Paul Waldman

Paul Ryan and the Cult of Specificity

Paul Ryan, with facts and numbers and such.
You should read Jonathan Chait's entire epic evisceration of the cult of Paul Ryan, which reveals many things. Perhaps the most important is the way Ryan has come to understand how specificity creates the impression of wonkiness, commitment to facts, and seriousness about tackling tough challenges. When a smarmy pol like Eric Cantor tells you he's only concerned about the future of our country, you know he's full of it. But when Ryan tells you the same thing, he throws in a bunch of numbers, and it sounds very different, at least to reporters' ears. The truth, however, is that Ryan is as full of it as anybody. But reporters don't have the time or the inclination to figure out whether he's handing them a steaming pile of crap, so they just go ahead and write stories lionizing this sober, intelligent, and responsible guy who represents the best Republicans have to offer. Chait's piece ends with a great story about how Ryan hoodwinked a television reporter doing a typically loving story...

Non-Partisans Finally Agree With What Partisans Have Been Saying

Flickr/K P Tripathi
The most talked-about op-ed over the weekend was "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem," a piece in The Washington Post by DC eminence grises Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. They're both not only deeply respected but known as non-partisan Congress-watchers (Ornstein even works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute), which is why the piece will get more attention. But should that matter? Either they're right or they're wrong, and the fact that they are who they are ought not make any difference. And if you look at their argument, it's nothing that you couldn't have found in magazines like The Prospect and a hundred other places many times over the past two years. I feel like I've written versions of Mann and Ornstein's piece a dozen times myself (see here , or here, or here ). Mann and Ornstein's reputations do make it harder for Republicans to dismiss them as just liberal partisans, but that doesn't mean they're going to have some kind of seriously difficult...

Consumer Screwgie of the Day

The scene of the crime.
There are a lot of things companies do to fool consumers, some more meaningful than others. They pack items in large boxes to make them look bigger, they offer questionable claims about their products' effectiveness, they weave absurd tales about how your life will be changed if you buy their thing. Navigating your way through that thicket of baloney is part of being a smart consumer, and to a degree we accept it as part of the price of having free commercial speech. Short of outright fraud or practices that do substantial harm to consumers, we understand that people who are selling things can say almost anything they want, and we accept that being a consumer means that manufacturers and retailers are going to try to fool you. In the immortal words of Morty Seinfeld, "Cheap fabric and dim lighting. That's how you move merchandise." But there are some kinds of deception that are beyond the pale. It's one thing to sell you something that might not be up to your expectations; perhaps...

Friday Music Break

Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea
For today's edition of Gentle Flowing Tunes Layering Multiple Time Signatures, we have Poi Dog Pondering, with "Thanksgiving." Mmmm...

Cool Kids Versus Squares, Continued

Now that's cool.
Yesterday, I wrote a post looking at an ad aired by GOP uber-super-PAC American Crossroads that went after Barack Obama for being a "celebrity" and doing things like going on Jimmy Fallon's television show. I argued that it looked like once again we are in for a renewal of the old battles that started in the 1960s between the squares and the cool kids (or, depending on the historical moment, the jocks and the hippies). In the course of my post, I talked about Barack Obama's image of "cool," which he certainly works to cultivate. I'm hardly the first person to note this about Obama, and I didn't actually say anything about whether coolness makes one a good president. Nevertheless, Matt Welch at Reason seemed positively outraged , enough to illustrate his post responding to mine with a giant picture of me (great!) and accuse me of arguing something I didn't actually argue (not so great). Here's what he had to say (it begins with a reference to the "pound hug," that combo handshake-hug...

The Trouble With Philosophy

Ayn who? (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
For the last couple of years, Paul Ryan has been touted by everyone in the Republican party as a star, a smart, telegenic up-and-comer who represents the future of the party. Worship of Ryan probably reached its apogee last May, when Newt Gingrich began his presidential campaign by calling Ryan's budget "right-wing social engineering" (among other things, Ryan's budget slashed benefits for the poor, cut taxes for the rich, and privatized Medicare). The condemnation of Gingrich's words from conservatives was so immediate and so furious that you would have thought Gingrich had spat on a picture of Jesus or insulted Ronald Reagan Himself. Ryan is, among other things, a longtime fan of Ayn Rand, the philosopher/novelist/quasi-cult leader whose philosophy of radical selfishness and vision of heroic capitalists being held down by the parasitic masses is, one can argue, well reflected in Ryan's work. It wasn't some kind of secret—Ryan has said , "The reason I got involved in public service,...

The End Times, Always Around the Corner

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov
Alternet 's Adam Lee explores the history of the Christian obsession with the End Times, from St. Paul to Cotton Mather to the Jehova's Witnesses to that crazy Harold Camping who predicted that the world would end in 2011, and contends that end timers are responsible for serious political and social harm. I'd argue that the effects are pretty minimal, but the more interesting question is, why does this this idea continue to have so much power? It's important to realize just how widespread the idea that the apocalypse is coming very soon really is. A poll conducted last year by the Public Religion Research Institute found an incredible 44 percent of Americans (and 67 percent of white evangelical Christians) agreeing with the statement, "The severity of recent natural disasters is evidence that we are in what the Bible calls the end times." The Left Behind apocalypse potboilers have supposedly sold over 65 million copies. So isn't just complete nutballs who are anticipating the end of...

The Cool Kids Versus the Squares, Yet Again

Barack Obama greeting Jimmy Fallon in a plainly unpresidential way.
When Barack Obama appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the other night, he walked on stage and gave Fallon a quick pound hug , that handshake/one-arm hug that we cool guys do these days to express a sentiment something like, "It is good to see you again, my friend; we know and like each other, but are not so intimate, nor have been apart so long, that a full two-arm hug is warranted." When I watched it, the first thought that came into my head was, "Mitt Romney has never done that with another man in his life." Which is fine, of course—Romney is 65 years old, and the pound hug really only came along only about 10 or 15 years or so ago. And let's face it, even if he was a lot younger, it's just not his style. Mitt Romney is many things, but "cool" is not one of them. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is pretty cool. He has the ability to move easily among people of varied generations and backgrounds, without doing awkward things like blurting out "Who let the dogs out? Woof, woof!"...

The Person Glenn Beck Wants to Be

Remember this guy?
For a while there, Glenn Beck seemed to be the very embodiment of American conservatism circa 2009. He had his nationally syndicated radio show, his best-selling books, and his Fox News show. He was featured on magazine covers, discussed on other cable shows, and his rise was on everyone's mind . Then his fevered conspiracy theories grew kind of old, and Fox dropped him, whereupon he announced that he was going to make his own subscription-based internet television network. Chances are you haven't heard about Beck in a while, despite the fact that GBTV is making more money for Beck than he ever made at Fox. That's because the people who do things like edit magazines don't listen to Beck's radio show, and they haven't subscribed to his internet TV channel. Which means that he has lost almost all his ability to influence the broader discourse or political events. If he went on a holy war against a White House staffer the way he did against Van Jones (very successfully; Jones ended up...

Enough With "Only In America"

Word cloud of Mitt Romney's speech last night.
Last night, Mitt Romney gave what was billed as the opening speech of his general election campaign. Jamelle has explained how much Romney distorted the economic story of the past four years, while Ezra says accurately that "If this speech was all you knew of Mitt Romney -- if it was your one guide to his presidential campaign -- you'd sum his message up as, 'vote for me: I think America is great.'" Indeed you would—the speech included the word "America" a numbing 33 times. But there's something else I want to note from Romney's speech , something that both Republicans and Democrats do, and it drives me crazy: I’ll tell you about how much I love this country, where someone like my dad, who grew up poor and never graduated from college, could pursue his dreams and work his way up to running a great car company. Only in America could a man like my dad become governor of the state in which he once sold paint from the trunk of his car. You see, Mitt Romney may not have pulled himself up...

Will Liberals Prove to Be the Real Anti-Mormons?

Flickr/More Good Foundation
When the potential for anti-Mormonism harming Mitt Romney's candidacy is discussed, it's usually evangelical Christians we're talking about, since they have traditionally had the greatest antipathy toward Mormonism (some of them, at least). But what about liberals? Peter Beinart argues that by the time this election is over, they're going to evince more anti-Mormonism: One reason Democrats may be more anti-Mormon than Republicans is that Democrats, on average, are more secular. Devout Protestants, Catholics, and Jews may be more tolerant of Mormonism because they understand from firsthand experience the comfort and strength that religious commitment brings. Many secular Democrats, by contrast, may start with the assumption that religious orthodoxy produces irrationality and intolerance. I'm a little skeptical that devout believers of other religions are going to be more tolerant of Mormonism "because they understand from firsthand experience the comfort and strength that religious...

Putting Romney In a Box

Mitt Romney applauds Dan Quayle for some reason. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
In the last week or so, a number of commentators have begun to debate whether the Obama campaign should paint Mitt Romney as an ideological extremist or as an inveterate flip-flopper. Bill Clinton is apparently advising that the answer should be "ideological extremist." But the real answer is, "Yes!" There's no reason Mitt Romney can't be a spineless, pandering flip-flopper who is also in thrall to the extremists in his party. One is an argument about who he is (flip-flopper), and the other is an argument about what he'll do (all kinds of horrible extremist things). There isn't a contradiction. And as Jonathan Bernstein tell us , congressional Democrats are getting ready to lend the president a hand by forcing a whole bunch of votes designed to make Romney choose between taking a position widely popular with the general electorate and taking a position that will satisfy his party and his base: Dems are currently pushing votes on no less than three major issues, all of which are...

Unpredictable Predictions

Nostradamus contemplating the impact of health care on Mitt Romney's primary candidacy.
If you're in the punditizing business, it's almost impossible to resist the temptation to make predictions. That's in large part because so much of politics involves furious but finite conflicts, where the outcome is what matters. Who'll win this next primary? Who'll be the nominee, and win the election? Is this bill going to pass? We care about these questions, and so it's hard not to answer them, particularly if this is the business you're in and you like to think that you know what you're talking about. The trouble with predictions, of course, is that if you make a lot of them, you're going to be wrong a good deal of the time. Which is really a reflection of what makes politics interesting: things can change quickly, there are always a huge number of variables at play in anything like an election or legislative battle, new personalities emerge all the time, and you just never know what's going to happen. And there really is no system that punishes people for making incorrect...

Media Bias Revealed

Frame of Romney coverage during the primaries, from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with their latest report on news coverage of the primary campaign, and the big headline is that, surprise surprise, the tone of coverage varied pretty much exactly with whether candidates were winning or losing. Does that mean reporters had a pro-Romney bias when he was winning primaries, and a pro-Santorum bias when he was winning primaries? Of course not. It shows, instead, just how ridiculous most discussion of ideological bias is. I spent many years designing and executing this kind of study, and hands down, the most difficult thing to assess in an objective, reliable way is whether coverage is "positive" or "negative" for a particular figure. There are some stories that are obviously damaging ("Candidate Caught Smoking Crack"), which can be "negative" even though they are reported in a completely neutral way. There are some stories that are obviously helpful ("Candidate Wins Primary By Large Margin"), but which are also simply...

What Veep Captured about Washington

A scene from Veep.
The Washington Post has a feature in its Style section called "Hey, Isn't That...?" which reports on celebrity sightings in the District. It isn't a gossip column like you'd find in a paper in New York; it's just brief, breathless accounts of how an actual celebrity was right here in our town. Like, Susan Sarandon was spotted at a restaurant in Georgetown! Pinch me! It shows just how provincial D.C. can be. Which is why people here seem very taken with Veep , the HBO program that premiered last night. As Tom Carson pointed out last week, there are some things the show gets wrong, like the fact that people treat the vice president without much deference. And there are some things it gets right, like the look of offices on Capitol Hill (incredibly cramped, with people having to step over each other to get to their desks; see the picture that accompanies this post). And of course, some characteristics and scenarios are exaggerated in unrealistic ways—that's comedy. But the show's two...

Pages