Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Could the Ferguson Conflict Produce Actual Reform on The Limits of Policing?

Flickr/Elvert Barnes
Every once in a while, a dramatic news story can actually produce real reform. More often the momentum peters out once the story disappears from the news (remember how Sandy Hook meant we were going to get real gun control?), but it can happen. And now, after the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missiouri, turned to a chaotic nightmare of police oppression, we may have an opportunity to examine, and hopefully reverse, a troubling policy trend of recent years. The focus has now largely turned from an old familiar story (cops kill unarmed black kid) to a relatively unfamiliar one, about the militarization of the police. The images of officers dressed up like RoboCop, driving around in armored assault vehicles, positioning snipers to aim rifles at protesters, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets at Americans standing with their hands up saying "Don't shoot!" has lots of Americans asking how things got this way. This issue offers the rarest of all things, an...

Trying to Learn From Criticism, Even When It's Misguided or Rude

This gentleman has a quibble. (Flickr/Craig Sunter)
Writing about politics for a living is a terrific job, the best I've ever had. But one of the things that comes with the territory is that because you put your work in front of the public, anyone is free to criticize that work, which sometimes includes not just saying "I disagree with you about this," but also saying, "You're scum and I hope you die." As a man I'm generally spared the rape and death threats that women writers endure, and on the whole the criticism I get doesn't bother me too much. It may not be particularly pleasant to be told you're a fool, regardless of who's doing the telling, but I developed a pretty thick skin for that kind of thing a long time ago. The question that's concerning me at the moment, though, is how one should handle a wave of criticism when you think that there might be glimmers of merit in it, even if you're convinced that 99 percent of it is crap. In the last week or so I've been on the receiving end of two such waves (mostly on Twitter), and I'm...

Why It's So Idiotic to Complain When the President Takes a Vacation

History's greatest American, attending to matters of state. (White House photo)
There are a lot of stupid ways people attack presidents from the other party, but there can't be that many as stupid as the complaint that he takes too many vacations. Since Obama is now on Martha's Vineyard, despite the fact that there are things going on in the world, the volume of these complaints has grown, like the inevitable rise of the tide. Conservatives are in full on mockery mode (did you know he plays golf!!!), and the press is getting into the act as well. For instance, the Washington Post 's Dana Milbank took on the vacation issue in a piece colorfully titled "Obama Vacations As the World Burns," explaining that "Even presidents need down time, and Obama can handle his commander-in-chief duties wherever he is. But his decision to proceed with his getaway just 36 hours after announcing the military action in Iraq risks fueling the impression that he is detached as the world burns." That pretty much sums up the problem with how the press discusses this issue. There's no...

Robin Williams and the Weight of Being Famous

Flickr/Ron Henry
As you've no doubt heard by now, Robin Williams reportedly committed suicide yesterday at his home in California. It's a horrible tragedy whenever someone's life has become so painful that they decide that death is preferable to life. I couldn't help but think of a brief interaction I had with Williams about twenty years ago, one that now seems even more poignant. It was in a small bookstore in San Francisco, where I was living at the time. I was browsing with my then-girlfriend, when I spotted Williams at the other end of the store, maybe twenty feet away. I went up to my girlfriend and whispered, "Hey, look who's over there." She turned to look, and the movement of her head must have caught his eye, because he glanced up, to find us both staring at him. At that point a look of profound sadness came over his face, and I felt horribly guilty —here he was, just trying to enjoy a moment as a human being and not a Famous Person, and we stole the moment from him by gawking. It was one of...

Enough With 'Raising Awareness' Already

Awareness: raised. (Flickr/charlie)
And now, for your morning dose of curmudgeonly griping, I ask: Can we do away with "raising awareness" already? I suppose because I don't spend as much time on Facebook as many people, I just found out today about the "ice bucket challenge," wherein you challenge people to either pour a bucket of ice over their heads or donate to charity. It apparently started among people looking to raise awareness about ALS, and of course money. Here's a bit of explanation from Think Progress : The rules are simple: Players have 24 hours to either to pour a bucket of ice cold water over their head on camera or contribute money to the charity of their choice. After they’ve made their decision, they appoint three more people to do the same. The “ice bucket challenge” has taken social media by storm and shed light on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a genetic disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Martha Stewart, Lance Bass, Matt Lauer and other notable stars have taken part in the challenge...

If Having a Foreign Policy Doctrine Is So Important, Why Won't Hillary Clinton Spell Hers Out?

Official State Department Photo
J effrey Golberg has an interview with Hillary Clinton which is being billed as a rebuke of, or maybe a distancing from, her old boss, Barack Obama. While you'll probably think that an overstatement when you read the transcript, she does express a desire for a foreign policy "doctrine" of her own, even if she doesn't actually deliver it. While there are a few unsettling things in the interview (her comments on Israel could have come from Bibi Netanyahu himself), the doctrine question is worth paying attention to. As I've argued before , President Obama doesn't have a foreign policy doctrine, and that's by design. He explicitly rejected the idea that it was necessary to have some kind of bumper-sticker-ready idea guiding all his foreign policy decisions, a single phrase or sentence that sums up everything he'd be doing in foreign affairs. Even though doctrines don't have a particularly good track record of late, in this interview, Clinton says that a doctrine is necessary (though she...

The New York Times Finally Comes Around on "Torture"

An enhanced interrogation chair from the Inquisition. (Flickr/Anguskirk)
The New York Times has finally decided, only a decade or so too late, that it will now use the word "torture" to describe the torture techniques used during the Bush years by the United States government on prisoners believed to be connected to terrorism. While we should certainly be glad that they've finally come around, the statement by Executive Editor Dean Baquet explaining their decision shows just how wrongheaded the editors' thinking this issue has been all along. You should read the whole thing (it's pretty brief), but here are some particularly troubling parts: When the first revelations emerged a decade ago, the situation was murky. The details about what the Central Intelligence Agency did in its interrogation rooms were vague. The word "torture" had a specialized legal meaning as well as a plain-English one. While the methods set off a national debate, the Justice Department insisted that the techniques did not rise to the legal definition of "torture." The Times described...

The Inevitability of Republican Reactions

This is never going to be Barack Obama and John Boehner. It just isn't. (Flickr/RayMorris1)
Ron Fournier of the National Journal has become (to liberal bloggers anyway) the embodiment of multiple sins of the Washington press corps. Most notably, there's the High Broderism, in which the blame for every problem is apportioned in precisely equal measure to both parties, and the embrace of the Green Lantern theory of the presidency , in which anything can be accomplished, including winning over a recalcitrant opposition, by a simple act of will from the Oval Office. The latter's most comical manifestation is Fournier's frequent pleas for President Obama to "lead," with the content of said "leadership" almost always left undetailed (though one suspects it might involve giving a great speech, after which Republicans would decide to come together with Democrats to solve the nation's problems). Though lately I've been trying to limit my pundit-bashing to once or twice a month, I couldn't overlook this passage in Fournier's latest column expressing his dismay that Obama might take...

What Is the 2016 GOP Primary Going to be About?

This guy is ready to throw down. (CC photo by Ed Schipul)
Consider this disturbing possibility: Rick Perry, who in 2012 was the gun-totin'-est, God-fearin'-est candidate in the bunch, might be the most sober, responsible Republican candidate in 2016. As you can tell by his bold new specs, Perry is reinventing himself as he prepares for another run at the presidency in 2016, a reinvention Michelle Cottle documents in this long article (with particular attention paid to those glasses). The "new" Perry thinks social issues are a distraction, says he can reach across the aisle, and wants to focus on his executive experience and economic record. Whatever else you might say about Perry, it at least appears that he's thinking this whole thing through and has some idea of what his next candidacy will be about. Which leads me to the question in the title of this post: What is the GOP primary as a whole going to be about? The easy answer is that it'll be a "battle for the soul of the Republican party," a phrase I'm guessing we'll hear about a zillion...

The Dumbest Affectation in Congress

You know why I sleep on the couch every night? Because I'm a dog, not a member of Congress. (Flickr/Justin Quan)
There are a lot of stupid things members of Congress do to show the folks back home that though they moved hell and high water to get their jobs in Washington, D.C., they find everything about the place repugnant and despicable, and can't wait to get away. But there are few pieces of posturing more inane than the decision to sleep in your Capitol Hill office as a demonstration that you haven't gone native like all those sellouts with their apartments and closets and bathrooms. I can see how a newly elected member might decide to sleep in her office while she gets settled and looks for a place. And being in Congress can be financially and logistically taxing, particularly for those who come from the West coast—you have to maintain two homes, and are expected to fly back nearly every weekend to shake hands at the county fair and pose for pictures at the senior center. But in the last few years it's become de rigueur , particularly among Tea Partiers, to make a statement of their...

The Agony of the Red State Democrat

A voter giving West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant a piece of his mind.
Yesterday, conservatives enjoyed a moment of pleasure at the expense of Natalie Tennant, a Democratic candidate for Senate in the formerly Democratic state of West Virginia (more on that in a moment). The video is a little hard to understand without knowing the context of what she and this voter are talking about, but the essence is that he's unhappy about a decision by the EPA that apparently has something to do with coal, Tennant says she agrees with him, and he asks how she could support President Obama. I'm pretty sure this guy isn't going to vote for her in a million years, but since she's running for office, Tennant has to act like she might be able to win this fellow over, and the result is a terribly awkward few moments. It ends when a supporter of hers, who turns out to be a retired general who led the West Virginia National Guard, steps in to help her in her floundering and says that "on most of [Obama's] policies and stuff she supports," but not his policies on coal. The...

Why Moderate Districts Don't Produce Moderate Congressmembers

Flickr/KP Tripathi
As I was writing this piece about the difference between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in Congress and why the latter don't act in the same ways as the former, I began thinking about those members who don't represent the ideology of their districts very well. How many of them are there, and how far away are they from their voters? In particular, I thought about the case of Scott Garrett, the congressman who represents the swing district in the northern New Jersey suburbs where I grew up. Romney beat Obama in that district by 3 points in 2012, so you'd think it would be represented by a moderate Republican. And for many years it was (with somewhat different borders prior to the post-2010 redistricting), by Marge Roukema, one of the last of the moderate, pro-choice Republicans. But Garrett votes more like he comes from Alabama than New Jersey. In 2013, he was one of only 15 House Republicans to get the American Conservative Union's "Defenders of Liberty" award for...

Liberal Heroes Miss the Mark in Today's Times Columns

(AP Photo/ Francisco Seco)
New York Times columnist Charles Blow sure blew one this morning and, for good measure, so did Paul Krugman—our two most reliably liberal and intelligent columnists! Blow’s subject was the do-nothing Congress. Ordinarily thoughtful and original, this time Blow fell into the media cliché of assigning symmetrical partisan blame for Congressional inaction, as if the two parties were equally culpable. The piece was full of Blow’s signature: accurate statistics. This Congress has passed only 108 pieces of substantive legislation, the lowest in decades, he reports. It was in session an average of only 28 hours a week. Citing the usual cause of “polarization,” Blow indignantly concluded: “Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress. Their full time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.” Excuse me, but the problem is not “Congress.” One party—the Democratic Party— behaves quite normally, seeking to do the public’s business. The other...

Ted Cruz, Legislative Innovator

Who, li'l old me? (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
C ongress, it is said, is divided into "work horses" and "show horses." The former try to make laws, while the latter worry more about whether they can get on TV. Plenty of members try to be both, but there are a surprising number that don't even bother legislating. And these days, being a show horse offers a much clearer path to one day running for president. It's still technically possible to spend a few decades crafting a legislative record and working your way up the leadership ladder, then eventually get your party's nomination, like Bob Dole did. But it's a hell of a lot easier to inject yourself into a few controversies, make some notable speeches, and take a trip or two to Iowa. Do that, and like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz (or Barack Obama), you can run for president in your first term. Cruz, however, is doing something completely new. He may not bother to introduce any bills, but he is creating a new kind of legislative innovation. Perhaps for the first time in American history—I...

Eric Cantor Shows Why We Need to Get Rid of Special House Elections

So long, suckers! (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
L ike a high school senior who already has a job lined up for the fall and wonders why he should bother going to school for the last few weeks, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor apparently can't bear the thought of showing up for work for the remainder of his term after having lost his primary election. So instead of just phoning it in for a few months (or not showing up at all—who'd notice or care?), he has decided to resign his seat as of August 18th. He's asking Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe to hold a special election to coincide with the November 4th election, so his successor could take office immediately. "I want to make sure that the constituents in the 7th District will have a voice in what will be a very consequential lame-duck session," he said. Just not his voice, I guess because he wants to get a jump-start on that lobbying career. I'm not even sure how that would work—would voters cast ballots for one set of candidates to serve from November to January, and...

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