Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

Photo of the Day, Canine Absurdity Edition

One of the competitors at next week's Westminster Kennel Club show meets the paparrazi. His (her?) name is Ugo, which is a pretty cool name, even if that's just ridiculous hair for any animal to have. But here's a tip: If you're a dog person and you haven't been to a dog show, you should try to do it. They let everyone walk around backstage where all the dogs are waiting, getting brushed and combed, and doing whatever it is they do. You can walk right up and check them out, maybe even pet them. It's like going to a major league baseball game and getting to hang out in the locker room. 

The War Authorization Farce

Every parent has had this experience: You catch your kids doing something problematic. They say, "Is it OK if I do this?" You reply, "How can you ask me permission? You're already doing it." They respond, "Yeah, but is it OK?" That's kind of what Barack Obama did yesterday, by sending Congress a proposed text of a resolution authorizing him to use force against ISIS, which he's already been doing for six months. Except if they say "No, it isn't OK," then he doesn't actually have to stop.

Let's be honest here: Congress's power to check the president's ability to wage war is a joke. Neither this president nor any other is going to be constrained in whatever military action they want to take because of what the legislative branch thinks.

That isn't to say there's absolutely nothing of value in the resolution the White House drew up. It does repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that authorized the Iraq War. But it leaves in place the more sweeping 2001 AUMF passed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, which basically allows the president to do anything he wants with the military anywhere in the world so long as he says it has something to do with fighting terrorism. That isn't so much a product of the text of that AUMF, but rather how it was later interpreted by the Bush administration (more on that here). The point remains that Barack Obama has never felt particularly limited in where he could take military action. And he's a guy who would plainly rather not do so most of the time, even in many cases where he has. Just think how President Walker or President Cruz would interpret it.

So the fact that Obama's proposed ISIS AUMF would expire after three years doesn't make much of a difference because, thanks to the earlier 2001 authorization that would remain in place, a future president can say that whoever he wants to fight—whether it's ISIS or anyone else—is connected by the infinite web of "associated forces" to someone who's connected to connected to al-Qaeda, and therefore there are no constraints. Furthermore, the language in Obama's proposal is completely vague on all its critical points. For instance, it says the resolution "does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations." As Obama said in announcing it, there might be some cases where you'd need to use a small number ground troops—say, if we found out about a meeting of all the top leaders of ISIS, and we wanted to send in a special forces team to get them, that would still be allowed. That sounds perfectly reasonable, but what does "enduring" mean? It could mean anything. A president could say, "Yeah, I'm sending a quarter of a million troops to invade Iran, but we'll take care of this thing in a few weeks, so it won't be enduring."

The resolution also authorizes the president "to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces." It even helpfully defines that term:

In this joint resolution, the term "associated persons or forces" means individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.

"Or any closely-related successor." There's that infinite web again—you could use that to justify almost any attack against almost anyone.

Today it's hard even to contemplate a future situation in which a president is eager to undertake a significant military operation, but Congress steps in to stop him or her. Were it a limited operation, the president would say that as commander in chief, I have all the authority I need. If it were a major war like Iraq, it wouldn't be all that hard to whip up the frenzy required to get Congress to go along.

My guess is that Congress is going to tinker with the language a bit, then pass an authorization by huge margins. Democrats will vote for it because they want to support Obama and they don't want to look weak. Republicans will vote for it because it'll give Obama's successor, who they hope will be a Republican, the ability to wage more war. Heck, they may even try to take out the three-year time limit. There aren't many guarantees in American politics, but it's almost certain that the next president (and the one after that, and the one after that) will be sending American forces to invade somebody or bomb somebody or engage in kinetic freedom-bestowing actions against somebody. And what Congress wants or doesn't want won't make any difference.

Photo of the Day, Robot Pod Edition

The British government announced today that it will be allowing driverless vehicles in some limited pedestrian areas. The cute little number above is the Lutz, which will take British pensioners on a wondrous journey to the Soylent Green factory for their final processing. 

On Swashbuckling, Tall Tale-Telling News Anchors

My column in The Week today is (probably) the last thing I'll have to say about Brian Williams, in which I ask whether the whole problem stemmed from his apparent need to get out in the field where the action was, which really isn't something we need from a network news anchor:

But even when he says things like, "I've done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe," the point of the story he's telling — whether it's being told to David Letterman's audience or at a hockey game — seems to be to portray himself as, if not quite heroic, then certainly one who has been a witness to the most harrowing and consequential events. He always heaps praise on members of the military or first responders, yet his stories are full of military terminology and slang, lending them a particular kind of authenticity, one that says that Brian Williams is no naïf.

With all we know now, even those regular self-effacing asides begin to look calculated. As Jay Rosen pointed out, Williams seems to have looked for opportunities to tell and retell the Iraq story. After a while it begins to feel like the point of the story is always the same: I was there. He isn't just a guy who sits behind a desk reading off a teleprompter. He's been in it, and deep, when the shit went down.

Which may or may not be important for Brian Williams' conception of himself (I can't know anything about what's in his head), but why should it matter to any of us? Why does a network news anchor need to be the one wading through the floodwaters or flying into a combat zone?

Read the rest here.


Charts of the Day, Decline of Network News Edition

Now that Brian Williams has been suspended by NBC for six months—and I'd be really surprised if he gets his job back at the end of that—my younger readers might be wondering why this is a big deal. After all, isn't he just some guy who reads the news to your grandparents in between ads for Viagra and Lipitor? Well yes, but it wasn't always that way. Network news anchors used to be the absolute kings of the American media universe, with audiences that today are almost unimaginable. It still may be the most prestigious job in American journalism, in part because there are only three of them, but it's not what it once was. Brian Williams, for instance, was paid a measly $10 million a year, while Today show co-host Matt Lauer makes twice as much. And how many Americans could name all three network anchors? The days when everybody knew Dan Rather and Peter Jennings are gone; I'd bet that CBS's Scott Pelley and ABC's David Muir could walk down many streets without being recognized.

So how far have they fallen? In 2013, the audience for the top-rated NBC Nightly News averaged 8.4 million viewers per night; the three network news programs combined for 22.6 million viewers. That's a lot of people, but it's less than half of what they garnered in 1980. I've made these charts using data from multiple versions of Pew's State of the News Media report:

Not only is that a precipitous decline, it's even worse when you consider that the population has been growing over time. So in 1980, almost one in four Americans (counting both children and adults) tuned in to a network news broadcast on any given night. Today it's around one in fourteen.

The biggest reason for the decline was the advent and spread of cable television. When there were only three channels, everybody watched the news because there was nothing else on. That included people who cared about the world, and people who were just bored. Once they got cable, the latter group drifted off to other channels, and then cable news gave other options to the first group too, and then finally the Internet came along. Network news is still profitable, and its audiences are larger than any of the cable news channels, but it's a shadow of its former self.