Paul Waldman

Beyond Corruption

AP Images/Mark Lennihan
T here was a time in our history, thankfully long past now, when bribery was common and money's slithery movement through the passages of American government was all but invisible, save for the occasional scandal that would burst forth into public consciousness. Today, we know much more about who's getting what from whom. Members of Congress have to declare their assets, lobbyists have to register and disclose their activities, and contributions are reported and tracked. Whatever you think about the current campaign finance system, it's much more transparent than it once was. But if outright bribery is rare, should we say that the system is good enough? It's a question we have to answer as we move into a new phase of the debate over money in politics. In the wake of last week's Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. F.E.C. , many liberals are nervous that the Court's conservative majority is poised to remove all limits on how much can be donated to candidates and parties. For their...

How Should Liberals Feel About the Mozilla CEO Getting Pushed Out Over Marriage Equality?

By now you may have heard the story of Brendan Eich, who was named the CEO of the Mozilla corporation, which runs the Firefox web browser, then resigned ten days later after it was revealed that he donated $1,000 to the campaign for California's Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in the state and was later overturned. Eich's resignation came after the company came under pressure from many directions, including the dating site OKCupid, which put a message on its site asking its users not to use Firefox. This is something of a dilemma for liberals: on one hand, we support marriage equality, but on the other, we also support freedom of thought and don't generally think people should be hounded from their jobs because of their beliefs on contentious issues. So where should you come down? In order to decide, there are a few questions you need to ask, some of which are easier to answer than others: What kind of an employee was Brendan Eich? This question, which may be the most...

How Our Campaign Finance System Compares to Other Countries

The world, including places that are not us.
With the Supreme Court's decision in the McCutcheon case, some people think we're heading for the complete removal of contribution limits from campaigns. Jeffrey Toobin, for instance, argues that the way Justice Roberts defines corruption—basically, nothing short of outright bribery qualifies—means that he could well be teeing things up to eliminate contribution limits entirely in some future case. Which got me thinking: if we really are headed for that eventual outcome, how would that place us compared to other countries? For instance, if you're a Monsieur Koch in France, can you write a candidate a million-euro check? Fortunately, the good folks at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an inter-governmental agency, have gathered this kind of information together . Of course, a large database of laws from all over the world is going to miss many of the subtleties and loopholes that characterize each individual country's system. But...

How Barack Obama Trapped the GOP On Health Care

It was all downhill from here.
Barack Obama has done many dastardly things to Republicans. He regularly ridicules their arguments. He insists on being treated as though he were legitimately the president of the United States. And most cruelly of all, he beat their standard-bearers in two national elections. Is it any wonder they loathe him so? But one thing Obama has done to the GOP has gone unnoticed: he made it impossible for them to be serious about health care policy. By now you're well familiar with how the core of the Affordable Care Act—a ban on insurance companies denying coverage for pre-existing conditions (also known as "guaranteed issue"), accompanied by an individual mandate and subsidies for people of moderate incomes to purchase private insurance—was originally a conservative proposal. The idea was that unlike in most other western countries where a large government program like Medicare covers all citizens, you could achieve something close to universal coverage and health security through the use...

Will Disclosure Save Us From the Corrupting Influence of Big Money?

You'll have to do a lot better than that. (stockmonkeys.com)
There is going to be a lot of speculation about how the Supreme Court's decision in McCutcheon v. FEC to eliminate the aggregate limits on campaign contributions will affect the influence of big money in politics. That's because it serves to make an already complex system a little more complex, and there are multiple ways the decision could matter; on the other hand, it might make no difference at all. For the moment, I want to consider the role of disclosure, because I think it's going to become increasingly important in the near future, particularly if the Court goes all the way and eliminates all contribution limits. It should be said that in this case, they could have done that, but decided not to (only Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, advocated eliminating all limits). But there is some reason to believe that the conservatives on the Court will go there eventually. And if they do, disclosure is going to be their justification: that as long as we know who's giving money...

Laying It All Out On Medicare

Flickr/Donkey Hotey
The release of a new Paul Ryan budget plan is always the occasion for a lot of ridicule from liberals, for a whole bunch of reasons, and this year's will be no different. Ryan's budgets always manage to combine a remarkable cruelty toward poor people with a sunny optimism that draconian cuts to social services will result in a veritable explosion of economic growth, allowing us to balance the budget without taking anything away from the truly important priorities (like military spending) or, heaven forbid, forcing wealthy people to pay more in taxes. I'm sure there are other people preparing detailed critiques of the Ryan budget, but I want to focus on one thing this brings up: the question of how we talk about Medicare. As he has before in his budgets, Ryan proposes to repeal the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, like subsidies for middle-class people to buy insurance and the expansion of Medicaid, but he'd keep the tax increases and Medicare cuts that the bill included in order...

The CIA and the Moral Sunk Costs of the Torture Program

This morning, The Washington Post has a blockbuster story about that 6,300-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's torture program. The part that will likely get the most attention is the conclusion that torture produced little if any useful intelligence, which is extremely important. But even more damning is the picture the committee paints of a CIA that all along was trying to convince everyone that what they were doing was effective, even as it failed to produce results. I have a post on this over at the Post this morning, but I want to elaborate on this aspect of the story. This is a tale of moral sunk costs, and how people react when they've sold their souls and realize that they won't even get paid what they bargained for. In case you're unfamiliar with the economic idea of sunk costs ( here's a nice summary ), it's basically the idea of throwing good money after bad: once you've gone down a particular path, what you've already invested (money, time, effort) acts...

Jeb Fever Sweeps GOP; Symptoms Likely to Be Mild, Temporary

Flickr/World Affairs Council of Philadelphia
In the first of what will surely be a long string of genuflections, abnegations, and abasements, potential Republican presidential candidates journeyed to the sands of Las Vegas last weekend to speak to the Republican Jewish Coalition, though everyone there seemed to agree that there was really an audience of one: Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who flushed nearly $100 million of his money down the drain in the 2012 presidential campaign. Among those arriving on bended knee was one politician who has been out of office for seven years, and was never knows as a darling of the Republican base. But as Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported in The Washington Post , large portions of the GOP establishment look toward 2016 and feel a stirring deep within their hearts, a hope and a dream that goes by the name of … Jeb. That's right, Jeb Bush, who you may recall is the brother of one George W. Bush, whose time in office did not go particularly well. Rationally speaking, there's no...

Sunday Show Becomes 10 Percent Less Awful

Look! People who know what they're talking about!
A week and a half ago, I wrote a post over at the Plum Line with a couple of suggestions for how the Sunday shows could become less terrible. Some commenters pointed out that the real audience for these programs isn't actual people, but those within the Washington bubble for whom status and influence are everything. So my suggestion that the shows should never again interview a White House communication director or a "party strategist" of any kind—in other words, people who are there solely for the purpose of spinning—was unlikely to get much of a hearing. And my suggestion to drastically scale back on interviews with elected officials, who are also exceedingly unlikely to say anything interesting, would likewise fall on deaf ears. Which is perfectly true, and it hasn't stopped me from complaining about this topic before. But lo and behold, on yesterday's Meet the Press, something remarkable happened: They booked Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic and Avik Roy of Forbes to talk about...

Some Notes on the Outrage Industrial Complex

The lead story today on Talking Points Memo.
In past years, I would marvel at the right wing's ability to take an obscure liberal from somewhere who had said something stupid and propel him to national prominence, through the use of Fox and talk radio. My favorite example was Ward Churchill, a professor in Colorado who became a celebrity after he made some comments of the "we had it coming" variety after September 11. During one stretch, there was some discussion of Churchill on every episode of The O'Reilly Factor save one for an entire month. The point behind Churchill and a hundred other such stories the right promoted wasn't just that their audiences should be angry at this one guy, but that liberals in general hate America and want to destroy it; the individual story is a stand-in for the larger group at whom they're trying to generate contempt. But more recently, liberals have gotten, dare I say, just as good at this as conservatives were, maybe better. And I think it deserves a moment of discussion. A week and a half ago...

Is the "Mend It" Period of the Affordable Care Act's Evolution Beginning?

All of a sudden, people in Washington seem to want to fix the Affordable Care Act. And regardless of their motivations, that should be—well, maybe "celebrated" is too strong a word, but we can see it as a necessary and positive development. Is it possible that the arguments about whether the ACA was a good idea or should have been passed in the first place are actually going to fade away, and we can get down to the businesses of strengthening the parts of it that are working and fixing the parts that aren't? It might be so. Sure, cretinous congressional candidates will continue to display their seriousness by pumping paper copies of the law with bullets , probably for years to come. But with this year's open enrollment period coming to an end in a few days, a particular reality is starting to set in, namely that, however you feel about the law, millions of Americans have now gotten health insurance because of it. Repealing it would mean taking that insurance away. So let's look at...

Is It Time to Take Rand Paul Seriously?

You're up to something, aren't you, you naughty boy? (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Some candidates come to a presidential race with a résumé that demands that they be immediately treated like serious contenders—a governor, a long-serving senator, a former or current vice president. Others have the less tangible quality we might refer to as "talent," which reporters can easily identify and can make up for a shorter list of accomplishments (e.g. Barack Obama in 2008). And there are usually one or two candidates who have the résumé but turn out to be duds on the trail, failing to raise significant money or win over significant numbers of voters (think Tim Pawlenty in 2012 or Chris Dodd in 2008), eventually getting downgraded from "serious" to "we no longer have to pay attention to this guy." But what do you do with someone like Rand Paul? Of course, at this stage you don't have to actually decide how seriously to take him—it isn't as though news outlets are stretched to the breaking point with all the reporters they've assigned to cover the campaign and need to make...

Your Virtual Future

Flickr/Sergey Galyonkin
Don't be alarmed—I'm delivering the traditional Friday technology post a day early, because I want to talk a bit about virtual reality (VR). Facebook just spent $2 billion to buy Oculus, a company that as of yet has essentially no revenue and no customers, since its first product, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, is still in its development stages (game developers have models, but they haven't been sold to the public). Facebook thinks it's buying the future. Is it? And should you care? Well, Oculus itself may or may not be the future, but virtual reality is, for real this time. And yes, you should care. It's reasonable to be skeptical, since we've been told that virtual reality is coming any day now since the mid-1980s or so. But now it really is around the corner. The hardware is getting there (the Oculus Rift has gotten the most press, but Sony is also developing its own version), and the technical problems (like the "lag" between moving your head and seeing the images move...

Are Iowa Farmers Better Than the Rest of Us?

Flickr/Paul Adams Photography
With the midterm elections just over seven months away, it's kind of remarkable that we've gotten this far without being sucked down into the land of endless ridiculousness that is the Republic of Gaffes, where no expression of outrage is too insincere to be dismissed and no faux controversy is too silly not to occupy the press' attention for a few days. Do I speak of the horror of Mitch McConnell and the microsecond of Duke , in which a montage of all-American stock footage in an ad showed, to the particularly eagle-eyed, a flash of the hated Blue Devils? Or the betrayal of his opponent's NCAA bracket, which had Wichita State beating Kentucky? Indeed—obviously, neither of these two care at all for their home state or are fit to lead. But they stand a much better chance of moving past their controversies than Iowa Representative Bruce Braley, who, we now know, hates farmers. Braley, you see, got taped at a fundraiser with a bunch of lawyers, telling them that if Republicans took over...

The Political Roots and Ramifications of the Hobby Lobby Case

Flickr/Sara C
The Supreme Court has completed the quasi-religious ritual of oral argument in the Hobby Lobby case, which will decide whether a corporation can declare its piety and thus absolve itself of the need to follow laws it finds unworthy of divine blessing. Now all we need do is wait for Anthony Kennedy to deliver his judgment, and the question will be settled. The consensus of those watching yesterday's arguments ( see here , for example) was that though nothing is certain, Kennedy seemed to be leaning toward the position of the plaintiffs, and thus of every Republican in America. And it's that last part I want to talk about. It's easy to know why the owners of the company themselves wanted to bring this case. Hobby Lobby's ownership mistakenly believes that if you use an IUD, you're committing little abortions left and right, and therefore that if their insurance covers IUDs (and a few other forms of contraception) then they're complicit in abortion. But what I'm wondering is, why is it...

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