Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 3 2014 1:51 PM

And We Would Have Passed Immigration Reform if It Wasn’t for Those Meddling Kids

Mickey Kaus has a lot of fun with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Florida Republican who had refused to let the lamp dim for immigration reform, and who (according to Politico) was this close to getting a damn bill. According to a superb Sueng Min Kim and Carrie Budoff Brown history of "how immigration reform died," Republicans were closer than anyone knew to maybe sort of introducing a bill that a majority of their conference could support. "Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) had been quietly shopping a PowerPoint presentation of a border enforcement and legalization bill to his colleagues and secured soft commitments from at least 120 Republicans," they report.

Kaus is skeptical. So am I—not of the reporting, but of Diaz-Balart's own reliability as a narrator. He has been claiming that he had legislative language and was on the cusp of a breakthrough for at least six months.

Jan. 15, Politico:

Politically, it has always been a very difficult issue — very difficult, very controversial, very emotional, very difficult issue. So it’s a big ask, but I think there’s a lot of people here who are willing to do what they believe is right for the country even above personal, political considerations.
Can you draft legislation that has serious border and interior security, with sufficient leverage to force this or future administrations? I think we have drafted a way to actually do that. Can we deal with the undocumented in a way that is fair, that makes sense, that adheres strictly to the rule of law? I think we’ve also cracked that nut.

March 26, Politico:

Can we deal with the folks that are here in a way that is reasonable, that does not violate the rights of folks who have done things legally, [and] can we strictly adhere to the rule of law? Some of us think we’ve achieved that magic formula.

April 30, Politico:

I’m out there speaking to colleagues on the issue, and every day I get more and more members who understand that what we have right now is unacceptable.

June 4, Roll Call:

Every day I’m getting more and more Republicans — conservatives — who are frankly approaching me saying, ‘How do we move forward?’ I feel very very confident that a majority — a strong majority — of Republicans want to finally tackle this system that everyone understands is broken — with some caveats.

June 30, Roll Call:

The majority of the Republican conference wants to move forward. We still have a shot.

Note that Eric Cantor lost his primary on June 10, and this was apparently the incident that killed Diaz-Balart's momentum (if you can call six months of the same thing "momentum"). Twenty days later, Diaz-Balart was doing his best impression of Kevin Bacon in Animal House.

The reader of that Politico story gets the impression that immigration activists were naive about the House, that they should have worked it harder and earlier. Well, if they were listening to Mario Diaz-Balart, they had nothing to worry about! He had legislation ready to go. Not that you or anyone else could look at it.

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July 3 2014 10:55 AM

Hillaryworld Wants You to Know Her Book Is Selling Just Fine

Hillary Clinton's first memoir featured revelations about how she learned about one of the sex scandals of the century. Her second memoir, Hard Choices, does not. Washington's press corps is salivating over the result of this—the first run of Hard Choices, a million copies, is not going to be sold out soon. In the Huffington Post, Howard Fineman* reports that sales have been falling by 50 percent each week, down to 26,190 in the latest week, and that this might challenge the idea of Clinton's 2016 inevitability. 

Seems silly, but this has burbled up from enough sources to warrant an official response from Correct the Record, a project of David Brock's progressive messaging network (Media Matters, American Bridge) that is fairly explicitly out to defend Clinton. They sent this around yesterday:

ATTACK: The right wing launched an attack that Hillary Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices,” has not been successful so far.
•  “Hard Choices” is #1 on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list for the third week in a row.
•  “Hard Choices” has sold more copies than books by a number of leading Republicans including Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy.
•  “Hard Choices” sold more in its third week than Rand Paul and Jeb Bush’s books did total, combined!
•  In the third week for sale, “Hard Choices,” sold more copies than Scott Walker’s, Rick Santorum’s and Bobby Jindal’s book ever sold.
•  “Hard Choices” is among the year’s most popular nonfiction books, selling approximately 160,000 copies so far, according to the Associated Press and press reports
•   The book’s sales saw less of a drop-off in the percentage of sales in its second week of publication than her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” which went on to sell 1.1 million copies.
•   “Hard Choices” debuted on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list as the No. 1 “Nonfiction Print Hardcover,” No. 1 “Nonfiction E-Book,” and No. 1 “Nonfiction Combined Print & E-Book.”

It goes on like that.

*Fineman's story originally described the sales decline this way:

It now describes it this way:

There is no disclaimer on the page about why the sentence was altered.

July 3 2014 9:48 AM

The Elizabeth Warren Demonization Society

Last weekend, Sen. Elizabeth Warren traveled to Kentucky to stump for Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. The Democratic secretary of state has remained competitive in the race against Sen. Mitch McConnell, and has thus far avoided the damage from some concerted Republican trolling tying her to the Obama administration. Like West Virginia's Natalie Tennant, she's attempting to run as an anti-"Washington" candidate who'll also oppose EPA rules. Tenannt, too, is going to get a campaign visit from Elizabeth Warren this month.

The Republican reaction to the Warren visits has been wholly predictable. "If she's elected her only problem with Barack Obama would be that occasionally he's not liberal enough for her taste," said a McConnell spokesman of Grimes. American Crossroads welcomed Warren to Kentucky with this Web ad, calling Warren the "queen of class warfare" by applying a Tim and Eric-style cut to her 2011 speech about what the rich owe the American system.

The coal thing I get; the EPA thing I get. "The underwhelming candidate has not only failed to separate from the liberal left's anti-coal leaders like Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Elizabeth Warren," said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen, "she has cozied up to them."* Noted. A Democrat in coal country cannot be trusted unless he/she starts each day with a rant against the EPA and a heaping bowl of coal flakes.

But the rest of the political messaging here seems fairly rote. What is Warren talking about when she credits Obama for "squaring his shoulders" and fighting? The creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, opposed by Republicans in Congress but favored by as many as three out of four voters. How unpopular was Warren's "the rich should pay more taxes" riff? Very popular; at the time she said it, voters approved of raising the top tax rate by a 2-to-1 margin.

What makes Warren so fascinating is that her Senate career is the third or fourth act in a fairly long and uncontroversial career as a bankruptcy and finance analyst. In 1999, before Scott Brown was even a state senator, Warren was publishing books about bankruptcy; in 2004 she was appearing on Oprah to talk about personal finance. It's relatively unusual to see someone enjoy a long public career divorced from partisan politics, and then run for office in his/her 60s. Well into her 40s, Warren was actually a Republican.

Does this make her above reproach? Ha, of course not. It's just interesting to watch voters in red states, who likely have unformed opinions of Warren, be told that she is a far-left Democrat more left-wing than Barack Obama. It plays right into Warren's hands, just as attacks from the Chamber of Commerce on Republicans who want to kill the Export-Import Bank play into their hands. It forgets just how far Rand Paul got in 2010 by portraying Washington as the puppeteer and puppet of bailed-out banks.

Warren's trying to remain identified with an issue-specific populism that was broadly popular before she entered politics. Republicans are trying to blur lines and portray anything she does as hopelessly far-left. Didn't really work in 2012; similar tactics and arguments haven't really dented the appeal of Rand Paul. The greater danger, it would seem, is running on absolutely nothing.

*Correction, July 3, 2014: This post originally misspelled NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen's first name.

July 3 2014 8:54 AM

Dead Presidents in Mississippi

Here's a postscript to yesterday's pot-banging insanity in Mississippi. The accusations that have rallied many conservatives (RedState, Mark Levin, Sarah Palin, etc.) back to the Chris McDaniel banner are basically these: He lost only because Democrats illegally crossed over to vote in the GOP primary, and because Sen. Thad Cochran's campaign "bought votes." Cochran's campaign has rebutted the latter charge by arguing that the money handed out to some volunteers was intended for Get Out the Vote Activities. This hasn't satisfied some conservatives, who see the distribution of "walking around money" as a scandal.

Critics are firing back, pointing out that McDaniel's FEC reports reveal that he handed "petty cash" to Dawn Walters, the assistant treasurer of the campaign. And indeed he did.

But a campaign petty cash fund is not typically used for "walking around" purposes. I looked into this only to demonstrate that both sides in Mississippi are now combing the records of an election that was considered over, to see if there's any new advantage to claim.

July 2 2014 6:14 PM

Mississippi Senate Battle Descends Into Madness

A few hours ago, the campaign of Sen. Thad Cochran —which had (understandably) assumed the June 24 primary election to be on the books already—held a press conference to vigorously rebut charges of fraud. For days, Tea Party activists and the campaign of Chris McDaniel had been looking at poll books for evidence of illegal crossover voting, hoping to find enough to cast doubt on the result. In the last 24 hours, the conservative election watchdog True the Vote and the defeated Tea Party umbrella group FreedomWorks had, respectively, sued on behalf of the people scouring poll books and asked for the FBI to investigate a claim that Cochran had bought votes.

The press conference went largely without incident. The same could not be said of a follow-up conference call with national reporters. At 3:46 pm ET, reporter Charles Johnson—who had reported the "vote-buying" story, which went viral on conservative media—tweeted the details of the call, encouraging followers to "crash it with me."

About eight minutes into the rote call, someone butted in to ask the Cochran campaign's Austin Barbour why "it was okay to harvest the votes of black people."

"I will be happy to answer any questions from any members of the media," said Barbour.

The interrupter was not done. "I'd like to know if black people were harvesting cotton, why is it okay to harvest their votes? They're not animals."

"I'm happy to answer any questions from the national media," said Barbour.

"Why did you use black people to get Cochran elected when they're not even Republicans?" asked the interrupter. "You treated them like they were idiots."

The call spiralled into insanity from there, with Barbour jumping off, reporters asking for the interrupter to ID himself (he didn't) and more crashers deploying Obama soundboards and a loop of John Vernon's immortal quote from Animal House. "The time has come for someone to put his foot down, and that foot is me."

Left with no official response or answers from Team Cochran, journalists ran to the wires with stories about the botched call. But this was only the tip of the weirdness iceberg. It baffles the Cochran campaign that Johnson, a freelance journalist with a proud conservative bent, has been able to drive a narrative in this race. I've written a couple of pieces criticizing two Johnson stories—one 2013 piece that raised doubts on Cory Booker's residence in Newark (a story Booker's opponent called a press conference to publicize) and one 2014 piece that mistook a satirical news story for proof that a New York Times reporter had posed in Playgirl. Johnson has predicted that his critics would try to discredit him by bringing up stuff like that, so, having cleared the decks, I offer this brief guide to Johnson's Cochran reporting—which is tweeted in what seems like real time.

1. That time he said the National Republican Senatorial Committee's spokesman is culpable in the suicide of a Tea Party leader.

2. That time he defended paying for the vote-buying story.

3. That time he described his talk with an impressed FBI agent.

4. That time he said Cochran will resign if McDaniel successfully challenges the election.

5. That time he made a Breaking Bad reference to shame Cochran's spokesman.

6. That time he said "bring it on, bitches" to Team Cochran.

7. That time he said he could have run the Romney campaign better than Cochran's strategist.

Johnson cannot be cowed; he frequently names his critics and laughs at the idea they would ever sue him. This is the driving force in the Mississippi Senate race's aftermath.

July 2 2014 4:56 PM

The Actual Department of Defense Embraces the Tim Howard Meme

The best and nerdiest aspect of yesterday's Tim Howard mania was arguably the (brief) vandalism of Wikipedia's Department of Defense page. Inspired by America's goalkeeper and his record 16 saves, some wag altered it, removed the name of Chuck Hagel, and inserted a picture of a post-save Howard.

It took less than 24 hours for the actual DOD to embrace the meme.

That's a picture of Hagel calling Howard, with the official DOD caption: "Tim Howard was named 'Secretary of Defense of the United States of America' for record breaking amount of saves in the U.S. match against the Belgium."

Enjoy this, before the inevitable mushrooming of conservative op-eds making hay of our DOD congratulating a guy whose team lost as America panics anew about losses in Iraq.

July 2 2014 2:59 PM

The Single Best Sign That Clintonworld Is Taking 2016 Seriously

There's been a decent amount of attention focused on the GOP's efforts to scale back the caucus system. It's generally (and correctly) understood that the nonbinding caucuses made it easier for activists to overwhelm establishment Republicans and deliver "wins" (which could be overturned in state conventions, after the media stopped paying attention) to Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. 

Now Mark Barabak reports that Iowa Democrats are doing some pruning of their own.

Spurred in part by pressure from the party’s national leadership — which includes a number of Clinton allies — the Iowa party is considering ways to expand participation in its caucuses, which have been structured in ways that prevent many voters from taking part.
Possible changes include the use of absentee ballots and online voting, allowing those physically absent to participate in the caucuses, which typically occur on a cold winter night and last for hours.

The problem, as Barabak points out, is that turning Iowa into a "primary" state would upset the subtle, ridiculous balance by which the parties keep New Hampshire from losing its "first in the nation" primary and presumably seceding to Canada. The benefit is that a candidate with more soft appeal and less base appeal does better in a primary. Thus: This is good for Hillary Clinton.

It is, though the caucus system in Iowa wasn't Hillary's worst problem in 2008. People forget this, but Hillary struggled throughout 2007 in the Hawkeye State. John Edwards had nearly won the state in 2004; Barack Obama represented a state that shared a border with Iowa. (Illinois, if you've forgotten.) In the first Des Moines Register poll of 2007, Hillary polled third among Iowa Dems, with 21 percent support to Obama's 23 percent and Edwards' 29 percent. Edwards never actually improved on that, but Hillary ended up losing to him by 0.3 percent as Obama surged into the lead.

Iowa's just not a problem for Hillary anymore. In polling this year, her total support has ranged from 59 to 71 percent. What compounded Hillary's problems in 2008 was that Obama out-hustled her in every subsequent caucus, winning 13 of the 14 caucus states. (Hillary won only the popular vote in Nevada, and ended up taking fewer delegates than Obama because he even out-hustled her in congressional district math.)

This was the fatal mistake of the 2008 campaign. It's the best evidence Republicans have when they argue that Clinton is an overrated, error-prone candidate. The news that her allies are looking ahead to shaping and organizing even one caucus state suggests they've actually learned something in six years. (It also means that a future—2024?—Democratic insurgent will have an even tougher time breaking out.)

July 2 2014 11:47 AM

Republicans Can Win the Senate Without Flipping Any Blue States

While writing that post about Obama's poll numbers, I kept getting distracted by the math that defines every race this year. It doesn't really matter whether the president's national approval numbers are in the low 40s or the high 40s. National poll numbers include results from voters in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and some smaller states (Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont) that vote reliably for Democrats. It's the Senate that matters this year, and none of the states I mentioned features competitive Senate races. The GOP could take control of the Senate without winning a single state that voted for Obama in 2012.

Obvious, maybe, but compare this situation with the one of 2006. When the Democrats captured the Senate, they could afford no errors. In the red Bush states of Florida, Nebraska, North Dakota, and West Virginia, they needed their incumbents to run again. They did so, and won easily. (Three of those incumbents—Ben Nelson, Kent Conrad, and Robert Byrd—have retired or died since 2006.) They needed to find competitive candidates in the four Bush states of Missouri, Montana, Ohio, and Virginia. They did so, and only won two of those races because of the incumbents' own errors. (Sen. Conrad Burns was dogged by the Abramoff scandal, and Sen. George Allen called an Indian tracker "Macaca.") The only competitive race in a state that had voted for John Kerry came in Rhode Island, where incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee had to fend off a Club for Growth primary challenge before losing to now-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

Pretty nip-and-tuck. Compare that with 2014. Republicans are already favored to win the open Senate seats in South Dakota (58–40 for Romney) and West Virginia (62–36 for Romney). In Montana (55–42 for Romney), Rep. Steve Daines has consistently polled ahead of appointed Sen. John Walsh. In Arkansas (61–37 for Romney) and North Carolina (51–48 for Romney), the GOP has nominated the preferred candidates in the establishment. In Alaska (55–41 for Romney), it's likely to get another choice candidate. And in Louisiana (58–41 for Romney), the clustering of Republican candidates is likely to result in a December runoff between Sen. Mary Landrieu and the Republican candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy.

We've heard a lot this year about the GOP challengers in Colorado and New Hampshire and Iowa and Oregon and Virginia. They are all roughly in the position that, say, Claire McCaskill was in 2006—trying to convince an electorate that supported the president to go against his party this year. My point is that all of these ballyhooed new-face-of-the-GOP candidates could hit the mat, and the GOP would still win the Senate, as long as it didn't blow a race in a red state.

I think about this whenever Republicans (Ted Cruz, usually) talk about the legacy of the October 2013 government shutodwn. The GOP could make plenty of strategic mistakes this year, and be outplayed by Democrats, and fail to present an agenda that could win in 2016. It could do all that and win a bunch of Senate seats. Come December 2014, it will be accepted history on the right that all of the GOP's moves in Obama's first term, from shutting down the government to killing immigration reform, resulted in a big win. 

July 2 2014 10:56 AM

How to Read That Poll in Which Obama Is Seen as the “Worst President”

The conservative side of the media is all twitterpated by the new poll from Quinnipiac, its second in a very long-term survey that asks Americans who the best and worst presidents since World War II are. "A new Quinnipiac survey just dubbed him the worst president in six decades," writes human Drudge link algorithim Paul Bedard. "President Obama has topped predecessor George W. Bush in another poll," reports USA Today, "but not one he would like." It's a perfect news story, one that cheers conservatives and causes panic in the ulcer-prone liberal readership.

Well, it's true. Quinnipiac asked 1,446 registered voters the question. The party breakdown: 26 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic, 35 percent independent. Two-thirds of the Republicans and one-third of the Democrats called Obama the worst president since World War II. The result: Thirty-three percent of voters say he's the worst, and only 28 percent say George W. Bush is. And 35 percent of voters say Ronald Reagan was the best president. Hence the headline. 

On just these narrow questions, Democrats have a unique problem. They like several presidents, and they dislike several. They dilute their votes. So you have 34 percent of Democrats calling Bill Clinton our best-post FDR president, 18 percent saying that of JFK, 18 percent saying that of Barack Obama. But 66 percent of Republicans give the honors to Ronald Reagan. That, plus his support from one-third of independents, rockets him to the top of the poll.

It's a similar picture on the "worst" side. In 2006, George W. Bush easily won the "worst president" poll (34 percent of people gave him the no-prize) because independents had turned against him, and because Democrats overwhelmingly had. But Republicans were split. Overall, 13 percent of voters called Jimmy Carter the worst post-World War II president, and 16 percent said that of Bill Clinton. This year, only 8 percent call Carter the worst, and only 3 percent say that of Clinton. Those voters have learned to loathe Barack Obama.

Once you process the old results, this poll looks like most polls in 2014—the president has lost independents, and voters have stopped hating George W. Bush so much. (He paints so well!) If you look at the crosstabs, the percentage of people calling Obama "honest and trustworthy" has actually stabalized and risen since 2013; the percentage calling him a strong leader, also stable.

If you ask me, the truly humiliating number for Democrats comes later, when by a 45–38 margin voters say "the nation would be better off" had Mitt Romney won the presidency. Someone at the White House is reading that, then stewing about how it was just a month ago that the job market returned to its 2008 peak, then bouncing a tennis ball against the way with increasing force and fury.

July 2 2014 9:26 AM

How Mississippi 2014 Became the Tea Party’s Florida 2000

The national media has largely moved on from Mississippi, as the June 24 runoff appeared to deal a historic defeat to Tea Party insurgents, and as it's pretty hot down there right now. In my new piece, I explain why elements of the conservative movement, which we can loosely call "the Tea Party," have dug in and are looking for a way to overturn the election results. As I was filing the piece, this news came in concerning the Texas-based "voter integrity" group.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, True the Vote says its volunteers were denied access to voting records from counties and that the sate Republican Party refused to delay certification of the results until all records were reviewed.
The group is asking a federal judge for an injunction against Hosemann and the GOP so that True the Vote may review all records related to the Republican Party primary runoff for U.S. Senate between incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel.

The origins of that lawsuit are in the post-election push by McDaniel's campaign—which has fundraised and asked for volunteers—to pore over poll books and see whether enough people voted Democratic in the primary, then Republican in the runoff, to challenge the election. State law and a pre-election advisory by the secretary of state warned against this, and while a hasty June 24 poll-watching operation did not catch thousands of crossover voters, the dream still lives.

But as I explain in the piece, the real oomph for the Tea Party's challenge has come from a surprising source—the work of reporter Charles C. Johnson. Two days ago the freelancer posted an interview (which he admits he paid for) with a black pastor who claimed to have taken money to bribe voters. The Cochran campaign, after gawking at the audaciousness of the charge, explained yesterday that, yes, there was money given to volunteers—it was for Election Day turnout, not vote buying. But the "vote buying" story is everywhere, as is the crossover vote story. From the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer:

From RedState's Erick Erickson:

There appear to be documented irregularities of, for example, Democrats who voted in the Democratic primary voting in the Republican runoff. That’s against the rules. Photographic evidence of the ballot books suggest it happened.

Obviously, only the loudest and most passionate McDaniel supporters are working on this. Many conservatives have moved on; there's a fair amount of "give up, you're making us look bad" chatter on Twitter. My point is that an election we all interpreted as a watershed Republican primary, one that expanded the party's base, is being remembered by many conservative activists as a pure fraud. And they can wave this bloody shirt as long as they wish to.