Paul Waldman

Say Thanks to a Republican Idea Day

Don't be afraid. (Flickr/House GOP Leader)

When John McCain ran for president in 2008, he offered up a health reform plan. Nobody paid all that much attention to it, because it was pretty clear that health care was an issue McCain didn't care about at all, and much like the "patient's bill of rights" George W. Bush had touted when he ran for president eight years earlier, it would be forgotten as soon as he took office. Four years later, Mitt Romney had something resembling a health care plan too, but once again, nobody paid much attention to what it contained, because any time health care came up, the only question was how Romney could square his stated position that the Affordable Care Act was a poisonous hairball of misery coughed up by the Prince of Darkness himself, while the plan it was modeled after, often referred to as "Romneycare," was a wonderful thing that everyone in the state where it was implemented seems to like.

Both McCain's and Romney's plans were mostly an amalgam of ineffectual half-measures and truly terrible ideas, but mixed in there were a few proposals that might actually be beneficial. And now that we're just days away from the full implementation of the ACA, some conservatives will be offering up similar reform proposals again (here's one).. The problem they face is that once millions of people have been enrolled in new insurance plans, you can no longer just propose to repeal the law, because that would mean kicking them off the insurance they have. "Repeal it!" only works as a battle cry when you can pretend no one would be harmed. So they have two choices: stop talking about health care entirely, or have some kind of plan you can claim you're proposing to put in its place. And Democrats can respond by actually agreeing to one or two of the Republicans' ideas. It sounds crazy, I know. But hear me out.

NYT Mag Offers Inexplicable 2006 John McCain Cover Profile in 2013

The cover of the next New York Times Magazine

In the last couple of years, every time something John McCain says makes "news," my immediate reaction—sometimes on Twitter, sometimes just in my head—is, "Remind me again why anybody should give a crap what John McCain thinks about anything?" I've never been able to get a satisfactory answer to this question. And here comes star reporter Mark Leibovich, author of the well-received This Town, with a 6,634-word cover profile of McCain for next week's New York Times Magazine. Do we need another one of these? I would have answered "no" before reading, but after, I'm even more sure.

New Documentary Threatens to Make You Like Mitt Romney

A scene from the Netflix documentary "Mitt."

During the 2012 campaign, I, like every liberal writer whose job it is to comment on politics every day, wrote many unkind things about Mitt Romney. Much of the time I found him more sad than despicable; politicians who nearly reach the pinnacle of their profession while being manifestly awful at politics are a rare and curious breed. Like Al Gore before him, Romney's discomfort with the requirements of campaigning was so close to the surface that he couldn't help but inspire a kind of pity. That isn't to say that I didn't find plenty of his statements and policy positions contemptible, because I certainly did, and said so without hesitation. But in the end, Romney wasn't as easy to hate as some other politicians might be.

So a year after he joined that small, melancholy club of presidential losers, it's time that even those of us who thought it would be a terrible thing if he became president can see Romney as a human being. In January, Netflix will be releasing a behind-the-scenes documentary called "Mitt," and the preview is surprisingly endearing:

White Like Me

Flickr/Thomas Hawk

It might seem that an argument about whether Santa Claus and Jesus are "really" white is nothing more than an opportunity for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to make fun of people on Fox News, and not a matter with actual political consequences. After all, Santa is a fictional character whose current visual representations here in America have their origins in early 20th Century newspaper and magazine illustrations, but he's portrayed in different ways around the world. But before you dismiss this as just silliness, let me suggest that it does have important political effects.

Among the Common Folk, a Breakfasting Boehner

Unlike some snob, John Boehner had this for breakfast. (Flickr/Shawn Honnick)

From the "Politicians—they're just like us!" file today, we have something seemingly aimed straight at one of my pet peeves, the habit of Blue Collar Chic among politicians (and to an even greater extent, certain bigshot media figures). Esquire magazine asked John Boehner to "endorse" something, and what he came up with was "breakfast at a diner," which he says he has "most mornings when I'm in Washington." You may have thought the Speaker was a merlot-sipping, golf-playing gent who had risen above his hardscrabble roots. Au contraire!

Google to Begin Building Robot Army

Boston Dynamics' Atlas marches over the rubble of our shattered world.

When Amazon bought a robotics company called Kiva Systems last year, it made perfect sense. Kiva makes robots that move things around warehouses; Amazon has a lot of warehouses full of a lot of stuff that needs moving around. Google, on the other hand, would seem to have no obvious need for robots, which is why it might appear odd that they just announced the purchase of Boston Dynamics, a company developing robots that mostly resemble animals and are designed to do things like carry equipment for soldiers, run really fast, and jump really high. In fact, it's only the latest of a bunch of robotics companies Google has bought.

So what are they up to? In some ways, Google increasingly resembles a corporation out of a near-future sci-fi novel, one that begins by making some nice but (seemingly) not exactly world-transforming product, then that product turns out to be bigger than anybody imagined, then it gradually expands into one area after another until it controls practically the entire world. Eventually, the corporation becomes a nuclear power and wages war on its few remaining competitors, then becomes a practical one-world government. If that's their goal, a steady supply of robots would obviously be extremely useful.

Is It Already Too Late to Stop the NSA?

The revelations about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance from the documents released to the public by Edward Snowden have been so numerous and so extraordinary that I fear we may be becoming numb to them. That's partly because there's just been so much, one revelation after another to the point where the latest one doesn't surprise us anymore. It's also partly because mixed in with the genuinely distressing surveillance programs are some things that seem almost ridiculous, like the idea of NSA agents trying to unearth terrorist plots in World of Warcraft. But there are some basic facts about this whole affair that should make us all really frightened. We can sum it up as follows:

1. The scope of the NSA's surveillance is far greater than almost anyone imagined.

2. Barack Obama is not only perfectly fine with that surveillance, he was perfectly fine with it being kept secret from the American public.

3. As much discussion and consternation as Snowden's revelations produced, there has been no restraint on those surveillance powers, nor is there likely to be any time soon.

4. As new technologies and techniques of surveillance are developed, the NSA will incorporate them into its arsenal, continually expanding its reach.

5. Before long, there will be a Republican president who will appoint hundreds of other Republicans to high-ranking positions within the intelligence apparatus. Many of these will be former Bush administration officials and/or people who would like nothing more than to expand the NSA's surveillance of both foreigners and Americans as much as is technologically feasible.

We may have no more than three years to do something about it. Or it may be too late already.

The Busy Bees of Capitol Hill

Working deep into the night. (Flickr/KP Tripathi)

As anyone who has worked in pretty much any job knows, "working" and "getting things done" are most assuredly not the same thing. Take Congress, for instance. These days, do they get things done? No, not if by getting things done you mean passing laws, which is ostensibly their job. Now it's true that members of Congress do other things—they conduct investigations, they help constituents track down errant Social Security checks, and so on—but they're lawmakers first and foremost, and we've seen few Congresses that have done less in the law-passing department than this one.

What's strange, though, is that this inability to pass laws is often transmuted into the idea that members of Congress are lazy. I was glad to see Alex Seitz-Wald point this out today, because it's bothered me for a long time:

Technology's Invisible Future

Thankfully, you no longer have to check your vacuum tubes before sending an email.

Friday is tech day for me, so here's the question of the day: What will happen when computers are so ubiquitous, and have become so seamlessly integrated into the objects that surround us, that we don't even think of them as computers anymore? It can often be hard for us to imagine what life with very different technologies might be like, particularly for those of us who are extremely dependent on current technologies. I spend most of my day staring at my computer; if you asked me how I'll do my job when computers have become invisible, I'd have no idea.

The possibility of computers becoming essentially invisible is raised in this BBC article:

From Their Cold Dead Hands

Flickr/Jon Payne

This Saturday is the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shooting, and it's remarkable where we've come in that time. In the weeks that followed, everyone said that now we could finally pass some sensible measures to stem the river of blood and death and misery that is the price we pay for America's love of firearms. President Obama proposed some extraordinarily modest measures: enhanced background checks, limits on the kind of large-capacity magazines mass murderers find so useful, perhaps even a new ban on new sales to civilians of certain military-style weapons. Not a single thing that would keep a single law-abiding citizen from owning as many guns as he wants.

So here we are, a year later, and what has happened? First of all, at least 30,000 more Americans have had their lives cut short by guns; tens of thousands more were shot but survived. Around 200 children have been shot to death in that time—another 10 Newtowns. There was no federal legislation on guns. It died, because there are a sufficient number of Republicans (and a couple of Democrats) who, quite frankly, looked on one hand at a child getting murdered, and on the other hand at some armchair Rambo having to go a whole mile to the police station to get a background check before buying an AR-15 from his neighbor, and decided that the latter would be a greater moral outrage than the former.

The Minimum Wage: A Crash Course

After a long period in which few people outside liberal circles talked about increasing the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour, the issue is now in the headlines almost every day. Fast food workers will be striking in 130 cities around the country to demand a higher minimum wage on Thursday. The Washington, DC city council just voted unanimously to increase the city's minimum wage in stages to $11.50.

Conservative Anger Over Budget Deal Now Purely to Save Face

Paul Ryan, still a conservative in good standing. (Flickr/House GOP)

Have we finally reached a point where the perpetual anger of Washington conservatives is no longer a threat to the republic? The budget deal announced yesterday suggests that it may well be, at least for the moment. It isn't that conservatives aren't raising a stink about it—they're displeased that it doesn't repeal the Affordable Care Act, slash Social Security and Medicare, and do more to punish food stamp recipients, among other things—because they certainly are. Indeed, they were decrying it even before it was announced, which tells you how concerned they are about the details. But they seem to be just going through the motions. Send the press releases, say you'll vote against it, tell Fox News why it doesn't get to the real problems...and then we'll all move on. The budget will pass, mostly because it averts the possibility of a government shutdown (at least over the budget, though not over the debt ceiling) for two more years. And even the most conservative Republican knows that's a good thing for their party.

Just look at how John Boehner is acting.

Michelle Obama Chases after Barack with a Rolling Pin

"You know how to whistle, don't you, Mr. President?" (Wikimedia Commons/Truman Library)

It's no surprise that Nelson Mandela's memorial service would produce a rain of stupidity and feigned outrage from conservatives over Barack Obama's behavior, since they see it as part of their purpose to police his every word, gesture, and blink for signs of transgression. The only appropriate reaction to this stuff (OMG, he shook Raul Castro's hand!) is probably mockery, but there is one thing that's worth a bit of consideration.

Whenever a bunch of world leaders get together and have time to stand (or sit) around and shmooze, there are going to be interesting photos that result. That's true even if nothing weird happens, like George W. Bush looking over at the most powerful woman in the world and saying to himself, "Hey look, a dame. I think I'll stroll over there and give her an unsolicited back rub." Any time we see powerful people just acting like people, there's something interesting about it. So when Obama, British prime minister David Cameron, and Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt were photographed taking a little group selfie, it was bound to be noticed as one of those they're-just-like-us moments.

But because some photos of the moment show Michelle Obama with a serious expression on her face as she looks in the other direction, lots of people immediately fit this into a familiar story line, the one in which the First Lady is a castrating harpy always ready to smack her husband down if he gets too close to another woman, particularly a white woman.

Americans Suddenly Discovering How Insurance Works

Flickr/Eric Allix Rogers

It's been said to the point of becoming cliche that once Democrats passed significant health care reform, they'd "own" everything about the American health care system for good or ill. For some time to come, people will blame Barack Obama for health care problems he had absolutely nothing to do with. But there's a corollary to that truism we're seeing play out now, which is that what used to be just "a sucky thing that happened to me" or "something about the way insurance works that I don't particularly like"—things that have existed forever—are now changing into issues, matters that become worthy of media attention and are attributed to policy choices, accurately or not. Before now, millions of Americans had health insurance horror stories. But they didn't have an organizing narrative around them, particularly one the news media would use as a reason to tell them.

The latest has to do with the provider networks that insurance companies put together. This is something insurance companies have done for a long time, because it enables them to limit costs. If an insurer has a lot of customers in an area, it can say to doctors, "We'll put you in our provider network, giving you access to all our customers. But we only pay $50 for an office visit. Take it or leave it." An individual doctor might think that it's less than she'd like to be paid, but she needs those patients, so she'll say yes. Or she might decide that she has enough loyal patients to keep her business running, and she wants to charge $100 for an office visit, so she'll say no.

So every year, doctors move in and out of those private provider networks, and the insurers adjust what they pay for various visits and procedures, and inevitably some people find that their old doctor is no longer in their network. Or they change jobs and find the same thing when they get new insurance. And that can be a hassle.

But now they have someone new to blame: not the insurance company that established the network, and not the doctor that chose not to be a part of it, but Barack Obama. It's not just my hassle, it's a national issue.

The Year in Preview: There Will Be Gaffes

AP Photo/Richard Drew, file

As we all know, this is the age of information, when the entire media world changes every week or so. We're about to enter 2014, which will surely be a year of transformation and reconfiguration, of cascading synergies and exponential upendings, in which the hidebound old ways are cast off and the day belongs to those who plug in to the rushing river of revolution. If you're going to be prepared to grasp it all and not be left behind like some pathetic dinosaur, you'd better strap in, bite down on your mouth guard, and get ready to have your paradigms exploded.

What will happen in the political news media in 2014? There's one thing you can be sure of: Games will be changed.