Paul Waldman

Two Days until Brief Explosion of Christie Mania

Flickr/Bob Jagendorf

Only two states, New Jersey and Virginia, hold their gubernatorial elections in odd years, and since there's generally a dearth of other political news at that time, Washington-based reporters usually decide that whoever got elected in Virginia is suddenly a national figure with a future as a presidential or at least vice-presidential candidate. They say this because they have become familiar with the Virginia race and therefore perceive it as important, and because Virginia is a swing state, which is supposed to mean that someone who got elected there might also appeal to voters elsewhere. This year, however, the Virginia race features two candidates no one much likes: Ken Cuccinelli, who seems like he might launch a campaign to reintroduce witch trials to the commonwealth if he became governor, and Terry McAuliffe, an almost comically smarmy operator whose most profound talent lies in separating people from their money. Obviously, neither of those two is ever going to be president, so that leaves reporters with the other race up in the Garden State.

So when Chris Christie wins that race easily, as he will, we'll be treated to a brief but overwhelming deluge of stories about Christie's 2016 presidential candidacy. He certainly sounds like he's ready to start running, and it's safe to say the press corps would love it if he did.

Double Down to Dullsville

I suppose we should be pleased that every couple of months, a book, that old-fashioned communication form in which ideas are related at considerable length, is able to captivate official Washington for a moment or two. A while back it was Mark Leibovich's This Town, which cast a jaundiced eye on the incestuous world of press and politics in the capital, and the latest is Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Double Down: Game Change 2012, which won't be officially released until tomorrow but already stands at #8 on Amazon.

I haven't read Double Down, but if it's anything like the authors' previous work, there'll be no jaundice to be found. As in Game Change, their best-selling account of the 2008 election, the authors show themselves to be aficionados of the scoop for scoop's sake, giving us the inside skinny from campaign operatives with scores to settle but avoiding saying anything interesting about what it all means. That's perfectly fine—if you're interested in politics, reading about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is entertaining enough, much like finding out from People magazine how Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo got along on the set of The Avengers. But from early reports, Double Down isn't exactly delivering the spice, perhaps because it lacks a central character quite as compelling as Sarah Palin was to the authors' previous installment.

How's about You and Him Fight?

White House photo by Pete Souza

Hillary Clinton has about a year and a half before she needs to make the final decision on whether she'll run for president in 2016. Between now and then, and after she becomes an actual candidate (if she does), we're going to be seeing an awful lot of stories that read as though an editor said to a reporter, "Give me a story about Hillary turning her back on Barack, and the two camps sniping at each other," and the reporter replied, "Well, I haven't seen much evidence of that, but I'll see what I can come up with." That gets you stuff like a piece in today's Washington Post, under the headline, "In the Clintons' talk of brokering compromise, an implicit rebuke of Obama years." Let's get to the stinging barbs Hillary and Bill are aiming at the President:

Things that Are Still True about Health Care

It isn't quite as bad as this, but there are still problems. (Flickr/Doug Kline)

It's been a pretty intense month on the health care front, what with the beginning of open enrollment for the new exchanges giving rise to lots of disingenuous fulminating from Republicans, not to mention a whole lot of crappy journalism. Any time a story dominates the news for a couple of weeks, there's a temptation to believe that what's happening now will change everything. So I thought it might be a good idea to take a step back and remind ourselves about some things that are still true about the Affordable Care Act and still true about health care in America.

Why Winning Elections Is the Last Thing the Tea Party Wants

Flickr/Rob Chandanais

Keith Humphreys asks a provocative question: Does the Tea Party even want to win elections? This comes up in response to a long article in the National Review by Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry telling the Tea Party to get its head out of the clouds and start doing things that will actually help Republicans win. While it's tricky to ascribe specific desires and intentions to a large, complicated collection of people like the Tea Party, to the extent we can, I think the answer to whether they want to win is pretty clearly no. And there's a certain logic to it.

The reason is that the Tea Party is an oppositional movement, and oppositional movements only thrive when they're in the opposition

Facebook Is Watching You

There's an old saying in media that if you're getting something for free, then you are the product. When you listen to commercial radio, the advertisers are the customers, and you're the product that the station sells to their customers. But if you're the company selling those eyeballs or ears, it's best to convince the humans attached to them that you care deeply about them and have their best interests at heart. So I'm wondering exactly how Facebook thinks it could persuade its billion users that this is anything less than horrifying:

Facebook Inc. is testing technology that would greatly expand the scope of data that it collects about its users, the head of the company’s analytics group said Tuesday.

The social network may start collecting data on minute user interactions with its content, such as how long a user's cursor hovers over a certain part of its website, or whether a user's newsfeed is visible at a given moment on the screen of his or her mobile phone, Facebook analytics chief Ken Rudin said Tuesday during an interview.

I guess this isn't too surprising, since Facebook is legendarily disdainful of its users' privacy. But wow. Tracking your cursor movements? That is a whole new level of creepy. And what are the users getting in return for allowing their real-time movements to be monitored in this way? Absolutely nothing, it appears. Facebook is getting information that allows it to sell more ads and make more money. But you? Nada.

I'm reading Dave Eggers' The Circle, and while I'm only about halfway through (and things are obviously about to take a turn for the sinister), I had a different reaction to one important part of the book than Lee Konstantinou did. Lee talks about Eggers seeming uncertain and unsure about what the problem with The Circle (a kind of mashup of Facebook and Google, with some Twitter and PayPal thrown in) is and what it represents, but the ambiguity strikes me as intentional and even compelling, despite the fact that Eggers' satire isn't exactly subtle. When The Circle's personnel make presentations about new products they're planning (for instance, cheap, lollipop-shaped cameras that will become ubiquitous and record every moment of existence on Earth), they're almost persuasive in their enthusiasm that this will be a wonderful thing for humanity, even as what they're proposing is also horrifying.

Maybe my opinion about this will change once I finish the book, but it seems to me that Eggers is trying to capture the fact that it's no accident that these companies are so successful. For instance, Gmail really is a great email system. So yeah, it reads your emails and pushes advertising at you based on the content. But you can ignore that, right? And people love what Facebook offers them. It seems to me that most of the time when one of these behemoths rolled out a service people rejected, it wasn't because it was too invasive but because the benefits weren't attractive enough.

So you'd think people won't want Facebook wants to track their cursor movements unless they're getting something in return. But I'm sure the company will come up with something to tell them. Just wait until they debut the software that uses your computer's camera to track your eye movements and monitor your heart rate.

The "War of the Worlds" Myth

Wikimedia Commons/Henrique Alvim Correa

Seventy-five years ago today, the CBS radio network aired Orson Welles' radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Welles took Wells' book and transformed it into a series of radio news reports, duplicating in form and presentation what people would hear if Martians were actually invading Earth. As you probably know, mass panic ensued, with millions of Americans running screaming through the streets, having heart attacks, and generally believing that the world was coming to an end.

It's a great story; the only problem is, it didn't actually happen that way. Not that there weren't some people who flipped out, because there were a few. All indications were that those who believed it was real were socially isolated and highly suggestible for one reason or another. But there was no mass panic, nobody firing their guns at passing clouds, nobody committing suicide rather than be scooped up by the alien invaders. So why has this tale persisted?

He's a Mean One, Mr. Boehner

John Boehner just read his latest poll numbers. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

What place does John Boehner hold in the American psyche? That's a question that, according to the National Journal, Democrats are going to test out in next fall's congressional election, when they try to tie every Republican in a competitive race to the honey-hued Speaker of the House. Will it work?

Time to Investigate Those Insurance Company Letters

As a follow-up to this post, I want to talk about the thing that spawns some of these phony Obamacare victim stories: the letters that insurers are sending to people in the individual market. People all over the country are getting these letters, which say "We're cancelling your current policy because of the new health care law. Here's another policy you can get for much more money." Reporters are doing stories about these people and their terrifying letters without bothering to check what other insurance options are available to them.

There's something fishy going on here, not just from the reporters, but from the insurance companies. It's time somebody did a detailed investigation of these letters to find out just what they're telling their customers. Because they could have told them, "As a result of the new health care law, your plan, StrawberryCare, has now been changed to include more benefits. The premium is going up, just as your premium has gone up every year since forever." But instead, they're just eliminating those plans entirely and offering people new plans. If the woman I discussed from that NBC story is any indication, what the insurance company is offering is something much more expensive, even though they might have something cheaper available. They may be taking the opportunity to try to shunt people into higher-priced plans. It's as though you get a letter from your car dealer saying, "That 2010 Toyota Corolla you're leasing has been recalled. We can supply you with a Toyota Avalon for twice the price." They're not telling you that you can also get a 2013 Toyota Corolla for something like what you're paying now.

I'm not sure that's what's happening, and it may be happening only with some insurers but not others. But with hundreds of thousands of these letters going out and frightening people into thinking they have no choice but to sign up for a much more expensive plan, it's definitely something someone should look into. Like, say, giant news organizations with lots of money and resources.

Another Phony Obamacare Victim Story

NBC News' Obamacare victim, who it turns out is not actually a victim.

In the last couple of decades, a particular technique of news story construction has become so common that I'm sure you barely notice it as something distinctive. It's the use of a device sometimes referred to as the "exemplar," in which a policy issue is explained through the profile of one individual, whose tale usually begins and ends the story. It's ubiquitous on television news, but print reporters do it all the time as well.

As the Affordable Care Act approaches full implementation, we're seeing a lot of exemplar stories, and I've been noticing one particular type: the story of the person who seems to be getting screwed. If it were true that most Americans were indeed being made worse off by the law, that would be a good thing; we'd learn their stories and get a sense of the human cost of the law. The trouble is that in the real world, there are many more people being helped by the law than hurt by it, and even those who claim to be hurt by it aren't really being hurt at all.

To see how misleading some of these exemplar stories can be, let's take this piece from last night's NBC Nightly News, which uses an exemplar named Deborah Caballaro (sorry if I've misspelled her name), a self-employed realtor from Los Angeles who buys insurance on the individual market:

The Biggest Design Flaw in Healthcare.gov

The pathway to disaster.

In my column today, I argue that the healthcare.gov disaster has its roots in the government contracting system, where big projects that go past deadline and over budget is standard operating procedure. There is one particular design flaw, however, that I didn't get a chance to discuss there but is worth noting. My guess is that it wasn't given all that much thought, or at the very least, somebody had what sounded like a good reason at the time to do it the way they did. But the result was that the administration needlessly multiplied the headaches it would have with the rollout and made everyone's experience significantly worse, and it didn't have to be that way.

Healthcare.gov 2: The Contractors' Search for More Money

AP Photo/John Amis, File

Everyone agrees that the rollout of Healthcare.gov has been something between a fiasco and a disaster. One of the mysteries is how a famously tech-savvy administration, headed by a president whose campaigns broke new ground in using digital technology to accomplish their goals, could have presided over this kind of screw-up. The answer is nearly as complicated as the website itself, but as the administration has said, the problems are not insurmountable and the site will be fixed (hopefully sooner rather than later).

Politician Tries to Be Cool Dad, Destroys Career

Party politicians in the house tonight/Everybody just have a good time...

If you don't live in the D.C. area, you probably haven't heard about the increasingly amusing travails of Doug Gansler, Maryland Attorney General and candidate for governor. But his latest problem raises a question we as a nation must confront: Under what circumstances should a politician make the heavily freighted moral decision to be a total buzzkill?

Terrible Republican Idea Exposed as Even More Terrible

Flickr/adwriter

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office came out with a report assessing the budgetary impact of something many conservatives have supported, raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. What they found was that the change would save far less money than had previously been assumed: only $19 billion over the next decade. The main reason is that many of the people no longer eligible for Medicare would be eligible for either Medicaid or insurance subsidies through the health exchanges, so the net effect on the federal budget would be small.

But more important than that, this is an opportunity to remind ourselves that when government is doing something worthwhile, doing less of it isn't a good idea even if it saved a lot of money. And if cutting back only saves a modest amount of money, it's a really bad idea. You know what else would save a lot of money? Eliminating the United States Navy. But I'm guessing that most conservatives think having a navy is a good thing. Medicare is a spectacular success, one of the greatest things this country has ever done. Letting fewer people get on it is like the Miami Heat saying, "We won the championship last year, so what we need to do now is get rid of LeBron James."

The False Glow of Remembered Childhood

Wait a minute - are you saying that my perspective on this might be colored by the fact that I'm ten years old? No way!

Three years ago, John Boehner was doing an interview when he lamented, perhaps with a tear peeking its way through the corner of his eye, that Democrats "are snuffing out the America that I grew up in." As Michael Tomasky noted at the time, the America Boehner grew up in (the 1950s) featured things like strong private sector unions, a 90 percent top income tax rate, enormous public works projects, and a moderate Republican party, presumably all things Boehner wouldn't like, not to mention Jim Crow, terrible discrimination against women and gay people...you get the point.

But of course, "the America that I grew up in" is a place that exists only in the imagination—everyone's imagination. This is from an interview in Salon the other day with Adam Goldberg, creator of The Goldbergs, an ABC sitcom set in the 1980s:

Why do you think audiences will be interested in a family show specifically set in the 1980s?

I think the '80s works for a TV show because it's the last time the world was simple. It was before the Internet really changed everything and made the world really small. Today the whole notion of family is a bit different: You can reach out and if you don't get any support at home, you can find a like-minded family on blogs or on Facebook. In the '80s your family was the people in your house, at your dinner table, and the people you went to school with, those were your friends. You basically couldn't find other friends. So it was really the last time where the world was still simple and small.

No, no, no. The '80s wasn't "the last time where the world was simple." The '80s was the last time when your world was simple. Can you guess why? Because you were a child!

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