Paul Waldman

Mythical Backlashes and Specious Explanations

Barack Obama's favorability ratings over the last year, from pollster.com.
One of the most dangerous temptations of the political reporter is over-interpretation of polls, the need to explain every apparent movement in this week's poll with reference to events that just happened. The result is a whole lot of utterly unsubstantiated claims explaining things lots of reporters don't even understand or that may not actually have occurred at all. Only coverage of the stock market, where every news report confidently explains even the tiniest movement in share prices ("Apple shares fell one-tenth of a point today, with investors expressing concern after Billy Wilson of Saginaw, Michigan decided to buy a Droid to replace the iPhone he dropped in the toilet"), comes close. There are two reasons why: the first is that most reporters don't understand, or willfully ignore, what a "margin of error" represents (meaning they talk about movement within the margin of error as though it represents something real, when it isn't). The second is that when you have to write...

Health Care Play-Acting

GOP.gov
I've written many times, by way of explaining congressional Republicans' actions on the issue of health care, that it just isn't something that conservatives as a group care very much about. They have other interests, like taxes and the military, that they'd much rather spend their time on. This may strike some as unfair, but I think it's pretty clear from everything that's happened over the last couple of decades that it's true. There are a few conservative health wonks, but not nearly as many as there are on the liberal side. I can't think of any conservative journalists who are deeply conversant with the policy challenges and details of the health care system, while on the liberal side we have a number of such people, like Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn. Liberals have organizations dedicated to reforming the health system and achieving universal coverage; conservatives have organizations dedicated to stopping liberals from reforming the health system and achieving universal coverage...

Talking Honestly About Our War Dead

Arlington National Cemetery (Flickr/Celine Aussourd)
The endless string of mini-controversies that occupy the attention of the media usually run the gamut from stupid to extra-stupid to super-stupid. But sometimes, one comes along that is profoundly dispiriting, the kind of thing that makes you wonder whether we'll ever be able to have a real debate about anything important. I'm speaking of what happened after MSNBC host Chris Hayes had a brief on-air discussion about the use of the word "hero" to apply to every person in the military who died in war. This came in the middle of a show devoted to Memorial Day, the larger theme of which was that Americans don't fully appreciate the sacrifices made by people in the military and their families. When he raised the question of the overuse of the word "hero," Hayes was careful to say that he didn't want to disrespect the memory of any fallen soldier, but that the word sometimes made him uncomfortable, because he was concerned its repetition makes it easier justify future wars. Like everything...

Why Democrats Support the Drug War Status Quo

Medical marijuana for sale in California. (Flickr/Dank Depot)
Later today, I'll have a post up at MSNBC's Lean Forward blog explaining why the "Choom Gang" revelations from David Maraniss' new biography of Barack Obama didn't seem to make anybody mad (with the exception of libertarians who took the opportunity to make the entirely accurate point that Obama's Justice Department is vigorously prosecuting people for doing pretty much the same thing Obama did as a teenager, and if he had been caught he might have gone to jail and certainly wouldn't have grown up to be president). Briefly, it comes down to a couple of things: Obama had already admitted he smoked pot "frequently," so it wasn't much of a revelation; and around half of American adults have too, meaning they weren't going to be outraged. Furthermore, most of the reporters who would write about the story are probably in the pot-smoking half, making them less likely to treat it as something scandalous. But this raises a question, one posed by Jonathan Bernstein: Why do Democratic...

Friday Music Break

Going Underground
There was a time when rock stars wore skinny suits and skinny black-and-white ties, flat Brit-mullets, and maybe even a flouncy scarf. It was 1980. Can you wear a scarf while you play and still be kind of badass? If you're Paul Weller you can. So today's Friday Music Break is The Jam, with "Going Underground." The public gets what the public wants...

He Who Must Not Be Named

The President, engaged in a vulgar activity. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
As I mentioned the other day, reporters are both repulsed by and attracted to negative campaigning, and I think that probably goes for most of us as well. On one hand, we want to say, "Tut, tut, you shouldn't be doing that." On the other hand, not only can't we look away, but we desperately want our own favored candidate to go negative, so we can get the visceral satisfaction from watching our disfavored candidate get assaulted. It's analogous to the way we feel when watching a movie or reading a story: if the bad guy doesn't get killed in the end, we're left feeling unsatisfied. But we also have a series of campaign conventions regarding what kind of behavior is acceptable that have little or nothing to justify them. One that has always mystified me is the idea that it's impolite to mention your opponent by name. Instead, you're supposed to say "my opponent" and speak of "the other party," as if to make clear whom you're talking about is somehow rude. This is supposed to be doubly...

What Romney Won't Do On Health Care

Maybe you don't want to know.
Despite what the average voter probably thinks, presidential candidates keep the overwhelming majority of the promises they make. And most of the ones they don't keep aren't because they were just lying, but because circumstances changed or they tried to keep the promise and failed. But that's in the big, broad strokes, while the details are another matter. It's easy to put out a plan for, say, tax reform, but even if you achieve tax reform, it's Congress that has to pass it, and they will inevitably shape it to their own ends. This happened to a degree with President Obama's health care reform: it largely resembles what he proposed during the 2008 campaign, but not entirely. He had said he wanted a public option, for instance, but eventually jettisoned that, and had rejected an individual mandate, but eventually embraced it as unavoidable. Which brings us to Mitt Romney's health care plan. In its details, it's quite horrifying. Jonathan Cohn has done us the service of giving it a...

Mitt Romney Gets Specific

Mitt Romney is unsettled by your questions. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
I've been on a long crusade, which began before this campaign and will probably continue after it, to get everyone to think more clearly about what it means when a politician says "I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman." It's particularly important this year, of course, because one of the major party candidates is putting forward his business experience as the primary rationale for his candidacy. I don't know if that's ever happened before, and it certainly hasn't happened in the modern era. We're still waiting to hear what stunning business insights Mitt Romney will bring to the White House that no other person could possibly have. And yesterday, Time 's Mark Halperin — himself the target of a lot of well-deserved derision over the years—made an admirable effort to try to pin Romney down on this question in an interview . Unsurprisingly, he failed. Let's read an excerpt: Halperin : The President says that your experience at Bain Capital will be central in this election. He says it...

What We Don't Need to Know About Bain Capital

Mitt Romney, capitalist.
The debate over Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital has moved through a number of phases, from "Did Mitt Romney do awful things at Bain Capital?" to "Should the Obama campaign be criticizing Mitt Romney for what he did at Bain Capital?" and now, "Is private equity a good thing or a bad thing?" Shockingly, people in the private equity business think the answer to the last is that it's quite good. The predominant opinion from other people is that it's sometimes good and sometimes bad, which from what I can tell it's a pretty good summation of Romney's PE career. At times, he helped start companies that went on to thrive, or helped companies perform better and survive. And at other times, he acted as what Rick Perry called a "vulture capitalist." But while it may be an interesting discussion for economists and economic writers to mull over, "Is private equity good or bad?" really isn't a question we need to answer in the context of this presidential campaign. The question we need to...

Accentuate the Negative

What real negativity looks like.
Campaign reporters are often conflicted. You could say hypocritical, but that might be unnecessarily judgmental. For instance, they condemn rigorous adherence to talking points, but any display of candor is severely punished with the kind of coverage that makes what are widely known as "Kinsley gaffes" (i.e. inadvertently telling the truth) far less likely. They despise the culture of the political consultant, with its emphasis on style over substance and perception over reality, but simultaneously embrace that culture as their own, focusing relentlessly on appearances and how things are going to play with the public, acting like theater critics evaluating the show of politics. And they condemn negative campaigning, while at the same time they hunger for negativity, since nothing is more boring than a campaign in which the contestants are polite to each other. One of the ways this is apparent is in how any bare-knuckled move by Barack Obama is greeted by tut-tutting that he has turned...

GloboNewtCorp Meltdown Update

Newt in happier times.
A month and a half ago, we learned that in contrast to what usually happens to a not-entirely-unsuccesful presidential contender, the candidacy of one Newton Leroy Gingrich had seriously hampered the former Speaker's ability to get people to give him money for doing very little other than spout off his opinion on things. You see, Newt had carefully constructed a network of organizations whose main purpose was getting people to give him money for being Newt. In the course of the campaign, however, the world learned just how much people gave him, and how little they got for it, most notably in the case of Freddie Mac, which paid Newt $1.6 million for "strategic consulting" that consisted of little more than giving a couple of speeches and having a couple of meetings. It'll now be awfully hard for Newt to run that scam on anyone again, and as a result, GloboNewtCorp is well and truly disintegrating. The Center for Health Transformation, one arm of GloboNewtCorp, went bankrupt, and the...

The Soft Sell

This woman's dreams were destroyed, and her hair turned grey, by Obama's broken promises.
According to The New York Times , American Crossroads, Karl Rove's super PAC, has decided that trying to make the American people hate and fear Barack Obama just isn't going to work. So their advertising is going to use a softer sell, a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger approach to convincing Americans to vote for Mitt Romney in the fall. It seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do—I've been arguing for some time that it's absurd to believe that large numbers of voters are going to radically alter their view of the president they've been watching for the last three years because of some television ads they saw—and it's backed up by Crossroads' own opinion research: Behind the story of the ad’s creation rests one of the greatest challenges for Republicans in this election: how to develop a powerful line of attack against a president who remains well liked even by people who are considering voting against him. The concept for the newest advertisement and even some of the lines in the...

Missing Massachusetts

Remember this place? (Image from U.S. Census)
In all this back-and-forth about Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital (which, by the way, I think is a very good thing for the public, but that's a topic for another post) there's one other subject that has been crowded out, seemingly by a tacit agreement by both campaigns. And that's this place called Massachusetts. You might remember it. Mitt Romney lived there for a time. Ordinarily, when a former governor runs for president, the two sides engage in a vigorous debate about the former governor's state. He says it's the most dynamic, exciting, splendiferous state in the union, and his opponent says it's actually a little slice of hell on earth. My favorite example of the latter is this ad from George H.W. Bush's 1992 campaign, which portrayed Bill Clinton's Arkansas as a post-apocalyptic hellscape where the only living thing in evidence is a vulture looking for the last few scraps of gristle it can pull off the carcass of little children's dreams. You can almost see Mount Doom in the...

Eternal Coach Class

So no complaining.
Ever wonder what it'll be like when we can finally live forever? Oh, come on, sure you have. In case you're new to this subject, there are essentially two possibilities out there. One is that an ever-growing series of advances in the science of aging allows us to arrest the process to where we can keep our bodies going indefinitely, or at least for a very long time. The other is that advances in brain science eventually allow us to map your entire brain down to every last neuron, and we're able to upload your mind . At that point, provided nobody drops the thumb drive containing your consciousness down the toilet by mistake, we can either transfer the file into some kind of robotic body, or, more plausibly, download you into a virtual environment where you can exist forever. And presumably, by the time we're able to do that, the virtual environments we're able to create will be orders of magnitude more realistic, complex, and vivid than what we can create today. In other words, you'll...

Message: I Am Amused

Mitt Romney yukking it up during a primary debate.
If any comedian ever gets around to producing a good Mitt Romney impression (the lack of which I've lamented before), Romney's laugh is going to have to be a key part of it. The laugh was probably best described by New York Times reporter Ashley Parker, who wrote , "Mr. Romney’s laugh often sounds like someone stating the sounds of laughter, a staccato 'Ha. Ha. Ha.'" Gary Wills wonders what exactly Mitt's laugh is meant to communicate (his possibilities include "I want to show I am just a regular fellow, so I'll try out my regular-fellow laugh"), but that's the easy question. Romney's laugh is meant to say, "I am amused." The more important question is, why does Mitt Romney laugh? I think I know the answer to that one too. But before I tell you, we should understand that there is more than one Romney laugh, even though they all come out suddenly, tiny explosions of unfelt mirth. Sometimes it's that "Oh my, that is crazy!", but at other times Romney's laugh sounds like he's surrounded...

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