Paul Waldman

Why the GOP Rebranding is Doomed, At Least For Now

Rebranding the GOP won't be quite this easy. (Flickr/quinn.anya)

When a company or an organization decides to do a rebranding, it does some research, maybe hires consultants, gets input from key employees, and then makes decisions about what the rebranding is going to consist of. This process can at times be excruciating, all the more so if the organization has some commitment to consensus; if you've ever suffered through a web redesign, you've probably had the experience of wondering, as the debate over the difference between particular shades of blue stretches into its third hour, just how much it would hurt if you plunged a pen through your ear into your brain. But at the end of the process, there's someone in charge who will have the final say.

But when a political party decides to do a rebranding, things are a lot more difficult. In fact, it may not even be possible to get everyone to agree that the rebranding will actually take place. And once it begins, it can just go on forever, because the influence over the party's brand is so widely distributed. Even after it's over, you can't just say to everyone, "Here's the new stationary, and this is our new slogan; make sure you use it." Because if they don't like it, they won't.

This is the problem the Republican party now faces.

Offensive Photo Spreads and Insincere Apologies

An image from a recent Vice magazine photo spread. That's supposed to be Sylvia Plath, getting ready to put her head in the oven.

Throughout its existence, Vice magazine has attempted to cultivate an image of edgy rebelliousness, with provocative covers and journalism that runs less to "Here are stories you need to know about" and more to "Check out this crazy shit that's happening somewhere!" Which is fine, but it has a definitely male perspective, which is one of the reasons people were shocked when the latest issue of the magazine featured a photo spread of models re-enacting the suicides of famous female writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. The caption below each photo described their method of suicide, along with credit for the clothes the models were wearing. The most disturbing shot was probably that of a model posing as Iris Chang with a gun pointed at her head, but the most tasteless had to be that of the one portraying Taiwanese author Sanmao, who hanged herself with a pair of stockings. They included a fashion credit for the stockings wrapped around the model's neck.

After what one might have thought would be entirely predictable criticism, Vice pulled the photo spread off their web site and issued a brief apology, which was itself a rather un-Vice-like thing to do. (The photos, along with a lengthier description of the controversy, can be seen here at Jezebel.) So did they do the right thing by pulling the photos? And should they have apologized? I'm a little conflicted, but since we seem to be seeing a lot of these kinds of mini-controversies lately—someone says something others find offensive, then we debate whether they should have said it, whether they should apologize, and where the boundaries between provocative art/entertainment and just being a jerk are (see here on the question of rape jokes in standup comedy)—let me give this a shot.

David Brooks and the Anti-Neuroscience Backlash

Flickr/TZA

Neuroscience has come a long way in recent years. Our understanding of the brain is expanding rapidly, even as we grasp more and more just how spectacularly complex the blob in your head really is. And as we gain new understanding and new tools to look at what's going on in the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it's not surprising that there are people—both legitimate scientists and hucksters—eager to push the technology where it might not be quite prepared to go. For instance, people are working on turning fMRI machines into lie detectors; there are even companies that claim they can use a brain scan to tell whether you're lying. But there's still disagreement about how reliable these methods are.

So it's also not surprising that as neuroscience advances, we're seeing something of an anti-neuroscience backlash. Some of it is perfectly reasonable and measured, but some of it—like today's column by David Brooks of the New York Times—leaps right from criticism of ambitions racing ahead of our current knowledge to something that looks a lot like rejection of the potential of science itself. Here's some of what Brooks has to say:

Your Guide to the Polls on U.S. Military Involvement in Syria

Flickr/Freedom House

It's obviously a bad idea for the administration to decide whether to jump into a whole new Middle East quagmire based on whether the famously inattentive and uninformed American public thinks it's a good idea. Nevertheless, public opinion is inevitably going to play a role in President Obama's decision-making on this. That isn't to say Obama won't take any particular step unless the polls show the public approves, but any time a politician does something unpopular, he'll always be looking over his shoulder a little bit.

So what do the American people think about the prospect of American military involvement in Syria?

The Gang of 8 Lobbies Fox News

Ryan Lizza has a behind-the-scenes article about immigration reform in the New Yorker, based mostly on interviews with members of the Senate's Gang of Eight, which shows some of the personal aspects of how big legislation can get accomplished. For instance, John McCain, ever the prima donna, comes across as seething with resentment that Marco Rubio has gotten more attention on the issue than he has. And the part that may get the most notice is the blunt words of an unnamed Rubio aide, who in regard to the question of whether certain immigrants take jobs from Americans, says, "There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can't cut it...There shouldn't be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can't get it, can't do it, don't want to do it. And so you can't obviously discuss that publicly." Hey dude, guess what: you just did! But in any case, here's the part that interested me:

When Republican Governors Do the Right Thing

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

One of the oddest political turnarounds in recent days has been the emergence of Arizona governor Jan Brewer as an Obamacare hero. Up until now, Brewer was known primarily for her forceful advocacy of the notorious anti-immigrant measure S.B. 1070, for supposedly wagging her finger at the President of the United States on an airport tarmac, for claiming weirdly that headless bodies were showing up in the Arizona desert, and for perhaps the most epic brain freeze in the history of televised debates. Yet despite being a fervent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, Brewer not only decided to accept the expansion of Medicaid that is being rejected by many of her fellow GOP governors, she actually campaigned aggressively for it over the objection of many Arizona Republicans, and yesterday won the battle when the expansion passed the Arizona legislature.

So will other Republican governors follow her lead? Perhaps, but it's going to depend a lot on their own personal political calendars.

What Will Republicans Do if Obamacare Turns Out OK?

Flickr/Fibonacci Blue

Ramesh Ponnuru has a long piece at National Review imploring conservatives to come up with a health-care plan they can swiftly put in place when Obamacare inevitably collapses under the weight of its disastrous big-government delusions. Though I disagree with almost every point Ponnuru makes along the way, from his analysis of what will happen with Obamacare to his recommendations of what a conservative health insurance system should look like (the fact that anyone, even a free-market dogmatist, thinks catastrophic coverage plus high-risk pools would work out great is just incredible), I'll give him credit for trying to get his ideological brethren to actually come up with a proposal to solve what they themselves keep saying is a terrible problem. But alas, his effort is doomed to fail. Why? Because when it comes to health care, conservatives just don't care. I'll elaborate in a moment, but here's the crux of Ponnuru's argument:

Shocking Public Health Ads that Probably Don't Work

Yep, that's your brain.

We've had something of a dearth of memorable public service announcements in recent years here in America. When was the last time something stuck with you or became part of our cultural memory like "This is your brain on drugs"? But in the UK, they try really hard to shock the hell out of you with PSAs, perhaps because they sometimes don't seem to get the difference between "memorable" and "effective." Take a look at this, which made the rounds yesterday. I'll talk in a moment about whether stuff like this actually works, but before you watch it, a warning: although it has only a bit of gore, you probably don't want to be raising a mug of hot coffee to your lips as it plays:

Where's the Intelligence Fallout?

That's what you say, but how can we be sure? (Flickr/sunnyUK)

You can make a reasonable argument for why Edward Snowden was wrong to release the information he did to the Guardian and the Washington Post (for instance, here's Jeffrey Toobin and here's Josh Marshall making that argument). But if you're going to really turn Snowden into a villain, you'd have to show that the leaks did some kind of demonstrable harm to American national security. Even if you don't find Snowden's action heroic, it's quite possible that leaking this classified information was illegal and wrong, but nevertheless didn't do much damage or make us less safe than we otherwise were.

So what is that harm? What the government has been saying so far isn't all that persuasive.

Follow the Leaker

I don't know about you, but I don't feel like I'll truly understand the citizen's relationship to government in an age of sweeping electronic surveillance until I read Edward Snowdon's girlfriend's blog. And this morning, Fox & Friends answered the question everyone in America was surely asking: Does Lou Ferrigno think Snowdon is a traitor? (For the record, Ferrigno's response was nuanced, but leaned toward "yes.") But let's say you're glad you found out what The Hulk thinks, but you're still asking yourself, "Has Rob Schneider weighed in on this yet?" Politico has you covered.

We all know that the news runs on personalities; a "story" without protagonists and antagonists isn't a story at all, it's just an "issue," and that's dullsville. But I'm sure the White House couldn't be happier that the NSA story is quickly becoming dominated by a discussion of Edward Snowdon himself, which naturally crowds out discussion of the substance of his leak and whether we want to make adjustments to the policies and programs he revealed.

When the Bushies Return

Remember this guy? (Department of Defense/Denny Cantrell

Last week I noted that most people are being pretty consistent in how they were reacting to the revelations about NSA spying on your phone records, your internet surfing, your toenail hygiene practices, and whatever else we're going to learn they've been up to (Glenn Greenwald is promising more revelations). There are some liberals defending it and some conservatives criticizing it, but most people seem to be holding to roughly the same positions they held when George W. Bush initiated these kinds of practices.

Having said that, it's far from black and white. There's a very strong temptation when a controversy like this arises to just step in with your party's official position, but in this case neither party has an official position. Most liberals look to be at odds with a Democratic president, and there is some disagreement on the right between the neo-cons and libertarians despite their mutual dislike of Barack Obama, as Michael Tomasky discusses. Nevertheless, if this were a Republican president, liberals would probably be far more worked up than they are now. Instead of saying "This is troubling," they'd be saying "This is an outrage!"

Well if you're looking for a reason to upgrade your anger, consider this: What do you think is going to happen when the next Republican president takes office?

Game of Thrones and the Problem of Unhappy Endings

AP Photo/HBO, Paul Schiraldi, File

Throughout America, fans of HBO's Game of Thrones slept soundly last night, or at least more soundly than they had the week before. On the finale of the series' third season, no major characters were killed and no key story lines came to an abrupt halt. But last week's episode, featuring the dramatic "Red Wedding" at which three key characters met their end—including Robb Stark, the closest thing the series had to a protagonist—generated an unusual amount of consternation and even anger among viewer, directed at the show's producers and George R.R. Martin, the author of the books on which it is based. Twitter exploded with comments like "I WANT TO KILL THE WRITERS AND PRODUCERS OF GAME OF THRONES," and "I'm pissed right now. Seriously want to scream. Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, you evil, evil man," and "YOU RUINED MY LIFE GEORGE R R MARTIN + IF YOU DIDN'T LOOK LIKE SANTA I'D PUNCH YOU IN YOUR STUPID OLD MAN FACE." There are hundreds more, but you get the idea.

Why should a television show make people so mad?

A Shocking Outbreak of Intellectual Consistency

National Security Agency headquarters (photo from nsa.gov)

As soon as an issue like the NSA surveillance comes along (and by the way, it needs a name—BigDataGulp, perhaps?), we immediately start hearing charges of hypocrisy. When a Democratic administration does something normally associated with Republicans, we've come to expect everybody to give their partisan affiliations precedence over their prior substantive beliefs, and switch sides. So liberals should now be fervently defending the government's right to see who you called and read your emails, and conservatives should be decrying the expansion of the national security state. And most of all, everyone should be accusing everyone else of hypocrisy.

But weirdly enough, though there are some charges of hypocrisy, actual hypocrisy is in relatively short supply, outside of a few isolated cases here and there. I've spent the morning going around to web sites of various political stripes, and amazingly, most commentators seem to be taking the same positions they did on this matter during the Bush years. Yeah, there are a few buffoonish conservatives like Michelle Malkin who will go on Fox News and say they're shocked, shocked, and what Barack Obama is doing is far worse than anything George W. Bush did, and there are some Democratic members of Congress defending the program (but they all voted for it when they supported the Patriot Act, don't forget). But on the whole what you're seeing are liberals and libertarians criticizing the NSA surveillance, just as they did when Bush was president, and conservatives sort-of defending it.

Game Over

The Pew Research Center is out with a big survey on the public's views on same-sex marriage with lots of interesting things, most of which are continuations of the trend we've seen for a while. But the most interesting findings come from their question about whether people think that marriage equality is inevitable. As you might expect, most of those who support it are optimistic about their preferred outcome, with 85 percent saying it's inevitable. But much more striking, a full 59 percent of those who oppose same-sex marriage say it's inevitable. No wishful thinking here.

Is the GOP's Tragedy of the Commons Problem Undoing Immigration Reform?

Marco Rubio may be getting thirsty again.

For some time, everyone in Washington assumed that if any major piece of legislation had the chance to pass this year, it was going to be immigration reform, because at last Republican and Democratic interests had come into alignment. Democrats have wanted reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, for a long time. Republicans have finally realized that telling Latino voters "We don't like your kind" every couple of years is very bad politics. So with bipartisan "gangs" in both houses of Congress working on reform packages, it appeared that things were moving toward passage.

Until the last couple of days, that is, when things began looking bleak.

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