Paul Waldman

No More Saturday Mail? Blame Yourself.

Flickr/hajee

Later today, the Postal Service will be releasing a plan intended to deal with its ongoing financial difficulties, the most headline-grabbing part of which is that they want to end Saturday delivery. People will be displeased, no doubt. Who among us doesn't like getting mail on Saturdays? But there may be no way out, because the agency's financial situation is so dire. Why did it come to this? There are three reasons: politicians, technology, and the greedy American public. First, Congress has screwed the Post Office, imposing rules that make it almost impossible to balance its books. Second, the rise of electronic communication has drastically reduced the volume of mail it handles, cutting its revenues. And third, we all expect to get fast, efficient, and universal postal service at absurdly low prices. So if mail delivery ends up being just five days a week, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Since I'm guessing you're not particularly inclined to peruse the Postal Service's annual reports yourself, here are some details...

Voter Turnout in 2012: Meh

Flickr/zzazazz

Thanks to Michael McDonald at George Mason University, we have the final turnout statistics for the 2012 presidential election, and the verdict is ... eh. Not too bad, not too great. A total of 129,058,169 votes were counted, out of an eligible population of 221,925,820, for a turnout figure of 58.2 percent. How does that compare to previous years, you ask? Or rather, can you show me a chart comparing that to previous years? Why yes. Yes I can.

Can We Live Without the Assault Weapons Ban?

Flickr/mr.smashy

So yesterday, Harry Reid hinted that he'll be introducing a gun control measure that doesn't include a new ban on assault weapons. If we assume for a moment that other proposed measures eventually pass, but an assault weapons ban doesn't, how bad an outcome would it be?

How the NRA Is Helping to Pass Gun Control

We're in the early stages of a lengthy process that will involve hearings, competing bills, horse-trading, and the usual ugliness of life in the Capitol Hill sausage factory, but the contours of gun legislation are beginning to take shape. Though President Obama is out campaigning for the full package of reforms he has been advocating, there are indications that the assault weapons ban may get dropped in order to forestall a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and a bipartisan group is about to introduce a bill in the House on gun trafficking and straw purchases. (I'll discuss the assault weapons question in a later post). In other words, the actual legislative process is getting underway.

And though it's by no means assured that some gun measures will pass Congress, if any do, we'll partly have the NRA to thank. That's because, I believe, the organization fundamentally misread the role it plays in the minds of the average voter.

Free "Super-Wifi" Everywhere? Don't Hold Your Breath.

Flickr/CollegeDegrees360

We spend a lot of time arguing about whether government should be big or small, which is almost always the wrong question. Among the right questions are how government should go about doing what it has to do, and on whose behalf it ought to operate. I bring this up because of a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission, discussed in this article in today's Washington Post, to open up a big chunk of spectrum to spread wifi hither and yon, potentially creating a nirvana of free internet and cell phone access. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, it is. But here's how the Post described it:

He's Not Here to Make Friends

President Obama meeting with grim-faced members of Congress. (White House/Pete Souza)

If you walked into the home of an acquaintance and found yourself facing a wall of dozens of pictures of him shaking hands with powerful people, you'd probably think, "What a pompous ass. And how insecure do you have to be to put these things up on your wall? I get it, you're important. Sheesh." In Washington, however, these "brag walls" can be found all over town, particularly on Capitol Hill, where nearly every member of Congress has one.

Maybe some offices do it just because that's what everyone else does, but you'd think that if you're a senator or member of Congress, the fact that you're an important person would be self-evident, and it wouldn't be necessary to make sure everyone who comes into your office knows that you've been in the same room as presidents and other high-ranking officials. There are some commercial establishments, like your local deli, that might put up pictures on their walls with the celebrities who have stopped in, but that's an understandable marketing effort. But when it comes to individuals, the only other place I can think of that I've seen that sort of thing outside of Washington is on MTV Cribs, in the homes of athletes, actors, and musicians, who often have displays of them with other celebrities. And they, I imagine, are also desperately insecure about their importance, forever fearful that it could evaporate at any moment and they'll wind up the next Corey Feldman. So they put up the pictures of them hanging out with Tom Brady or Usher to assure themselves that they really are as big a deal as the people around them are contractually obligated to tell them.

I raise this because of an absolutely pathetic article in Politico today, detailing how Democrats on Capitol Hill aren't feeling enough love from President Obama:

New Term, New Truthers, Same Obama

(Flickr/The White House)

If I had to pick my favorite political ad of the last few years, a strong contender would be the one from 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, in which she looked into the camera and said sweetly, "I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." The combination of a hilarious lack of subtlety with a kind of sad earnestness made it unforgettable. And it's the message that almost every politician tries to offer at one point or another (the "I'm you" part, not the part about not being a witch). They all want us to think they're us, or at least enough like us for us to trust them.

Is Obama Moving to the Left?

President Obama sets his radial plan in motion (White House/Lawrence Jackson)

Is Barack Obama moving to the left in his second term, and what is he risking by doing so? That's what Ron Brownstein asks in a long National Journal article, and though Brownstein is as comprehensive and careful as ever, there are some fundamental flaws in his premises. But here's what he says:

On issues from gay rights to gun control, immigration reform, and climate change—all of which he highlighted in his ringing Inaugural Address last week—Obama is now unreservedly articulating the preferences of the Democratic "coalition of the ascendant" centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal upscale whites, especially women. Across all of these issues, and many others such as the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending the ban on women in combat, Obama is displaying much less concern than most national Democratic leaders since the 1960s about antagonizing culturally conservative blue-collar, older, and rural whites, many of whom oppose them.

Can Conservatives Change How They Talk about Immigrants?

For many years, it's been obvious that conservatives do a better job of manipulating language than liberals, not only because they seem good at coming up with new terms to describe things, but more importantly because once they decide on a new term, they very quickly get everyone on their side to use it. One of the classic examples is how they took the "estate tax," with its evocation of a white-haired gentleman named something like Winthrop Flipperbottom III sipping brandy from a gigantic snifter while petting his afghan hound as he looks over the vast gardens of his estate, and renamed it the "death tax," which evokes a cruel IRS agent bursting in on your family mourning the death of your beloved uncle and making off with his lovingly amassed collection of vintage baseball cards. You will never, ever hear a conservative call the tax anything but the "death tax," because they all understand the utility of language. How much these kind of linguistic efforts really affect the outcome of policy conflicts is debateable, and the left certainly tries to do the same thing, but few people would argue that over the past twenty or thirty years the right hasn't been far better at it. It doesn't happen by accident—there are people who come up with the new words and phrases, people who test them in surveys and focus groups, people who work to spread them, and then all the people who reinforce them with frequent use. It's a system, and it works very well.

All of which makes it so odd that it has taken until now for conservatives to realize that they have a real language problem, and what they really need is a little of the political correctness they've so despised in the past. As Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic explains, not only are Republicans telling each other to shut up about the whole "legitimate rape" thing, but some of them are urging a change in how they talk about immigration...

Homophobia in Sports and Changing Hearts

49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, celebrating his newfound respect for gay people. (AP photo by Paul Spinelli)

Almost all of us, at some time in our youth, had the experience of saying something that turned out to be way more inappropriate than we thought it was, whereupon people turned to us and said, "Dude. Not cool." In most cases, it concerned something we just hadn't thought that much about, and it often occurs when you move from one milieu to another with different mores and ideas, like going from high school to college. Or existing in a world of football players and suddenly finding yourself quoted in the media on a sociopolitical topic because your team is in the Super Bowl, which is what happened to San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver.

When it happens in your dorm room, someone will explain to you why the joke you made or the term you used was out of line, and you'll probably say, "Huh—I hadn't thought about it that way, but OK." And armed with that knowledge, you'll adapt to your new surroundings and the changing times. But Culliver found himself in hot water when he was on a radio program and got asked if there were any gay players on his team. "We don't have any gay guys on the team," he said. "They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff." Culliver was apparently unaware that he plays in San Francisco, and by the next day, his team management had condemned him and forced him to issue a rather amusing apology. "The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel," he said. "It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience."

The Wrong Kind of Immigration Spending

AP Photo/Tuscaloosa News, Robert Sutton

The Republican party's abysmal performance among Latino voters in the 2012 election, and the ensuing realization among many in the GOP that they need to change their stance on immigration or risk more defeats, have made it a real possibility that passage of the first comprehensive immigration reform bill in over a quarter-century could happen soon. The debate will no doubt be intense, so as it begins, some facts about the recent and not-so-recent history of immigration in America will be important to keep in mind.

Why "Make Them Learn English" Is the Key to Immigration Reform

New Americans taking the oath of citizenship. (Flickr/Grand Canyon NPS)

Among the provisions in the immigration reform proposal released by a bipartisan group of senators yesterday was a requirement that in order to get on that path to citizenship, undocumented immigrants would have to "learn English and civics." They don't detail exactly how it would happen, but presumably there'd be a test of English proficiency immigrants would have to pass, and perhaps some money appropriated for English classes. There are two things to know about this idea. First, in practical terms it's completely unnecessary. And second, in political terms it's an excellent idea. In fact, it could be the key to passing immigration reform.

Why Playwrights Aren't Political Analysts

Flickr/David Shankbone

During last year's presidential campaign, journalist Buzz Bissinger got some attention for writing an opinion piece explaining that he was voting for Mitt Romney because Barack Obama hasn't done enough to end poverty, which is kind of like saying you're switching from salad to Big Macs for lunch because you're trying to lose weight and salad has calories. For people familiar with Bissinger's extraordinary reportage, including books like Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City (one of the best books about big-city politics ever written), it was a shock. How could such a great reporter produce something so infantile and bereft of the simplest familiarity with logic? Then people took a look at Bissinger's Twitter feed and discovered that he spews out a puzzling combination of incomprehensibility and general assholishness. (sample tweet: "Romney lost was a suck candidate as it turned out. But every fucking liberal who whines about pro football should be forced to play it." Um, okaaay.) It was so puzzling because the traits that make one a good reporter—curiosity, hard work, a willingness to see things from as many perspectives as possible—seemed to have deserted Bissinger in his non-reporting endeavors. Which brings us to the strange case of David Mamet, one of the most celebrated American playwrights of the last forty years.

Newsweek has just published an article in which Mamet, who became a hard-core conservative some years ago, goes after Barack Obama for wanting to take away his guns. While there may be an intelligent, cogently argued case to make for Mamet's position, this piece certainly isn't it. From the opening cliché about Karl Marx, you know you're not in for something that will change anyone's mind, but it only gets worse. He moves on to insane assertions about government ("'One-size-fits-all,' and that size determined by the State has a name, and that name is 'slavery.'") moves through a comparison of Barack Obama to King George, and then hits you with the kind of "logic" with which any parent of an eight-year-old is familiar. "The Left loves a phantom statistic that a firearm in the hands of a citizen is X times more likely to cause accidental damage than to be used in the prevention of crime, but what is there about criminals that ensures that their gun use is accident-free?" Mamet asks. "If, indeed, a firearm were more dangerous to its possessors than to potential aggressors, would it not make sense for the government to arm all criminals, and let them accidentally shoot themselves?" You really got us there, Sparky. By the time he repeats the NRA's argument that Barack Obama is hypocritical for having the Secret Service protect his children and at the same time wanting some modest measures to limit gun proliferation— measures which, by the way, will restrict David Mamet's ability to buy as many guns as he wants not one whit—you're left shaking your head.

We'll Miss You, Sarah Palin

It seems like such a long time now, but it was only four and half years ago that America was introduced to Sarah Palin, who came down from the wilds of Alaska to set conservative hearts aquiver. Long after she ceased to be listened to for any other reason than that she said something offensive, Sarah Palin's star has faded so far that even Fox News has no more use for her.

Her umbilical cord to influence—the connection between the studio Fox built in her house and the network's headquarters in New York—has been severed, her contract not renewed. Some of Palin's allies anonymously informed reporters that the decision was hers and not the network's, but I don't believe that for a second. Roger Ailes is not a sentimental man, and when necessary he won't hesitate to cut loose an asset whose usefulness is exhausted. And if you've ever seen her talking to Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, you know that she was actually terrible at TV commentary. Neither articulate nor insightful, she stumbled her way through a hundred appearances as a "Fox News Contributor," offering viewers nothing more than her presence, as if that were enough. In the end, it wasn't. But that doesn't mean we won't miss her.

Will the GOP Vote-Rigging Effort Invite a Backlash?

This must not stand.

Over the last twelve years (since the Florida debacle of 2000), I've argued repeatedly that politics in America is characterized by an Audacity Gap. It may not hold in every situation and every controversy, but most of the time, Republicans are willing take actions both small (shouting at the president that he's a liar during the State of the Union) and large (filibustering everything or holding the economy hostage over the debt ceiling) that Democrats are far too timid to even consider. Often it occurs when Republicans decide to violate a norm of how business had been done previously, safe in the knowledge that since what's at issue is a norm and not a rule, there's really nothing to stop them. As I put it some time ago, Republicans are the party of "Yes we can," while Democrats are the party of "Maybe we shouldn't." It doesn't always work to Republicans' advantage, but much of the time it does.

When it works, it's often because the public doesn't know, doesn't understand, or doesn't care. This is probably the case with the dramatic increase in filibusters over the last four years. Republicans surely understood that there was a risk that they'd look like obstructionists and be punished at the polls, but they saw that risk as minimal compared to the benefits to be gained by thwarting Barack Obama's agenda. And the 2010 election seemed to prove them right. And now, they're hoping they can rig the entire presidential election.

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