Paul Waldman

This Madness Will Never End

AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander

I wish I could write something optimistic as we begin the government shutdown. I wish I could, but I can't. In fact, this morning I can't help but feel something close to despair. It isn't that this shutdown won't be resolved, because it will. It will be resolved in the only way it can: when John Boehner allows a vote on a "clean CR," a continuing resolution that funds the government without attacking the Affordable Care Act. It could happen in a week or two, whenever the political cost of the shutdown becomes high enough for Boehner to finally find the courage to say no to the Tea Partiers in his caucus. That CR will pass with mostly Democratic votes, and maybe the result will be a revolt against Boehner that leads to him losing the speakership (or maybe not; as some have argued, Boehner's job could be safe simply because no one else could possibly want it).

But the reason for my despair isn't about this week or this month. It's the fact that this period in our political history—the period of lurching from absurd crisis to absurd crisis, with no possibility of passing a budget let alone legislation to address any serious problems we face, with a cowardly Republican leadership held hostage by a group of insane political terrorists who think it's a tragedy if a poor person gets health insurance and it's a great day when you kick a kid off food stamps, a period where this collection of extremists and fools, these people who think the likes of Michele Bachmann and Steve King are noble and wise leaders—this awful, horrific period in our history, when these are the people who control the country's fate, looks like it will never end.

Why the Tea Partiers Think They'll Win

Their fearless leader. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Way back in the days when bloggers carved their missives out on stone tablets (by which I mean 2005), Digby noted, in response to the nascent trend of conservatives deciding that George W. Bush wasn't a conservative after all, wrote, "Get used to hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren't true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets." We've seen that a lot in the years since—the interpretation of every election Republicans lose is that they weren't conservative enough, and if they had just nominated a true believer or run farther to right, victory would have been theirs.

There's already a tactical division within the Republican party about the wisdom of shutting down the government in an attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act. The members who have been around a while understand that no matter what happens, Barack Obama is not going to bend on this one. He won't dismantle his greatest domestic policy accomplishment, and he won't delay it for a year. He just won't. The members who are newer, particularly Tea Partiers who got elected in 2010 and 2012, think that if they just hold fast, eventually Obama will buckle.

And there's another difference between the two groups.

The Missing Piece in Coverage of Texas Evolution Controversies

Flickr/timuiuc

Once again, there's a dust-up going on over whether students in Texas should be taught about evolution in science class, or whether they should instead be told the lie that there is a scientific "controversy" about whether evolution has taken place, or perhaps be told nothing at all about it, or be told the biblical version of creation. But beyond the obvious, there's something bugging me about this.

Have Too Many Cooks Spoiled Obamacare?

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite

It's safe to say that if Americans don't understand the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by now—and they don't—they never will. The slightly better news is that consumers don't have to understand it in order to benefit from it, but even so, almost all the problems the ACA has encountered or will encounter are a result of the law's enormous complexity. That complexity grew out of early decisions made by Barack Obama, but along the way Congress added their own layers of complexity in order to pass it, then conservatives on the Supreme Court added some more. There were reasons, most of them perfectly good, for each of these decisions; everyone thought they were responding to reality or doing what was in the best interests of the country. But as full implementation of the law is upon us, we should acknowledge how much damage has been done by all this complexity.

Republican Palace Intrigue Gets Interesting

A man alone, beset by enemies on all sides. (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)

Congress is full of factions in both parties. Many of them are ad hoc and temporary—say, two groups that coalesce around differing versions of a bill to do pretty much the same thing. They try to persuade their colleagues, one group wins or loses, and though there may be some hurt feelings, they know they'll be working together again eventually. And of course, there are ideological allies who work with each other more frequently and may come to see some in their own party as opponents or even enemies. But what you don't see too much of is real cloak-and-dagger, House of Cards-style plotting, with clandestine meetings, vicious backstabbing, and high-risk conspiracies. It happens now and again, like the bungled coup that attempted to unseat Newt Gingrich in 1997. But it's the exception, not the rule.

So fans of Republican infighting, rejoice. Looks like there's something similar going on right now. Robert Costa of the National Review reports that Sen. Ted Cruz is leading a bunch of House Republicans in a genuine conspiracy to screw over Speaker John Boehner. It starts with a conference call involving Cruz and House conservatives, deciding how to react to Boehner's plan to make insane demands now to avert a government shutdown, instead of making insane demands in a couple of weeks to avoid a default on the debt:

Memo to Republicans: You Lost. Now Deal with It.

Artist's rendering of the House Republican Caucus. (Flickr/Ian Turk)

Imagine you're a third grade teacher, and the school announces that all the classrooms are going to be repainted, and the kids will get to choose the colors. You let your students each make a case for the color they'd like for their classroom, and it comes down to a choice between blue and green. The two sides give cute little speeches to the class about their favorite colors, and then you take a vote. There are 20 kids in the class; 12 choose blue and 8 choose green. Blue it is.

But then the kids who wanted green insist that the color has to be green. They go to the principal's office and make their case that blue sucks and green rules. The principal tells them that the class chose blue, so the walls are going to be blue. Then the pro-green kids return and say that since there was a new kid who joined the class since the vote, we have to have the vote again. Another vote is held; it's still blue. Then the pro-green kids announce that because anyone can see that blue is sucky, they're going to write in green magic marker on any wall that gets painted blue. Then they announce that if the walls get painted blue, they're going to break the windows in the classroom, smash the chairs, and fling the contents of everybody's cubby on the floor.

When they're told they can't do that, they say, "OK, tell you what: we'll refrain from breaking the windows and trashing the class, but only if you give us pro-green kids cupcakes every day, excuse us from homework for the rest of the year, and let us choose all the games we play at recess. It's either that, or we start smashing." Would you respond to these children, "Well, what if we just give you the cupcakes?" Of course not. You'd say, "Listen, you psychotic little turds. The goddamn walls are going to be blue. YOU LOST. Now suck it up."

Cory Booker and the Vegan Strip Club: A One-Act DM Play

To call Newark mayor and soon-to-be senator Cory Booker extroverted would be something of an understatement. If he sees you on the street, he'll shake your hand. If he meets you in the hall, he'll give you a hug. If you're snowed in, he'll shovel your walk. If your building is burning down, he'll come in and rescue you. And if you follow him on Twitter, there's a fair chance he'll follow you back, which means that the two of you can start sending direct messages (DMs) to each other. He follows over 75,000 people, which is a lot to keep up with.

Boom Times for the NRA

Flickr/Sea Grape

There's a lot happening at the moment—government shutdown, war in Syria, Iranian president sort of maybe not denying the Holocaust—so there was very little attention given to the fact that yesterday, the United States government signed the United Nation Arms Trade Treaty, commonly known as the small arms treaty. It's meant to prevent the arming of human rights abusers, potential perpetrators of genocide, and the like, by obligating states not to sell conventional weapons, from small arms up to tanks and helicopters, to foreign governments or entities that are going to use them to commit war crimes and massacre civilians. When it was voted on by the UN, the only countries that voted against it were Syria, Iran, and North Korea.

And today, the National Rifle Association is celebrating. That might strike you as odd, but the ATT is political gold for them. It's the international equivalent of a failed gun control effort in Congress, which is far, far better than no gun control effort at all. It gives them the opportunity to scream, "They're coming for your guns!", raise money, keep their congressional allies asking "How high?" when they say jump, acquire new members, and reinvigorate their existing members. And it all happens without even the tiniest threat to anyone's actual gun rights. Who could ask for anything more?

Why "Duck Dynasty" Became the Latest Conservative Cultural Touchstone

In a 21-hour speech full of weird moments, few were weirder than when Sen. Ted Cruz abandoned all talk of health care, Nazis, and freedom to talk for a while about Duck Dynasty. "This is a show about a god-fearing family of successful entrepreneurs who love guns, who love to hunt, and who believe in the American Dream," Cruz said. "It's something that according to Congress almost shouldn't exist." He then spent the next four minutes reciting a seemingly random collection of quotes from the show, along the lines of "You put five rednecks on mower, it's gonna be epic." It seemed as if one of his staffers, searching for things Cruz could talk about to pass the time, grabbed the list from a website somewhere.

But it wasn't just like reading the phone book, because Duck Dynasty has become for conservatives an island sanctuary in a roiling cultural sea of liberal dangers. In case you're some kind of commie or you live in a monastery, Duck Dynasty is one of the most remarkable American cultural phenomena of the last few years. It's not only the highest-rated show on cable, it's also an endless font of best-selling books, wall calendars, T-shirts, and all manner of other cultural paraphernalia. The show is the most successful of a reality TV format one friend calls "wacky family has interesting business"–maybe they make cakes, or build custom motorcycles, or track down fugitives. In the case of the Robertson clan, they made millions manufacturing duck calls, but retained their homespun charm and (for the men) spectacular beards.

Politico Published More than 30 Articles about Ted Cruz Today

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

A few months back, I wrote a post with the whimsically counteruntitive title "Rand Paul Is a Genius," about how Paul had managed to garner a huge (if temporary) amount of media attention with a couple of clever moves, the most important of which was staging a real talking filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director. For a couple of days there, all anybody could talk about was Rand Paul. And today, Cruz is the Newz; in the last 24 hours, Politico has run more than 30 articles on Ted Cruz and his speech, examining the topic from every possible angle. You can bet that his staff, once they're done responding to media requests, will raise a glass in salute to the most exciting day in their boss' short Senate career. But if you're a senator with national ambitions, where does this momentary prominence leave you?

Senator Talks for Hours, While in Real World, Things Proceed According to Plan

Politics is, to a degree we don't often notice, mostly about talking. Politicians describe what they do in heroic, usually martial terms—they "fight" for things, they wage "battles," and so on—but what they actually do is talk, and talk, and talk some more. They talk on the floor of Congress, they talk in committees, they talk to constituents, they talk to each other. There are a few of them, oddly enough, who are not particularly good at talking. But the successful ones are almost all good talkers. So it isn't too surprising that Ted Cruz, the former debate champion who is known as an exceptionally good talker, is able to get up and talk about the satanic plot that is Obamacare for 18 hours straight. There's something fitting about this last stand.

Let's recall that just a few days ago, Cruz was being branded a traitor by Tea Partiers simply for acknowledging that the defunding effort will fail in the Senate. So what better way to get back in their good graces than a grandiose, utterly futile symbolic gesture? That's pretty much what the Tea Party is all about, after all. Cruz's long speech won't actually change anything, either on the question of whether the Senate will pass a continuing resolution defunding the Affordable Care Act (it won't) or whether the ACA will take effect (it will). But in case you are one of the 99.99 percent of Americans who didn't bother to tune in to this remarkable feat of rhetorical endurance, here's a good description:

Historical Analogies, From Wrong to Awful

It's the shoes that make this outfit. (Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)

Here's a little tip for those commenting on public affairs, whether politician, writer, or just someone who finds yourself with a microphone before you. You'll be tempted from time to time to use a historical analogy, comparing present events and controversies to more momentous ones from the past. But there are a few you definitely want to avoid, including the following: I am like Jesus. The people I disagree with are like Nazis. The people I disagree with are like slave owners or segregationists. I or people I like am as oppressed as slaves were, or as Jews in Nazi Germany were. Those comparisons will pop into your head, but do yourself a favor and try to come up with something better. That shouldn't be too hard, should it?

Apparently, it is. Today we saw one of these analogies, and another one that isn't quite so bad but still has some issues. The first was from Robert Benmosche, the CEO of AIG, the company that, you'll recall, kind of destroyed the world economy a few years ago, then was bailed out by the taxpayers. Benmosche complained to the Wall Street Journal that the controversy over whether AIG executives should get bonuses "was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that–sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."

Oh dear.

Arcane Senate Rules Will Save the Country (Maybe)

As always, this guy knows exactly what he's doing. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

I doubt you're eager to hear a great deal more about the impending government shutdown (if you find yourself interested in it for more than four hours, consult a medical professional immediately), but there's a glimmer of hope today that things may actually turn out OK, at least until we have to fight over the debt ceiling in two weeks. And it's all thanks to absurdly complex Senate procedures, which could allow Republicans to save face while keeping the government from shutting down.

As you may have heard, the House recently passed a continuing resolution (CR) temporarily funding the government so long as the Affordable Care Act is defunded, President Barack Obama publicly renounces any intentions to help people get insurance ever again, and a nine-year-old girl with leukemia is delivered to the House floor so members of the Republican caucus can tell her to her face that she's a loser who should get a job and stop being such a drain on society (well OK, not those last two, but perhaps they'll be passed at a later date). This CR can't pass the Democratic-majority Senate, and sane Republicans know that if the government shuts down, the GOP will get the blame. But they also know they need to make as many pointless, symbolic fist-shaking gestures against Obamacare as they possibly can to forestall challenges from the right. No one understands this better than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, possibly the savviest politician in Washington, who is getting just such a Tea Party primary challenge in his ongoing re-election race. What to do?

The Real Origin of "Clinton Fatigue"

White House photo by Pete Souza.

This week sees two big articles about the Clintons, one on Hillary in New York magazine, and one on the Clinton Global Initiative (but also about Hillary) in the New Republic. So it isn't too surprising to see Salon's Joan Walsh pen an article titled, "I have Clinton fatigue—and it's not even 2014 yet." I don't have much of a problem with any of the particulars Walsh cites, but since this is likely to be the first of about twelve zillion articles on the phenomenon of "Clinton fatigue" over the next couple of years, it's as good a time as any to point out that there's something problematic about the whole notion.

There are, without doubt, legitimate gripes you can have about the Clintons, whether it's their Third Way ideology or their accompanying comfort with corporate America (and of course, one can argue that in both these things, Barack Obama isn't much different). You can have legitimate concerns that Bill Clinton could find a way to "distract" (wink wink) from his wife's campaign. But I can't help but suspect that the real problem here is an emotional one, and it's about how Democrats felt in 2008.

The Arbitrary Nature of Media Attention

Let's be realistic: neither of these guys is ever going to be president.

Do you have an opinion about John Boozman? How about Joe Donnelly? Any strong feelings about John Hoeven? Or Jim Risch? I'm guessing that you haven't actually heard of them, or if you have, you certainly know almost nothing about them. To most Americans they might as well be infielders for a double-A baseball team or Cedar Rapids-area plumbers. In fact, they're United States senators. So why is it that these guys are ignored (perhaps rightfully), while nobody can stop talking about Ted Cruz and Rand Paul? After all, the job of a senator is to make laws, and Paul has no more influence on that process than Boozman. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if no matter how long Rand Paul stays in the U.S. Senate, he never authors a law with any kind of meaningful impact on American lives. He'd hardly be the first; John McCain has been in Congress for over 30 years, and he wrote exactly one important piece of legislation, which eventually got overturned by the Supreme Court.

But the news media (and I'm including myself here) has collectively decided that the things that Paul and Cruz do and say are worth considering. Do a Google News search on "Ted Cruz" and you come up with 67,700 results. "Rand Paul" gets you 28,700 (for comparison, "John Boozman" gets a lonely 506, and "John Hoeven" only 572). Every once in a while it's worth stepping back to note that the decisions that lead to one lawmaker getting that kind of attention are pretty capricious.

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