Paul Waldman

Obama Pleads for Empathy on Guns

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has portrayed himself as Washington's last reasonable man, pleading that we can find some common ground on almost any issue despite our disagreements if we just listen to each other and open our hearts a little. Republicans complain that it's all just an act—he's just trying to look like the reasonable one, to make his opponents look more intransigent and stubborn and gain the upper hand politically. That may be partly true, even though they don't need his help to look unreasonable; they do a fine job of it all by themselves. The latest narrative on the gun issue is that the prospects for meaningful legislation are slipping away as the tragedy of Newtown fades from our ridiculously short memories and members of Congress feel little of the public pressure required for them to stand up to the NRA. So Obama has been campaigning for his favored legislation, and yesterday he gave a speech in Colorado, the centerpiece of which was a plea to both sides...

Marriage Is What Brings Us Together Today

flickr / arts enthusiast M any conservatives now concede they've lost the argument on same-sex marriage. The question is not if but when full marriage equality will prevail in the United States, and what the effects will be. But as much as we've talked about marriage in recent months, most of the debate has been lacking in context about the state of marriage in America today. We'll get to the data in a moment, but first, a few brief words about the history of marriage. Supporters of "traditional" marriage often express their fear that if gay people are allowed to marry, the institution will be transformed. The truth, however, is that marriage has already been transformed, not just in the United States but around the world. We're now seeing simply the latest phase of a long evolution. When people refer to "traditional" marriage, they're usually talking about developments that occurred only within the last couple of centuries of marriage's history. If you advocate "biblical" marriage,...

The AP Gives Up "Illegal Immigrant"

Flickr/Emilio Labrador
The Associated Press, whose stylebook is used by lots of different publications, has announced that it will no longer use the term "illegal immigrant." This essentially accepts the argument that advocates for immigrants have been making for some time, namely that the fact that someone immigrated illegally doesn't make them an illegal person, any more than the fact that you got a speeding ticket means you should be labelled an "illegal driver," despite your violation of the law. Unsurprisingly, conservatives were contemptuous of the AP. On the right, however (and in the conservative media), even the term "illegal immigrants" is considered unduly generous, the preferred terms being "illegal aliens" or just "illegals." The AP also doesn't like "undocumented immigrant," which is preferred by immigration activists, "because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence." That seems kind of silly; if you refer to someone as an...

The Pointlessness of Contrarianism for Its Own Sake

Contrarianism!
When you write for a magazine with a particular ideological bent, it's natural to wonder whether you're being too soft on "your" side. This question comes up more when your side is in power, since they're the ones who are implementing policies and making decisions; when the other side is in charge, most of your time is spent documenting and analyzing all the harmful and dangerous things they're doing, and your side is occupied with fighting the ruling party and waiting for its turn. Obviously, politics is a neverending conflict, and that conflict can produce a certain siege mentality. For instance, when a Democratic president proposes a plan for universal health coverage and Republicans attack it with a campaign of mind-boggling hysteria and dishonesty (death panels!), it's natural to spend a good deal of time correcting the record and defending it, even if you think that plan is less than ideal. There are some people (like Glenn Greenwald) who write largely about one set of issues,...

Smart People Believing Stupid Things

So after a brief moment in the spotlight, it appears that Ben Carson will not be this week's Savior of the Republican Party after all. But his quick rise and fall raise an interesting question: Why are some people incredibly smart when it comes to some topics, and incredibly stupid when it comes to others? To bring you up to speed, Carson is a noted neurosurgeon who, among other things, was the first to successfully separate conjoined twins joined at the head. He's also extremely politically conservative (and African-American), which made him a popular, though by no means nationally famous, figure in some conservative circles. Then in February, he gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, in which he took the occasion to sharply criticize President Obama (who was sitting right there) and advocate for a flat tax, which as everyone knows is pleasing unto the Lord. The Wall Street Journal then ran an editorial titled "Ben Carson for President," and he was off to the races, making...

Whither Homo Economicus?

Jamelle Bouie
It's hard out there for a culture warrior. Every time an opponent of same-sex marriage does an interview these days, one of the first questions is, "Isn't your side on this issue doomed to failure?" They're even getting a cold shoulder from their own allies; after years of bashing hippies and wielding "God, guns, and gays" to great electoral effect, the leadership of the GOP would rather talk about anything else. And now it's Democrats who are happy to stoke the cultural fires, secure in the knowledge that the majority is on their side. Not long ago, many in the GOP began to hope that the rise of the Tea Party could transform the culture war into one primarily about economics and the role of government. We could still have just as vigorous a battle between Us and Them, but with the old social issues fading into the background. There would be a new division, one in which our kind of people value free markets, low taxes, and a government that leaves you alone, while those other kind of...

Sarah Palin Soldiers On

Flickr/therealbls2002
One of the main reasons so many members of Congress become lobbyists after they leave office is that there just aren't that many high-level opportunities available to them where they can use what they learned in office. After you've spent a bunch of time learning the ins and outs of Congress, and somebody's willing to pay you half a million dollars a year or more to put that knowledge to use, it seems to make a great deal of sense. But what if at the end of your political career, you've become, to most people, a laughingstock? And what if you're not a lawyer, so you can't practice law, and you're known for being erratic, so no one would hire you to run their interest group, and in truth you have no marketable skills at all? Then you're in a quandary, which is where Sarah Palin found herself four years ago. And you have to hand it to her: she fashioned a post-campaign career that manages to continue on no matter what setbacks she encounters, from getting her reality shows cancelled to...

The Dead End That Is Public Opinion

If you want to produce change, make politicians as terrified as this sandwich. (Flickr/Sakurako Kitsa)
As the effort to enact new gun legislation hobbles along, liberals have noted over and over that in polls, 90 percent or so of the public favors universal background checks. In speaking about this yesterday, President Obama said, "Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change." Then Jonathan Bernstein explained that opinion doesn't get political results, what gets results is action. I'd take this one step farther: what gets results is not action per se, but action that produces fear . I'll explain in a moment, but here's part of Bernstein's argument: See, the problem here is equating "90 percent in the polls" with "calling for change." Sure, 90 percent of citizens, or registered voters, or whoever it is will answer in the affirmative if they're asked by a pollster about this policy. But that's not at all the same as "calling for change." It's more like...well, it is receiving a call. Not calling. Those people who have been pushing for marriage equality? They were...

Not Fun to Visit, and You Wouldn't Want to Live There. But the Taxes Are Low!

North Dakota. Can you smell the freedom? (Flickr/Gadi Golan)
The Mercatus Center, an independently funded free-market think tank housed at George Mason University, just released its annual "Freedom in the 50 States" rankings, and the results, showing whether you live in a Randian paradise or a soul-crushing statist hellhole, are getting a lot of ridicule on Twitter. Liberals may laugh that this kind of thing is pretty silly, but it's conservatives who ought to find the results deeply unsettling. Because if "freedom" as conservatives define it determines the quality of one's existence, then they all ought to be packing their bags to move to the most free of all the states. Which, according to the Mercatus Center, is North Dakota. You can see the problem here. The folks at Mercatus have done their best to be comprehensive in coming up with the scores, and a look at their standards shows a basically libertarian index; in other words, the vast majority of the criteria are things any contemporary conservative would agree with, plus a few of the...

Oppressed Christians and Second-Class Citizenship

A gay lion prepares to set upon a group of Christians.
With all this talk of gay people marrying one another, some people on the right are starting to bleat about how they're being oppressed for their Christian beliefs—so oppressed, in fact, that they're starting to feel like "second-class citizens." Here's CBN's David Brody lamenting the sorrows of Kirk Cameron and Tim Tebow. Here's Red State's Erik Erikson predicting the coming pogrom ("Within a year or two we will see Christian schools attacked for refusing to admit students whose parents are gay. We will see churches suffer the loss of their tax exempt status for refusing to hold gay weddings. We will see private businesses shut down because they refuse to treat as legitimate that which perverts God’s own established plan."). Here's Fox News commentator Todd Starnes on the oppression that has already begun ("it’s as if we’re second-class citizens now because we support the traditional, Biblical definition of marriage"). And how is this second-class citizenship being thrust upon them...

Government Monopolies Even Liberals Can't Love

Flickr/billytechkid
In a post yesterday, I said that it would be absurd for the federal government to produce its own brand of cola, not because doing so would make us all less free, but because there's just no need. Well lo and behold, today I find out that the state of Pennsylvania, where I used to live, has its own brand of mediocre wine, called Table Leaf. It's manufactured by a winery in California, but sold through state-owned Pennsylvania liquor stores. Does that seem nuts? Well, it starts to make sense when you recall that in Pennsylvania, the state has a virtual monopoly on liquor sales through the stores run by the Liquor Control Board. So in addition to making it incredibly inconvenient for you to buy a bottle of wine or other booze, they also are able to market their own house brand (at apparently inflated prices). In the decade I lived in the state, I never met a single person who thought the state monopoly wasn't ridiculous ( polls show support for privatization to be strong, albeit not...

The IRS Threat to Turbo Tax

Flickr/401K 2012
As a general matter, I think the best reason for government not to go around competing with private industry isn't that doing so inherently diminishes our freedom, but because it's just not worth the effort, and much of the time it isn't going to provide any benefit to consumers. It wouldn't be tyrannical for the federal government to produce its own brand of cola, but it would be pointless, since they're unlikely to make something people will like better than Coke or Pepsi, and consumers seem to be perfectly happy with their current cola options. On the other hand, there are some areas where the market has clearly failed—health insurance for senior citizens, for instance (and, I'd argue, everyone else too, but that's a separate topic)—where it makes sense for the government to step in. But what about areas where the market in question involves private companies helping consumers interact with the government itself? And where there isn't a particularly egregious market failure, but...

(Female) Politicians Acting Badly

Christine Quinn pressing the flesh. (Flickr/Azi Paybarah)
Unless you follow New York politics, you probably don't know anything about (or maybe haven't even heard of) Christine Quinn, the speaker of the city council and front-runner to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg when his term runs out at the end of this year. The story of the morning is a front-page piece in today's New York Times , detailing how in private, Quinn is a holy terror, tearing people's heads off when they displease her, threatening and sometimes retaliating against those who cross her, and leaving a trail of shocked and intimidated people in her wake. So, does being a jerk make you less effective as a politician? And are female politicians like Quinn inevitably going to be judged more harshly than male politicians who act the same way? We'll address those questions in a moment, but here's an excerpt from the article: As she pursues a high-profile bid for mayor, Ms. Quinn, a Democrat, has proudly promoted her boisterous personality, hoping that voters will embrace her blend...

The Evolution of MSNBC

What MSNBC used to be.
At the New Republic , Rebecca Dana has a profile of MSNBC chief Phil Griffin, during which she points out that the network's current incarnation as the liberal's home on cable came about only because Griffin tried a bunch of other stuff that didn't work. There wasn't an ideological motivation, just a financial one. "Fox News is a TV network that succeeds because of its ideological slant," she writes. "MSNBC is a TV network that has an ideological slant because that's what happened to succeed." That came about after a period in which the network tried hard to duplicate Fox by hiring a bunch of conservatives. At various times the network gave shows to the likes of Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage, Tucker Carlson, and Alan Keyes (the latter, called Alan Keyes Is Making Sense , for some reason didn't include "No, really!" in its title). When it turned out nobody wanted to watch any of those programs, they kept trying different things until Keith Olbermann tapped into the zeitgeist of the...

The Unending Terror of the Red-State Democrat

An image from a new ad advocating universal background checks for gun purchases.
Over the weekend, we learned that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will spend $12 million airing ads in 13 states pushing senators to support expanded background checks for gun purchases. NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre, in his usual restrained fashion, described Bloomberg's engagement as "reckless" and "insane," but what's so remarkable is that this is something you need an ad war to accomplish. After all, universal background checks (which would extend such checks to gun shows and private sales) enjoy pretty much universal support, with polls showing around 90 percent of Americans in favor, including overwhelming majorities of Republicans and gun owners. And yet, not only are lots of Republicans still holding back, but even some Democrats are afraid to take a position on universal background checks. Greg Sargent reports that at least five Democratic senators—Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagen (NC), Joe Donnelly (IN) and Heidi Heitkamp (SD)—are refusing to say where they stand...

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