Paul Waldman

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Photo of the Day, Gastronomy Edition

When the aliens have come to bleed Earth of its resources and are debating whether humanity should be spared, we'll say to them, "We've done lots of great things! What about Einstein, or Shakespeare?" And they'll say, "True. But as we understand it, you also would gather by the thousands to watch your fellow humans stuff their gullets full of chicken wings, the victor being the human who consumed the most without vomiting." And we'll say, "Oh well. Fire up the death ray, I guess."  

Liberal Media Suddenly Very Interested in Scott Walker

Can the media make Scott Walker the Next Big Thing in Republican presidential politics? With Mitt Romney announcing today that he's breaking my heart by not running, the race is in need of a new storyline. And in the wake of a good performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit—which I submit is the excuse for, but not the cause of, the sudden interest in Walker—he's everywhere in the political media.

"The Beltway is abuzz over Scott Walker," says The Hill.  "We're in the middle of a Scott Walker boomlet," says Peter Beinart in the Atlantic. Here are articles about him in Slate, and Bloomberg News, and The Week. What there isn't, though, is any particular evidence that rank-and-file Republicans across America are flocking to his banner. Polls at this stage don't tell us anything about what will happen in the future, but they can tell us what people think right now, and right now Walker is at about 5 percent in primary polls. That isn't surprising, but it shows that the Walker groundswell has yet to emerge.

It's early yet, of course, and at this stage the opinions of party activists are much more important than those of average voters. Nevertheless, the Walker surge for now exists only in the thoughts of those who report and write about politics.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that. There are good reasons why he might turn out to be able to be a serious presidential contender, despite his oft-noted lack of charisma. As all these observers note, Walker is offering not just an uncompromising conservatism, but one that is backed up by electoral results. He won three elections in four years (elected, survived recall, re-elected) in a state that Barack Obama won twice. Unlike someone like Ted Cruz—who has lost pretty much every battle he's fought since arriving in Washington—Walker can say not just "We should be unapologetically conservative," but "I won, in a swing state no less, being unapologetically conservative." As Alec MacGillis described in a fascinating profile of Walker last year, he rose up in an area characterized by toxic racial politics as the tribune of angry white people. When he gets in front of a Republican audience, he tells them that everything they believe is right, and all the party has to do in order to win is be itself, but more so.   

As Ed Kilgore says, "It's hard to overestimate how seductive this pitch is to conservatives tired of being told by Jeb Bush and every MSM pundit in America that they need to clean up their act and reach out to new constituencies to win back the White House." Reaching out is hard. It's a lot of work, and it might not pay off, but more importantly,  it means changing at least some of what Republicans stand for. Who wants to do that?

The other reason that Walker could be a strong candidate is that he may be the only one in the field who can get the enthusiastic support of both the Tea Party base and the moneyed establishment. He can say he busted unions and restricted abortion rights.

But at this point, all that is hypothetical. Walker may turn out to be a disaster of a candidate, or he could be mediocre enough to stay in the race but not good enough to win. We won't know for a while yet. The media, though, is already impressed.

Some Parties Just Want To Watch The World Burn

Later this year, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in King v. Burwell, and if the Republican plaintiffs are successful in their "moops" argument, approximately 6 million middle-class people in the 37 states using the federal health insurance exchange will lose the subsidies that allowed them to afford health insurance. As gleeful as Republicans are about this prospect—and it should be noted that virtually every elected Republican and every conservative pundit supports this lawsuit—some of them have at least given a moment or two of thought to the possibility that yanking insurance away from so many people (in mostly red states, by the way) might not play so well politically for them. They don't have a moral problem with it, mind you, but the politics are a little worrisome.

The solution is obvious: you could pass a bill that's literally one sentence long that would clarify the contradictory language in the Affordable Care Act, and the subsidies would be intact. But that would amount to helping the ACA, which is unacceptable. For years now, congressional Republicans have been saying that any day now, they're going to debut their replacement for the ACA, and the King lawsuit gives it some extra urgency. Yesterday, Sahil Kapur talked to a bunch of Republicans about it, and nobody had any answer about what they might come up with, or when:

Avik Roy, a conservative health care adviser, laid out the party's options at the strategy meeting in Hershey: do nothing, work with Democrats to fix the law, or seize what he calls "their best opportunity to reform the health care system" and propose a serious conservative alternative.

Republicans don't view the first two options as viable.

Republican aides to the four committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate didn't have any news to report about the way forward.

Privately there is concern among GOP health policy aides that—contrary to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) contention that the Supreme Court could create an "opportunity" for a "major do-over" on health care reform if it rules against the government in King—the party won't be ready with a viable solution in time.

One big challenge, the Republican aide said, is that a GOP plan would be unlikely to cover as many people, making it an easy piñata for Democrats to pound. "That's the brutal truth. We have a problem with that for very specific reasons. We don't have good responses," the aide said. "Show me the constituent in a town hall meeting who you can tell it's OK for them to lose their health insurance."

However, they did decide to have have a vote on yet another bill to repeal the ACA—I don't know what the current count is, but it's more than 50—and this time it will include a provision instructing congressional committees to come up with a GOP alternative to the ACA. I believe it also includes the appropriation of money to outfit a team of explorers who will locate and capture a genie, then use their first wish the create an ACA alternative. The GOP caucus is currently split on whether wishing for more wishes will produce infinite wishes, with Tea Partiers insisting that no one has ever thought of that before, and members of the leadership trying to make them understand that it doesn't work that way and they should just be practical and work with the three wishes they'll have.

But seriously, there are some factors that will make it impossible for the Republicans to come up with a fix that would address the chaos and  misery that their hoped-for ruling in King would cause. All of their ideas about health care are meant to work gradually and indirectly. They don't want to just give anyone insurance or give them the money that will help them buy it, because that's socialism. They prefer to create the market conditions that might let you eventually be able to find insurance.

But those kinds of solutions take time to work. And if they win in King, millions of people will have just lost their insurance and need help immediately (and it gets worse: as Ian Millhiser explains, the words "Exchange established by the State" on which the King plaintiffs hang their argument also appear in a section referring to funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which means that if they're successful, up to 5 million poor children could lose their insurance as well). Nothing in the existing conservative health care ideas would help them in the short run; indeed, they're ideologically opposed to just about anything that would.

There's yet another constraint on Republicans: their own constituencies. Ed Kilgore describes what would happen the day the King ruling comes down:

No one at this point in the GOP is addressing how they deal with the ecstatic reaction of their party's conservative activist base if and when the news blares out on Fox that SCOTUS has landed a lethal spear in the hide of the Great White Whale. Just yesterday polling data came out showing Republican rank-and-file opposed the idea of Congress doing anything to "repair" Obamacare. Ya think maybe the already difficult process of agreeing on a "fix" might be complicated a bit more by the shrieks of "NO! NO! NO!" from every Republican who has been told again and again that the Affordable Care Act is the worst thing to happen to America in living memory? Is it possible a Republican presidential candidate or three would exploit the situation by starting a crusade to destroy any GOP member of Congress who even thinks about "fixing" Obamacare?

It's more than possible; you could almost guarantee it, and Ted Cruz would be the first one to volunteer. It would be interesting to see if one of the other candidates would say, "Let's just pass the one-sentence fix, then when I'm elected we'll do our magical repeal and replace." The one who did that would actually get a lot of credit from the general electorate, but the risk in the primary might be too high.

All of which brings us to this report in today's Wall Street Journal:

Congressional Republicans say they won't move to preserve consumers' health insurance tax credits if the Supreme Court strikes them down, raising the stakes in the latest legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act.

The high court is set to consider in March whether the wording of the 2010 health law means people can only get tax credits to lower their health premiums if they live in one of the handful of states running its own insurance exchange. A decision is expected by June.

Leaders in the GOP-controlled House and Senate see the court challenge as their best hope for tearing apart a law they have long opposed. If the court strikes down the subsidies, Democrats are expected to clamor for lawmakers to pass a measure correcting the language in the law to revive them. Congressional Republicans say there is no possibility they would allow that.

Well there you go. They're not going to fix it, and the chances of them coming up with a viable alternative that would actually help the millions of people who would be screwed by a Supreme Court decision are somewhere between zilch and zero. Glad we've gotten that all cleared up. 

Photo of the Day

KOBANI, SYRIA - JANUARY 28: A member of Kurdish armed group stands guard among the wreckage left by fighting on a street in the center of the Syrian town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) on January 28, 2015 after it has been freed from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces. (Photo by Esber Ayaydin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

News From Elsewhere

In my column today at The Week, I wonder if we can finally dispense with the ritual in which presidential candidates say that they can bring Republicans and Democrats together to solve problems:

So imagine if a candidate in the general election, or a president in his inaugural speech, said, "This is my program. I realize that the folks in the other party don't like it. There may be a few places where we can compromise, and if so, that would be terrific. But I'm going to treat the voters like adults and tell them that I'm not expecting a whole lot of cooperation. I'm going to fight for what I promised to do when I ran, and if you don't like the results, you can turn me out in four years."

That would at least be honest, and nobody would be disappointed when the result is partisan fighting.

And at the Plum Line, I gave three reasons why the administration and Republicans in Congress will work out a budget deal. Here's the last one:

The single most important priority for congressional Republicans right now is to get a Republican president elected in 2016. If they can do that, it’ll be like walking into the public policy version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, where rivers of delicious tax cuts flow and everlasting gobstoppers of environmental deregulation are waiting to be sucked on until everyone passes out on a cotton-candy bed of abortion restrictions. So they don't want to do anything to screw that up, and a government shutdown fight late this year would demonstrate once again that Republicans can't be trusted to govern.

Why We Need to Know More About All the Presidential Candidates' Religious Beliefs

Among the things we're learning about the New Romney, concerned for the downtrodden and bristling with authenticity, is that he'll be talking more about his religion. I think this is a fine thing for him to do—in fact, I want to hear from other candidates about the subject, too. Not only that, they should get more specific about their beliefs and practices than candidates normally do. I'll explain why in a moment, but here's a piece of an article the other day in the Post:

If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to rebrand himself as authentic, warts and all, and central to that mission is making public what for so long he kept private. He rarely discussed his religious beliefs and practices in his failed 2008 and 2012 races, often confronting suspicion and bigotry with silence as his political consultants urged him to play down his Mormonism.

Now, Romney speaks openly about his service as a lay pastor in the Mormon Church, recites Scripture to audiences, muses about salvation and the prophet, urges students to marry young and "have a quiver full of kids," and even cracks jokes about Joseph Smith's polygamy.

This is a good start, but he should go even farther. The reason I think it's important for candidates to talk about their religion is that they say it's so important to them. Ask any one of them, and they'll tell you that faith is their guiding light, the bedrock of their lives, the foundation of everything they know and imagine. If that's really the case, then we sure ought to understand exactly what it is they believe.

Of course we don't want presidential campaigns to turn into theological debates. But we should understand all the ideas that they claim guide them, whether they come from the New Testament or The Wealth of Nations or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If, for instance, you sincerely think that only people who believe in your god are saved while every other human who has ever lived or will ever live is doomed to an eternity of well-deserved suffering and pain, then that's something voters should know, because it could well affect the decisions you make as president. And saying, "Well, that's above my pay grade, ha ha" when you get asked about that particular belief is a cop-out.

And whether he likes it or not, Mitt Romney has a particular obligation to talk about his religion, because most Americans know very little about Mormonism. If another candidate says he's a believing Catholic, most non-Catholics have a basic understanding of what that entails—going to mass, accepting the divinely authorized authority of the Pope, giving up something for Lent, and so on. But only a tiny number of non-Mormons actually know what it means to be a Mormon. This isn't about finding details in the religion that sound exotic or silly and making fun of them, it's about knowing what actually motivates Romney. He's a hugely influential figure in the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church), and Mormonism has defined his life. While there was some good reporting on the topic in 2012 (see here, for instance), it's important for voters to understand how he thinks about the relationship of his religious beliefs to his earthly endeavors.

And not just him, but all the candidates. There isn't a candidate running this year who doesn't portray himself or herself as a person of deep, abiding religious faith. Yet most of the time when candidates for national office talk about their religion, it's a feel-good version designed to alienate as few people as possible—a few inspiring lines from scripture, the idea that everything has a purpose, some ideas that no one of any religion or none would disagree with (care for others, work hard, have hope). They tell us, "This is one of the most important things about me," then all but refuse to detail anything useful about it.

One day, we'll have a president (or even a contending presidential candidate) who says that religion isn't particularly important to their daily lives and their understanding of the world. Until that day, however, we ought to know everything we can about candidates' religious beliefs, whatever they are.

Photo of the Day - Nomination Hearing Edition


This is from the confirmation hearings for Loretta Lynch to be Attorney General; that's her in the center. I think Cruz is saying to himself, "Can I be president and serve on the Supreme Court at the same time? I don't think the Constitution says otherwise. Yeah, that'd be real nice..." 


The Terrifying Political Power of the Upper Middle Class

Today's Plum Line post concerns the plan to eliminate the tax benefit of 529 plans, which the Obama administration proposed and then withdrew in the face of opposition from both Republicans and Democrats:

The Republicans who are crowing about the White House's retreat ought to remind themselves that this is yet another illustration of a dynamic they often bemoan: that it's easy to give people a government benefit, but much harder to take it away once it’s in place. And while they sneer in disgust at the moochers who get food stamps or Medicaid, the program they're now celebrating is a government giveaway, too, just one that is mostly given away to people who don't need it.

Here’s the real lesson from this whole affair: If you want to create a politically bulletproof government benefit, like the 529 program or the mortgage interest deduction (which costs the government about $70 billion a year), just make sure it’s technically open to anyone, but that the chief beneficiaries will be people who are doing well. They'll squawk if it ever gets threatened, and it's an absolute certainty that their representatives in Congress—Democrat and Republican alike—will hear them loud and clear.

The lesson of this retreat is clear: don't mess with the government benefits that the upper middle class gets. They're wealthy enough that Congress cares about them, and numerous enough that they constitute a significant voting bloc. 

For Republicans, Medicaid and Medicare Are Mirror Images

Yesterday, Indiana governor and possible presidential candidate Mike Pence—a conservative's conservative by any measure—announced that he had come to an agreement with the federal government to accept the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid. Like other Republican governors, he wanted to change the plan a bit, just to make sure poor people knew that getting health coverage for free would be bad for their moral fiber. So the Indiana plan will charge small premiums—up to 2 percent of an individual's income—which will make only a tiny impact on the state's balance sheets, but will send a clear message to those layabouts; Pence talked about giving people the "dignity to pay for their own health insurance." (I'm sure that Pence declines to take a government  handout in the form of the mortgage interest deduction, because that would undermine his dignity.)

While even a small premium can impose a hardship on people who are extremely poor—and there are other concessions Pence insisted on that will have the effect of making the coverage more stingy and giving the state the ability to throw people off—this is still extremely good news, because hundreds of thousands of people in Indiana who couldn't afford coverage before will now get covered. But Pence doesn't want anybody to get the idea that he doesn't hate Medicaid. As Dylan Scott explains, Republican governors always seem to find different names to call their Medicaid programs when they accept the Affordable Care Act's expansion, and they never utter the vile word "Obamacare," even though that's the source of the money they're taking:

But Pence might have been the boldest yet. His office effectively portrayed his state's plan as a blow to Medicaid and government-funded health care.

"With this approval, Indiana will end traditional Medicaid for all non-disabled Hoosiers between 19 and 64," Pence's office said, "and will continue to offer the first-ever consumer-driven health care plan for a low-income population."

This is actually the inverse of the way Republicans talk and act when it comes to Medicare. These Republican governors want to expand Medicaid for very practical reasons: having huge numbers of uninsured poor citizens creates a less healthy workforce, imposes costs on the state through uncompenstated care, and is generally an economic drag. Under the ACA, the federal government will pay nine out of ten dollars for expanding it, so you have to be an idiot not to take it (there are still quite a few such idiots left, of course). But in public, ideology demands that they claim that Medicaid is awful and they want nothing to do with it; in the extreme case, you get someone like Pence trying to convince people that he's striking a blow against the program by expanding it.

When it comes to Medicare, however, it's exactly the opposite. Republicans actually dislike it, precisely because it's a huge government program that works. But because it's so popular, they have to pretend in public that they're its greatest defenders. Here, for example, is an ad run by Indiana senator Dan Coats in his last election:

You've got to love that—his opponent voted "to force seniors into Barack Obama's government-run health care program, reducing the protection Medicare provides." Utterly nonsensical? Sure. But "Dan Coats will fight to strengthen Medicare," I guess by protecting it from the government. Or something.

You'll notice that every attempt by Republicans to privatize or other undermine Medicare is presented as a plan to "strengthen" it, the mirror image of how GOP governors now say they're weakening Medicaid by expanding it. Maybe someone should propose moving poor people into Medicare, which Republicans say they love so much. Then they'd have no idea what to say. 

Photo of the Day, British Silliness Edition

The photo of this guy swimming with a Dalek on his head was apparently taken at some sort of whimsical British swimming competition, but the context is really irrelevant. The point is, this is a guy swimming with a Dalek on his head. Godspeed to you, good sir.