Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Patty Murray in 19 Takes

Steve Moors
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster No. 1: The Fixer Patty Murray may be the dullest, most unremarkable member of the United States Senate. Two decades in, she lacks any major legislation to her name, isn’t associated with an issue, rarely appears on television, almost always speaks in gray generalities, and seems to have spent the bulk of her time focused on sending earmarks back to Washington state. As one staffer puts it, the most interesting thing about Murray is how uninteresting she is. She’s also the most important politician you’ve never heard of. As conference secretary, she’s the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate, which makes her the highest-ranking woman in the chamber. Last year, she chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), spearheading the party’s surprising string of victories in the November elections. Thanks to her efforts, the Senate now has 20 women, the most ever. And as chair of the powerful Budget Committee, she is going up against Paul Ryan, the...

Ringside Seat: Leaky Scandals

Over the last week and a half of scandal-mongering, most people on the left have agreed on the basic contours of the story. Benghazi isn't a "scandal," because tragic as the killings there were, there's no evidence of malfeasance on the part of Obama administration—no crimes, no cover-up. (And no, interagency bickering over talking points does not constitute a cover-up). The IRS, on the other hand, is potentially scandalous, there having almost certainly been inappropriate behavior on the part of some of the agency's employees, but it doesn't seem to reach up to the White House. And the Justice Department's subpoenaing of phone logs from the Associated Press isn't a "scandal" as much as a disagreement over policy. What Justice did was problematic in a number of ways, but it was also legal; touching as Republicans' newfound interest in press freedoms is, you can't simply call any policy you don't like a "scandal" just because it happens to be in the news at the same time as other...

Michelle Obama Sends the Wrong Message

Over the weekend, the Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—gave commencement speeches to historically black colleges and universities. At Bowie State University in Maryland, the First Lady mixed praise and encouragement with the kind of moral scolding that is familiar to anyone who has spent time with a certain generation of African Americans: But today, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 50 years after the end of “separate but equal,” when it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper. […] And as my husband has said often, please stand up and reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white. Reject that. The perennial problem with this kind of...

Hillary '16 Campaign Off to Excellent Start

Hillary Clinton campaigning in 2008. (Flickr/pennstatenews)
Breaking news: according to a report in today's Washington Post , Hillary Clinton's chances of winning the presidency in 2016 have increased by approximately a zillion percent, due to the fact that her former chief strategist Mark Penn, quite possibly the most incompetent and generally hackish consultant in U.S. political history, will not be working for her should she run again. Nor will any of her other senior advisers from 2008, which seems just as well. And did you know there's a Hillary Clinton biopic in the works? Not sure how I missed this news (which appears not to be an April Fool's joke), but the New Republic got hold of the screenplay for "Rodham," and it sounds pretty awful. Anyhow, as we enter the long will-she-or-won't-she period, which should last for another year and a half or so, there's one thing we ought to get straight. Back during the 2008 primaries, a lot of Obama supporters argued that despite Clinton's contributions and qualifications, if she became president...

IRS "Scandal" Turning Out to be Less Dastardly than Conservatives Think

kenteegardin/Flickr
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a comprehensive, deeply-reported look at the Internal Revenue Scandal. Far from finding evidence of a White House aiming to undermine its opponents, the Times uncovered a much more banal story—that of an understaffed and under-resourced agency, straining to do its job in difficult circumstances. Here’s the Times with more: Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical. Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of...

Face It: You're Crazy (But So Is Everyone Else)

Flickr/Mark Turnauckas, Carling Hale
Flickr/Mark Turnauckas C ommonly referred to as "the DSM," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is often referred to as psychiatry's "Bible." If that's the case, imagine the outcry if an overzealous publisher merged the Gospels of Luke and Mark, and you have a pretty good idea of the controversy surrounding the release of the manual's fifth edition. After a six-year revision process—and nearly 20 years since the last edition—the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released the DSM-5 at its annual meeting this weekend, the product of 13 working groups and input from more than 1,500 professionals. Any effort to draw a line between the normal and the abnormal is sure to ignite debate, and it's no surprise that doctors and patients who rely on official diagnoses for health-insurance coverage have scrutinized the new DSM's every word. Among the most controversial changes : Grief following a loved one's death is now classified as a form of major depression;...

Conservatives Shift Gears on IRS

Peggy Noonan is on the case. (Flickr/kylebogucki)
Something odd happened to Barack Obama's approval rating last week: nothing. With a bunch of controversies swirling about the administration, one might think Americans would be thinking less of his performance. Yet the latest polls from Gallup and CNN both show his job approval essentially unchanged, at just at or above 50 percent. So far anyway, these "scandals" are, like most scandals, an almost completely partisan phenomenon. Yes, there are some—Watergate, Iran-Contra—where the facts are so damning and undeniable that even the president's own party can't help but acknowledge them. But Benghazi and the IRS are not Watergate or Iran-Contra. Perhaps they'll turn out to be, if we find out something completely shocking. Perhaps we'll discover that Barack Obama is on tape personally ordering the Cincinnati IRS office to put the screws to Tea Party groups, just as Richard Nixon was on tape ordering his aides to get the IRS to audit his political opponents. But that hasn't happened yet. So...

Virginia GOP Says YOLO, Nominates Most Conservative Ticket Ever

E.W. Jackson for Lieutenant Governor
E.W. Jackson for Lieutenant Governor At the end of their two-day convention on Saturday , Virginia Republicans had nominated the most conservative ticket in the state’s history. At the top, of course, is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Tea Party zealot who has used his office to build a national following among conservative activists. In his three years as attorney general, Cuccinelli has filed suit against the Obama administration (challenging the Affordable Care Act), investigated climate scientists (for allegedly falsifying data), and attacked abortion providers, working to undermine reproductive rights throughout the commonwealth. For attorney general, Republicans chose Mark D. Obenshain, a three-term member of the state senate, and son of Richard Obenshain , a key figure in the history of the Virginia GOP (he died in a plane crash in 1978, just months after receiving the party’s Senate nomination). Like Cuccinelli, Obenshain stands at the right-wing of the Republican Party...

A Devil of a Problem for Labor in the City of Angels

AP Photo/Reed Saxon
AP Photo,File T omorrow, Angelenos go to the polls to select a new mayor. Well, some Angelenos—actually, not a hell of a lot. Indeed, turnout is projected to be so low that the winner may get fewer votes than Fletcher Bowron did in winning the election of 1938 , when Los Angeles was less than half as populous as it is today. The reason for the low turnout is straightforward: Not all that much differentiates the two candidates. Both City Controller Wendy Greuel and Hollywood-area City Councilman Eric Garcetti are mainstream Democrats. Unlike the election, say, of 1993, which pitted Republican businessman Richard Riordan against liberal Democratic Councilman Mike Woo—two candidates with widely divergent views on how to fix the L.A. police in the wake of the Rodney King riots—no great issues separate the two candidates this year. Unlike the election of 2005, in which former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa ousted incumbent Mayor Jim Hahn, this year’s election won’t be a...

The Military's Suicide Scandal

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
What a drag it’s been these past few weeks to watch the military brass—those kings of accountability, at least when it comes to other people ’s behavior—huffing and bluffing and outright lying about what they knew and when they knew it. First we had to endure the sight of them gaping over the news that the sexual-violence crisis they’ve done nothing to squelch since the assault of 83 women and seven men at the Tailhook Air Force convention in 1991 has worsened. Now those same Pentagon officials are shocked, simply shocked, by the military’s spiking suicide rates, despite the fact that those numbers, which have been rising steadily for the past 12 years, come from their own reporting system (and some claim are still an undercount). The only thing worse than the Pentagon’s faux surprise has been the complicity of news organizations willing to echo its talking points. Shame on The New York Times for last week’s “Baffling Rise in Suicides Plagues the U.S. Military.” Disturbing, yes. But...

Ringside Seat: Georgia on Their Mind, Causing an Epic Migraine

In the last couple of days, there have been a number of articles (see here or here ) about how Republicans, having finally gotten something that resembles an Obama administration scandal, are already worried about overplaying their hand. The sober ones are concerned they might make more of things than the facts merit, lest their nuttiest colleagues grab the spotlight, and head down a dangerous road as they did in 1998. But if there's anything we've learned in the last few years, it's that party leaders may exert influence, but only to a degree; a political party is more like a herd of wild animals than a single beast that can be roped and brought to heel. Just witness the clown show that is the Georgia Republican primary for a Senate seat coming up next year due to the retirement of Saxby Chambliss. Today it got one more participant, former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel, who came to national prominence when she was reported to be behind the Susan G. Komen Foundation's...

Doesn't Anybody Here Know How to Run a Conspiracy?

Victoria Nuland's actual email.
In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what. But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to...

Pakistan's Industry of Violence

AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad
AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad I was at an uncle’s house in Peshawar a couple of months ago when the windows began to rattle. One of my youngest cousins walked towards them, peering out nervously. “It’s an earthquake,” she said almost hopefully. I looked at her father who shook his head slowly, but only when his daughter had turned back to the window. It was as if he wanted her to believe that the quivering earth was the result of a mere natural disaster. And then the windows began to clatter again. The 14-year-old slunk onto the couch beside her father. Her sisters and mother filed in around the TV, scarves draped over their heads, lips moving in prayer. It didn’t take long for live coverage to begin. The site of the attack was the city airport, just a couple miles from where we were. Even more disconcerting, the rockets began to fire where, just a few minutes prior, my aunt had driven on her way home. Once we’d been watching long enough that the news reports had become repetitive—the same...

How to Stop the Next IRS Scandal

Flickr/Adam Fagen
T he root of the recent scandal at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—in which the agency admitted to singling out Tea Party groups for special scrutiny—is simple: terrible campaign-finance laws. Here’s the story: The IRS must determine whether organizations applying for 501(c)(4) non-profit status—a classification that exempts you from paying taxes—meet the requirements. As election-law scholar Rick Hasen explains, the central criterion is that “ campaign activity cannot be your primary purpose. ” Unfortunately, the law gives the IRS little guidance in how it should determine whether this is a group’s “primary purpose,” and Congress has given the IRS insufficient staffing to really do the vetting properly. The shortage of resources was only made more dire by the explosion of these types of organizations after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. What they apparently did in response to the avalanche of 501(c)(4) applications was to improperly use what seem to be partisan...

Food Stamps Get Licked by Cuts

AP Images/Carolyn Caster
This week, the Senate and House agriculture committees sent bills that would guide farming policy for the next five years to both legislative chambers for a vote. The vast majority of the legislation's outlined spending goes to a program that has proven a rich target for a Washington drunk on spending cuts—the food stamp program. The House bill would cut $20 billion over five years from the program’s $80 billion-a-year budget . The Senate's version would trim $4.4 billion from food stamps. The House bill gets most of its cuts by getting rid of program that allowed states to streamline the ways they provide assistance to the poor; the Senate bill would make changes to the program that would cut some people off food stamps.* In true bureaucratic fashion, the program has an unwieldy name: “Categorical Eligibility.” Conservative lawmakers call it “automatic eligibility” to make it sound as though people who aren’t poor are finding food stamp cards in their mailboxes. In reality, the...

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