Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 8 2014 1:51 PM

Cleveland Is the Perfect City to Host the 2016 Republican Convention

The Republican National Committee toured this great nation and made a decision: It will hold the 2016 convention in Cleveland. The D.C. press corps has received the news with all the joy of a small child getting to spend the weekend with the uncle who smells weird and doesn't even have an Xbox.

The criticism is misguided. People: Political conventions are terrible. They transform pleasant downtowns into police states. They produce faux news stories to news-news stories at a ratio of roughly 1252-to-1. (Remember how the Democrats "took God out of the platform" in 2012? No? Good, you've replaced that memory with a useful one.) You do not want to see a tourist city at the height of convention season—imagine going to Venice or Brugge if entire sections were cordoned off by $50 million worth of public security forces.

No, here's what you need for a convention: an arena, a downtown, and an airport. Cleveland has all of those things. Unlike Tampa, host of a 2012 Republican convention that stranded delegates as far as 45 minutes away from the arena (seriously, and I was with the Iowa delegation), it spreads in a nice ameba pattern with no pesky bays or gulfs taking up real estate. In July, when this convention is likely to be held, average temperatures only rise to 80 or so—10 degrees cooler than Tampa, with far fewer hurricanes. It's an easy road trip through battleground states for us East Coast political hacks.

Plus, it's Cleveland. It's great! Lobbyists can fight it out to host events at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Reporters can go to authentic German and Polish restaurants to conduct interviews with real working-class voters, preserved as if in an open-air museum. For further reading, consult ThinkProgress' trolling guide on how Cleveland (like most large cities) is run by liberals who will irritate Republicans. (Side note: Republicans have not won the state that played host to their convention since 1992, though they came close in Florida last time.)

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July 8 2014 11:30 AM

Ted Cruz Wants an Investigation into the Mississippi Senate Race

It's easy to forget that Sen. Ted Cruz is technically the National Republican Senatorial Committee's vice chairman for grassroots outreach. He owes the conservative base, the Tea Party, et al. more than he owes the D.C. wing of the party; I think that was emphasized again when he went on the revanchist radio show of Mark Levin to endorse every argument against the Mississippi election count. Cruz:

What the DC machine did was not try to grow the party, but instead the ads they ran were racially charged false attacks and they were explicit promises to continue and expand the welfare state. And nobody is suggesting that the Democrats who voted in the primary will actually vote Republican in the general election. Instead they were just recruited to decide who the Republican nominee was. And that’s unprincipled and it’s wrong. But even more troubling is in the past week or so we’ve seen serious allegations of voter fraud. And I very much hope that no Republican was involved in voter fraud. But these allegations need to be vigorously investigated and anyone involved in criminal conduct should be prosecuted.

Cruz, here, is endorsing the argument that his fellow senator, Thad Cochran, squeaked to renomination only because his allies called the Tea Party racist and exploited black votes. To be fair, there's no evidence that Cruz crashed last week's Cochran conference call.

July 8 2014 10:26 AM

The Plot to Bring Down Bob Menendez Was Actually Brilliant

This morning's post about the great Bob Menendez turned into an epic prose poem about how a fake story got out of hand. It happens. But on the way out the door, it's worth considering what the Cubans—if they were behind the story, as Menendez and investigators now think—hoped to get out of the operation. (I hope the operation had a good code name.)

In November 2012, when the Daily Caller ran its first story on the anonymous prostitutes who claimed to have serviced Menendez, the senator was being re-elected to a full term. He was next in line to run the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if two things happened—if his party held the Senate, and if John Kerry became secretary of state. Jackpot, jackpot

All of a sudden, the top Democrat on Foreign Relations was a Cuban-American with a deeply felt and idiosyncratic support for continuing the embargo on the Castros' state. Next in line was California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who had called the embargo "deeply foolish." But really, any Democrat would be less resolute on the embargo than Menendez.

And Menendez takes some hits to the body. The salacious rumors draw attention—political reporters are aware of it, if skeptical of a story they can't confirm—and in early 2013, there's more heat than there would have been otherwise when an office belonging to Menendez's travel buddy/donor Salomon Melgen is raided by the FBI. In February 2013 the New York Times calls on Menendez's Senate colleagues to strip him of his gavel. The biggest newspapers in New Jersey question Menendez's fitness for office, to say nothing of his heavy new responsibilities. Had Menendez stepped away from the committee, or had he resigned, the most powerful Cuba hardliner in the Capitol would have been replaced.

Whoever was behind this took advantage of rumors about Menendez in an attempt to make an Anthony Weiner* out of him. Very clever—doubly clever, when you consider that the story was laundered by Republican operatives (who flogged it to ABC News) and a conservative website.

(Some insights here were provided by my friend, former colleague, and on-the-record Cuban source Matthew Yglesias.)

*Maybe the plotters were unaware of Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who was ensnarled in his first term by the D.C. Madam scandal, won easy re-election in 2010, and is the odds-on favorite to become governor in 2015.

July 8 2014 9:28 AM

The Cubans, the Prostitutes, the Senator, and the Daily Caller

The competition was stiff, but there was no stronger/stranger headline yesterday than "CIA is said to link Cuba to plot to smear senator." Five Washington Post reporters broke the story that Cuban-American (and resolutely pro-embargo) Sen. Bob Menendez was "asking the Justice Department to pursue evidence obtained by U.S. investigators that the Cuban government concocted an elaborate plot to smear him with allegations that he cavorted with underage prostitutes." It had been more than a year since sources in the Menendez "scandal" recanted or disappeared; now, it was reported that the mysterious "Pete Williams," who tried to pitch the story to several outlets but only succeeded with the Daily Caller, was a golem created by "operatives from Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence."

This is generally bad news if you favor normalizaton of relations with Cuba. The past months have seen a renaissance of the sort of cockamamie schemes that defined the early Cold War; first the failure of our intelligence community's fake "Cuban Twitter," now this. It's also incredible news for Menendez, who was never accused of being the cleanest senator. The implosion of the prostitution story drained attention away from Menendez's connection to a wealthy eye doctor who was being investigated by the feds. The fact that Mendendez took tropical vacations with the guy and initially failed to report them became boring, once the trips stopping looking like "sex parties." We knew at the time that Menendez had tapped an aggressive response team. They earned their wage.

Funny enough, so did the conservative media that broke the "story." Now that the entire Menendez scandal may have been concocted by Cubans, it's amazing to remember how the Daily Caller hyped this thing and how no one who worked on the story suffered any consequence. In November 2012, right before Menendez's easy re-election, the DC's Matt Boyle reported that "two women from the Dominican Republic told the Daily Caller that Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez paid them for sex earlier this year." He shared a reporting credit with Charles C. Johnson. Boyle followed up with the claim that "a high-level government official" in the DR was confirming the story of Menendez's "sex parties." (The source was not named.)

In December, Boyle moved to, where he still works. The DC's Menendez beat went to executive editor David Martosko, a longtime conservative PR strategist who had once used a fake name to obtain information on animal rights activists. After a source created a website with Menendez allegations, Martosko wrote confidently that his magazine "reported in November that Menendez purchased the service of prostitutes in that Caribbean nation at a series of alcohol-fueled sex parties." No CYA words like "allegedly" in there! Martosko wrote that ABC News was responding with "radio silence" to the charge that it had known of and passed on the story; future stories, occasionally written in collaboration with Johnson, repeated the claims made by anonymous sources, and attempted to advance the narrative by asking women's groups if they'd call for Menendez to quit—you know, if the story was true. Other outlets tried to get at the story by asking Democrats to awkwardly respond to the rumors.

Still others in the media tried to cover their bases.

After the FBI raided the office of Menendez's wealthy donor/friend/travel partner, Salomon Melgen, the prostitution allegation rose out of the undernews. Other conservative media, led by Sean Hannity, talked more confidently about the "double standard" that was protecting a Democratic senator. The DC, again led by Martosko, attempted to advance the story by reporting that a Ukrainian model who lived at a Melgen-owned property was an "alleged prostitute." This was confirmed, if you want to use that word, in a follow-up story that profiled a "professional escort who travels the East Coast seeing clients in cities from Miami to Boston" and had "identified a photo of Sen. Bob Menendez as a man who paid her for sex."

That story didn't get much pickup, even after Martosko made media rounds on RT and CNN, pronouncing it confirmed and "vetted." On RT, he claimed that the DC's reporters had "talked to a professional booker—a madam, if you will—in New Jersey, who we'll be writing about more."

This was at the end of February. A week later the Washington Post and ABC News reported that a prostitute in the DR had recanted and said she was pushed to lie about Menendez. Martosko insisted that the source was not one of the original DC sources. Next, he threw up dust by pointing out that "a Dominican politician related to a top political donor" to Menendez was pushing the story.

Finally, Martosko wrote an exhaustive piece detailing "what we know" about Menendez and "the ladies of the evening." According to Martosko, "before publishing the story," the magazine "independently corroborated some elements of the women's claims," like Menendez's schedule. "The DC also vetted the source who brought the women forward, and reconfirmed details with that source after The Washington Post's story broke Monday." The magazine, Martosko wrote, was "actively pursuing the story" and had "investigators on the ground." New facts would be reported whether they supported the story, or whether they didn't.

That story, which gave a reporting credit to Johnson, was Martosko's last on the Menendez scandal. He was hired away by the Daily Mail, where reporting a fake story means never saying sorry. On March 22, 2013, after the lawyer representing the prostitutes recanted, the DC rebutted him and editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson said he was "under pressure to change his story." This was the last article on the site about the topic.

It's a remarkable story of blunders and hubris, and here's the kicker—no one has suffered any repurcussions. Last night, I tweeted the last lines of Martosko's final story, and he tweeted back at me with a question: "Shall we go through your catalog next?" In a subsequent tweet, he clarified that he was talking about my 2010 resignation from the Washington Post over crude emails I'd sent to a private journalist/writer listserv. In his mind, running multiple false stories that may have been planted by Cuban intelligence was no different then being caught sending crude emails. Resigning and apologizing for a mistake? No different then being suckered by sources, putting a bunch of possible libel online, taking a new job, and never returning to the story. 

Credit to the people who pushed this story in the first place. They needed to flog it to people who would run it without reservation, and whose readership would believe anything.

Next, why I think the plot to bring down Menendez was actually brilliant.

July 8 2014 12:53 AM

Democratic Strategist Hired to Boost D.C. Football Team Resigns Under Pressure

Just two weeks ago, the Virginia Democratic strategist and blogger Ben Tribbett announced that he'd joined the PR department of Washington, D.C.'s football team. One week later, BuzzFeed's Evan McMorris-Santoro stirred the coals, pointing out that Tribbett had played a key role in pushing the "Macada" tape—the video of then-Sen. George Allen pointlessly insulting an Indian-American tracker with an obscure word for "monkey." He's called that racist; he was now making irony-rich defenses of the Washington team's name.

Tonight, quite late on the East Coast, Tribbett made his exit.

Tribbett's job had become a running and increasingly bitter joke on Virginia's political blogs, helping to restart a debate (which nobody really wanted) about who deserved the credit for "Macaca." A story that had seemed like a weird one-off had, out of the media's scopes, become grinding and irritating. So Tribbett went, his long-lived politics blog already taken over by spammers.

UPDATE: A source points out that Tribbett announced his resignation less than a day after the website Indian Country dug up tweets of his, from 2010, joking about getting the better of an native American who he called "chief" and claimed to have "scalped."

Jokes, again, and totally unnoticed until week two of his job with the D.C. team.

July 7 2014 5:50 PM

And the Chris McDaniel Crusade Continues

Way back on June 27, Chris McDaniel's campaign urged voters who wanted to help with a possible election challenge to contact the law firm of Mitch Tyner. The attorney had run in 2003's Republican gubernatorial primary as a sort of nuisance challenger to Haley Barbour. (He won less than 17 percent of the vote.) He was now going to do ... well, something, once votes were certified.

This afternoon, in a brief press conference that ended before questions were exhausted, Tyner explained the shape a challenge would take. The McDaniel campaign, et al. had examined the voter rolls in 70 of Mississippi's 82 counties. It had not yet proved that more voters crossed over than the gap separating Cochran and McDaniel—roughly 6,700 ballots. Tyner just reminded reporters that "every one of those, every one of those ineligible voters, is going to dilute your vote."

"We don’t have to have 6,700," he explained. "However, I would be surprised if we don’t."

Got that? The campaign would not be able to prove, by the time votes were certified (two hours after the presser), that the election could be invalidated. But it had a hunch. And in the meantime, it would be counting on scrutiny of the operation that elected Cochran, scrutiny that's drawing more eyeballs because McDaniel won't back down.

July 7 2014 2:05 PM

What Conservatives Mean When They Talk About “Race-Baiting” in Mississippi

The Mississippi Senate race, like some Peter Jackson movie from out of hell, refuses to settle on an ending. Over the weekend, state Sen. Chris McDaniel confirmed that he was readying a lawsuit of some kind to challenge the certified election results. The campaign has not yet announced whether anyone has reported a clear incident of fraud, but it continues to offer $1,000 to the first 15 people who do. And McDaniel's allies continue to explain why the election was so unjust, rallying over the weekend to promote the cause and thank conservative reporter Charles Johnson for his coverage.

The ally getting the most attention is Sen. Melanie Sojourner, McDaniel's campaign manager. Her public Facebook page has turned into a graffiti wall of campaign grievances, and her July 4 post has startled liberals for how she defines "race-baiting." If you actually want to understand the mindset keeping McDaniel in the race, though, it's worth reading her.

Where I'm from, in rural Mississippi, I grew up knowing lots a God-fearing, hard-working, independent conservative minded African-American family's [sic]. On the McDaniel Campaign we had two young men from just such family's [sic] on our staff.
This is not what the Cochran campaign did. They did not reach out to African-American Democrats based on sharing a vision of conservative principles. No they abandon those beliefs, told out right lies and made vicious attacks against one of Mississippi's most decorated conservative Republican champions and to make it worse used race baiting tactics to take advantage of African-American voters all for the sake of holding onto a seat to feed their money grubbing, greedy, selfish egos.

Progressive media has described McDaniel's supporters—the ones who crashed last week's Thad Cochran press call, at least—as engaging in "racism" or making "racially tinged" comments. But that's not what they're trying to do. They're arguing, factually, that Cochran's campaign and an outside PAC appealed to black voters by pointing out what he'd done for them (in fiscal terms) and by accusing "the Tea Party" of trying to block their votes. Oh, sure, the Tea Party has spent the postgame trying to literally cancel out the votes of black Democrats, but that's not the point.

The Tea Party, a movement that helped elect Allen West to Congress and helped make Herman Cain—Herman Cain!—a presidential contender, and wants to elect Mia Love to Congress in Utah, believes that conservatives can win black votes while remaining conservative. When West talks about escaping "the liberal plantation," that's what he means. The "racist" party is the one that wins black votes by promising largesse, and the colorblind party aims to win them by talking free markets and social values.

Cochran's allies enjoyed a brief but well-covered honeymoon after the senator won. This election, they argued, proved that Republicans could win black votes by reaching out to black voters. Today, they cancel the demographic apocalypse! 

A problem arose. Black groups, led by Mississippi's NAACP, capitalized on the election by asking Cochran to work with them on their current priorities. Cochran could, for example, sponsor a fix to the Voting Rights Act. Reporters asked if the senator would do so. They got back some word salad, and no committment. 

The Tea Party is absolutely confident of how it wants to win black voters. The "establishment" isn't. Unless we start seeing, say, Ed Gillespie or Thom Tillis reaching out to Southern blacks by promising to restore the Voting Rights Act, we can safely surmise that the Cochran Model was a one-time thing.

July 7 2014 11:09 AM

Nine Times that the Media Has Declared a “Katrina Moment” for Barack Obama

Via the Washington Free Beacon, I see that USA Today's Susan Page used the K-word when the subject of an Obama visit to Texas came up on MSNBC's Daily Rundown.

"It's a Katrina moment, right?" said Page. "He's going to a fundraiser, and not going to the border where there's a crisis?"

It's true, Obama has flown in to observe other disasters. It's also true that "Katrina moment" has overtaken "bullhorn moment"—a reference to George W. Bush's impromptu and inspiring post-9/11 remarks in New York City—as the essential cliché of politics. By my count, at least eight major events prior to today have been compared to Hurricane Katrina, as events that could forever undermine the credibility of the Obama administration. (That's eight plus the one today. Nobody write in about how my list is too short.)

Katrina Moment No. 1: The financial crisis. The initial Obama response to the financial crisis was framed as Katrina-ish in an encouraging sort of way. Seriously! "Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts," wrote Frank Rich in the NYT, "his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed." Honestly, this doesn't sound wrong.

Katrina Moment No. 2: Swine flu. The swine flu outbreak of April 2009! Sure, you may have forgotten it, but at the time Hugh Hewitt asked whether a botched response would destroy the Obama presidency. "A death toll is a death toll, and if one begins to pile up in the U.S. the at least four-day delay in moving decisively to control legal entry into the country from Mexico will be entered in President Obama's account."

Katrina Moment No. 3: The Underwear Bomber. Then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano responded to the lucky apprehension of a dim terrorist by saying "the system worked," inspiring a NYT news analysis about how every flailing administration official was in danger of being compared to Michael "Brownie" Brown. "Hurricane Katrina was a crisis on a different order of magnitude than this event," wrote Peter Baker, "certainly, but the politics of attack and parry do not dwell on context or proportionality."

Katrina Moment No. 4: The Haiti earthquake. Opinions were mixed on this one. In early January 2010, Dan Kennedy argued that Haiti was not "Obama's Katrina," as Haiti is not part of the United States. (I just checked, and this is still true.) But later in the month, the Wall Street Journal cleared that up with a guest op-ed titled "Haiti: Obama's Katrina," and pointing out that "the death toll from Katrina was under 2,000 people" while "deaths in Haiti as of yesterday are at least 150,000."

Katrina Moment No. 5: The BP oil spill. In the summer of 2010, polling showed the public even more critical of the government response there than it had been toward the Katrina response. "This was, of course, New Orleans' Katrina and Mississippi's Katrina," said Brian Williams during an interview with the president. "And you're familiar now that it's getting baked in a little bit in the media that BP was President Obama's Katrina. And it's also getting baked in that the administration was slow off the mark. Is that unfair?" Spoiler: He did think it was unfair.

Katrina Moment No. 6: Hurricane Sandy. To be fair, it was mostly just Sean Hannity saying this. "With the horrifying images of Sandy’s devastation now contrasted with the president’s constant campaigning," he said on Nov. 1, 2012, "this is starting to look like, in my opinion, Obama’s Katrina." This was before the administration's response to Sandy, and Chris Christie's praise for it, helped make New York and New Jersey two of the only states where the Obama vote increased from 2008 to 2012. (The others? Mississippi and Louisiana.)

Katrina Moment No. 7: Benghazi/IRS/NSA. The trinity of scandals that broke out in the late spring 2013 were widely Katrina-fied. "If the president does not soon regain control of the narrative," wrote Todd Eberly, "he is likely to suffer the same fate as his predecessor — a collapse in public confidence and a vastly diminished second term."

Katrina Moment No. 8: Obamacare. In November 2013 this meme took on more force and popularity than any that preceded it, especially after progressives fumed at a media conflating a natural disaster with a website delay. Ron Fournier even argued that the website crisis might be Obama's Katrina and Iraq. "The crises came after a series of unrelated events that had already caused doubt among voters about the presidents," explained Fournier. "To borrow a cliché, Katrina was the last straw."

July 7 2014 10:15 AM

Gun-Running, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Border Crisis

The Fast and Furious scandal, if you've forgotten, concerned the bloody aftermath of a Three Stooges plan to let guns "walk" into Mexico so that federal agents could track down their eventual owners.

Right, right, it didn't make much sense—except as the casus belli for a gun-grab. That was the NRA's going theory from the time the scandal broke to whenever we stopped hearing about it. "Over a period of two or three years, they were running thousands and thousands of guns to the most evil people on Earth," said the NRA's Wayne LaPierre in 2011, with his usual lack of hyperbole. "At the same time they were yelling ’90 percent … of the guns the Mexican drug cartels are using come from the United States.'"

The theory was that the Obama administration wanted to stoke a crisis in order to build political momentum for gun control. No federal gun control bill was backed by the administration until the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. But the mindset—that this White House is so tricky, so venal, so incompetent that it will set Reichstags on fire—is still with us.*

Example: Last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry testified on the crisis of young would-be illegal immigrants surging across the border. He then went on Fox News to speculate about why this was happening.

"We either have an incredibly inept administration, or they're in on this somehow or another," said Perry. "I mean, I hate to be conspiratorial, but I mean, how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?"

ABC News' Martha Raddatz got Perry on the network's Sunday talk show, where she asked him to revise and extend the remarks. "We have been bringing to the attention of President Obama and his administration since 2010, he received a letter from me on the tarmac," Perry said. "I have to believe that when you do not respond in any way, that you are either inept, or you have some ulterior motive of which you are functioning from." Given the chance to explain that he was just using a rhetorical flourish, Perry repeated himself.

And why shouldn't he? The data shows that deportations of undocumented immigrants under 18 have tumbled since a peak in 2008, and tumbled further since Obama's 2012 announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The White House's response: Hey, look again at that 2008 number. In 2008, in the lame-duck session of a presidential year when the party's president and nominee were both immigration reformers, Congress easily passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act. (Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who led the slavery abolition movement, had just been portrayed in a sleeper film.) No one in the House or Senate opposed a law intended to rescue children from exploitative pimps—legislation that allowed young people to attain "special immigrant juvenile status." The Obama administration is citing this as the reason why deportations have plunged, and asked Congress to fix it. We dare you. You just killed immigration reform—now, go ahead and make it easier to for young Central Americans to be sent into sex slavery. (I'm paraphrasing.)

So nothing's going to get done. It's broadly true that the administration has pursued policies that it hoped would make immigration reform easier to pass. The main policy: more processing and removal of illegal immigrants. Through 2013, the Obama administration could say that it was "removing" more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration had. And indeed, the clout and energy of anti-reform groups had faded from 2007 (the last time Congress fought over a bill) to 2012. The hope was that the decreased pressure would cut a path through Congress.

Didn't work. The mistrust just ran too deep. The idea of a bumbling, scheming Obama administration stoking the border crisis for its own gain fits snugly with the 2014 conservative theory of how this administration works.

*To be perfectly fair, incoming White House chief of staff did say "you never let a serious crisis go to waste" back in 2008, meaning that the empowered Democrats would respond to the financial crisis by passing some long-stalled priorities.

July 7 2014 9:26 AM

One Super PAC to End Them All, and Why It Could Beat Scott Brown

In the latest of my ongoing Weigelcasts, I talk to Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and nonpartisan political strategist Mark McKinnon about Mayday PAC, their new (and thus far succesful) campaign to raise a bunch of money and use it to thrust campaign finance reform into the 2014 election. Yes, it is a super PAC designed to scare Congress into ending super PACs. One of the slogans: "Embrace the irony."

Another slogan might be "oh, wow, we're pulling this off." I talked to Lessig and McKinnon slightly before they succeeded in hitting their second-round goal of $5 million in donations and pledges. (Round one was for $1 million.) The project is crowdfunded, with some extremely wealthy people (like libertarian Peter Thiel) committing big money to goals for four reforms, two of them initially proposed by Republicans, two by Democrats.

Why has the slack fallen on campaign finance reform? Not because it stopped being popular, said Lessig. Because the issue won. "The reform community thought, OK—we did it!" he said. "We got McCain-Feingold!" In 13 years since the issue was so powerful that George W. Bush had to sign it (and hope for the Supreme Court to shred it), reformers failed to evolve. Their argument, said Lessig and McKinnon, needs to be that they're expanding access to free speech—vouchers and tax deductions for participating—not limiting it.

I asked Lessig and McKinnon which races they'd get involved in, and when. The latter answer: soon. The former answer: Well, there was a strong hint that recent New Hampshire transplant Scott Brown, who agreed to a super PAC-limiting pledge in his 2012 race but won't agree to a new one, is in Mayday's sights. What better way to announce the return of campaign finance reform than in clubbing a famous candidate in the first presidential primary state, just weeks before candidates start announcing?