Reporting on Politics and Policy.

March 19 2014 3:56 PM

Judge Allows Kansas to Demand Proof of Citizenship for Voting

Via Rick Hasen, the district court in Kansas has ruled for Secretary of State Kris Kobach in his crusade to demand citizenship in exchange for voter ID. Here's the key, I think:

Arizona and Kansas have established that their state laws require their election officials to assess the eligibility of voters by examining proof of their U.S. citizenship beyond a   mere oath. The EAC decision makes the case that the states have other means available to   enforce the citizenship requirement. But the Arizona and Kansas legislatures have decided that   a mere oath is not sufficient to effectuate their citizenship requirements and that concrete proof   of citizenship is required to register to vote. Because the Constitution gives the states exclusive   authority to set voter qualifications under the Qualifications Clause, and because no clear   congressional enactment attempts to preempt this authority, the Court finds that the states’   determination that a mere oath is not sufficient is all the states are required to establish.  

Hasen explains why it matters, in detail, but the short version is this: Republicans have warred for years against the "motor-voter" law, the Clinton-era reform that allows you to get your voter registration at the DMV. One of the goals of the new citizenship requirement was preventing easy registration in Kansas. In the short term, Kobach has succeeded.

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March 19 2014 2:14 PM

Mitch McConnell Dispatches a Cop to Keep an Alt-Weekly Reporter out of a Press Conference

This was supposed to be an easy news cycle for Mitch McConnell. Just as the Senate broke for a weeklong recess, McConnell's campaign put three minutes of b-roll on YouTube, and half the Internet made fun of it. The process of syncing McConnell video to goofy music or '90s sitcoms became known, immediately, as #McConnelling. On Monday in Louisville, McConnell got a free shot at extending the (rare, for him) humanizing story.

And then the cops blocked Joe Sonka from reporting it.

Sonka, age 36, is a political columnist/blogger at Kentucky's LEO Weekly. Like a lot of good alt-weekly reporters, he gets to have fun with his beat, reveal his opinions, and ask questions for profiles. A perusing of his canon finds that he takes shots at both parties' candidates. He joined the paper in 2011, and before that he blogged at Barefoot and Progressive, which has the ideology you'd expect. But Sonka wrote up the b-roll video, the inspiration for #McConnelling, in roughly the same tone as everyone else. ("I’m not saying there’s a spy in the McConnell campaign deliberately putting out ridiculous videos simply to entertain or terrify us.")

On Monday, as he has told other reporters and now told his readers, Sonka was denied access, via email, to a McConnell presser. He showed up anyway. Here's his story of the interaction with campaign manager Jesse Benton.

Once I arrived to the hotel lobby, I walked up to Jesse Benton and said hello. Benton immediately informed me that I was not invited and would not be allowed into the room next to us where the presser was to be held. I looked into the room and noted that it was both large and mostly empty, and Benton informed me that their “limited space” argument for denying me entry was not true at all. Benton gave me a rather bizarre and implausible excuse that another reporter had told them they did not want me covering McConnell’s events, because they didn’t like the questions. Benton refused to say who that supposed reporter was — and every Kentucky reporter I’ve talked to since says this claim by Benton is completely ludicrous. After I told him that he obviously made up that story, I asked him why on earth would I believe that his campaign takes orders from reporters on who can and cannot cover their events, which he struggled to answer.
After some back and forth, Benton offered me what he called a “gentleman’s agreement.” He said I could enter the room to cover the event, but only on the condition that I not ask McConnell any questions. I asked Benton if other reporters would be allowed to ask questions, and he said yes, just not me. After I told him that I would like to ask a question, Benton immediately informed me that he would summon the police to have me arrested if I tried to enter the room.
After pressing Benton with more questions about why he was so afraid to have me ask a question — and the campaign’s multiple and evolving rationale — he finally declared loudly, “Joe! I’m being a gentleman here.” When I replied by asking him how threatening me with arrest for covering a press conference with plenty of room is being a “gentleman,” he cut me off and said, “Joe! You’re not going in there,” and walked away.

Later, when Sonka tried to enter, a police officer was dispatched to deny him. The whole incident's made it to the op-ed pages in Kentucky, with (understandably) not many in the media defending McConnell, and (predictably) the campaign complaining on Twitter about the fuss over a "liberal activist." Neither the larger McConnell campaign nor Benton will talk about this on the record, but what McConnell allies tell me is that the event was private, invite-only, and that Sonka was the sort of reporter who might pull a stunt.

Sonka points to his record of interactions with McConnell, a video of one of them now hosting at the LEO Weekly blog. The press avail was only "private" insofar as it was released to the usual subscribed list of reporters, and Sonka has been removed from that list. According to Sonka, a Rolling Stone reporter who'd simply shown up for the event fretted that he'd be denied access. He wasn't. He got in the room.

March 19 2014 12:09 PM

Rand Paul Is Asking Kentucky to Let Him Run for Senate and President Simultaneously, but Does He Need To?

Kentucky's state Senate, which has been run by Republicans for years, has passed a bill that would clarify state law and allow Rand Paul to run for president while running for re-election to the Senate. Joe Biden ran on two national tickets in 2008, as did Joe Lieberman in 2000, as did Lloyd Bentsen in 1988as did Rand Paul's father, Ron Paul, in his second presidential bid. (He retired from Congress while making his third and final bid.) Sam Youngman reports that two Democrats joined nearly every Republican to pass the bill.

Paul is enjoying a turn as frontrunner for the Republican nomination — "better than even odds to be the next president of the United States," said state Sen. Joe Bowen — after a CNN poll and two notable straw polls put the senator at the top of the field.
"We know there are 318 million people approximately in this country ... and right now you can make a legitimate list of 10 or 12 of them who have a chance to be the next president of the United States," said Sen. Damon Thayer, the sponsor of Senate Bill 205. "Sen. Paul is currently, according to polls and pundits, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to be president of the United States."

I maintain that Paul's presidential odds are overrated by the pollsthe one time Ron Paul was a "frontrunner," for a week or so in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, the media pounced on himbut fair enough for Kentucky. Youngman reports that the state House, currently run by Democrats, is balking at the bill (strangely, they don't buy that it would help the national ambitions of Rep. John Yarmuth, as those ambitions do not exist), but Republicans can try to take the House by the time Paul runs.

If they don't? This really shouldn't be a huge problem. In the off chance he becomes a presidential nominee, Paul could stay on the ballot for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, get on the ballot in 49 other states, then ask the Republicans to put a slate of faithful electorals in place in his home state. The Republican slate, understood to be the Paul-Cruz (I'm assuming) slate, would presumably win Kentucky. When the Electoral College met, the Republicans would give their votes to Paul. This was the ruse/trick/democratic triumph some Southern Democrats used when their party saddled them with John F. Kennedy in 1960.

March 19 2014 10:00 AM

The Birth of the “Draft Ted Cruz for President” Campaign

When the existence of was first pointed out to me, I wondered if a grift was in the offing. The vast, wide Internets are thick with petitions and polls promising that such-and-such Republican will win if you sign this petition. A WhoIs search found that RunTedRun was registered on Sept. 18, 2013, before the government shutdown, but during a time when Cruz (and Utah Sen. Mike Lee) were appearing in TV ads asking voters to sign a defund-Obamacare petition. The site was updated/launched last week. A call to the registrar led to the switchboard of Professional Data Services; a message for Paul Kilgore, listed as the registrant, has not yet been returned. The front end of the site includes not an office, but a P.O. Box and contact form.

Sometimes it pays to be less cynical. RunTedRun is real, founded by former American Majority grassroots trainer and Cruz regional director Raz Shafer, who's still in his 20s. "If I could do something to fight for what the founders fought and died for," he told a profile writer in 2013, "if I could go out and get votes, then that would be good enough for me." At RedState, Shafer laid out his plans and rationale.

I know there are other candidates who may run as conservatives, but I believe Ted Cruz has demonstrated that he’s the only consistent conservative who will do what it takes to roll back Barack Obama’s agenda. He’s the only one who has the passion, principles, and courage needed to deliver real results for Americans.
I’ve never spoken to Ted about him running for president and I honestly don’t know if he will do it, but I do know he won’t succeed unless freedom-loving Americans like you and me begin organizing this effort now.
Ted Cruz is the people’s candidate and we need to be the ones driving the effort to elect him.

Shafer's previous RedState diaries, over a few years, record a long courtship with the Cruz-for-Senate campaign. He's wanted this for a while, but he was a conservative organizer before he was a Cruzophile. He sees Cruz's potential—if not the next president, certainly a terrific force for getting conservatives to sign up for a list.

March 19 2014 9:19 AM

Edward Snowden, Cyborg Thought Leader

It wasn't the newsiest moment in Edward Snowden's address to TED, which he delivered via video that was streamed through a robot. (Check out the picture.) The news, as ever, was probably Snowden's claim that "some of the most important reporting" on his revelations "is yet to come." This is probably true. The archives of documents stolen by Snowden have been enough to support breaking news at the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Pro Publica, to name a few outlets that got some access; an entirely new media company, First Look, was launched on the strength of what Glenn Greenwald, et al. could find in the archives.

So, no, not newsy, but the part of Snowden's Q&A that stuck out to me was his gleeful swipe at Dick Cheney.

At the time Julian Assange was doing his greatest work, Dick Cheney was saying he’d endangered governments worldwide, the skies were going to ignite, seas would boil off. Now he says it was a fleabite. We should be suspicious of overblown claims from these officials. But! Let’s assume that these people really believe this. I would argue they have a narrow conception of national security. The prerogatives of people like Dick Cheney do not keep the nation safe.

This is not the first time Snowden has made fun of Cheney, whose appeal to the D.C. chat circuit has not dimmed even after he helped his daughter make a spectacular hash of a U.S. Senate primary. Last year, Cheney came up on a Guardian chat and Snowden called it an "honor" to be insulted by the guy.

So Snowden, who recently turned 30, is adept at the art of insult trading with political figures. Why does it matter? Well, some of the (embryonic) discussion of whether Snowden should leave Russia and give himself up to American justice comes out of the theory that Snowden should become an advocate for his cause. He has controlled his image like ... well, like a guy who doesn't give out his contact info and lives in a country that American journalists need a visa to visit. In the last few months, he's given interviews to Bart Gellman, SXSW, and TED, all of which 1) broke the news he wanted, 2) avoided the news he didn't (no one has asked him, in a public forum, anything about Russian politics or the Crimean incursion), and 3) allowed him to describe his whistleblowing in heroic terms. In the SXSW interview, he even appeared before a screen blow-up of the Constitution.

Snowden is winning, as shown by the polls and the fumbling responses of American politicians. He's even come up with a reason for his skeptics to distrust the NSA. "If we hack Chinese business and steal its secrets, or those in Berlin, that’s of less value to the American people than making sure that the Chinese can’t get access to our secrets," he said at TED. "In reducing the security of our own communications, they’re putting us at risk in a fundamental way."

Snowden has outlived the D.B. Cooper mystery that defined his public debut, and is now situated for a long game in which he becomes more popular and harder to call a traitor. His revelations already won Greenwald/Poitras the Polk Award. What happens after someone wins the Pulitzer? Check the next white-hat tech conference on the schedule; we'll probably hear it there.

March 18 2014 6:59 PM

“Two Polling Places, Both Inside Police Stations”

It might be gauche to tut-tut the Huffington Post about something and then direct readers to a listicle, but gauche times call for gauche measures. The NAACP's legal defense fund is out with a report that collates every notable example of post-Shelby voter reform in what used to be pre-clearance states. The trend? Well, it's not making voting easier for anyone. Three highlights, which I hadn't seen in the churn of coverage of these issues.

- "The city of Athens (Georgia) considered eliminaing nearly half of its 24 polling places, and replacing them with only two early voting center -- both of which would be located inside police stations."

- Kansas lawmakers "propose reenacting voting provisions – previously blocked by voter referendum – that would allow counties to purge people from the permanent early voter list, a list that counties use to mail ballots prior to every election to individuals, who, after marking their ballot, mail them back or take them to a polling place."

- "The Board of Elections in Forsyth County, North Carolina, considered, but tabled, two proposals that would have (1) placed security officers at the County’s one-stop early voting site, and (2) collected information from individuals or organizations returning voter registration forms."

In each case you've got an idea that sounds sensible to someone—someone who's bottled it up for years, often—and crumbles like week-old bread when it's exactly examined. That's a positive sign, though the rush to pass those laws suggests, retroactively, some wisdom of pre-clearance.

March 18 2014 4:11 PM

The “GOP Lawmaker” Principle: Why You See So Many Articles About Random Right-Wing Politicians

This morning, the Huffington Post's Laura Bassett reported on audio obtained by Alliance for a Better Minnesota—audio that found state Rep. Andrea Kieffer dismissing paid-leave legislation as something that made women look "like whiners." The odds of a Huffington Post reader being represented by Kieffer, or living in Minnesota, were relatively small. But the story went large, and by 2:30 Minnesota time I had received a press blast from the Alliance telling me what Kieffer said. "Her comments have already gained national attention from the Huffington Post," wrote the progressive group.

This is as good a hook I'll find to describe what I've come to know as the the GOP Lawmaker Principle.

As the national electoral plight of Democrats increases, so does the incidence of stories about obscure state Republican lawmakers.

Sure, state lawmakers are important. One of the grand ironies of politics is that people are more likely to know the politicians they're distant from (the president) than the ones with portfolios that cover them at the micro level (school board members). Every Congress contains a substantial number of former state legislators, and in this age of declining local media, not many of them have been scrutinized. 

But as a rule, if you see the phrase "GOP lawmaker" in a headline, your click will usher you into a world of back-benchers from Bismarck and Jackson and Dover and Sacramento, not the people currently threatening to take the Senate back from Democrats. The Lawmakers are anonymous until they screw up, and when they do, they are often easier to grab hold of then, say, front-running South Dakota U.S. Senate candidate Mike Rounds. If the lawmaker were famous, his name might make it into the hed. But he's not famous, so the story is about right-wing insanity that happens to come from a politician who may or may not represent you—click to find out.

A couple of recent examples of the phenomenon, with the number of votes he last received and the Facebook popularity of the item on HuffPost alone.

March 17: GOP Lawmaker Says Businesses Should Be Allowed To Deny Services To Black People. The lawmaker: South Dakota Sen. Phil Jensen. Votes won in last election: 5,722Facebook shares/likes: 18,000.

March 14: GOP Lawmaker: 'Public Education In America Is Socialism' The lawmaker: Ohio state Rep. Andrew Brenner. Votes won in last election: 31,385. Facebook shares/likes: 9,000.

March 11: New Hampshire GOP Lawmaker Jokes About 'Battered Women': 'I Still Eat Mine Plain.' The lawmaker: New Hampshire state Rep. Kyle Tasker. Votes won in last election: 3,469Facebook shares/likes: 9,500.

February 28: Republican Lawmaker Apologizes For Saying Men Should Be Able To Rape Women If Abortion Is Legal. The lawmaker: Maine Rep. Lawrence Lockman. Votes won in last election2,188Facebook shares/likes: 30,000.

February 18: GOP Lawmaker Claims We 'Could Use' Twice As Much Carbon Dioxide In The Atmosphere. The lawmaker: Utah Rep. Jerry Anderson. Votes won in last election6,476. Facebook shares/likes: 7,000.

March 18 2014 3:22 PM

“Congratulations, You’re on Welfare”

My piece from yesterday about the progressive health reform advocates' inability to tell a positive story generated some interesting mail from readers. While I race toward an unrelated deadline, I can share some of the good stuff. From Courtney, a reform advocate:

I know this likely reads like a rant and, perhaps, it is in a way, but my heart breaks that, for all intents and purposes, previously dedicated consumer advocates have rolled over like beaten dogs in their quest to convince people this is a great thing.  And, I am not so blind as to not realize that for many, it may well be a beneficial alternative to current situations but that's not my point.

My point is, why is no one on this side of the fence (progressives) talking about the dangerous weaknesses in the bill and propose improvements to it.  The only "improvements" we hear about are those proposed by the right.  We would not get any such improvement at this time, but setting the stage for the need for them is necessary and also it would be a relief to hear some progressives actually talking about the best interests of the consumers on this issue vs the current wall of silence.

The lack of honesty does not serve anyone well; there have already been stories of how surprised people were to find their doctors of decades are not covered, how their essential medications for serious illnesses are not covered, how they did not understand how high the out of pocket expenses are, etc.

I'm convinced this absurd brief enrollment period was designed to stifle such inquiries; people were made to pretty much rush through this process in choosing plans, then having to sit on hold as I did (for a total 3 hours, 14 minutes for two phone calls to the Exchange here in NY), to sign up quickly to not miss the deadline even as their website was down (again, as I did but eventually changed to another plan when I had more time to research them).

I am disheartened to see that the only people pointing out the pitfalls of this are people on the right and they are doing so mostly because of their concerns for business, not their constituents.

A professor named John:

I am a 30-something professor and pastor who was denied health coverage several years ago after being diagnosed with, and treated for, cancer.  I supported the ACA when it was passed, breathed a sigh of relief when SCOTUS upheald it, and was relieved to see how affordable coverage would be for my family of five when Kentucky's Exchange opened for business late last year.  I am glad to be able to pay for affordable health care once again.
To prove your point, just this past week I was visiting with my grandmother.  She hasn't kept up with my health care saga and was shocked to learn how the ACA had helped me and my family.  She told me that she had not heard of one person who the law had helped (she had only heard of those who did not like it).  Now she knows of at least one, and she was very happy for me.
I wish there was more attention given to folks with stories like mine.  I'm not opposed to hearing about those for whom the ACA is making things more difficult--those are important stories and need to be taken into account--but they are not the only stories!  There are even folks who support the law even though health care is more expensive for them under the ACA. The truth, as always, is more complex than many news outlets and their viewers want it to be.

And from a reader named Brian:

I am one of the people that has been helped by Obamacare. My policy costs $284.50. After a subsidy of $282, I pay $2.50 a month net. It has a $500 deductible with a $750 total out of pocket. I was flabbergasted that it was such a deal. I told friends about this and the first person, instead of being happy for me, said, "Congratulations, you are now on welfare, you should be so proud." This pretty much shut me up and made me feel embarrassed about the subsidy. I dont look at it as welfare but I guess a lot of people do.

March 18 2014 12:59 PM

Joe Manchin, Grover Norquist, and the Economic Consensus of #ThisTown

Last night I joined a group of hacks, economists, bankers, politicians, and intellectuals for a dinner preceding the Atlantic's annual Economy Summit. These things are perks/curses for the longtime D.C. reporter—free dinner, stimulating conversation, some gritting of teeth as people ask you why both parties can't just come together and pass a long-term economic revival plan to help America beat China. It's interesting to pull your head up from the trough of daily politics and meet people who can't believe how stupid and nasty it's all become.

Happily, this year's dinner included an actual politician—West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin—and was kept on the record. Manchin was separated by only one seat from Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, who used his time to deliver short remarks about how, since 2011, the stock market had behaved the same whether Congress was in or out of session (this was new), and how Republican-run states were providing real-time policy experiments, and proving his side right.

"What about California?" snapped one columnist. "California's got a balanced budget."

"Right, but look where people are moving," responded Norquist.

So, the kind of event where that response ended the exchange. It had been a while since I'd seen Manchin riff on fiscal policy, and he was exactly what the room wanted—a Democrat deeply concerned with long-term debt and ready to cut entitlement spending.

"Republicans and Democrats can't even agree on the definition of revenue," he said. "What I would do, in a heartbeat, is I would change Social Security completely. I would do it on an inflationary basis, as far as paying into payroll taxes, and change that, to keep us stabalized as far as cash flow. I'd do COLAs—I'd talk about COLA for 250 percent of poverty guidelines."

The macroeconomist Peter Morici interrupted Manchin. "You basically cut benefits to old people?" he asked.

"No, a rich old person, you won't get the COLAs," said Manchin. "Do you want chained CPI? I can live with either one."

Manchin stayed through the whole dinner, and hung out afterward, as a spokesman made sure nothing untoward happened. Toward the end, the senator turned to Norquist and pressured him to go easy on Republicans who might, theoretically, cut a deal that increased revenue dynamically. The tax cut icon was unmoved.

"In 2015," he said, "Sen. McConnell and Sen. Schumer will get something done." I.e., Democrats would lose control of the Senate and Republicans would force a deal.

March 18 2014 10:34 AM

Surgeon General Nominee Blocked Because Democrats Tremble in Fear of the NRA

Let's say you work for the NRA. You faced a semi-close call in early 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. For the first time in half a generation, a gun control measure got a vote—a watery version of enhanced background checks—but four Democrats and nearly every Republican opposed it, allowing it to be sunk by a filibuster. By now you've got a pretty good idea of which party to back in 2014. And really, when November comes, are you going to be tempted to bail out Mark Pryor by endorsing him over Tom Cotton? Of course you're not.

So how hard are you laughing at the blockade of Vivek Murthy's nomination to be surgeon general? It was a classic drive-by shooting, an early push by the NRA that escaped the attention of the media until the target was beyond help. Reports Lisa Mascaro:

Democratic leaders in the Senate have begun surveying senators to determine whether there is enough support to save the troubled nomination. Few Republicans are expected to back Murthy, and as many as eight Democrats also could be opposed.
"We don't expect a vote to happen," a Senate aide said.

That means that at least three Democrats who were comfortable supporting Manchin-Toomey, plus probably Montana's new Sen. John Walsh, lost their sea legs after reading the NRA's Feb. 26 letter. Its brief against Murthy was based in large part on letters sent by the group he founded, Doctors for America, during the post-Sandy Hook debate. DFA had, for example, called on Congress to "remove the provision in the Affordable Care Act and other federal policies that prohibit physicians from documenting gun ownership." This was never going to happen—provisions like that had secured red-state-Democrat votes in the first place—but the NRA's Chris Cox argued that it was put there to "foster trust between gun owners and their physicians, ensuring that the information exchanged during an exam will not be used to curb the patient's rights."

The fear held by a Kay Hagan or Mary Landrieu was that a vote for Murthy would be a vote for "an assault weapons ban" or "government challenging your right to own a gun" is sort of legitimate. But it's not like either candidate was going to be spared; look at the ads the NRA ran against Barack Obama in 2012, after four years of no gun legislation. The gun lobby's influence has recently depended on soft power and fear of backlash, and the Murthy blockage restores that influence.