Paul Waldman

The Law That Must Not Be Named

This is not actually a skit from "Portlandia."

Talking Points Memo has done a service and rounded up a bunch of the ads states will be airing to promote the health insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, and they provide an interesting window into how the exchanges in particular, and the ACA in general, is going to look to the public. The first thing you notice is that none of ads mentions the words "Affordable Care Act, let alone "Obamacare." A couple of them use words like "official" to denote that this is sponsored by the state, but others just make it seem like a consumer marketplace that might not have anything to do with government at all. And many of the spots look like they were produced by the state tourism board, with quick cuts between picturesque scenes from all around the state and poetic words about how our state is awesome and we're all terrific people. For instance, this one from Oregon barely mentions health care at all; it's just a friendly Portland hipster musician bounding around the state with his guitar singing "Long live Oregonians! We are Oregonians!" Take a look:

Some Context for Our Upcoming Bombing Campaign

Flickr/Christopher Ebdon

It seems obvious at this point that 1) The Obama administration is going to drop some bombs on something or someone in Syria, even if no one is yet sure what or whom; and 2) This is something they'd really rather not do. Back when George W. Bush was president, he and his team were practically giddy with excitement over the Iraq War, and much was made of the fact that nearly all the top people whose loins were burning to blow stuff up and send other people's children to fight had themselves worked hard to avoid serving in Vietnam. But the truth is that whether we're talking about a Republican administration filled with eager armchair warriors or a Democrat administration filled with peaceniks, every American president eventually scrambles the jets and orders the bomb bays loaded. And when you step back to look at all our military adventures, every invasion and police action and no-fly zone and Operation Turgid Thrusting, you can't help wonder whether we'll ever see a presidency in which we don't project our military force over somebody else's borders. Madeline Albright, Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, once said to Colin Powell, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?", and the implicit answer seems to be, none at all.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a quick look at some of the places we've invaded, bombed, or otherwise used our military on just in the last half-century, to put this in context:

Heroes "Without Rank or Wealth or Title or Fame"

President Obama's speech at the event marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will almost certainly be remembered as one of his most important. Presidents only get so many opportunities to speak at events like this one, laden with the trappings of civil religion and what we might think of as a contested consensus. That's a contradiction, I know, but I think it fits. The civil rights struggle of the 1960s was among the most divisive controversies in American history, yet today there's no more argument about who was right. Even the National Review, at the time a vigorous defender of the privilege of the white South to continue oppressing black people (see here for some details) today claims Martin Luther King as one of their own: "The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative," they write, and they're not the only ones on the right trying to make the same case.

That's both consensus and contestation right there, the way conservatives want to embrace the civil rights movement, step away from their own past, and simultaneously insist that what they've always supported and still support, in the form of our deeply unequal society and everything that keeps it that way, must be maintained. Add to that their sincere if utterly mad belief that whites are now the true victims of racism, and it's hard to be optimistic that the next Trayvon Martin case will be the one that brings us closer to, and not farther from, some measure of mutual understanding.

But back to Obama. This seemed to me to be a speech written in the hope it would be read fifty years hence. He'll get some criticism for not talking about any specific policy issues, but that's what happens when you swing for the rhetorical fences; you can't get too bogged down in the mundane arguments of the moment. And what struck me most about it was how little he talked about Martin Luther King. He mentioned him only a few times, but spent much more time talking about ordinary people. This was the running theme of the speech and perhaps what was most important about it.

It's Alive!

This is not exactly what a vital political movement looks like. (Flickr/Jeffrey Scism)

Back in what if memory serves was early 2011, I ran into a former Prospect writer and now semi-famous person in the lobby of a building near the Capitol where a bunch of TV stations have studios. We began chatting about the Tea Party, and I suggested that once the Republican presidential primary campaign got underway in earnest in a few months time, all those tricorner hats would be put away as the Republican activists who made up the movement turned their attention to the race to pick their party's standard-bearer, and the Tea Party would peter out. He agreed, and we parted ways, satisfied with our sage prediction that all that unpleasantness would soon be over and the country would return to its prior, more manageable level of political silliness.

OK, so it didn't exactly work out that way. What happened to the Tea Party was more a slow dissipation than a rapid fizzling out, and it still persists. Sure, they aren't organizing any well-attended protests, and the hundreds of Tea Party groups out there aren't able to act together in any meaningful way, but it still exists, after a fashion. There's still a Tea Party Caucus in Congress, run by Michele Bachmann, who remains a member of the House of Representatives, believe it or not. In fact, not long ago some other House Republicans decided to launch a new Tea Party Caucus, and were surprised to learn that the old one still nominally exists.

And today, the Wall Street Journal tells us that the Tea Party is back, baby!

Not That There's Anything Wrong with That

New Jersey Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, a man's man. (Flickr/Nick Step)

Any time a politician gets past his or her 20s without getting married, the rumors about him or her being gay start to bubble up. That's certainly true of Cory Booker, and has been for some time; I happen to know a friend of a relative who knows a guy who swears he had a serious relationship with Booker. The most common response from the politician is to laugh at the rumors to show how secure he is, but make sure everyone knows that he is, in fact, straight. Which was why it was somewhat refreshing to see Booker say this in a profile in yesterday's Washington Post: "And people who think I'm gay, some part of me thinks it's wonderful. Because I want to challenge people on their homophobia. I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I'm gay, and I say, 'So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I'm straight.' "

But the really interesting thing was how Booker's opponent reacted. That opponent is a testosterone-fueled, pulsating slab of man-meat named Steve Lonegan, whose chances of winning the election pretty much depend on Booker strangling and eating a puppy on camera between now and election day. When an interviewer read Booker's comments to Lonegan (here at about the 5 minute mark), Lonegan said, "I didn't see that, Steve. It's kind of weird, as a guy I personally like being a guy." Not that you asked, but he's going to tell you anyway.

Bill Kristol Is Getting the Band Back Together

We haven't started a new war in years, but Bill Kristol knows what to do about that. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Back when George W. Bush was president, William Kristol—editor of the Weekly Standard, former Dan Quayle chief of staff, and general conservative man-about-town—co-founded something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, whose purpose was to beat the war drums until the American government and public saw the wisdom of an invasion. Kristol was eventually mocked not only for his status as a "chickenhawk"—like nearly all the war's most visible boosters, he was eager to send other people to fight and die, but had avoided military service during the Vietnam War—but for his confidently offered yet comically wrong predictions about Iraq, like "This is going to be a two-month war" or his immortal assertion that there was no reason to think there'd be any conflict between Sunnis and Shias since "Iraq's always been very secular." In the end, Kristol and his allies got what they wanted, and that Iraq thing turned out great for everybody involved.

And now, in case you were on the fence about whether the American government should take military action in Syria, Kristol has returned...

The Chemical-Weapon Taboo and America's Next War

A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)

Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria, it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions.

Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not to mention the rest of the world) reacted to Assad murdering 100,000 people by expressing its deep consternation and trying to figure out how to help without actually getting involved. But only now that he has apparently used some kind of lethal gas in an attack that accounted for less than one percent of all the civilians he has killed are we finally ready to unleash our own military.

Rights, Obligations, and Ignorant Libertarians

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Oh, Rand Paul. What are we going to do with you?

I'll tell you in a moment what I'm referring to. But first: One of the principal functions parties serve is that they act as a heuristic, or cognitive shortcut, for voters. If you have to vote for someone to serve on your city council and you know nothing about the candidates, you can use party as a proxy and you'll be right almost all the time. You can also look to your party to see where you should come down on issues. It doesn't necessarily make you lazy; sometimes it's just efficient to look to others with values similar to yours for cues about what policies are worthwhile. We can't all be experts on everything. In a similar way, parties give people who run for office a set of policy positions they can adopt without having to know everything about anything a lawmaker might have to address.

But if you call yourself a libertarian, you're saying that parties aren't enough for you, even if you're a Republican. Instead, you're motivated by a philosophical perspective to which you've given some serious thought. Every libertarian in politics, including Rand Paul, presents themselves this way. They're concerned with ideas. So if you're going to define yourself by a philosophy, isn't it incumbent upon you to at least have an idea of what that philosophy implies, and a grasp of some basic philosophical concepts—for instance, like what a right is—so that you can talk about them with some modicum of sense when they come up, as they inevitably will?

Apparently not.

In Defense of Cory Booker

Flickr/Steve Bernacki

Liberals, at least some of them, have a problem with Cory Booker, the next senator from the great state of New Jersey. I've certainly heard it privately, and any number of them have written pieces criticizing him (see here or here for good examples). As Molly Ball points out at The Atlantic, this antipathy doesn't seem to come from the positions Booker takes or a critique of his record as mayor of Newark. "Most of his policy stances are conventional liberal ones: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, in favor of raising taxes on the rich and increasing government spending on welfare and infrastructure programs." He's perhaps uncomfortably close to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, but that makes him a mainstream Democrat; Booker may be no Paul Wellstone, but he's hardly Joe Lieberman, either. So what's going on?

The Impeachniks Roar

Coming soon to an overpass near you. (photo from Facebook)

There have been only two presidential impeachments in the 224 years since George Washington became America's first president. Both—of Andrew Johnson in 1868 and of Bill Clinton in 1998—failed to get the required two-thirds majority in the Senate. And Richard Nixon, of course, was about to be impeached in 1974 when he chose to resign instead; unlike the other two, there would have been nothing partisan about Nixon's impeachment and he almost certainly would have been convicted. There are always some partisans of the party out of power who would like to impeach the president, simply because it's the only way to get rid of him if you can't beat him at the polls. But a presidency without too much actual criminality shouldn't produce too many such armchair prosecutors. Or so you'd think.

But these are no ordinary times, and the Republican thirst for impeaching Barack Obama (or "Barack Hussein Obama," as impeachniks inevitably call him) has gone mainstream, as evidenced by the fact that the New York Times featured a story about it over the weekend. The pattern is becoming familiar: at a town hall meeting, a member of the House or Senate is confronted by a constituent practically quivering with anger and hatred at the President. The constituent demands to know why impeachment hasn't happened yet. The Republican politician nods sympathetically, then explains that though he'd like nothing more than to see Obama driven from office, it would require a vote of the House and then a trial and conviction vote in the Senate, and that just isn't going to happen.

Back Soon

Do not let my brief absence cast you adrift on an endless sea of despair. (Flickr/Doug8888)

Worry not, loyal readers: I'm taking a couple of days off to attend to some important matters involving stolen diamonds, a beguiling Russian spy named Natasha, and an original 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card that could hold the key to a conspiracy so vast that leaders from the four corners of the earth will stop at nothing to make sure it stays lost forever. I'll be back on Monday.

Why the Republican Obamacare Strategy Fell Apart

News flash: these guys never knew what they were doing. (Flickr/Speaker Boehner)

After President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, conservative writer David Frum, who had been a speechwriter for George W. Bush, chided his compatriots for the strategy they had employed in opposing it. Had they worked with Obama on a compromise, he argued, the result could have been a more conservative version of the law; by simply opposing it in its entirety, they wound up with nothing once the law passed. For raising this criticism, Frum was declared a traitor and banished from the conservative movement; these days his (still conservative) ideas get a better hearing on the left than the right.

And what has been the Republican strategy on health care reform since the ACA's passage? Well, first they tried to kill it through the courts. That didn't work, though they won for Republican governors the right to refuse the Medicaid dollars that would enable them to offer insurance to their states' poor (congrats on that), though many of them are coming around to accept the money. In the one house of Congress they control, they've held dozens of symbolic repeal votes, so many that it's become a national joke. They're now threatening to shut down the government (very bad) or default on America's debts (even worse) unless Obama agrees to shut the law down, a plan even many within their own party realize is insane. So they've ended up looking like petulant children who don't know when they've lost, not to mention viciously cruel ideologues who would literally rather see people go without health insurance than allow them to get it through a system tainted in any way by contact with a law with Barack Obama's signature on it.

So once again, they're not getting what they want substantively, and they're losing politically as well

Ted Cruz, 100 Percent American

A young lady expresses her support for Ted Cruz. (Flickr/Nimalan Tharmalingam)

I've decided, after many painful hours of reflection, to come out of the closet. I hope when I've told you my secret you won't think less of me, and remember that our shared humanity provides us with bonds that should be secure enough to overcome the repulsion you might feel at learning who I really am. Here goes: Like future presidential candidate and Texas senator Ted Cruz, I too was born in Canada to an American mother. Whew! Feels great to get that off my chest.

I've lived in the States (that's what they call America up there) since I was 2, unlike that highly suspicious Cruz, who waited all the way until he was 4 to depart for the U.S. of A. What was he doing during those years? Training as some sort of spy for the maple syrup cartel? Acquiring goods and services with currency stamped with a picture of a foreign monarch? For the love of George Washington, was he playing hockey?

A Bold Obamacare Prediction

An ad from Organizing For America

Love may not mean never having to say you're sorry (what a dumb idea, anyway), but being a blogger means being able to make predictions and not really worrying about whether you turn out to be right or wrong. Oh sure, if you're spectacularly wrong, and wrong on television (see Kristol, Bill), people might make fun of you. But usually, nobody remembers. And if you're right, you can remind everyone of how clever you were.

In that spirit, let me offer a prediction. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, begins with open enrollment for the state exchanges on October 1st, with coverage beginning on January 1st. Sarah Kliff, who knows as much about the law as pretty much any reporter, returned from a cruise to report that the regular folks she encountered, when they heard what she does for a living, all wanted to know whether Obamacare was going to work. This was true of supporters and opponents alike. Not that the people Sarah met on the Lido Deck are a representative sample of Americans or anything, but it does suggest that there are lots of folks who for whatever combination of reasons don't think the law was a good idea, but are still at least open to the idea that it could be a success. That's encouraging.

Sarah is modest and smart enough to say she doesn't know whether the law will succeed, but my prediction is...

Seven Reasons You Will Click on This Article about 2016

flickr/ Lufitoom

When you see an article about the 2016 presidential race, your first reaction is probably, "Oh c'mon. It's three years away! Do we have to start talking about this already?" The first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire won't be cast for over two years, and even those politicians who are all but certain to run are doing only the barest minimum to prepare. So what is there to talk about? Not much, but that won't stop us. Here's a New York Times story about Chris Christie quietly building a re-election campaign that can be quickly repurposed for a presidential run, and here's a column about why Jeb Bush should run in 2016, both from Sunday's paper. Here's a Washington Post story about the potential presidential campaigns of Christie and Rand Paul. If your appetite has been whetted, you can go over to Politico's Hillary Clinton section and read any of the eight gazillion articles about her potential 2016 campaign. The Times already has a reporter assigned full-time to cover Clinton's not-yet-candidacy; the reporter says her mandate is to "own" the Hillary 2016 beat.

There's no question that this is nuts. But have some sympathy for those of us who do this for a living. We just can't help ourselves.