Paul Waldman

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.

Government-Shutdown Crisis Proceeding on Schedule

Eric Cantor, liberal stooge. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

What with all the attention being paid to Syria, most people have forgotten that we're just three weeks away from a government shutdown unless Congress passes a continuing resolution (CR), which is the (relatively) quick-and-easy way of keeping the government operating at current funding levels without writing a whole new budget. As you may remember, Tea Party Republicans in the House would like to use the threat of a government shutdown to force a defunding of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, while the Republican leadership, conservatives to a person, realizes that this is spectacularly stupid. If they actually hold up the CR with a defunding demand, Barack Obama will say no, the government will shut down, Republicans will get every ounce of the blame, and it'll be a complete disaster for the GOP. Eventually they'll give in and pass a CR, but only after having caused a crisis and eroding their brand even further, and by the way not actually defunding Obamacare.

So House Majority Leader Eric Cantor came up with something resembling a solution. The way it would work is that the House would pass two versions of the CR, one that defunds Obamacare and one that doesn't. They would then send them to the Senate, which would presumably pass only the one that doesn't defund Obamacare, which Obama would then sign. As Politico describes it, "The arrangement allows all sides to express themselves, but it surrenders the shutdown leverage that some conservatives hunger for." And not surprisingly, Tea Partiers both inside and outside Congress don't like it.

Investigative Journalism Producing Change, Local Edition

Last Sunday's Post.

One of the main arguments for why it's a bad thing if the newspaper industry dies is that newspapers cover local affairs in a way that nobody else does, and that has demonstrable effects on people's lives. Most of the time we don't actually see those effects, but every once in a while, a story comes along that proves all over again why newspapers are so vital, not just because of what they can expose but because of the change that can come from it.

The Washington Post is in the midst of a series of articles about an unbelievable scam victimizing some extremely vulnerable citizens of the District of Columbia. It's one of those combinations of government incompetence, private greed, and sheer immorality that just makes your blood boil. Here's what happened.

The War on Terror Is Still Everywhere

AP Photo/Doug Mills

In May of this year, Barack Obama gave a speech effectively declaring the end of the "War on Terror." Like many people, I was pleased. The War on Terror, which embodies the idea that terrorism is such an existential threat that all other threats the US has faced pale before it and therefore we had permission abandon every moral standard we ever held to and wage a global military campaign that never ends, has been a poison coursing through our national bloodstream. Its effects can be seen in things that don't on their surface seem to have almost anything to do with terrorism. And despite Obama's speech, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

It was only a few weeks after that speech that Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance began to come out, and it wasn't as though President Obama said, "You know what? This just shows how things have gotten out of hand. We're going to be dialing this stuff back." He defended every bit of it as necessary and proper. Why do we need this positively gargantuan apparatus of surveillance? The answer is always terrorism. Oh, we're using it to spy on state actors too—both enemies and friends—but it's harder to argue that Chinese officials or the president of Brazil want to kill your children, so when challenged, the justification inevitably turns back to terrorism.

The War on Terror perspective, where the most extreme overreactions become the ordinary way of doing business, has infected all kinds of government actions. I point you to this story in yesterday's New York Times by David Carr, which on first glance doesn't look like it's about the WoT, but I think in some ways it is. It's about Barrett Brown, a journalist who has reported on the activities of Anonymous, the internet hacking group. If prosecutors have their way, Brown will spend the rest of his life in prison because he posted a link. I kid you not:

Is Barack Obama a Hawk?

Wikimedia Commons/DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

Back in 2008, one of the things—maybe the main thing—that convinced liberal Democrats that Barack Obama was more liberal than Hillary Clinton was that while Clinton had supported the Iraq War and was seen as generally to the more hawkish side of national security issues, Obama had opposed the war and sounded generally more skeptical about the use of American military power. Having been right on Iraq was a pretty rare calling card, and a lot of liberals took it as a proxy for something larger. It wasn't just that he was less like George W. Bush, it meant that he had the courage to stand up to Republicans and advocate for liberal values when other Democrats quaked in fear.

In retrospect, it doesn't seem that Obama was or is more liberal than Clinton in any substantive way, aside from perhaps a small policy difference here or there. And while he hasn't started any new big wars on the scale of Iraq, that isn't saying much, since Iraq was our biggest war since Vietnam. Today Kevin Drum takes E.J. Dionne to task for saying that "Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up until now."...

What Happens If There's a Split Decision in Congress on Syria?

Flickr/World Can't Wait

As we begin the congressional debate on whether to launch some kind of strike on Syria, one of the main questions animating the political discussion is, what happens if Obama loses? People are saying some predictably stupid things about it, talking about how wounded Obama's presidency would be, and how he'd no longer be able to get Congress to do his bidding, unlike the last few years, when he got whatever he wanted from Congress. But here's a question: What if a resolution on the use of force in Syria passes the Senate, but fails to pass the House?

Right now that looks like a distinct possibility. People doing whip counts based on what members have publicly said (see here or here) are saying that in the House, a majority of members have either come out against military action or say they're leaning that way. In the Senate things are less clear; most senators haven't said how they'll vote. Of course that could change, but if it doesn't, what happens then?

Your New Robot Colleague Has Been Programmed to Put You At Ease

Baxter, a friendly robot colleague who'd love to hang out with you after work. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)

As robots move into more and more workplaces in the coming decades—not just high-tech manufacturing but eventually everything from hospitals to supermarkets—one of the big challenges employers will face is making their carbon-based workforce comfortable with the new arrivals. That's the topic of an interesting story in The Economist (h/t Kevin Drum) that focuses not just on the technology but on how the robots make us feel, and what must be done to keep people from freaking out when they find out their new partner is made of metal and plastic. It seems that the psychology of human-robot interaction is going to be a burgeoning field in the next few years:

Iraq Is Still Burning

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

In the debate over whether we should bomb Syria, a name has come up that we hadn't heard in a while: Iraq. There are all kinds of overly simplistic comparisons you could make between 2003 and 2013, but they really are nothing alike, most particularly in that George Bush wanted and got a great big war, while Barack Obama plainly doesn't want any such thing. And of course, Iraq was just kind of sitting there, while today Syria is engulfed in a bloody civil war.

But this is a good time to remember that when we finally left Iraq two years ago, things didn't exactly become all unicorns and rainbows. Not that it would be any better if our troops were still there getting shot at, but the country remains awash in sectarian violence.

For some perspective, think about the Boston bombing—not just the reaction of the authorities, which included shutting down a major city for most of a day, but how much we talked and thought about it, learned about the victims, debated what it meant and didn't mean. As horrible as it was, these days that would be a quiet day in Baghdad.

Amid the Unwashed Masses

Flesh pressed, opinions heard. (Flickr/Rep. George Miller)

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll probably be seeing a lot of stories in which a member of Congress goes back to the home district and is confronted by worried/angry/surly constituents demanding we stay out of Syria. Here's a piece in today's New York Times about Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in today's Washington Post about Rep. Gerry Connolly hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in Politico about John McCain hearing from skeptical citizens. This is almost invariably described as the politician "getting an earful." For some reason, we never refer to someone getting an earful of praise or support; the ears of our representatives can only be filled with displeasure or contempt.

In the old days before polling, grizzled political reporters would literally go door to door and do their own informal polls to see what people thought about an election or a policy debate; they'd get a sense of the public will, along with some quotes, and they'd have a story. As some point they discovered it's more efficient to just go to a diner, but either way, for all their Northeastern elitism, the reporters still want to keep their finger on the public pulse. But reading some of these stories has me wondering. What do you do when you go out with a member of Congress to get in touch with the people, and the people turn out to be idiots?

Class Struggle at the Airport

Settle in - you'll be here a while. (Flickr/Jonathan McPherskesen)

I've always thought that the real reason conservatives recoil in disgust from the idea of "socialized" health care is their belief that in a system like Britain's (actual socialized care) or Canada's (private care, socialized insurance), the wealthy can't buy more care than anybody else. In practice that's not really true—most single-payer systems include some kind of supplemental private insurance you can get that will give you more perks than the common folk, like a private room when you're admitted to the hospital. But the point is, American conservatives are deeply committed to inequality as a fundamental principle of resource distribution. Whatever we're talking about—iPads, cars, education, health care—rich people ought to be able to use their money to get more of it than the rest of us. What's the point of being rich if you aren't elevated beyond the teeming masses during every moment of every day and in every aspect of your existence?

Maybe I'm caricaturing them because I'm a liberal, but I don't think so. The question is, are there any areas of life where we all should have to suffer the same hassles and indignities, no matter what our net worth? I'm not begrudging a millionaire his Porsche, but if I have to wait at the DMV for two hours to register my used car, he ought to have to do the same for his finely crafted piece of German engineering. And what about the airport?

The Syria Debate Is Very Good for Some People

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

My assumption all along, one I'm still (uneasily) holding to, is that when the debate is over, Congress will give Obama the authority he's asking for to attack Syria, just as it has every other time a president has asked. (There have been a couple of occasions in which Congress voted against a military action, but in those cases the president hadn't actually requested the vote; they were congressional protests against something that had already begun.) But a congressional rebuke, particularly in the House, is starting to look like a real possibility. This is a Congress unlike any that came before it, and the unusual nature of this proposed action—offered mostly as a punishment for something that already happened, with barely a claim that it will do much if anything to stop future massacres so long as they're done with conventional weapons—may combine to set a new historical precedent.

It was pretty remarkable to see Republican members of Congress yesterday yelling at John Kerry about the rush to war like they were a bunch of San Francisco liberals. But for these guys, there's really no higher principle than opposition to Barack Obama and everything he wants to do. And if this is a "conscience" vote (i.e. one where the leadership is not demanding that they toe the party line), a lot of Democrats just don't find the administration's case persuasive.

And for some others, this isn't a difficult vote, it's a golden opportunity.

Obama Administration Failing (So Far) to Convince the Public On Syria

We're just beginning to embark on something we only do every few years: have a real, national debate on whether we should start another war. Okay, so this isn't a full-scale war, at least not from our end; to hear the administration tell it, the whole thing could be over in a day or two. But Congress will be officially coming back into session on Monday, and at that point they'll be talking about little else for a couple of weeks. It'll be dominating the news, unless a young singer horrifies the nation by dancing suggestively, requiring us all to drop what we're doing and lament the debased state of America's moral fiber.

So far anyway, it's pretty clear that most Americans don't think a military strike against Syria is a good idea. That in itself is unusual; you'd expect at the very least to see a closely divided public. The problem the administration confronts is that there seems to be no one unambiguously in favor of this action. Democrats otherwise inclined to support the President are the very people who don't like foreign military adventures and were particularly disgusted by what happened the last time the government decided there was an awful dictator in the Middle East who had to be dealt with. And the Republicans otherwise favorably inclined toward a jolly good bombing campaign every now and again are the very people who can hardly bear the thought of supporting Barack Obama on anything. Members of Congress are reporting that the calls, emails, and conversations they're having with constituents are running almost exclusively against a strike.

That, of course is an imperfect measure of public opinion, but the better measures are showing much the same thing.

Rummy Returns

Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris' new film.

Don Rumsfeld, believe it or not, is back. And though I haven't read "Rumsfeld's Rules," (available in paperback soon!), I'm pretty sure he hasn't changed a bit. Which is something that I think it's fair to say is true of most people who worked at high levels for George W. Bush. As far as they're concerned, they were right all along, about everything. Rumsfeld thinks President Obama is going about this Syria thing all wrong, about which he could well be right, but how can anybody hear him offer opinions about that sort of thing and not remind themselves that he bore as much responsibility as anyone for what was probably the single greatest foreign-policy screwup in American history?

Anyhow, the real reason I mention Rummy is that Errol Morris has a new documentary about him coming out soon called The Unknown Known. Like Morris' The Fog of War, his film on Robert McNamara, it's basically a long interview with Rumsfeld. But unlike McNamara, Rumsfeld has no regrets. Watch this preview all the way to the end:

The Republican Team Effort on Obamacare Obstruction

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, you have to give Republicans credit for sheer sticktoitiveness. They tried to defeat the law, but it passed. They tried to get the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional, but that didn't work. So now, as the open enrollment period for the exchanges approaches on October 1, they're thinking creatively to find new ways to sabotage the law. Sure, at this point that means screwing over people who need insurance, but sometimes there's unavoidable collateral damage when you're fighting a war.

Their latest target is the Obamacare "navigators." Because not just the law but the insurance market itself can be pretty complicated, the ACA included money to train and support people whose job it would be to help people get through this new system, answering consumers' questions and guiding them through the process. Grants have been given to hospitals, community groups, charities like the United Way, churches, and the like in the 34 states that are relying on the federal government to operate their exchanges in whole or in part. You can see the problem: If there are folks out there helping people get health coverage, that will mean that people will get health coverage. And that won't do.

Pages