Paul Waldman

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Photo of the Day, Crushing the Wonder of Childhood Edition

This innocent tot is inspecting a "fairy door" in Somerset woods in England. Here's the caption from Getty:

Over the past few years more than 100 fairy doors have appeared delighting local children and adults alike who come to see homes of the fairies and leave gifts and messages. However, the trustees of the wood have issued an appeal to fairy house builders to tone it down and not to screw any more doors directly to trees. They also say that flowers are getting trampled by visitors and that some older people who used to walk around the woods when they were untouched have complained.

As a trustee of the woods told the BBC, "We've got little doors everywhere. We're not anti-fairies but it's in danger of getting out of control." The fairies themselves have yet to comment.

The End of the Siege of Obama

White House photo by Pete Souza

This is an auspicious week, because it saw the first real controversy of Hillary Clinton's campaign (there were a couple of "She said what?!?" mini-stories, but those don't count). And why is that so important? I explain in my Plum Line post today:

Mark the first week of March 2015 down: This was the moment when Republicans officially shifted their focus from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton.

Not that they’ll stop being angry about what the Obama administration does. But shaking their fist at the White House is now a secondary concern. The energy, the focus, and the attention will now be primarily on Clinton. When Republicans sit up at night trying to devise clever strategies to hamstring the other side, it’ll be Clinton on their minds. And the Benghazi select committee gives them a vehicle to attack her. After not being heard from for months, the committee and its chairman Trey Gowdy popped up to issue subpoenas for Clinton’s emails from her time at the State Department. It shouldn’t be long before they’re demanding that she come to Washington to testify in front of the cameras.

You may look on this transition with breathless anticipation, or horror, or something in between. But I'll bet that if you charted the mentions of "Obama" and "Clinton" on Fox News, this week is when the lines would cross. 

What Do the GOP Candidates Think of State 'Conscience Clause' Legislation?

Flickr/Gexydaf

There's an interesting/horrifying piece in today's New York Times about a trend across the country, but mostly in the South, to enact "conscience" legislation at the state level that would allow businesses to discriminate against gay people if they can justify it on the basis of their religion. One interesting facet of this issue is that the moneyed interests in the GOP, along with big corporations (not the same thing, but there's plenty of overlap) are completely spooked by these bills. We'll get to that in a moment, but here are some colorful details:

"The L.G.B.T. movement is the main thing, the primary thing that's going to be challenging religious liberties and the freedom to live out religious convictions," said State Senator Joseph Silk, an Oklahoma Republican and the sponsor of a bill in that state. "And I say that sensitively, because I have homosexual friends."

Of course he does. He goes on:

"They don't have a right to be served in every single store," said Mr. Silk, the Oklahoma state senator, referring to gay people. "People need to have the ability to refuse service if its violates their religious convictions."

I mean, come on. Gay people want to be able to go into every single store? Who do they think they are?

But this brings up a question for me. When the religious conservatives pushing these bills argue for why they're needed, they always mention a retailer whose work gets right down into all that gayness. Like the baker who might have to make a cake for a gay couple and live through the horror of placing two female figurines on top of the cake, or the photographer who might have to take their picture, trying to see his camera's viewfinder through the veil of tears he weeps at the destruction of the American family represented by two people making a commitment to spend their lives together.

But no legislator is going to specify an exhaustive list of who would and wouldn't be able to refuse service, because doing so would be a very difficult thing to write into a bill's text. Instead, the right to discriminate is inevitably written broadly. For example, one bill in Oklahoma says: "No business entity shall be required to provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges related to any lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, group or association." Which would mean, for instance, that it would be legal for any store or restaurant to put up a sign saying, "We don't serve gays." Other bills (here, for example) are written even more broadly, just saying that the state can't stop you from acting on your sincerely held religious beliefs, which would include discriminating against gay people if that's your thing.

As the Times story details, some of these bills have died in the face of opposition from business interests; for instance, when Walmart came out against the one in Arkansas, it was pretty much doomed. The company may be conservative in many ways, but it doesn't want its state to be known as a bastion of hatred and discrimination.

So I'd be interested to hear specifically from some influential Republicans—like, say, the ones running for president—on what they think of these laws. I looked around a bit and didn't find any of them commenting on it, which isn't too surprising given that it's been playing out at the state level. But maybe someone should start asking. Do they think a baker ought to be able to discriminate? And if they say that there ought to be a way for the baker to exercise his "conscience," then the next question is, what about a restaurant? What about a hardware store? 

Every Clinton Scandal Is Exactly the Same

We don't yet know whether there will actually turn out to be something nefarious in the emails that Hillary Clinton somewhat belatedly passed on to the State Department, but I feel confident in predicting that this Clinton scandal will likely play out just like every other Clinton scandal. For those of you who don't remember the 1990s, here's how it works:

1. Bill and/or Hillary Clinton does something that on first glance looks a little sketchy.

2. The news media explode with the story, usually including insinuations that something illegal or corrupt took place.

3. Republicans quiver with joy, believing that this scandal will finally be the one to reveal the true depths of the Clintons' villainy.

4. Clintonworld adopts a bunker mentality, insisting that they did nothing wrong yet trying to limit the amount of information that gets out, thereby antagonizing reporters.

5. As the eight zillion journalists assigned to the story learn more information, the story grows increasingly complex, yet no actual illegality or corruption is found.

6. The story drags on for months or even years, with Republicans never wavering in their certainty that the only reason we haven't learned the awful truth is the Clintons' stonewalling.

7. The more committed conservatives begin to lose their minds, eventually coming to believe spectacularly outlandish theories about what actually happened.

8. The whole thing peters out, and reasonable people conclude that while Bill and/or Hillary might have shown better judgment, they didn't actually break the law, violate their oaths, betray their country, or anything else their opponents imagined.

There are variations, of course, but that's pretty much how things go. And even though it's possible there's an email somewhere in which Clinton instructs her paramour Ayman al-Zawahiri to launch the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, it's probably how things are going to go with this one, too.

The Conservative Information Bubble Lives On, Stoked By Juiced Fox News Polls

After the debacle of 2012, in which conservatives at all levels were gobsmacked that Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney, some of them began to question the information bubble in which they had ensconced themselves. It's reassuring to think that everything is always going your way, but does it really serve you in the end? Then after a few minutes, they essentially said, "But we love our bubble!" and went right back into its warm embrace.

Which brings me to this tweet I saw this morning from Bill Kristol:

 

 

Wow, I thought, those are incredible results. Fox News polls are always silly, but this may be worth checking out. So I went to the story, and from there to the actual results, and found the questions in question. Here's the first:

"Do you favor or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran if that were the only way to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons?"

Interestingly, they've been asking this question for a while, but they used to ask it without the phrase "if that were the only way." But I suppose that phrasing didn't produce high enough numbers, so they changed it to this version. And, what do you know, 65 percent of people said yes. Perhaps in the next round, they can add "which would mean you and your children will die a fiery death."

And here's the second question:

"Do you think it's a good idea or a bad idea to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now in return for it agreeing that it won't obtain nuclear weapons before then?"

What? "...allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now"? Seriously? That's how they describe the proposed deal between the U.S. and Iran. So naturally, 84 percent of people say no, we shouldn't let them have weapons in ten years. (If you're looking for a survey that described the deal in reality-based terms, you can see this one, which found that 61 percent of people supported it.)

What I wonder is, do the people at Fox think this kind of thing really serves their audience well? I guess they must, or they wouldn't be doing it. But to me, it shows that they look on that audience as a bunch of suckers. This isn't just about partisanship. The folks at MSNBC also deliver their audience a lot of material that they'll find congenial. But I have no sense that MSNBC believes there's any value in deliberately misinforming that audience. You don't actually do them any favors by telling them that everyone in the world (except for the traitorous liberals) agrees with them.

You do keep them watching, I guess; there's no arguing with Fox's financial success. But there's a real contempt for its viewers on display here.

Photo of the Day, Traditional Marriage Edition

3,500 couples marry in a Unification Church ceremony in South Korea, just as God always intended. No Adam and Steves here, you can bet on that.

Kicking the Iraq Syndrome On the Way to Tehran

It's been an entire 12 years since we started a war, and apparently the American people are getting a little antsy. A new Quinnipiac poll finds that 62 percent of Americans, including 72 percent of Republicans, favors the use of ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We should be careful about over-interpreting that, because the question was preceded by another question talking about limited, but not long-term operations for ground troops. But there's no doubt that the public's interest in getting some boots back on the ground is gaining momentum; in Pew polls, support for ground troops went up from 39 percent in October to 47 percent in February; in the same poll, 67 percent of Republicans said they supported ground troops.

The reason I focus on the number of Republicans is that I suspect with this increase in support from their constituents, we're going to hear more and more Republican politicians coming out for what we might call a re-invasion of Iraq, and not just Iraq but Syria, as well. And as long as we're in the neighborhood, how about some military action against Iran?

Iran is, of course, a separate story. But it isn't unrelated; once people start advocating a third Iraq war with more vigor than they have been up until now, the idea of bombing Iran won't seem so outlandish. Back in 2002, when the Bush administration was in the midst of its campaign to convince the public that invading Iraq was necessary lest we all be obliterated by Saddam Hussein's fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, a British official described the sentiment among the Bush administration and its allies this way: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."

It wasn't long ago that the idea of sending ground troops back to the Middle East was widely considered just short of insane. After all, we'd finally gotten out of Iraq, after spending $2 trillion, losing 4,000 American lives, and sending the region into chaos. Why would we want to do it all over again? But now, the idea of doing it all over again seems to be gaining traction.

Just after the end of the first Iraq war, George H. W. Bush closed a celebratory speech by saying: "It's a proud day for America. And, by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." That syndrome was the reluctance of the public (and military leaders) to countenance enormous military adventures in far-off lands in service of vaguely defined goals. So it may now be time to say that the "Iraq syndrome" is dead, if ever it existed.

At the moment, when the Republicans running for president are asked about whether they'd like to send troops to any of these countries, they inevitably reply that "all options should be on the table." It's essentially a dodge, though not a completely unreasonable one. They want to signal to conservatives that they're ready to use force, but signal to everyone else that they're not eager to do so. But try to imagine what would happen if a Republican wins the presidency next year.

If ISIS isn't completely defeated, he'll be under pressure from his supporters to go in there and get the job done, and not in a wimpy way like Obama. Then think about Iran. With Bibi Netanyahu writing their talking points, Republicans will now insist that any nuclear agreement negotiated by this president is by definition weak and dangerous. The very fact of an agreement limiting Iran's nuclear activities can be the justification for military action. If the talks break down, on the other hand, well that just makes starting a bombing campaign all the more urgent. And of course, they'll assure us that once we take out the Iranian nuclear program, the people will rise up and overthrow their oppressive government.

It's all going to sound quite familiar. War will once again be presented as the only way to prevent a bigger, worse war that they insist is coming no matter what. Don't forget that the Iraq War was offered up by the Bush administration as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the inevitable and not-too-distant moment when Saddam Hussein would launch his war against the United States. While they never said whether the Iraq invasion would come by land, sea, or air, the attack was coming one way or another. In Dick Cheney's immortal words: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

Netanyahu says that the Iranian regime is just a bunch of homicidal lunatics who are determined to re-enact the Holocaust. There's no use negotiating with them, because they're mad. War is the only way to solve the problem. Anyone who saw the way Republicans were like tweens at a One Direction concert at Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday know that if he says it, they'll believe it.

So here's what I think is going to happen. First, the idea that we need to put troops in to fight ISIS—not on the table, but on the ground—is very quickly going to become something that all Republicans agree on (and if you're going to do it, do it big—no half-assed mobilization of a few thousand, but a massive deployment). Then they'll start talking seriously about military action against Iran, sooner rather than later, and that too is going to move rapidly from being a fringe idea, to something that many of them admit should be "on the table," to something they all agree ought to be done. And by God, we'll have kicked that Iraq syndrome once and for all.  

Republicans Still Obsessed With Message-Sending

There was a weird little sidelight to the just-concluded mini-crisis over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which was that the American Action Network, a group allied with John Boehner, was running ads criticizing conservative Republicans for not supporting a clean DHS funding bill, even as Boehner was trying to win them over with a much softer approach. But what really struck me watching this was something about the message itself:

You may have noticed that when the ad says "put real teeth in immigration enforcement," the image is of a Predator drone, presumably because we'll be raining missiles down on people wading through the Rio Grande. Which is...interesting. But here's the text:

"While the threats grow, conservatives in Congress want to beef up our security, enhance cybersecurity, and put real teeth in immigration enforcement. It's the right message to send to our enemies. But some in Washington are willing to put out security at risk by jeopardizing critical security funding. That's the wrong message to send to our enemies. Tell Congressman Tim Huelskamp to fund homeland security. Our safety must come first."

This is a common argument, particularly when it comes to national security policy. "Sending messages" is supposed to be extremely important, and not just to friends and potential supporters, but to adversaries and enemies as well. Indeed, sometimes it seems that victory can be achieved if only we "send the right message."

George W. Bush was particularly fond of citing the importance of proper message-sending. For instance, here are some of the things he said in the first debate he did in 2004 with John Kerry:

"[Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi] doesn't want U.S. leadership, however, to send mixed signals, to not stand with the Iraqi people…I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?...I know we won't achieve if we send mixed signals. I know we're not going to achieve our objective if we send mixed signals to our troops, our friends, the Iraqi citizens...The way to make sure that we succeed is to send consistent, sound messages to the Iraqi people...I think that by speaking clearly and doing what we say and not sending mixed messages, it is less likely we'll ever have to use troops...But by speaking clearly and sending messages that we mean what we say, we've affected the world in a positive way…[Kim Jong-Il] wants to unravel the six- party talks, or the five-nation coalition that's sending him a clear message...You cannot lead if you send mixed messages. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens."

Now I don't mean to say that message-sending is never important. Adversaries and allies alike notice both what we do and what we say. But the idea that what matters in defeating ISIS is the message we send them is kind of crazy. There are plenty of reasons why it would have been a bad idea to shut down DHS, but it's not like somewhere in Mosul a bunch of ISIS fighters would be watching CNN and say, "We were prepared to abandon this war, but this sends a message of weakness. The time to strike America is now!"

Photo of the Day, Not Buying It Edition

Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer listening to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech today. They don't look particularly impressed.

Inane Budget Mini-Crisis Comes to Predictable End

While everyone was getting ready for Benjamin Netanyahu's speech (you can read my thoughts on that here), John Boehner took the opportunity to capitulate to Democrats:

It was all but inevitable, and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) finally cut his losses on Tuesday, telling House Republicans he will allow a vote on legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security without any immigration restrictions.

The "clean" DHS funding bill could come up as early as Tuesday. It is expected to pass with overwhelming support from Democrats and enough House Republicans.

Boehner laid out three paths to his members in a weekly meeting, according to a source in the room: shutting down DHS, another short-term stopgap bill, or the Senate-passed clean DHS bill. He said the first two weren't good options.

"With more active threats coming into the homeland, I don't believe that's an option," Boehner said of a shutdown. "Imagine if, God forbid, another terrorist attack hits the United States."

It effectively ends the Republican threat to use a potential shutdown of DHS to overturn President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, which Boehner promised to fight "tooth and nail" last year with the new GOP majorities in both chambers.

I am so surprised that it ended this way. Who could have predicted? Well, I and a dozen other people predicted exactly this, but anyway, I'm sure the House conservatives feel terribly betrayed.

Some time ago, I heard someone on the radio say that every time she sees "Romeo and Juliet," even though she knows how it ends, she finds herself hoping that Juliet will wake up in time to stop Romeo from drinking the poison, and they'll all live happily ever after. Which is understandable—despite what you know to be true, it's easy to get caught up in the drama. And today, conservatives in the House are kind of like that play-goer, except that they're leaving the theater all angry about how things ended, despite the fact that they've seen the play multiple times already.

There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that, as I've argued before, Boehner has taken a nearly impossible task and made it even harder through incompetence. Another is that, as Jonathan Bernstein argues today, Boehner is actually being quite clever; these mini-crises pass without much public notice, he gives the crazies a chance to vent with a vote or two, and everything works out fine in the end. Maybe. But I still don't think history will be very kind to this speakership.