Paul Waldman

Wal-Mart Plays Hardball in D.C.

Flickr/laurieofindy

There's a power struggle going on in Washington right now, not between Republicans and Democrats but between Wal-Mart, which is supposed to open six stores in the District, and the city council, which has a bill pending to require big-box retailers to pay a living wage. As you surely know, Wal-Mart was built on keeping costs as low as possible, particularly labor costs. The model Wal-Mart recruit is someone who has no other employment options and so will take whatever they can get. And the retail colossus isn't going to let some uppity city council tell it how much it can pay its employees:

GOP Establishment Fractures on Immigration

Bill Kristol, who once again has some advice for the GOP. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Over the course of this year's immigration debate, we've come to view the Republican party division as follows. On one side, advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, you have a group that is sometimes called "the establishment" or "the elite," made up of people whose primary interest is in the party's long-term national prospects. These are the big money people, the top consultants, some senators, and so on. On the other side, opposing comprehensive reform, you have "the base," which is not only voters but also members of the House with a narrow interest in getting re-elected, usually by appealing to extremely conservative constituencies. On that side you also have some conservative media figures and others with strong ideological motivations against immigration reform. And then caught in the middle you've got the Republican congressional leadership, which can't afford to antagonize the base but also worries about the effect killing immigration reform will have on the party.

But we may be reaching the point where these categories are no longer adequate to describe what's going on within the GOP. This morning, William Kristol and Rich Lowry, the editors of the two most important conservative magazines (the Weekly Standard and National Review) joined together to write an unusual joint editorial titled "Kill the Bill," coming down in opposition to the "Gang of 8" immigration bill that passed the Senate. The substance of their argument is familiar to anyone following this debate—the Obama administration can't be trusted, it won't stop all future illegal immigration, the bill is too long—but the substance isn't really important. What's important is that these two figures, about as establishment as establishment gets, are siding firmly with the anti-reform side.

Under Obamacare, Millions Will Die

Barack Obama may be trying to kill this woman's son.

I have questions. For instance, are Charles and David Koch actually aliens from the planet Fnerzblax 6, come here to feast on the entrails of Earth humans to give them strength for their coming war with the barbarians of Fnerzblax 4? We really don't know, and that's what has me so concerned.

I ask because Americans for Prosperity, the group through which the Kochs channel much of their political activism, is initiating a new television campaign to get people afraid of and angry about Obamacare, and this seems to be the method of the campaign. The first ad, called "Questions," asks whether Obamacare is going to take money from a worried-looking young mother and deprive her sick child of the care he needs to survive. Not that it would actually do these things, but hey, she's just asking:

What Happened to the Obama Scandals?

flickr/United States Government Work

A few months ago, political scientist Brendan Nyhan started warning that Barack Obama was due for a major scandal. Nyhan had analyzed previous two-term presidents and determined that by this stage of his second term, particularly with low approval ratings among the opposition party and a lack of major stories dominating the news for long periods, a president stands a strong chance of being engulfed in the kind of controversy that can hobble or even undo a presidency. Nothing was certain, of course—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton didn't see their all-consuming scandals until the sixth year of their presidencies, which would give Obama a few months—but conditions were ripe.

The Magic of Leaked Memos

Flickr/World Economic Forum

Supposedly, people in the White House are told when they start working there that you shouldn't put anything down on paper or email that you wouldn't like to see on the front page of the Washington Post. Not only are lots of documents subject to open records laws, they can be subpoenaed by Congress or a court, or much more likely, just get leaked by one of your co-workers. So you'd think White House staff would exercise some care when it comes to memo writing.

Alas, they apparently do not. The time is ripe for some juicy behind-the-scenes tales from the Obama administration, which we'll apparently be getting from This Town, an upcoming book from New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich. In an excerpt released (leaked?) today, we learn that some staffers circulated a memo with talking points for people to repeat about senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a longtime confidant of the President's who hasn't exactly been the most popular person on Pennsylvania Avenue. There's nothing particularly wrong with that in and of itself, but if you were assigned this task, you'd probably have the sense not to title your memo "The Magic of Valerie" and have it include stuff like this:

Should the Employer Mandate Be Eliminated Altogether?

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.

This week the Obama administration announced that it was delaying implementation of the "employer mandate" part of Obamacare, so companies won't be required to cover their workers until the beginning of 2015 instead of the beginning of 2014. Their stated reason is that they need more time to work with employers to implement the somewhat complex reporting requirements, and they're trying to be flexible and respond to employers' concerns. Which is probably true, but it's also true that the issue has become something of a political headache, with lots of news stories profiling employers saying the mandate is going to destroy their businesses or lead them to lay off workers and cut back their hours so they don't have to comply.

We'll get to what's true and false about those news stories in a moment, but it's important to understand that the "mandate"isn't really a mandate at all.

The Fire in Mitt's Belly

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

On an episode of The Office from a few years ago, the desperately insecure character of Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) hits upon a strategy to ingratiate himself with people, called "personality mirroring." He begins not only repeating what people say to him, but adopting the precise manner and mood of whoever he's talking to. This is pretty much how Mitt Romney went about running for president. A man deeply unsuited to the gladhanding required of a politician made himself into one, through a titanic act of will. And just like when Andy Bernard did it, it was incredibly awkward and off-putting. As the old saying has it, sincerity is the most important thing—if you can fake that, you've got it made. Trouble was, Mitt just couldn't, hard though he might have tried.

And it turns out, Mitt didn't even want to run for president a second time. Veteran reporter Dan Balz is coming out with a book about the 2012 campaign, and he learned of the internal Romney family deliberations. They took a vote, and 10 out of 12 Romneys, including Mitt himself, said he shouldn't run. Here's an excerpt:

GOP Might Just Stick with This "Party of White People" Thing

The future of the GOP. (Flickr/scismgenie)

Since the 2012 election, most (not all, but most) Republicans have agreed that if they're going to remain viable in presidential elections in coming years, the party will have to broaden its appeal, particularly to Latino voters. There has been plenty of disagreement about how to go about this task, and whether comprehensive immigration reform, which many Republicans object to, is too high a policy price to pay to achieve some uncertain measure of good will from those voters. But outside of conservative talk radio, there weren't many voices saying that they should junk the whole project. Every once in a while some voice from the past like Phyllis Schlafly would come out and bleat that the party should focus on the white folk who make up the party's beating heart, but to many it seemed like the political equivalent of your racist great aunt saying at Thanksgiving that she really doesn't feel comfortable around those people.

But as immigration reform wends its tortured path through Congress, more mainstream Republicans are having second thoughts. In fact, rather significant backlash is brewing, not just to this bill but to the whole idea of Republicans working to appeal to minorities. Benjy Sarlin at MSNBC has an excellent article explaining how this backlash is spreading, noting that even some people who six months ago were blaming Mitt Romney's position on immigration reform for his loss are now saying that the only viable path to victory is getting turnout up among white voters.

I'll get to why this is a very bad idea in a moment, but the logic at work isn't completely crazy.

The Cruel Math of Immigration Reform in the House

Flickr/K P Tripathi

Every politician who gets elected to Congress believes that she's going for idealistic reasons. Sure, there are compromises to be made and certain kinds of drudgery to suffer through (particularly fundraising, which they all hate, and justifiably so), but they each believe that they'll do the right thing and work for the kind of change they'd like to see. Nobody gazes up at the Capitol building having been sent there by the people to do the people's work and says, "I'm going to just keep my head down and try not to take any political risks, so I can keep getting elected indefinitely."

But in practice, they frequently face times when they can support something they believe is a good idea for one reason or another, but carries some risk. As comprehensive immigration reform is being considered in the House, each member is going to weighing questions like the following: How much good do I think this bill is going to do? How many votes will supporting it cost me? How hard will it be to convince the constituents who didn't like my support for it to vote for me anyway? Is it going to make fundraising easier or harder? Is the bill going to face a tight vote, so my choice will make a difference? Is my party leadership offering me something to vote the way they want, or threatening to punish me if I don't? And way, way down the list is: How will the outcome of this vote affect my party's long-term prospects in presidential elections?

Christian Employers Claim Their Religion Puts Them Above the Law

Sacred ground, where worldly laws don't apply. (Flickr/prariedogking)

Ready for the next court fight over Obamacare? Get to know Hobby Lobby, the chain of stores fighting the Affordable Care Act's requirement that the health insurance employers offer their employees cover contraception, and the next Christian martyr to the unholy scourge of health coverage for employees. Hobby Lobby's owners are conservative Christians, and though their company isn't a church, they'd like to choose which laws they approve of and which they don't, and follow only the laws they like. And a federal appeals court just ruled that not only can their suit go forward, but they're likely to win. Because apparently, "This law violates my religious beliefs" is now a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The decision is simply mind-blowing, essentially finding that private business are just like religious institutions, and therefore they can decide which laws they have to obey:

Cuddly Robots to Make Life in the Nursing Home Tolerable

Robots: Not just for nuns anymore. (Photo from Paro Robots U.S., Inc.)

In the movie "Castaway," Tom Hanks' character, stranded on an island with no human companionship, dresses up a volleyball to look vaguely like a person's head, gives it a name ("Wilson"), then spends years having conversations with it. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is making his desperate attempt to return to civilization on a raft, Wilson gets washed overboard. There's a poignant moment when Hanks tries to reach Wilson, who is drifting away from the raft, then realizes sadly that he'll have to let it go if he's going to save himself. Because no matter how much emotion he's invested it with, in the end it's just a volleyball.

Here in the actual world, there are lots of people who go through their days lacking companionship, many of whom live in nursing homes. As the Baby Boom generation ages, there are going to be a lot more of them. Which naturally leads to the question: Can we use robots to make their lives a little less miserable? Slate's Future Tense brings us the not-really-surprising (at least to me) results of a small pilot study where a group of nursing home residents were each given a Paro robot, which is a baby harp seal stuffed animal that has some sensors and actuators and responds to your touch. Here's what happened:

Why the Prop. 8 Decision Should Make Liberals Uneasy

San Francisco City Hall after Prop. 8 was struck down. (Flickr/CHUCKage)

It's been pointed out many times that both the liberals and the conservatives on the Supreme Court often seem to reason backwards, starting with the outcome they'd prefer to see, then coming up with a rationale to justify that outcome. For instance, as I noted yesterday, Antonin Scalia was happy to overturn a law passed and overwhelmingly reauthorized by Congress (the Voting Rights Act) because he didn't like the law, then in a decision issued the very next day, thundered against the Court's majority for having the temerity to overturn a law passed by Congress (the Defense of Marriage Act), because that happened to be a law he did like. Fortunately, the sweeping majesty of our jurisprudential history provides an endless supply of rationales a justice can use to support whatever decision he or she would like to make.

But sometimes, a good outcome can produce a dangerous precedent. And that may be just what happened in the Proposition 8 case the Court decided yesterday.

Antonin Scalia Is Angry. Again.

Flickr/The Higgs Boson

Ten years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws outlawing sodomy between consenting adults were unconstitutional in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a blistering dissent. "What a massive disruption of the current social order," he practically wailed from the page. He said that the Court had "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda," and contrasted the Court with the good people of America, who "do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive." And perhaps most notably, Scalia lamented that under the rationale the Court's majority was using, the government wouldn't be able to prohibit gay people from getting married. To each other!

He was right about that, anyway. But his dissent in today's case invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act is a somewhat different beast. Scalia spends the first 18 pages of his 26-page dissent far from the moral questions that had so animated him before; instead, he confines himself to arguing that the Court shouldn't have decided the case at all. Scalia is apparently deeply concerned that the Court is butting its nose in where the legislature should have the final say (more on that in a moment).

But when he finally gets to discussing the merits of the case, Scalia does not disappoint.

IRS Scandal Ends With a Whimper

No, not that kind of bolo. (Flickr/Magpie Gal)

With Edward Snowdon on his whirlwind tour of countries unfriendly to the United States and the Supreme Court handing down a bunch of important decisions, this is a good week for stories to get lost in the back pages. So you may not have noticed that late yesterday, the IRS scandal, supposedly Worse Than Watergate™, came to a sputtering halt with the release of new documents in the investigation. The whole scandal, you'll recall, is about how conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) status were given extra scrutiny, while other kinds of groups just slid right through. Well, it turns out, not so much:

My, What a Long Bill You Have!

A page of the immigration bill, with very few words on it.

Some people imagine that talking points are distributed by some Central Office of Liberalism or Conservative Headquarters, put out each day with instructions for what to say and how to say it. That's not really how it works; sure, there are organizations that email around suggestions on arguments people ought to make, but for the most part, talking points are more viral, spreading from person to person when they find an amenable host. Sometimes a talking point spreads because it really is vivid and persuasive, while at other times, it spreads despite being completely ridiculous.

So it is with an old chestnut we've heard before on issues like health care, and we're now hearing on immigration reform. The talking point says that a bill currently being debated contains many pages, and therefore must be a bad thing for America.

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