Paul Waldman

Tired Columnists and Lost Opportunities

Richard Cohen, opinion-shaper.
Richard Cohen of The Washington Post may not have written anything interesting in the last 20 years or so, but yesterday he found a way to achieve some momentary relevance, by writing an execrable column defending racial profiling. For the first time in forever, lots of people were talking about something Cohen wrote (read Ta-Nehisi Coates' incisive discussion of what makes Cohen's column so vile). But this leads to a question I'm sure more than a few people are asking: Why does this guy still have a column in one of the nation's most important newspapers? After all, it's hard to imagine that Cohen has some kind of large and fervent fan base. There are other columnists who are awful in various ways, but you can understand why they're still around. For instance, Charles Krauthammer's work is a festering cauldron of venom and absurd hyperbole, but conservatives think he's a genius, so they'd be heartbroken if he lost his perch at the Post . In terms of prestige, the Post 's opinion page...

Chart of the Day

It can hardly be said too often that the George Zimmerman trial, or any one trial for that matter, only tells us a tiny bit about what happens when one person kills another and how they're treated by the justice system. Before the verdict, I predicted that Zimmerman would be acquitted, not because I'm some kind of genius, but based on two factors: There was no one alive who could contradict Zimmerman's account of what happened, and Florida law permits you to chase someone down, start a fight with them, and then shoot them if you start losing the fight. But what if we broaden our view a bit, and look not just at one case, but at thousands of cases? Does race matter? You may be saying, of course it matters, but let's look at some data. John Roman of the Urban Institute took data from 53,000 homicides over the last few years gathered by the FBI, and produced this stunning chart (h/t Richard Florida ): In case you're having trouble seeing the lines, the combination least likely to be...

The Temptation of Renown

Alas, there will be no Zimmerman juror book here; you'll have to content yourself with volumes about Duck Dynasty and people who go to heaven when they're unconscious. (Flickr/brewbooks)
*/ It's sort of quaint that when the winds of national attention float past someone who never would have otherwise gotten the chance to receive something resembling fame, their first thought so often is, "I should write a book!" The publishing industry may be dying and 99 percent of authors may never get sales out of the four figures, but everyone, even people who haven't written anything longer than an email since they were in their teens, thinks the world would be eager to read 300 pages of their thoughts and feelings. So it was that Juror B37—since she hasn't revealed her name, I'm going to call her Gladys—emerged into the bright light of a Florida morning and said to herself, "There's gotta be a way for me to cash in on this." And she decided to write a book, because like most Americans, Gladys isn't non-famous, she just isn't famous yet . She quickly retained a literary agent, who no doubt told her that this thing was going to be huge. After all, it's all over the news. Folks...

Our Coming Incest Debate

The best argument for laws against incest. (HBO)
As the "traditional marriage" forces have been in retreat, both legally and rhetorically, there's an argument we haven't heard as much as we did a few years ago: that if you allow gay people to get married, then the same logic will demand that we also allow incest marriages and polygamous marriages. Today, Kent Greenfield grapples with it here at the Prospect ; go read his piece, then come back and I'll tell you what I think about this. My hunch is that the reason the incest argument has faded is that the anti-equality forces never gave it all that much thought in the first place. It was just something outside the prevailing definition of marriage that they thought would sound crazy to everyone, so they tossed it out there. The basic argument was that once you "change the definition of marriage," you'll be changing it to accommodate any preference anybody had. A man will marry his brother! A woman will marry her cat! A cat will marry a gerbil! (Bill O'Reilly is, for some reason,...

Today's Robot News

Atlas, who is perhaps not as cuddly as he should be.
It's Friday, which of course means we have to talk robots. Yesterday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) unveiled Atlas, a humanoid robot it's using as part of its robotics challenge , in which teams of engineers will compete to write software that best employs Atlas' human-eradicating capabilities. Kidding, of course—they'll actually be trying to perform a series of tasks that might be needed in a disaster scenario. Frankly, I've always been skeptical about the potential of humanoid robots. Sure, it helps us to relate to them if they look like us, but the human body has a lot of limitations. For instance, hands are great, but should a robot have only two? Why not four or six, or eleven? The more hands, the more things you can do with them. And legs are extremely useful, especially for navigating uneven environments where wheels won't work well, like the rubble of a building that has fallen over, or the stairs in your house. But are two legs better than...

In the South, the GOP Is A-OK with Being the White People Party

A "Moral Monday" protest in the North Carolina legislature against Republican moves to restrict aid to the poor, voting rights, and access to abortion. (Flickr/David Biesack)
We've been talking quite a bit about the split between House Republicans—safe in their own districts and opposed to immigration reform—and elite/establishment/national Republicans, worried about how the GOP will fare if it can't reach out to growing minority voting groups. But there's another group of Republicans that hasn't gotten as much attention, one that really makes up the anchor of the party: the Republicans who control state legislatures and governorships, particularly in the South. While we in Washington have been talking about the GOP's dire straits, things are very different down there. If you're a Republican in North Carolina, for instance, you aren't spending time worrying about the GOP's standing among Latinos. You're too busy running amok, fulfilling the legislative fantasies you've had for years, because now you control the legislature and the governor's office. These are the boom times. The other day, Thomas Esdell wrote a post talking about the decline of black power...

How the Conservative Media Are Eating Up the Zimmerman Trial

George Zimmerman during his interview with no-nonsense journalist Sean Hannity.
George Zimmerman's trial in the shooting of Trayvon Martin is coming to a close. For what it's worth, I think he'll probably get acquitted, since 1) the lack of any eyewitnesses leaves room for doubt, and 2) my impression is that in Florida it's perfectly legal to pursue somebody, confront them, and then when the confrontation turns physical and you begin to lose the fight, shoot them in the chest. You know—self defense. In any case, conservative media are feasting on the Zimmerman trial (as are some other media). Their basic storyline goes like this: Trayvon Martin was a thug. George Zimmerman's gated community was beset by roving gangs of vicious black teen criminals. Zimmerman was in the right. And most critically, this whole thing is being drummed up by racial provocateurs, most especially Barack Obama and Eric Holder, to continue their ongoing war on white people, who are the real victims of racism in America today. Let's take, for instance, this little story. After Martin's...

Making Laws No Longer Part of Lawmaking Process

Flickr/KP Tripathi
Reading through some headlines today, I came across one link that began, "House Votes To..." and I realized that no matter what the end of the headline was, you can almost always insert, "...Make Pointless Statement As Sop to Conservative Base" and you'll be on target. In this case it happened to be a vote to block energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs, but it could have been any of a thousand things. You could argue, as Jonathan Chait does , that Republican lawmakers have basically given up on lawmaking altogether, and you wouldn't be far off. But it's more than that. They've reimagined the lawmaking process as a kind of extended ideological performance art piece, one that no longer has anything to do with laws in the "I'm Just a Bill" sense. It's not as though they aren't legislating, it's just that laws have become beside the point. Granted, the lawmaking process has always involved a lot of grandstanding and occasional votes taken more to make a statement than to alter the...

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 will take whatever they can get. The retail colossus isn't going to let some uppity city council tell it how much it can pay its employees: The world's largest retailer delivered an ultimatum to District lawmakers Tuesday, telling them less than 24 hours before a decisive vote that at least three planned Wal-Marts will not open in the city if a super-minimum-wage proposal becomes law. A team of Wal-Mart officials and lobbyists, including a high-level executive from the mega-retailer's Arkansas headquarters, walked the halls of the John A...

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...

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 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 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 truly do these things, but hey, she's just asking: Beyond the just-asking format, there's a preview here of something else we'll be seeing as Obamacare gets implemented over the next couple of years. Every problem that anyone has with anything related to health care will...

What Happened to the Obama Scandals?

flickr/United States Government Work
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. And for a few weeks there, it seemed like the prediction would come true. The news media became simultaneously fascinated with three separate issues—the attack in Benghazi, I.R.S. scrutiny of conservative groups, and Justice Department surveillance of reporters—and it seemed like...

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...

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. First, it only applies to businesses with 50 employees or more. And second, if employers still don't want to...

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...

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