Paul Waldman

Ted Cruz Is Not Well-Liked

He doesn't like you, either. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

"Be liked and you will never want," said Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. "That's the wonder, the wonder of this country, that a man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked!" Of course, the great tragic figure of the American theater was terribly wrong about that. But in politics, personal relationships still matter, even if the days when Lyndon Johnson would call up a senator and sweet-talk him into changing his vote on a bill are long gone.

I'm thinking about this because Ted Cruz—Tea Party hero, up-and-comer, future presidential candidate—is suddenly finding himself on the receiving end of a whole lot of hostility from House Republicans. By way of context, there's a broad consensus that Cruz is, as George W. Bush would put it, a major-league asshole. He's not someone who wastes time and energy being nice to people or cultivating relationships that could be useful down the road. He's pretty sure he's smarter than everyone, and doesn't mind making it clear that's how he feels. People consider him rude and condescending. This was apparent from the moment he got to Washington, and it was true back in Texas as well. But if you agree with his politics, then does that matter?

It sure seems to matter today.

It's Not about the Video Games

No, these are not mass murderers in training. (Flickr/Abraxas3d)

The pattern has become familiar: There's a mass shooting, and while some liberals try to raise the issue of the fact that our society is drowning in guns, more "realistic" commentators quickly turn the discussion away to some of different questions. Did the mental health system fail? And what about those violent video games? Aren't they a big part of the problem? That's what people are asking now about Aaron Alexis.

The answer is simple: No, video games aren't part of the problem of gun violence in America. Or more specifically, even if they're part of the problem, they're such an infinitesimally small part of the problem that blaming them for the endless gun slaughter in America is like blaming one of the leaves on the tree that fell on your house for all the damage to the roof.

My Shutdown Lament

Truly this is a place of darkness. (Flickr/K.P.Tripathi)

I have a problem. My job is to keep up with the world of politics and then write commentary, explanations, and analysis that readers will find interesting, entertaining, or informative. Sometimes that involves big-picture looks at policy issues, sometimes it involves making pretty pictures (look here—I made maps!), but much of the time, it's about giving some kind of novel perspective on the things that are happening today, this week, or this month. I try very hard to always add something, to not just repeat what everybody else is saying but to offer something different, so that people who read this blog will come away feeling they understand the world just a little bit better. Perhaps I don't always succeed, and you may or may not get value out of any particular thing I've written. But what do you do when the news turns into some kind of hellish version of Groundhog Day, repeating the same abysmal scenario over and over, in which even the happy ending doesn't involve finding true love and better understanding of yourself and your role in the world like Bill Murray did, but at best a return to the status quo ante of mindless political squabbles and unsolved problems?

What, then, can I add about the latest twist in the pending government shutdown? How many different ways are there to say that the Tea Party Republicans are both crazy and stupid? How often can you point out that John Boehner is pathetically weak, quite possibly the most ineffectual Speaker in the history of the House of Representatives? How many times can you remind people of all the awful things that would happen if the government shuts down and/or we don't raise the debt ceiling? How many times can you scream at Republicans that they are never, ever, ever going to repeal the Affordable Care Act so they should just give it the hell up already? How many times can you cry that this would be an insane way to run a junior-high student council, much less the government of the mightiest nation on earth?

The Obamacare Is Falling! The Obamacare Is Falling!

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

As we approach the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act at the end of the year, confusion still reigns. Most Americans don't understand what the ACA does or how it works, which is perhaps understandable. It is, after all, an exceedingly complex law, and from even before it passed there was an aggressive and well-funded campaign of misinformation meant to confuse and deceive Americans about it, a campaign that continues to this day and shows no sign of abating. To undo uncertainty and banish befuddlement, we offer answers to a few questions you might have about Obamacare.

Could Conservatives Help Obamacare Implementation Work?

She only wants to help, really. (Flickr/American Life League)

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act, up to and including President Obama, have been at pains to point out to anyone who'd listen that as with any large and complex piece of legislation, implementation is going to be imperfect. There are going to be hiccups. Hurdles. Stumbles. Stops and starts, ups and downs, potholes and roadblocks and detours. They've been saying it because it's true, because they want to prepare the media and the public, and because they know that conservatives will be squawking loudly every time it becomes apparent that some feature of the law needs to be adjusted, trying to convince everyone that even the most minor of difficulties is proof the law should never have been enacted in the first place.

But let me make a counter-intuitive suggestion: Perhaps all the inevitable overblown carping from the right will prove to be a good thing, actually making the law work better in the long run

American Public Oddly Reasonable on Syrian War

President Obama addressing the nation on Syria.

When public opinion is running against the position you've taken on something, it's natural to conclude either that the people just haven't yet heard your argument clearly, or even that opinion doesn't actually matter. And in one sense, it doesn't. If you're right, you're right, even if most Americans disagree. Not long ago, most Americans had a problem with people of different races to get married; they were wrong about that even if they were in the majority.

Of course, that's a matter of substance, which is distinct from matters of politics, which can constrain your behavior whether you're substantively in the right or not. So I wonder what Barack Obama thinks of public opinion on Syria these days. I doubt that he's like George W. Bush, who was forever certain that "history" would judge the Iraq War to be a smashing success. By now Obama may have concluded that he'll probably never win the public over on this question, so he should just try to move things along as best he can.

There's a new Washington Post/ABC News poll out today that, despite some rather poor numbers, could give him a bit of solace...

The Carnage Continues

Just another of the dozens of mass shooting sites in America. (Flickr/NCinDC)

Here are some names that have been in the news in the last year; see if you can remember any of them: Andrew Engeldinger. Kurt Myers. Dennis Clark. John Zawahri. Pedro Vargas. Ring any bells? In another country, each of these men would be nationally famous. But not here; they were in the news for a couple of days, and then quickly forgotten. Each of them committed a mass shooting in 2013. We have so many mass shootings—over 50 in the last two decades alone—we don't even bother to recall the perpetrators' names.

And guess what: yesterday's horrific shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington will be forgotten pretty quickly, too.

The Sum of Its Parts

Flickr/Will O'Neill

We're just two weeks away from the start of open enrollment for the new state health care exchanges established as part of the Affordable Care Act, and it's safe to say that Republicans will not be able to repeal the law between now and then. It's equally safe to say that they won't be able to repeal it by January 1st, which is when the people who sign up for insurance through those exchanges start on their new plans. That's also the date when a whole bunch of other components of the law take effect. When that day comes, will Republicans have to abandon all hope of ever repealing it?

The ones who don't understand the law (and let's be honest, that's probably most of them) might answer yes. Once it goes into effect and begins destroying lives, sapping us of our precious bodily fluids, and generally turning America into a socialist hellhole where all hope has died and the flickering flame of freedom has been snuffed out, people will quickly realize what a disaster it is and support repeal. The problem is that come January, the ACA will be transformed. It will no longer be a big, abstract entity that would be possible to undo. Instead, it will be what it truly was all along: a large number of specific reforms and regulations that in practical terms are entirely separate from one another. What this means is that once it takes effect, "Obamacare" for all intents and purposes will cease to exist.

America's Exception Deception

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

In a democracy, politicians seldom counsel the public to be modest. They flatter and praise the voters, telling them that they are just and wise, hardworking and principled, possessed of boundless vision and common sense. And here in America at least, they also generalize those virtues from the people to the nation itself. America, Americans are endlessly reassured, is unique and special among the world's countries. It isn't just that we're the most important country, which is undeniable, since we have the biggest economy, the biggest (and most frequently deployed) military, and the most influential popular culture. Those things could change someday. Instead, what voters are told over and over again is that we're "exceptional." We're not just stronger or richer, we're better. Indeed, we're stronger and richer because we're better. And we may well be exceptional in how often we're told that we're exceptional. My knowledge of the electoral politics of other nations may be limited, but I don't recall hearing about presidential candidates in Portugal or Peru who feel the need to convince voters that their country is superior to all others and they are the world's best people.

No One Has to Tweet

I really doubt Paul Krugman would do this.

I can recall, back in around 2008 or so, sitting in an airport listening to a radio story about this thing called Twitter, in which some tech booster was explaining how great it was to be able to send out little 140-character updates on what he was doing all the time, so the the people he cared about could have a sense of his daily life. I thought it sounded both inane and horrifying, but like most things governed by network effects, its value not just increased but changed in nature as more and more people got on it. I resisted going on Twitter for a long time (despite the pleading of my then-editor), in part because I was worried it would just be a distraction from my work. But it turned out, once I got on, that it became invaluable to my work. Most of the people I follow are writers or other people who point me to things I might need to know or want to write about; when I'm lost for something to say, Twitter will often send me on a path that will ultimately lead to a post or a column.

But I can see how, if you're still not on Twitter, all the people saying, "You totally need to be on Twitter!" would make you really, really not want to be on Twitter. So it seems with Paul Krugman, who I think it's safe to say is the most influential liberal voice in the American media. He explains why he stays away:

Could You Live on $11,940 a Year?

A couple of months ago, Fox News host Neil Cavuto went on a rant against fast-food workers striking for higher wages, explaining that when he was but a wee pup of 16, he went to work at an Arthur Treacher's restaurant for a mere $2 an hour, setting him on the road to becoming the vigorous and well-remunerated cheerleader for capitalism he is today. For all his economic acumen, Cavuto seemed to forget that there's a thing called "inflation," and the two bucks he earned in 1974 would today be worth $9.47. That's less than the striking fast-food workers are asking for (they want $15 an hour), but significantly more than the $7.25 today's minimum-wage workers make. Not to mention the fact that so many of them are not teenagers but adults trying to survive and support families. (According to the Economic Policy Institute, 88 percent of those who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage are over the age of 20; that and much more data on the topic can be found here.)

Yesterday, the California legislature passed a bill raising the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour, which would make it the highest in the nation. Governor Jerry Brown intends to sign it. Of course, business interests howled that paying people such a handsome wage would destroy the state's economy, which is what they always say whenever the minimum wage is raised, despite the fact that it never seems to happen. The California increase is going to be phased in over two and a half years; the minimum in the state will rise from its current $8 to $9 next summer, then to $10 at the beginning of 2016. Since this issue seems to be coming back to the fore as it does periodically—the mayor of Washington, DC just vetoed a living wage bill that was aimed primarily at Walmart—I thought it might be worthwhile to compare the value of the minimum wage today to what it has been in the past:

The Rapid Rise and Humiliating Fall of a Middle East "Expert"

One of Elizabeth O'Bagy's many appearances on Fox News.

It seems as though every few months, some Washington institution—a government agency, a think tank, or the like —finds themselves surprised when one of the people working for them turns out to be a fraud, a purveyor of offensive ideas, or otherwise an embarrassment. After a few days of controversy, the person's resignation is accepted, and they disappear forever. Back in July, a guy working for Rand Paul turned out to be a neo-Confederate. In May, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Jason Richwine, turned out to have some colorful ideas about Hispanics and IQ. The latest, and one of the strangest, is the case of Elizabeth O'Bagy, an expert on Syria employed by the Institute for the Study of War, a right-leaning think tank.

This often happens when the person achieves precisely the goal they've been working for: wide dissemination of their ideas, and an elevation in their visibility. It's that sudden visibility that leads people who disagree with those ideas to say, "Who is this person?" and start looking into their past, which is when things begin to unravel.

Just What Cable News Needs: More Bickering

The new Crossfire, just as interesting as you'd expect.

Back in 2004, Jon Stewart went on the CNN show Crossfire and begged the hosts to "stop hurting America." The clip became an early viral video (this was before YouTube), and it was like the young boy shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Evidently, people at the network looked around at each other and said, "He's right. This is just awful. We have to cancel this show so we can look ourselves in the mirror again." Within weeks it was off the air.

I'm not saying that in the entire two decades of its previous incarnation, Crossfire was uniformly pernicious. But by the end it had reached a truly ghastly low, with Tucker Carlson and James Carville shouting over each other while a studio audience whooped and hollered in the background. Why anyone voluntarily subjected themselves to watching it remains a mystery. And now, Crossfire is back on the air. The obvious question is one you might ask yourself after a hurricane flooded your house or a bear killed and ate your favorite great-aunt: Why, God, why?

Twelve Years Later, Have We Gotten Control of Our Fear?

This kind of thing just doesn't fill us with terror anymore. (Office of the President/Wikimedia Commons)

Reading an article today I came across a reference to the Dixie Chicks and their fall from grace, which happened ten years ago. It was shocking enough at the time, but today it seems beyond absurd, that a musical group could be all but blacklisted out of the American entertainment industry because they expressed opposition to the Iraq War and joked about being ashamed that George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. Even then, a year and a half after the September 11 attacks, just expressing reservations about a foreign military adventure was enough to put them on the receiving end of a torrent of hate and fear, to the point where radio stations refused to play their songs and concert venues wouldn't book them.

But today, we can say with some pride that our level of national terror has been significantly reduced. The situation in Syria and the Iraq War are obviously different in many important ways, but don't forget that despite the ridiculousness of the Bush administration's case for war (which some of us saw plainly at the time), they were quite successful in getting Americans to sign on. At the time of the invasion, around two-thirds of the public thought it was a good idea. And that was a full-scale war. Today, Barack Obama can barely get half that number to support lobbing some cruise missiles into Syria.

As I said, the situations were different in many ways. But what made Bush's persuasion project possible was the fact that Americans were afraid.

Mobile Phones Continue Inexorable Conquest of Globe

Flickr/Kohei314

Yesterday, Apple released its new iPhones, one a slightly updated version of the iPhone 5 with a fingerprint reader, and one a cheaper version ("unapologetically plastic," in the term the PR wizards came up with) meant to attract new customers in developing countries. In case you didn't catch any of the eight zillion articles written about the release, minds remained rather unblown. Apple may still be an unstoppable engine of profit, but there are only so many times you can tweak a product and convince people it's totally revolutionary (not that that will stop Apple cultists from standing in line to get the latest version). In any case, this is as good a time as any to step back and look at the remarkable spread of mobile phones across the Earth. There are few other technologies that have found their way into so many hands in so short a time.

Pages