Paul Waldman

Resignation: What Kind of V.A. Secretary Was Eric Shinseki?

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson Vietnam veteran Rollie Lewis, center, from Solway, Minn., looks at the challenge coin given to him by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Fargo, N.D., July 5, 2011. T o no one's surprise, Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki resigned today. Once Democrats started calling for him to step down, it was pretty much inevitable; the political damage from him remaining was just too overwhelming to resist. But even if you've been following the V.A. scandal closely, you probably have no idea whether Shinseki was actually doing a good job as secretary. You're not alone; in fact, the ratio of people who actually understand his tenure to those who are expressing opinions about it is infinitesimal. Not only that, we'll probably get only the blurriest impression of how his successor does. The reason is that like most departments of the federal government outside of State, Defense, and to a lesser...

Who's Hacking Your Phone?

They can definitely hear you now. (Flickr/Esther Vargas)
NBC aired its interview with Edward Snowden on Wednesday night, and there were lots of interesting things about it, particularly how confident and articulate Snowden was. One of the details that stood out for people was when Brian Williams asked Snowden about the NSA's ability to infiltrate your phone. I think the real lesson here isn't the one most people are taking, but to start, here's an excerpt from NBC's write-up : "The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs. They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it." Snowden described how the simple pattern of his phone calls—not the content of the calls but the time and location of those calls—could be invaluable to a security service. And how...

Daily Meme: Fans of War Shoot at Straw Men

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech at West Point outlining his vision for the use of American power in the future. So how did people react? The consensus on the right was that Obama's speech was a litany of arguments against straw men. "In rebutting his many critics, Obama would be more persuasive if [he] seriously engaged their arguments instead of rebutting arguments that no one is making in the real world," wrote Max Boot at Commentary . "Once again, the president caricatures the views of his critics rather than addressing them fairly," wrote Elliot Abrams , whose continued influence within conservative foreign policy circles is an inspiration to convicted criminals everywhere looking for a second chance. The conservative critics weren't completely wrong—Obama may have overstated their lust for American military action in his speech. But if he exaggerated, it wasn't by much, and many Republicans reacted by once again criticizing the President's insufficient enthusiasm for...

Where Terrorists and Assassins Don't Hide

Flickr/Wyn Van Devanter
At the end of last week, I wrote about a report showing how law enforcement authorities reacted to Occupy protests as if they were the advance guard for an al Qaeda invasion of America, on the apparent assumption that unlike non-violent right-wing dissent, non-violent left-wing dissent is likely a prelude to violence and thus must be met with surveillance, infiltration, and ultimately force. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a decision on a case involving the Secret Service that seems to grow from a similar assumption about the connection between dissent and violence. The case was about an incident in 2004 when President George W. Bush stopped at an outdoor restaurant in Oregon. A crowd quickly formed, with some people cheering Bush and some jeering him. The Secret Service forced both groups away from the location, but let the pro-Bush citizens stay closer than the anti-Bush citizens; the plaintiffs charged that this was impermissible viewpoint discrimination. The Court ruled 9-0...

The Seductive Allure of "Ideas"

Flickr/Dennis Wilkinson
In 1994, as Republicans were headed for a historic midterm election victory, Newt Gingrich and his compatriots produced the " Contract With America ," a point-by-point description of what they wanted to do should they prove victorious. After the election, there was much talk in the media about how their agenda for change had won the day, but the truth was that barely anybody noticed it. A poll from ABC News and the Washington Post in January of 1995 —that is, after all the press coverage—found 55.6 percent of respondents saying they had never heard of the Contract, and given that people are generally reluctant to express ignorance about anything in polls, the real number was almost certainly higher. The Contract itself was a mixture of minor procedural reforms (eliminate the casting of proxy votes in committee markups!), poll-tested nostrums, and what passed for conservative good-government reforms at the time (term limits, a presidential line-item veto). That few voters knew any of...

How Conservatives Will React to Obama's New Climate Regulations

A mountaintop removal mine in Virginia. (Flickr/Universal Pops)
President Obama is set to announce new rules for carbon emissions today, and what we'll see is a familiar pattern. The administration decides to confront one of the most profound challenges we face. It bends over backward to accommodate the concerns of its opponents, shaping the policy to achieve the goal in ways that Republicans might find palatable. Then not only are its efforts to win support from the other side fruitless, the opposition is so vituperative that it veers into self-parody. That's what happened with the Affordable Care Act; not only was the law not "socialism" as Republicans charged, it was about as far from socialism as you could get and still achieve universal coverage. It involved getting as many people as possible into private insurance plans, where they could see private medical providers. But Republicans who had previously embraced similar market-based ideas decided that once Obama poisoned them with his support, they were were now the height of statist...

American War Dead, By the Numbers

Photo: Melissa Bohan/Arlington National Cemetery
Photo: Melissa Bohan/Arlington National Cemetery Army Staff Sgt. Juan Esparzapalomino, a supply sergeant with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard", inspect the rows of newly-placed flags in Section 27, ensuring the flags are aligned as perfect as possible for the 2013 annual National Memorial Day Observance. T oday is Memorial Day, when we honor those who died in America's wars. It's often said that Americans are increasingly disconnected from the military, since the all-volunteer force, not to mention the limited nature of the wars we've waged since Vietnam, means that most Americans don't serve or even have family members who serve. I thought it might be worthwhile to look at some figures on the number who served and the number who died, to place that change in context. The number of Americans who were in uniform peaked during the national mobilizations of World War I and World War II, particularly the latter, when more than 16 million Americans were in the armed forces:...

Government Treating Peaceful Left Activists Like Terrorists--Again

Police in Oakland breaking up an Occupy protest. (Flickr/Glenn Halog)
Both liberals and conservatives spend time arguing that the other side contains people who are nutty, highlighting extreme statements in an attempt to convince people that there's something fundamentally troubling about their opponents. There are many differences between the extreme right and the extreme left, perhaps most importantly that the extreme right has a much closer relationship with powerful Republicans than the extreme left has with powerful Democrats. When you find a crazy thing a liberal said, chances are it's an obscure professor somewhere, or a blogger with twelve readers, or a random person at a protest. The crazy people on the right, in contrast, are often influential media figures or even members of Congress, people with real influence and power. There's another critical difference that doesn't get as much attention: the extreme left is, generally speaking, harmless. That's their nature. They're more likely to meditate and form committees than hurt anyone. It's been...

A Few Things to Keep In Mind About the V.A.

Click inside for more charty goodness.
Even though there may be somewhat less demagoguery around the scandal at the Veterans Health Administration than around some other issues, there will no doubt be a certain amount on the way. So here are a few handy things to keep in mind: This scandal isn't about the quality of care . While there are surely some veterans who have gotten poor care, just as there are plenty of patients at private hospitals who get poor care, the V.A. actually has an excellent record on this score. Surveys consistently show most veterans are extremely satisfied with the care they get at V.A. facilities, often more so than private insurance customers. And independent studies from places like the RAND Corporation have found that patients have outcomes as good or better at the V.A. as in private care. The problem around which this scandal revolves is how long vets have to wait to see a doctor, not what happens once they get there. This is an important distinction to make, because there are going to be...

The Good Scandal

Flickr/Adam Fagen
The controversy over whatever might have happened at the Veterans Health Administration, particularly the V.A. facility in Phoenix, is going to get some elevated attention now that President Obama came out before the press to address it. If there has to be an administration scandal, this is a good one to have. Let me explain what I mean. The most important reason is that there is actually a problem at the V.A., or more correctly a series of problems, that need to be solved. If some officials in Phoenix falsifying records to make it seem like veterans were getting care quicker than they actually were is what it takes to generate the will to solve it, then that's a good thing. This is something we sometimes pay lip service to with regard to scandals, but in this case it's genuinely meaningful. For instance, I'm not the only one who has said about Benghazi that if what we get out of the various investigations is a better understanding of how to protect our embassies and consulates...

In Yesterday's Primaries, It Was Money That Mattered

Flickr/Andrew Magill
The dominant media narrative about the round of primaries that happened yesterday is that the Republican establishment struck back, vanquishing a bunch of pesky Tea Party insurgents to reestablish the control of the sane and electable. That's one way to look at the results, but there's another, equally plausible explanation for who won: money. Because in pretty much every race, the person who spent more won. That isn't to say that money was the only factor, or that the arrow of causality couldn't have still originated with the establishment in some cases ( i.e., they funded someone who then won because of the money he got). But you could have predicted the outcome of most every race just by looking at the fundraising. While we don't yet have final spending totals, the Center for Responsive Politics has numbers up through the candidates' filings at the end of April, three weeks ago; it's unlikely that the broad picture changed since then. Let's look at how things turned out in the...

The Republican Candidate's Marijuana Dilemma

Democratic voters at a 4/20 rally. (Flickr/Jonathan Piccolo)
Back in 1992 when Bill Clinton said he kinda smoked pot, but "I didn't inhale," it was a big deal, both for the sort-of admission and for the squirreliness of the evasion. Eight years later, when Barack Obama said not only did he smoke pot, but he inhaled ("That was the point"), it was much less of a big deal, partly because Obama made no attempt to explain it away. As we move toward an era when most American adults have at least tried marijuana (more on that below), the chances that any particular candidate will have done it at least a time or two in their younger days grows higher and higher. But if you're a Republican, it's still complicated, since a large proportion of the population whose votes you need look at pot as something only done by hippies and jazz musicians. You can see this struggle in the person of Marco Rubio, soon-to-be presidential candidate and erstwhile GOP golden boy. Yesterday he got asked in an interview with ABC's Jonathan Karl whether he had ever smoked pot...

Gray Matter: 'Bush's Brain' Short-Circuits

©Jenny Warburg
©Jenny Warburg Karl Rove, former political strategist to President George W. Bush, at a forum in 2012. Karl Rove, the most brilliant political strategist of his generation, the man George W. Bush called "the Architect," the man Stephen Colbert immortalized as "Ham Rove," the pundit to whom Fox News viewers turn to give them the low-down, stuck his foot in it again. Should anyone really be surprised? In case you've been in the desert on a vision quest, last week Rove implied, with some mangled facts, that Hillary Clinton might have lingering brain damage from the incident in 2012 when she suffered a concussion and had a blood clot removed. Democrats and even some Republicans got really mad, even as all agreed that the health of presidential candidates is a legitimate topic for discussion. Then over the weekend on Fox News Sunday , Rove was on the defensive but refused to back down. "Look, I'm not questioning her health," he said, right after questioning her health. "What I'm...

Dally Meme: Delusion and Moxie, Rove and Jindal

Politics may not be for the faint of heart, but it's often for the deluded of mind. Today's meme is about those who are deluding either themselves or others, and will inevitably have their hopes dashed by cruel reality. We start with Karl Rove, who went on Fox News Sunday and said that despite all that talk about Hillary Clinton and traumatic brain injuries, "Look, I'm not questioning her health." Sure, OK. Louisiana governor and future presidential candidate Bobby Jindal penned an op-ed for foxnews.com arguing that the Affordable Care Act can still be repealed , despite what "those in the elite salons of Washington" may think. All you need is "political will," and maybe another 50 repeal votes in the House. That ought to do it. San Antonio mayor Julian Castro is going to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a lot of people see that as a stepping stone to a vice-presidential bid in 2016. Phillip Bump says : keep dreaming. Almost 60,000 people have signed a petition...

Rebels Without a Cause

I think this is one of the Georgia GOP Senate candidates. (Flickr/Mez Love)
At a debate Saturday night among the Republican candidates competing in tomorrow's U.S. Senate primary in Georgia, something interesting happened when the contenders were asked whether they plan on supporting Mitch McConnell for another term as the body's Republican leader. Three of the candidates, including front-runner David Perdue and Karen Handel, who is battling to come in second and thereby reach a runoff, gave an outright "no." Three other candidates hedged, saying they hadn't made up their minds. The only one who said "yes" was an obscure candidate who has no chance of advancing to the next round in the nomination fight. Most voters probably couldn't care less about a question like this one. But the Georgia candidates' reactions show something important about where Republican politics are at the moment, and the strange and sometimes contradictory things GOP voters expect from their candidates—or at least what those candidates believe voters expect. It isn't just a Tea Party-...

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