Paul Waldman

(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...

Republicans Have Actual Good Idea to Improve Presidential Primaries

This couldn't get much worse.
During the 2012 presidential primaries, many conservatives complained about the media figures who moderated the 800 or so debates that the Republican candidates had to suffer through. Their beef was that these journalists, being journalists, were obviously in the tank for Barack Obama and could not be trusted to treat Republicans fairly. That wasn't really the problem, though. The problem was that most of the journalists who moderate presidential debates ask terrible questions, meant more to put candidates on the spot or produce a "gaffe" than to actually illuminate anything useful about them. I don't know how many times they have to ask inane questions like "What's your favorite Bible verse?" or whether the candidates prefer Elvis to Johnny Cash or deep dish to thin crust (yes, those were actually the topic of debate questions) before they start turning inward and wondering if they might be more substantive, but apparently the answer is never. So the Republican National Committee is...

The Super-Sexy Case Against Gay Marriage

When I get that feelin', I need Supreme Court amicus briefs.
Three years ago, in a column titled "It's Not You, It's Me," I noted that a rhetorical shift had occurred among opponents of gay rights. In earlier times, there was lots of talk about the immorality of homosexuality and how depraved gay people were, but now those sentiments have become marginalized. For more mainstream spokespeople, the argument against same-sex marriage is not about gay people at all but about straight people. The problem with same-sex marriage, they say, is the effect gay people's marriages will have on straight people's marriages. What that effect will be, they can't precisely say, but they're sure it'll be bad. Similarly, when we argued (briefly) about repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, their claims were not about whether gay soldiers could do their jobs, but whether their presence would make straight soldiers uncomfortable. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on cases challenging California's Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage...

Why the Republicans Should Go Ahead and Have Their Civil War

Flickr/Donkey Hotey
Watching gleefully while your opponents tear themselves apart is a bipartisan Washington pastime. For many years, Republicans were able to do much more of it than Democrats, for the simple reason that Democrats tend to bicker among themselves more, and nothing produces such bickering like lost presidential elections. But now, having lost two such elections in a row, it's the Republicans who are at each other's throats, and Democrats who look on with a smile. I always find these arguments interesting, not because I enjoy giving a Nelson Muntz "Ha-ha!" to the GOP (OK, maybe just a little) but because their outcome ends up shaping our politics in the coming years. So I have a message for my Republican friends: Ignore the Democrats laughing at you about the infighting. Squabbling amongst yourselves is exactly what you should be doing right now. It's hard to keep that in mind when your opponents are belittling you and columnists are shaking their heads at your disarray ( see here for...

Asking Serious People Silly Questions

Erin Burnett, trying to keep from giggling.
I've written before about the media's inability to talk about the issue of marijuana legalization without turning into eighth graders, peppering their stories with references to Cheech & Chong and making generally idiotic stoner references ("Put down those Doritos and turn down that Dead bootleg—a new policy statement from the Office of National Drug Control Policy could be a serious buzz-cruncher!"). Whether this is changing now that Washington and Colorado passed decriminalization schemes in the last election and momentum is building in other states for similar measures, I'm not sure. But Mark Kleiman, who has done extensive research on the potential consequences of drug legalization and is now acting as a consultant to the state of Washington as it finds its way toward implementing the law the voters there passed, found himself confronted with a smirking Erin Burnett on CNN, who wanted to know whether he's a pot smoker or not, and handled it perfectly . "I don't think there's...

Stuck With Each Other

AP photo/David Goldman
Imagine you're a religious right activist, used to being a serious player within the Republican party, the kind of person candidates court and party chieftains huddle with. You've done well at making sure that just about every politician in your party has the right position on your issues. You may not always get everything you want as quickly as you want, but you know that you don't have to waste energy fighting rear-guard actions within the GOP. But then bad things start to happen. We spend a couple of years talking about nothing but the economy and budgets, ignoring your favorite issues, and some in the party suggest that the real culture war isn't your culture war, it's an economic one. A couple of your favorite candidates get a little too candid with their views on rape, and end up losing at the polls, leading some influential strategists to suggest that the party needs to shift its focus away from your issues. Then one of your party's senators comes out in support of same-sex...

War of Cluelessness

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
I have a piece at CNN.com today about what the press did and didn't learn from its performance leading up to the war that I wanted to expand on a little. You might remember Donald Rumsfeld's philosophical musings on "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," which I think offers a good way to look at how so many people got so much wrong, with such tragic results. There were things they knew they didn't know, but they decided that those things didn't matter (or that they just didn't care), and there were things they didn't know they didn't know. That applies to the Bush administration, its supporters, the frightened Democrats who went along, and to the press. Here's a bit of what I wrote: When there's a war in the offing, the flags are waving and dissenters are being called treasonous, the media's courage tends to slip away. Which is particularly regrettable, since the time when the government is pressing for war should be the time when they are more aggressive than ever, exploring every...

Just How Bad Is Television News?

Every year, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism releases a huge report called "The State of the News Media," and this year's installment contains some surprising results, far beyond what you'd expect about declining newspaper revenues and the generalized slow death of journalism (though there's plenty of that). In particular, television news is undergoing some rapid changes, most of which are driven by finances and many of which look seriously problematic. Let's start with local TV news (we'll get to cable in a moment). For decades, it has been the most-used of all news media, despite the fact that it provides the sorriest excuse for journalism you can find anywhere. Why has it been so popular for so long? For starters, it's easy; you can just turn the TV on while you're cooking dinner or working on your toothpick sculpture of the Taj Mahal, and it won't require any concentration to keep up with. Second, it's on all the time; since news is the central profit...

The Political Is Personal

AP Photo/Mike Munden
On Friday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio became the first Republican in the Senate to support same-sex marriage, explaining in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed that his change of heart came after his son told him he's gay. It was easy to be underwhelmed by Portman's announcement; as Michael Tomasky asked , "what if his son weren't gay? Were that the case, we have no reason whatsoever to believe Portman would have taken this step." That's true, and we might also ask what took him so long; after all, Portman wrote that his son came out to him two years ago, and that seems like a rather extended period of introspection. Portman may not be a civil-rights hero, but if nothing else his announcement is likely to force people to confront the ways public policy is or isn't shaped by legislators' own experiences. And now, many of them will be asked what they would do in Portman's shoes. That was what Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked on Sunday's This Week , and he answered, "I believe that...

Brief Hiatus

Flickr/jerryfergusonphotography
I won't be blogging for the remainder of this week; over the next couple of days my plans include climbing K2 solo, learning Icelandic, mastering the art of painting on grains of rice, and finding a cure for a rare but embarassing earlobe disorder. I'll be back Monday.

The Dubya Albatross

When he was performing his Full Jeb of Sunday show interviews over the weekend, Jeb Bush got asked everywhere whether he's running for president, and each time he gave the same practiced answer (not thinking about it yet). He also got asked whether his brother's disastrous presidency, and the fact that Dubya left office with abysmal approval ratings ( Gallup had him in the 20s for much of 2008) would be a drag on him. Jeb gave the answer you'd expect: history will be kind to my brother, I'm very proud of him, and so on. Of course it's true that Jeb, what with his last name and all, would have to "grapple" with his brother's legacy more than other candidates. But when we think about it in those terms, I think we overlook something important about how the Bush legacy will continue to operate on Republicans, not just Jeb but all of them. I thought of this when reading Peter Beinart's take on Jeb, wherein he says something I think misses the mark: That's why Jeb Bush will never seriously...

The Smart Strategy Behind Paul Ryan's Stupid Budget

Flickr/Donkey Hotey
For an ambitious politician, a spot on your party's presidential ticket is fraught with danger. On one hand, you immediately become a national figure, and if you win, you're vice president and you've got a good chance to become president. On the other hand, if you lose, you may wind up the target of contempt from forces within your own party and quickly fade away. Look at the list of recent VP losers: Sarah Palin, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp. None of them had any political future after their loss. And then there's Paul Ryan. You have to give him credit for one thing. Unlike, say, Palin, he didn't let his time on the national stage give him delusions of grandeur. Instead of proclaiming himself the leader of a movement, he went right back to what he was doing before: using the budgeting process to push an extraordinarily radical agenda, all couched in enough numbers and figures to convince naive reporters that he's a Very Serious Fellow, despite the fact that his numbers and...

Working for Free on TV

That's me working for free.
In the last week or so, the world of people who write and publish for a living has been consumed with the question of whether and when freelancers ought to work for free. As you probably know, the internet has killed journalism, and this has made it all but impossible to make a living as a writer. Not really, of course, but this whole thing started when an editor at The Atlantic asked a writer if he'd like to give her an edited version of a piece he'd previously written, which would be published on their site without any pay, and he responded , "I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for-profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children." This then touched off a lot of soul-searching and navel-gazing among writers and editors, the most enlightening bit of which is probably this post from Alexis Madrigal. I...

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