Paul Waldman

Friday Music Break

The cover of Bob Dylan's first album, "Bob Dylan."
This week marks the 50th anniversary (!) of the release of Bob Dylan's first album, so I've chosen "Senor," from Dylan's underrated 1978 album Street Legal . It's the pregnant pause before the line "I'm ready when you are, Senor" that makes it so great.

Kinder, Gentler Secularists

Carl Sagan, happy atheist. (Flickr/Aleiex)
Tomorrow, a coalition of non-believers is gathering for a rally on the Mall in Washington, an event that is mercifully not being called the Million Atheist March, but rather the Reason Rally. I predict it will be almost completely ignored by the press. That might be justified if turnout is small, and the secular agenda is pretty vague at this point. The latter point is really the key question for the secular movement, such as it is. While they have a few high-profile spokespeople, the movement is a collection of organizations that are small, underfunded, and, forgive me for saying so, not particularly impactful (sorry for using that awful word, but it gets across my point). But whatever the success of tomorrow's event, they may be moving in the right direction. Many of the usual suspects will be speaking at this rally (Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, James Randi). But they've also got Adam Savage from Mythbusters , so that's something. And Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa is going to send a...

Etched In Stone, Before Long

(Flickr/DonkeyHotey)
Yesterday, I wrote a post sticking up for Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom on the whole Etch A Sketch thing. But in the 24 hours since, it has only gotten bigger. It isn't, we should be clear, "taking on a life of its own," because saying that is a way of excusing the individual decisions involved in the growth and spread of a meme like this one. The fact is that actual people—Romney's primary opponents, Democrats, and reporters—are making the choice to drop the Etch A Sketch comment, and what it is supposed to represent, into discussions, speeches, news stories, and ads. And at this point it's looking more and more like this is a metaphor that's going to stick around. Why? Let me offer some suggestions. It's both novel and clever . How many different ways can you say Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper? However many there are, they've been utterly exhausted by now. But Fehrnstrom, in a perfectly reasonable attempt to describe the way a general election campaign differs from a primary...

Spin Without Limits

The economic genius makes a point. (Flickr/Marion Doss)
A few times in recent elections, a debate moderator has said to the candidates, "There's been a lot of negativity in this race. Is there anything nice you can say about your opponent?" To which they usually reply, "He's got a lovely family." But the inability to admit that the other guy ever in his life did anything right just makes you look like a phony, or a jerk, or both. To wit : Hours after he secured the endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney credited his brother, President George W. Bush, with keeping the country from a great depression in 2008. "I keep hearing the president say he's responsible for keeping the country out of a Great Depression," Romney said at a town hall in Arbutus, Maryland. "No, no, no, that was President George W. Bush and [then-Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson." So let's get this straight: Bush saved America, and then America was fine, and then Barack Obama came in and ruined everything? How does that explain the fact that the economy...

Romney Shouldn't Be Ashamed of Not Having Served In the Military

Mitt Romney speaking to troops in Afghanistan (Flickr/isafmedia)
No matter who the Republican presidential nominee turns out to be, this will be the first election in pretty much forever in which neither major party candidate served in the military. As a post-boomer, Barack Obama never had to worry too much about this question, since he came of age after the transition to an all-volunteer military. But Mitt Romney was of prime fighting age during Vietnam, a conflict he avoided with deferments for college and missionary work. This provides just one more topic for him to squirm through questions about, but as Conor Friedersdorf argues , it's pretty ridiculous to imply that in retrospect the proper course of action would have been for young Mitt to do everything he could to fight in a conflict nearly everyone acknowledges to have been a huge mistake: I don't fault Mitt Romney or his sons for not serving, and the reason a lot of people feel as I do is a great unspoken reality of American politics. I have no idea how Romney actually feels about having...

A Bum Rap, Etch-a-Sketch Installment

Probably not the Etch-a-Sketch they had in mind. (Flickr/Emily Kornblut)
As I've noted before , a substantial amount of the time the media and ordinary people spend talking about a presidential campaign consists of a discussion of charges and counter-charges about something somebody said, usually a candidate but not always. Not a lot really happens during a campaign–what candidates mostly do is talk, so their words take on an elevated importance. Each side tries to assert that the other's off-the-cuff statements hold the power to reveal hidden agendas and fatal weaknesses. It's all pretty silly. And it isn't just the candidates. Even surrogates and campaign aides' words can be fodder for feigned outrage, as happened yesterday (and Jamelle mentioned ) when Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom got asked whether his candidate would have trouble pivoting to the general election when he had spent the primary season pandering so vigorously to the Republican base. "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign, everything changes," Fehrnstrom said . It's...

Another Conservative Language Victory

The TANF web site, apparently still using its 1996 design.
If I told you that Ron Paul (remember him?) said that Secret Service protection for presidential candidates is "welfare" and he didn't need it, what would you think he meant? Why of course, you'd think he meant that the kind of protection the Secret Service provides is necessary, but sometimes a candidate has fallen on hard times and can't afford to pay for it themselves, so the government steps in to do it for them. And if Paul doesn't need it, it's because his campaign, unlike those of his rivals, is on sound financial footing. That's what you'd think he meant, right? Well, no. You'd know that when Ron Paul says "welfare," what he means is "an undeserved government handout." Welfare was established as part of a safety net to insure that people in poverty wouldn't spiral into absolute destitution, but today not only has the program (now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF) been slashed to the bone , we barely ever debate it at all, unless it's to discuss a...

The 2016 Litmus Test

Stefano Bolognini
At the outset of the 2004 presidential primaries, Howard Dean was considered a far-out radical, in large part because as Vermont governor he had signed a bill providing civil unions for gay couples. By the end of the election, however, all the Democratic candidates had come out in support of civil unions, and even George W. Bush said that if a state chose to have them, that was fine with him. Four years later, not much had changed. The leading Democratic candidates all said they supported civil unions, but still thought marriage should be between a man and a woman. And Barack Obama has held to that standard, despite saying his views on marriage equality are "evolving." People on both the left and right take this to mean that he believes in marriage equality, but doesn't yet have the political courage to come out and say so publicly. His message to the gay community has essentially been: "Look, I repealed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and my administration isn't defending the Defense of...

His Name Is His Name

I command you to call me "Speaker"...forever! (caricature by DonkeyHotey)
Some years ago, I was watching Silence of the Lambs with a friend who was then in medical school, and he pointed out that everyone kept calling the film's villain "Dr. Lecter." "Boy," my friend said. "Once you get that M.D., they have to call you 'Dr.' forever, even if you start killing and eating people." I raise this because Emily Yoffe has done us a service and asked why in the world everyone has to continue to call Newt Gingrich "Mr. Speaker" when he hasn't been Speaker of the House in 15 years. In all, three of the four remaining Republican candidates for president get called by titles they no longer hold, with Governor Romney and Senator Santorum joining Speaker Gingrich. This is a problem that seems to exist primarily in Washington, home to such fetishes of pompous self-importance as the "brag wall," the display of photos of an office's resident with even more famous and powerful people. There aren't very many other arenas in America where you get to make people call you by the...

Newt Gingrich Is In the Zone

If I have to go to one more zoo, I'm going to drive an ice pick into my ear. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
A kajillion years or so ago, I spent a bunch of time working on electoral campaigns. Since I was drawn to idealistic liberals, everybody I worked for lost, sometimes quite spectacularly. And I noticed something that happens on a losing campaign: After months of spending your days telling everyone you meet (voters, potential volunteers, potential donors, reporters) how your candidate is just the bee's knees and he is totally going to win despite what everyone thinks, the scales can fall from your eyes. This seems to happen about 72 hours before election day. A strange sense of calm overtakes you, something like the endorphin rush you're supposed to get as your body approaches death. People on the campaign begin to wander off in a daze. On one campaign I was working on in Northern California, after putting in 16-hour days for weeks, the field director (my boss, and someone older and more experienced than me), said, as we were out on an errand two days before the election, a time that...

On Medicare, Republicans Continue to Be Admirably Foolish

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Today, House Budget Committee chairman and GOP heartthrob Paul Ryan will release his latest budget proposal, and all right-thinking Republicans will line up to express their support (you may remember what happened to Newt Gingrich in May when he criticized a previous version of Ryan's plan and was punished for his heresy, then quickly backtracked). And I have to say, Republicans deserve some credit for this. Not because their plan to privatize Medicare will actually be good for seniors (it won't) or for the budget (it won't). But because in the face of nearly inevitable political damage, they forge right on ahead. It isn't often you see politicians suffer politically for a position they take, then come right back and try it again. And it wasn't like they didn't know it was coming. After all, Democrats have been gleefully accusing them of trying to dismantle Medicare for decades, and so when they put forward a plan to actually dismantle Medicare, everybody knows what will happen:...

Romney Gets Abstract On the Economy

President Obama in a Chevy Volt (official White House photo by Pete Souza)
For a long time, commentators noted that Barack Obama was going to have a hard time persuading the public with his argument about the economy, since it would come down to, "It could have been worse." Saying that unemployment may still be over 8 percent, and it peaked at 10 percent in October of 2009, but if it hadn't been for the stimulus we passed things would have been much, much worse, isn't going to be a consolation if you're unemployed. The fact that most economists say that the stimulus did in fact have a substantial positive effect on the economy doesn't really matter when it comes to getting people to vote for your re-election. When times are bad, "It could have been worse" is small comfort. That was the story up until recently. But the last few months have shown strong job growth, and most everyone is expecting that the economy will continue its upward trajectory. And guess what that has done to Mitt Romney: made him argue the mirror image of what everyone said Obama couldn't...

Are Conservatives Getting Crazier?

Flickr/Talk Radio News Service
Every four years, presidential candidates from both parties say, "This is the most important election of our lifetimes." Reporters predict that this will be the most negative campaign in history. Partisans say that if their side loses, the disaster will echo through decades, and we believe that our opponents are more dastardly than they've ever been. And over the last couple of years, we liberals have looked at conservatives and thought that they have reached levels of craziness unseen before. So historian/author/smart guy Rick Perlstein, who knows more about the conservative movement of the last half-century than pretty much anyone, warns us that what we're seeing now is really nothing new: Over fifteen years of studying the American right professionally — especially in their communications with each other , in their own memos and media since the 1950s — I have yet to find a truly novel development, a real innovation, in far-right "thought." Right-wing radio hosts fingering liberal...

Correction of the Year

Ira Glass: Nerd King, Journalism Hero (photo by Tom Murphy VII)
If you're like most Prospect readers, you're an overeducated, latte-sipping, NPR-listening elitist, which means that this weekend you probably heard This American Life 's extraordinary hour-long retraction of a story they aired a few weeks ago featuring Mike Daisey, whose well-reviewed stage monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" discusses Daisey's ambivalence about his love affair with Apple products and includes accounts of Daisey's visit to the Foxconn factory in China where many Apple products are manufactured. Briefly, TAL did an episode featuring Daisey's stories, but it turned out that many of them were embellished. He used his own experiences, then added to them things he had heard or read about, saying he had actually seen things like underage workers and workers poisoned by the hexane used in the manufacturing process (there was an incident involving hexane poisoning, but it didn't happen at the plants Daisey visited). Essentially, Daisey wrote his stage...

If It's Sunday, It's John McCain

John McCain, in his natural element.
Not long ago, I stopped watching the network Sunday shows. After all, who needs to spend an hour or two of valuable weekend time listening to elected officials and party hacks regurgitating the same tired talking points you've been hearing all week? But there's no denying that Meet the Press , This Week , Face the Nation , and to a lesser extent Fox News Sunday are enormously influential. They confer status on the people who appear, they define the limits of official debate, and they help set the agenda for the rest of the media. So while they are often tiresome to sit through, they can't be completely ignored. That's why I couldn't stay silent after seeing this celebratory tweet from Betsy Fischer, the longtime executive producer of Meet the Press : Yay! If you watch the Sunday shows, the only thing you'll be surprised about is that McCain hadn't passed Dole (or anyone else) already. In fact, I wrote a column three whole years ago asking why the hell anyone still cares what John...

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