Paul Waldman

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Photo of the Day, Drought Porn Edition

BIG WATER, UT - MARCH 29: People walk on a beach that used to be the bottom of Lake Powell at Lone Rock Camp on March 29, 2015 near Big Water, Utah. As severe drought grips parts of the Western United States, a below average flow of water is expected to flow through the Colorado River Basin into two of its biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Lake Powell is currently at 45 percent of capacity and is at risk of seeing its surface elevation fall below 1,075 feet above sea level by September, which would be the lowest level on record. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to 40 million people in seven western states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Are America's Corporations Now Pro-Gay?

Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson announced today that he won't be signing the "religious freedom" bill passed by the state legislature, and it sure isn't because of his deep concern for the welfare of gay Arkansans. You can reduce it to two factors: first, he surely wanted to avoid the PR disaster and boycotts that Indiana is now suffering through, and second, Walmart. The Arkansas-based behemoth, the state's pride, joy, and largest private employer, released a statement condemning the bill, saying it "threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold."

You may not think of Walmart as a particularly progressive company, and they aren't. But in truth, they aren't a particularly conservative company either. Why does Walmart fight unions with all its might and pay its workers as little as it thinks it can get away with? It isn't because of some Randian philosophy, it's because they long ago decided that profit can be maximized by keeping prices and costs as low as possible, and they've proven themselves spectacularly good at achieving those goals. You might counter that there are companies like Costco that treat employees better and also make healthy profits, and you'd be right. But Walmart does what it does because of its perception of what's good for its bottom line.

That isn't to say that every business leader sees only dollars and cents in every decision, but personal feelings tend only to come into play when the lack of business risk allows it. Tim Cook of Apple may write an op-ed condemning the Indiana law because of what he personally believes, and because he knows that those beliefs are shared by most of his employees. But Indiana isn't a big part of Apple's long-term plans one way or another. Walmart, on the other hand, has a critical stake in Arkansas, and in 2015, that means they don't want the state to be viewed as intolerant.

We've now reached a point where companies even in very conservative areas realize that being gay-friendly is important to recruiting, not so much because they want to recruit gay employees, but because they want to recruit employees who find an inclusive work environment attractive. And when you're in a state like Indiana or Arkansas, you have to work extra hard to be able to recruit the best people.

I'm not trying to insult those states, but the truth is that there aren't that many kids living in, say, California who dream of one day moving to Pine Bluff or Gary. If your company is headquartered in New York or Seattle or Miami, on the other hand, you don't have to worry as much about whether you're going to be able to convince people to move there, or whether you can keep talented local people from leaving. But that is something that a company like Walmart does worry about.

For every corporation like Hobby Lobby that has an ideology it will pursue even at the expense of profits, there are a hundred others that are happy to shift with changing times if doing so is good business. My guess is that Mike Pence not only didn't expect the firestorm of activism that would greet Indiana's religious freedom bill, he also didn't realize how quickly major corporations would come out against it. But it wasn't personal. It's just business.

Get Ready For the Munich Analogies

Wikimedia Commons

If the negotiators from the U.S. and other nations succeed in getting an agreement to restrain Iran's nuclear program, Republicans will of course object that the deal is terrible and gives away the store to the Ayatollahs. We know this because they've been saying that for months, even though they don't actually know what's in the deal. It's enough to know that 1) it was negotiated by Barack Obama's government, and 2) it's a deal with an adversary, which by definition must be weak and craven. But there's something else we're going to be hearing a lot: Munich analogies.

I can make that prediction with certainty as well, because we've already heard plenty of them. But as I discuss at the Plum Line today, we should be absolutely clear what those who talk about Munich are saying:

Many of us roll our eyes and poke fun at endless Hitler analogies, but in this case their use is extremely revealing. If you believe that the negotiations with Iran are the equivalent of those in Munich in 1938, what you're basically saying is that war with Iran is inevitable, so we might as well get started on it right away. After all, it isn't as though, had Chamberlain left Munich without an agreement, Hitler would have retired and gone back to painting. The whole point of the "appeasement" argument is that the enemy cannot be appeased from his expansionist aims, and the only choice is to wage war.

That's what Iran hawks are arguing: We shouldn't pussyfoot around trying to find a diplomatic solution to this problem when there's going to be a war no matter what.

You can call this clear-eyed realism, or you can call it terrifying lunacy. But it would be nice if they would admit that war is indeed what they're advocating. Up until now, only a few conservatives have been willing to say so. I'd like to hear their argument, and not a bunch of "all options should be on the table" hedging, but a real case for why launching a war on Iran really is the best of the available options.

I'd like to think that after the disaster of Iraq, the American people would hear that debate and emphatically say that war with Iran is such a spectacularly stupid idea that no one who advocates it should get within a mile of the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon. But maybe they wouldn't — maybe enough dark warnings about how the Iranians will soon turn Omaha and Augusta and Topeka to wastelands of rubble would be enough to get the war juices flowing once again. After all, it has been a whole twelve years since we started a war, and given the history of the last few decades we're way past due. So who's the brave Republican willing to run on a war platform? I'm sure a couple of them will step up.

Photo of the Day, Enormous Man Edition

A tot is understandably distressed at being hauled up to participate in the opening ceremonies of a sumo tournament in Himeji, Japan. Equally distressed is the guy on the right, who is appalled at this blatant violation of sumo tournament rule 62.a.(1), which reads in its entirety, "No babies."

Marco Rubio Gets Surprisingly Specific on Indiana

If you've been watching Indiana Governor Mike Pence over the last few days as the "religious freedom" law he passed has been getting so much attention, you've noticed that there are many questions he really, really does not want to answer. He doesn't want to get into specifics or hypotheticals, even when those specifics and hypotheticals—like what different type of discrimination might be allowed under this law—are absolutely vital to understanding it. But I was pleasantly surprised to see one Republican politician who was willing to get specific over this issue: Marco Rubio. Here he is appearing on Fox News's "The Five"—the relevant portion begins at around 3:45:

I don't happen to agree with Rubio on most of what he says, but at least he's addressing it. Let's break it down:

"No one here is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation. I think that's a consensus view in America."

Actually, if you object to nondiscrimination laws that cover gay people, as most conservatives do, then you do think that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or a hotel because of their sexual orientation. That doesn't mean you think it's a good idea, but you do think it ought to be legal. But now we know that Rubio doesn't feel that way, which is a good start. And it's something that conservatives ought to be asked about, because they always fall back on "Well I don't like discrimination, and I think it's wrong." But that's not what we're debating; we're debating whether the law ought to prohibit it. Let's move on:

"The flip side of it is, though, should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God? ... What about the religious liberties of Americans who do not want to feel compelled by law to provide a catering service or a photography service to a same-sex marriage that their faith teaches is wrong?"

The line Rubio is drawing seems very common-sense: If we're asking someone to participate in some meaningful way in a same-sex wedding, like baking a cake for it, that's different from just letting a same-sex couple eat in your restaurant. But in practice, it would be extremely difficult to write legislative language that made this distinction clear. For instance, what if the couple asks you to make the cake, but puts on the two little figurines themselves, so you aren't making it all gay? What if they come in and buy a cake that you've already made instead of having one custom-made, but you can tell they're going to use it for their gay wedding? Can you refuse to sell it to them then? Can a hotel refuse to book same-sex couples for their honeymoons, but not for ordinary vacations? It would be awfully hard to write a law that would provide clear guidance for all those kinds of situations.

One of the Fox hosts then points out that a photographer who wants to refuse to take pictures for an interracial wedding would be prohibited from doing so by law, and Rubio responds: "That's not the same thing, because here you're talking about the definition of an institution, not the innate value of a single human being. That's the difference between the civil rights movement and the marriage equality movement."

Of course you're talking about the innate value of a single human being, or in this case, two single human beings who are intending to no longer be single. But did you notice there that Rubio used the term "marriage equality"? Not too many times you'll hear a Republican say that. I'm guessing he won't make that mistake again.

The Self-Contradictory Argument All Republicans Are Making on the Indiana Discrimination Law

Now that it's becoming a national story, all the Republican candidates are going to have to take a position on the new Indiana law that for all intents and purposes legalizes discrimination against gay people. (If you're in the market for a lengthy explanation of what the law does and doesn't do and what the implications are, I wrote one yesterday.) And they all look to be coming down in the same place—one that's fundamentally dishonest about the law and its implications. They're essentially trying to have it both ways, supporting the establishment of a right of discrimination for religious business owners, but claiming that they are supporting no such thing. Here's Jeb Bush talking to Hugh Hewitt yesterday:

Bush: I think if you, if they actually got briefed on the law that they wouldn't be blasting this law. I think Governor Pence has done the right thing. Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience. I just think once the facts are established, people aren't going to see this as discriminatory at all.

Hewitt: You know, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed in 1993. It's been the law in the District of Columbia for 22 years. I do not know of a single incidence of the sort that Tim Cook was warning about occurring in the District in the last 22 years.

Bush: But there are incidents of people who, for example, the florist in Washington State who had a business that based on her conscience, she couldn't be participating in a gay wedding, organizing it, even though the person, one of the people was a friend of hers. And she was taken to court, and is still in court, or the photographer in New Mexico. There are many cases where people acting on their conscience have been castigated by the government. And this law simply says the government has to have a level of burden to be able to establish that there's been some kind of discrimination. We're going to need this. This is really an important value for our country to, in a diverse country, where you can respect and be tolerant of people's lifestyles, but allow for people of faith to be able to exercise theirs.

Just to be clear, the Indiana law is not like the federal RFRA, in both the context in which it was passed and its particular provision. The Indiana law specifically applies to disputes between individuals, whereas the federal law discusses only personal conduct the government is trying to regulate. (The federal law came about because of a case where two Native Americans were denied unemployment benefits because they had used peyote in a religious ceremony.) But in any case, Republicans like Jeb are trying to pretend that we can satisfy everyone, and that the Indiana law does so. But we can't, and it doesn't. We have to make a choice.

What Bush is doing here (and what Indiana Governor Mike Pence and the rest of the Republicans defending this law are doing as well) is a misleading little two-step. Their argument is: 1) We must allow religious people to discriminate; and 2) This has nothing to do with discrimination. But both those things can't simultaneously be true. You can call it "simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs" or "people acting on their conscience," but the whole issue is that the act of conscience that they want to undertake is also an act of discrimination. That's because the particular acts of conscience we're talking about are those that are not in the realm of speech or worship but in the realm of commerce, and they involve another person.

The cases in question are essentially zero-sum conflicts of claimed rights. Janet wants to have an anniversary dinner in a restaurant; Mike, the restaurant owner, doesn't want to serve gay couples. There are only two possible outcomes: Janet and her partner get served, in which case Mike has to give; or Mike gets to refuse that service, in which case Janet has to give. You can dress up Mike's motivations any way you want—"sincere religious beliefs," "act of conscience," whatever—but that doesn't change the fact that one person is going to win and the other is going to lose.

The liberals who object to the Indiana law are making their choice clear: Janet's right to be treated equally trumps Mike's desire to discriminate, even though that desire is based on religious beliefs. The conservatives who support the law are taking the opposite position: If it's based on a religious belief, Mike's right to discriminate trumps Janet's right to be treated equally. I happen to disagree with the conservative position, but I would respect it a lot more if they'd just come out and admit what their position really is. Instead, they're trying to claim that there's no conflict between Janet and Mike and they aren't taking a side.

But they are. These kinds of conflicts are the whole point of this law, the reason why Republicans wanted to pass it and would like to see others like it. Of course, nobody wants to say they support "discrimination." But if that florist in Washington or that photographer in New Mexico whom Bush is defending have a policy that says, "We will accept the business of straight couples but not gay couples," then they're discriminating. Republicans want to make sure that business owners have a legal right to discriminate against potential customers in that fashion. They ought to just admit it.

Photo of the Day, Mature Butt-Kickers Edition

That, of course, is Venus Williams. At the age of 34, and despite suffering from Sjogren's syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disorder, Williams is staging a mini-comeback of sorts. She just beat former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki to reach the quarterfinals at the Miami Open.

Carly Fiorina, As Ridiculous As Every Other Businessperson Politician

Yesterday, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that the chances that she'll run for president are "higher than 90 percent." And what will Fiorina be offering? Why, hard-nosed business sense, of course! Her political experience may begin and end with one failed run for Senate, but that doesn't mean she isn't ready for the job. Let's see her answer to the inevitable question of why she's qualified to be president:

Because I have a deep understanding of how the economy actually works, having started as a secretary and become the chief executive of the largest technology company in the world, because I understand how the world works and know many of the world leaders on the stage today, because I understand technology, a transformational tool, because I understand bureaucracies—how they work and how you need to change them and our government is a huge bureaucracy, and because I understand executive decision-making, which is making tough calls in tough times with high stakes for which you're prepared to be held accountable.

So she knows that decision-making is about making tough calls! And does the substance of those calls matter? Nah. If someone who had success in a field unrelated to business—let's say a great trial lawyer—said to a corporate board, "Hire me to be your CEO, even though I've never worked in business, because I know how to make tough decisions, and that's what business is about, right?" they'd be laughed out of the room. That's not even to address Fiorina's stormy tenure at HP, which wouldn't put her on anyone's list of highly successful chief executives.

But there are a couple of other things about this interview I want to point out:

Well, I think we have two fundamental structural problems in our economy. One is that we have tangled people up in a web of dependence from which they can't escape. We're leaving lots of talent on the field. Secondly, we're crushing small businesses now. Elizabeth Warren is right, crony capitalism is alive and well. Big business and big government go hand in hand. But for the first time in U.S. history now, we are destroying more businesses than we are creating.

So the biggest problem with the economy is the "web of dependence" we've trapped people in. Americans are a bunch of slackers cashing their government benefits, and if we could just cut those benefits and get them off their lazy duffs, then the economy would be supercharged. OK.

And what is this about "For the first time in U.S. history now, we are destroying more businesses than we are creating"? I have no idea what she's talking about, but the economy constantly creates and then destroys businesses. You may have heard that idea that 90 percent of businesses fail in their first year; turns out that isn't actually true, but the majority of businesses don't last more than five years. Create, destroy, create, destroy—that's how capitalism works.

And I love her attempt at Republican populism: "Crony capitalism is alive and well. Big business and big government go hand in hand." And if you think that's a problem, the person to solve it is the one whose sole quasi-qualification is having been CEO of a huge corporation.

But the best part of the interview is this, where Fiorina drills down to the problem that's really holding our economy back:

So, if we want mainstream and the middle class going and growing again, we've got to get small and family-owned businesses going and growing again. Washington, D.C., has become a vast unaccountable bureaucracy. It's been growing for 40 years. We have no idea how our money is spent.

I think there are two things that would help tremendously. One, zero base budgeting, so we know where the money is spent. We're talking about the whole budget and not just the rate of increase.

And two, pay for performance in our civil service. We havehow many inspector general reports do we need to read that say, you know, you can watch porn all day and get paid exactly the same way as somebody who is trying to do their job?

There you have it. If we could only get federal employees to stop watching porn, we could really get this economy going.

I've got some shocking news for Ms. Fiorina. You know those tens of thousands of people who worked for you at HP? Plenty of them were watching porn, too. It isn't just something that federal employees do.

Rootin' Tootin' Shootin' Presidential Candidates

There was a time not too long ago when Republicans knew that when an election got tight, they could trot out "God, guns, and gays" to drive a cultural wedge between Democrats and the electorate, since the GOP was the party that, like most Americans, loved the first two and hated the third. It's more complicated now, both within the parties and between them, but there's no doubt that 2016 will feature plenty of culture-war sniping. For better or worse, Democrats and Republicans really do represent two different Americas.

I thought of that this weekend reading this article in the Washington Post about the personal relationships the potential Republican candidates have with guns. That they are all opposed to any limits on gun ownership is a given, but more interesting is the role guns play in their own lives. With a couple of important exceptions, the potential Republican candidates fall into one of two categories when it comes to guns: those who grew up with them, and those who embraced them once their political ambitions matured.

Some of them have been building their collections since childhood. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) is up to 12 now, including an AR-15 assault weapon that he has talked about using if law and order ever breaks down in his neighborhood. Former Texas governor Rick Perry is so well-armed, he has a gun for jogging.

Others were city kids who didn't own guns until later in life. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) bought a .357 magnum revolver in 2010, the year he ran for Senate, saying the gun was for protection… [Ted Cruz] grew up in the suburbs of Houston and got his first exposure to guns at summer camp. But, as an adult, Cruz bought two guns: a .357 magnum revolver and a Beretta Silver Pigeon II shotgun, according to a spokeswoman… In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker also didn't grow up hunting. But he got his first guns in his mid-30s: a shotgun he won in a raffle and a rifle he got as a gift, said a spokeswoman for his political committee. Now he hunts deer, pheasants and ducks with his motorcycle-riding buddies… Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal purchased a snubnosed, laser-sighted Smith & Wesson .38 revolver after Hurricane Katrina. He still keeps it for home defense, although his home is now the heavily guarded Governor's Mansion. 

Far be it from me to question the sincerity of any politician's enthusiasm for firearms, but buying a gun does seem an awful lot like the kind of thing a Republican politician does just because that's what Republican politicians are expected to do. But there's gun rights, and then there's contemporary gun culture. The two are not at all the same, and it's the latter some Republicans seem so eager to embrace.

There's an important context here, which is that gun ownership has been steadily declining for about four decades now. Yet even as fewer and fewer people own guns, gun sales are increasing, which means that the people who do own them are buying more and more. Ask a certain kind of gun-owner how many he owns, and he'll say, "More than I need, but not as many as I want."

And it's that culture that many Republican politicians feel the need to make their own. You could see it as part of a general conservative nostalgia for a time that's passed, when the law was a distant force and a man might have to protect his homestead from rustlers and thieves. The trouble is that for many gun-owners today, guns are less tools with everyday uses than fetish objects. It's the very fact that they serve no practical purpose in most gun-owners' lives that makes them so emotionally powerful. When a guy like Lindsey Graham says that needs his AR-15 in case "there was a law-and-order breakdown in my community," he's living in a land of fantasy, where a middle-aged guy who wears a suit every day is actually an agent of heroic violence, the very embodiment of physical capability and potency.

But the bare fact is this: There are places in America where gun ownership is common and expected, and places where it isn't. And more Americans live in the latter. So when Republicans proclaim themselves representatives of the first type of place—in both ideas and habits—they put themselves at an immediate disadvantage.

But not all of them do. Jeb Bush, for instance, has the appropriate Republican policy stance when it comes to guns (along with an A-plus rating from the NRA), but he does not himself own a gun. (The only other potential candidate who doesn't is Chris Christie.) Which makes perfect sense if we think about gun ownership being so much a function of geography. Unlike some of his opponents—the emphatically Texan Rick Perry, the extremely Midwestern Scott Walker—Jeb isn't really from any particular place. As a member of the Bush clan, he grew up travelling a kind of elevated platform of wealth and power that traverses the country. Connecticut, Texas, Florida—wherever it was, it was essentially the same. That isn't really his fault; when your grandfather is a senator and your father becomes president, and you go to Andover and summer at Kennebunkport, that's the world you're from. And it isn't a world where people view guns as a vital cultural totem. If Jeb walked out on a stage holding a rifle over his head, he'd look even dumber than Mitch McConnell did.

We don't think about Hillary Clinton representing any particular place either. She grew up in Illinois but left it behind, spent almost two decades in Arkansas then left for Washington, and now lives in New York, but doesn't embody any of those places (or even try to). That's fine with liberals, whose demands for cultural affinity are served well enough by someone who moved around a lot. The president she's trying to succeed most definitely represented a particular place, though it was less Chicago specifically than American cities in general, the dense and diverse places liberals either live or want to live.

And that's where all the Republicans have a problem. They continue to romanticize rural and small-town life, but the number of Americans who actually live in those places is small and getting smaller. Even if plenty of suburban Republicans still imagine themselves out on the range, that isn't the American reality. Planting your flag there may seem necessary to win the Republican nomination, but it won't do you much good the day after.

Photo of the Day, Human-Powered Locomotion Edition

Megan Giglia of the Great Britain Cycling Team in action during the bronze final of the Women's C-3 3km Pursuit on day two of the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for British Cycling)