of multiple sins of the Washington press corps. Most notably, there's the High Broderism, in which the blame for every problem is apportioned in precisely equal measure to both parties, and the embrace of the Green Lantern theory of the presidency , in which anything can be accomplished, including winning over a recalcitrant opposition, by a simple act of will from the Oval Office. The latter's most comical manifestation is Fournier's frequent pleas for President Obama to "lead," with the content of said "leadership" almost always left undetailed (though one suspects it might involve giving a great speech, after which Republicans would decide to come together with Democrats to solve the nation's problems). Though lately I've been trying to limit my pundit-bashing to once or twice a month, I couldn't overlook this passage in Fournier's latest column expressing his dismay that Obama might take...

What Is the 2016 GOP Primary Going to be About?

This guy is ready to throw down. (CC photo by Ed Schipul)
Consider this disturbing possibility: Rick Perry, who in 2012 was the gun-totin'-est, God-fearin'-est candidate in the bunch, might be the most sober, responsible Republican candidate in 2016. As you can tell by his bold new specs, Perry is reinventing himself as he prepares for another run at the presidency in 2016, a reinvention Michelle Cottle documents in this long article (with particular attention paid to those glasses). The "new" Perry thinks social issues are a distraction, says he can reach across the aisle, and wants to focus on his executive experience and economic record. Whatever else you might say about Perry, it at least appears that he's thinking this whole thing through and has some idea of what his next candidacy will be about. Which leads me to the question in the title of this post: What is the GOP primary as a whole going to be about? The easy answer is that it'll be a "battle for the soul of the Republican party," a phrase I'm guessing we'll hear about a zillion...

The Dumbest Affectation in Congress

You know why I sleep on the couch every night? Because I'm a dog, not a member of Congress. (Flickr/Justin Quan)
There are a lot of stupid things members of Congress do to show the folks back home that though they moved hell and high water to get their jobs in Washington, D.C., they find everything about the place repugnant and despicable, and can't wait to get away. But there are few pieces of posturing more inane than the decision to sleep in your Capitol Hill office as a demonstration that you haven't gone native like all those sellouts with their apartments and closets and bathrooms. I can see how a newly elected member might decide to sleep in her office while she gets settled and looks for a place. And being in Congress can be financially and logistically taxing, particularly for those who come from the West coast—you have to maintain two homes, and are expected to fly back nearly every weekend to shake hands at the county fair and pose for pictures at the senior center. But in the last few years it's become de rigueur , particularly among Tea Partiers, to make a statement of their...

The Agony of the Red State Democrat

A voter giving West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant a piece of his mind.
Yesterday, conservatives enjoyed a moment of pleasure at the expense of Natalie Tennant, a Democratic candidate for Senate in the formerly Democratic state of West Virginia (more on that in a moment). The video is a little hard to understand without knowing the context of what she and this voter are talking about, but the essence is that he's unhappy about a decision by the EPA that apparently has something to do with coal, Tennant says she agrees with him, and he asks how she could support President Obama. I'm pretty sure this guy isn't going to vote for her in a million years, but since she's running for office, Tennant has to act like she might be able to win this fellow over, and the result is a terribly awkward few moments. It ends when a supporter of hers, who turns out to be a retired general who led the West Virginia National Guard, steps in to help her in her floundering and says that "on most of [Obama's] policies and stuff she supports," but not his policies on coal. The...

Why Moderate Districts Don't Produce Moderate Congressmembers

Flickr/KP Tripathi
As I was writing this piece about the difference between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in Congress and why the latter don't act in the same ways as the former, I began thinking about those members who don't represent the ideology of their districts very well. How many of them are there, and how far away are they from their voters? In particular, I thought about the case of Scott Garrett, the congressman who represents the swing district in the northern New Jersey suburbs where I grew up. Romney beat Obama in that district by 3 points in 2012, so you'd think it would be represented by a moderate Republican. And for many years it was (with somewhat different borders prior to the post-2010 redistricting), by Marge Roukema, one of the last of the moderate, pro-choice Republicans. But Garrett votes more like he comes from Alabama than New Jersey. In 2013, he was one of only 15 House Republicans to get the American Conservative Union's "Defenders of Liberty" award for...

Liberal Heroes Miss the Mark in Today's Times Columns

(AP Photo/ Francisco Seco)
New York Times columnist Charles Blow sure blew one this morning and, for good measure, so did Paul Krugman—our two most reliably liberal and intelligent columnists! Blow’s subject was the do-nothing Congress. Ordinarily thoughtful and original, this time Blow fell into the media cliché of assigning symmetrical partisan blame for Congressional inaction, as if the two parties were equally culpable. The piece was full of Blow’s signature: accurate statistics. This Congress has passed only 108 pieces of substantive legislation, the lowest in decades, he reports. It was in session an average of only 28 hours a week. Citing the usual cause of “polarization,” Blow indignantly concluded: “Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress. Their full time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.” Excuse me, but the problem is not “Congress.” One party—the Democratic Party— behaves quite normally, seeking to do the public’s business. The other...

Ted Cruz, Legislative Innovator

Who, li'l old me? (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
C ongress, it is said, is divided into "work horses" and "show horses." The former try to make laws, while the latter worry more about whether they can get on TV. Plenty of members try to be both, but there are a surprising number that don't even bother legislating. And these days, being a show horse offers a much clearer path to one day running for president. It's still technically possible to spend a few decades crafting a legislative record and working your way up the leadership ladder, then eventually get your party's nomination, like Bob Dole did. But it's a hell of a lot easier to inject yourself into a few controversies, make some notable speeches, and take a trip or two to Iowa. Do that, and like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz (or Barack Obama), you can run for president in your first term. Cruz, however, is doing something completely new. He may not bother to introduce any bills, but he is creating a new kind of legislative innovation. Perhaps for the first time in American history—I...

Eric Cantor Shows Why We Need to Get Rid of Special House Elections

So long, suckers! (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
L ike a high school senior who already has a job lined up for the fall and wonders why he should bother going to school for the last few weeks, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor apparently can't bear the thought of showing up for work for the remainder of his term after having lost his primary election. So instead of just phoning it in for a few months (or not showing up at all—who'd notice or care?), he has decided to resign his seat as of August 18th. He's asking Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe to hold a special election to coincide with the November 4th election, so his successor could take office immediately. "I want to make sure that the constituents in the 7th District will have a voice in what will be a very consequential lame-duck session," he said. Just not his voice, I guess because he wants to get a jump-start on that lobbying career. I'm not even sure how that would work—would voters cast ballots for one set of candidates to serve from November to January, and...

How Republicans Are Heightening the Contradictions

Republican inspiration Vladimir Lenin. (Wikimedia Commons)
C ongress is going on recess at the end of this week, and they'll be doing it without a bill to address the large number of Central American children showing up at the southern border—John Boehner couldn't even come up with a bill that would pass his house after Ted Cruz convinced House conservatives to oppose it. On that issue, on the Affordable Care Act, and on other issues as well, we may be seeing the rise of a particular strategy on the right—sometimes gripping part of the GOP, and sometimes all of it—that can be traced back to that noted conservative Vladimir Lenin. I speak of "heightening the contradictions," the idea that you have to intentionally make conditions even more miserable than they are, so the people rise up and cast off the illegitimate rulers and replace them with you and your allies. Then the work of building a paradise can begin. In the end, the House GOP leadership wanted a bill that contained a small amount of money to actually address the problem, made a...

Republicans Take Careful Aim At Foot, Blast Away

Flickr/Donkey Hotey
L ast week, I asked how the GOP, whom Democrats used to admire for their strategic acumen, turned into such a bunch of clowns , constantly making political blunders and undermining their long-term goals with temper tantrums. It's a question we might continue to ponder as the House went ahead and voted to sue President Obama last night for his many acts of tyranny and lawlessness. Every Democrat voted in opposition, as did a grand total of five Republicans—but they were opposed only because they wanted to stop pussyfooting around and go right to impeachment. This, truly, is a party that's ready to lead. Since this suit is unprecedented, we don't know for sure how it will be received by the courts. Many legal experts think it will be quickly dismissed on the question of standing; since the House can't show any harm they've incurred because of the President's allegedly appalling behavior, they may not have the right to bring a case against him. On the other hand, we now understand that...

Why Organizing for Action Has Struggled So Much

You can still get the t-shirt.
O rganizing for Action (OfA), the group that evolved out of the 2012 Obama campaign to continue organizing on issues of importance to liberals and has been struggling of late with layoffs and fundraising difficulty, has been having an extended disagreement with Philip Bump of the Washington Post over the organization's fundamental effectiveness, the latest installment of which is this article analyzing the group's activities and results on a range of issues. While I haven't followed every back-and-forth and I'm sure the OfA people would say Bump's article is unfair, what it comes down to is OfA saying "We're super-effective!" and Bump responding, "It doesn't look that way." I'm not going to try to adjudicate that dispute, but suffice to say that what OfA was trying to do is really, really hard, so if their results have been modest, it isn't surprising at all. In fact, I would have been shocked if they had been successful, for a bunch of reasons. To start with, they were trying to turn...

The Problem With Both "Pro-Israel" and "Anti-Israel"

Flickr/Ben Roffer
I n a typically thoughtful piece today, Jonathan Chait explains why he has "grown less pro-Israel over the last decade." I want to push back on this a bit, not because I disagree with any of the particular points Chait makes, but because of the broad framing. The idea of "pro-Israel," like its mirror "anti-Israel," is the enemy of rational thought and debate on this topic. Unless you're talking about whom you're rooting for in the Olympics, talking about who's pro-Israel and who isn't, and to what degree, almost never helps illuminate anything. This is something I brought up a few months ago, but it has a new urgency now, because this conflict is going to cause a lot of people to reevaluate how they feel about Israel. One of the interesting things about Chait's post is that he mentions an emotional connection to the country, but the specifics he brings up are all practical questions, on things like the Netanyahu government's sincerity when it says it's committed to a two-state...

Sarah Palin and Modern Political Entrepreneurialism

I f you were asking yourself, "How can I give Sarah Palin $9.95 a month, or $99.95 a year?" then you're in luck, because she has launched the Sarah Palin Channel , an online TV project with more Palin than you can shake a stick at. One's natural inclination is to just make fun of it, but let's not be too dismissive. Palin is charting a new path of political entrepreneurship, creating a lucrative model of ideological entertainment that could actually be good for everyone. You might think that anyone who would pay more than a Netflix subscription to watch Palin on their computer is a fool, but lots of us pay that much to indulge our hobbies and interests. And it'll probably be great for both Palin and the country. Many public officials turn their time in office into lucrative post-electoral careers, the most common of which is to become a lobbyist. Palin is doing much the same thing; she's just tailoring her offering to a different customer base. The former members of Congress who...

A New Phase In the Marijuana Legalization Debate

Flickr/Brett Levin
O n Sunday, the New York Times editorialized for the first time in favor of a repeal of the federal ban on marijuana, and did so in dramatic fashion, with a statement on the front page of the Sunday Review section and two more pieces going into greater detail. It wasn't particularly surprising, given the generally liberal bent of the Times editorial page and the fact that support for legalization has moved firmly into the mainstream. But it's still important, because the Times remains the most influential news outlet in the country, and they have an unrivaled ability to set the agenda for the rest of the media. There is a shift going on in this debate, and it isn't just that mainstream politicians and newspapers can now support legalization. It's also that the central question of the debate has changed, and changed to what legalization advocates have been asking for a long time. Instead of asking "Is smoking marijuana good or bad?", we're now asking "Is marijuana prohibition better or...

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