Paul Waldman

Syria Turns into a Political Story

President Obama announcing his intention to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. (White House video)
So last night I was watching NBC News, and a report on Syria came on, in which Andrea Mitchell spent five minutes talking about whether going to Congress for affirmation of his decision to attack the Syrian government makes Barack Obama "look weak." Mitchell is the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent," which is what you call someone who stays in nice hotels and gets talking points from top officials when she travels with the secretary of State to foreign countries. The news is full of this kind of discussion, about whether Obama is weak, whether he "bungled" the decision-making process, how this might affect the 2014 elections, and pretty much anything except whether a strike on Syria is genuinely a good idea or not. Here's The Washington Post 's Chris Cillizza talking up the "massive gamble" Obama is taking—not a gamble on what will happen in Syria, mind you, but a political gamble. Here's Chuck Todd and the rest of the NBC politics crew gushing that this is "a great...

Game, Set, Match—Feminism

AP Images
We often talk about athletes "transcending" their particular sport and having a wider cultural impact, but the truth is that becoming rich and famous for your physical feats doesn't have an effect on people that goes beyond entertainment. LeBron James may bring in $60 million a year and have 10 million followers on Twitter, but I doubt that a few decades from now people are going to talk about how much he changed America. Tom Brady may have won three Super Bowls and married a supermodel, but no one looks to him for leadership on critical social issues confronting our nation. This is a good time to consider one of the few exceptions, an athlete whose cultural impact was probably second only to that of Jackie Robinson. Forty years ago this month, Billie Jean King participated in a sporting event like nothing before or since. It was an absurd spectacle, and it could have been disastrous for the cause she championed. When King left the Houston Astrodome after roundly defeating Bobby Riggs...

Impeachment, Inc.

Get your copy now. Better yet, buy two!
Earlier this week, I mentioned that World Net Daily, home of anti-Obama fulminations, bizarre conspiracy theories, and miracle-drug come-ons, has an "Impeachment Store" that is your one-stop shop for all your impeachment needs. TPM evidently noticed too, because they did a whole story on it the next day. And today, the Washington Examiner has a story explaining how impeachment has become an effective sales—excuse me, organizing —tool for the right. This kind of thing goes back decades to when clever political direct-mail entrepreneurs figured out that once you got the name and address of an angry old conservative couple willing to donate a few bucks to a candidate or a right-wing organization, you could keep milking that cow for years, selling their information again and again and hitting them up for a variety of candidates and causes. It turned out they'd also be susceptible to pitches for all manner of snake oil, and when you put them together on a list with a couple million people...

One Small Step for Pot

Flickr/Dank Depot
Yesterday, the Department of Justice finally announced how it was going to deal with the fact that voters in Colorado and Washington passed initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and the result is surprisingly reasonable. In case you haven't been following this issue, those who'd like to see more enlightened policies on marijuana, which is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug supposedly as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, have been terribly disappointed in the Obama administration. Could this be a real meaningful change? Despite early suggestions that they wouldn't waste time and resources going after marijuana and a 2009 Justice Department memo instructing U.S. Attorneys to make it a low priority, the war on pot has continued unabated in the Obama years. As Ryan Grim and Ryan Reilly described it earlier this year, "Since the memo, the Department of Justice has cracked down hard on medical marijuana, raiding hundreds of dispensaries, while the IRS and other federal...

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 healthcare at all; it's just a friendly Portland hipster musician bounding around the state...

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 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, you can't help wonder whether we'll ever see a presidency in which we don't project our military force...

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, Jr. 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...

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...

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-...

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...

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...

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...

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? Beyond the Wall Street connection, the critiques of Booker usually end up amounting to: he's just too slick, and he isn't the populist progressive we'd like him to be. Which is true as...

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...

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.

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