Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 12 2014 5:22 PM

Calling All Sad Clowns

I put a disclaimer at the front of my Robin Williams post today, cautioning that my very quick look at the guy's political comedy was a sidebar of a sidebar. Despite that, I've gotten some irritated email and tweets asking why I wrote a "takedown" of a dead guy and "politicized" his death. 

Short answer: Do you really want reporters to chin-stroke about all the stories outside their beats? This is a politics blog, and Williams had done some political work—presto, blog post.

Long answer: I wasn't sure if the world needed one more "there but for the grace of God" take on Williams' reported suicide. The first-person pronoun has crept into more of my posts and stories over the last 10 years, but, generally, I prefer talking to people or analyzing stories to any kind of navel-gazing.

But inspired by some good stories (especially this from John Tabin) and by some of the treacle that's not really informing anyone, I'll make an exception. If you've never suffered from depression, or had a public career, the suicide of a successful person makes no damn sense. It's the same reason why an artist quitting or breaking his band up makes no sense—you wanted something, and you've finally grabbed it, so why would you ever give that up? What's wrong with you?

Depression is what's wrong with you. I've been medicated for depression since 2001. In 2002, after a particularly low episode, I was taken in by campus police who marked me as a risk for self-harm. I then voluntarily checked myself into a mental hospital.

This was a good thing. The hospital, which was as expensive as a suite in the Burj Al Arab (thank you, health insurance), was staffed by very smart people who actually taught me some coping techniques that should have been obvious. I could have Googled that "depression is anger, turned inward," but instead I learned it after a few forced days of meetings, sharing a bedroom with a grad student who was unable to stay awake for more than a few minutes.

In 2002 I was a college student worrying about whether I'd nail down an internship with a tiny stipend. If I'd imagined a dream job, it'd likely be the one I have now. But success doesn't change the patterns of depression. These are the ways it hits me:

One: You earned none of what you have. You're a fraud. People are going to find out. Everything your critics have said about you, from the guy who lobbed dodgeballs at your head to the hate-mailer who hated your Iowa story, is completely right.

Two: All that other stuff you feel, the negativity and the screw-ups? You definitely earned that, because you're meant to fail. You've succeeded, and you still feel this way? Why, that's proof that you won't possibly feel better.

Three: Nobody truly likes you. They can desert you at any moment. They're succeeding, and you're not. 

It's contradictory, and pointless, and bears very little relationship to the reality of what you're going through. It's unpredictable in a way that makes you feel callow; I've been sad but functional after the deaths of family members, then horribly depressed while walking home on a random Wednesday. The problem with a public career, like Williams had (and most journalists have), is that you're "only as good as your last one." Most of the time, you create something that goes off well, and you can bask in it. And sometimes you pull it off and are sure that you peaked—down you go, down the spiral.

Does this sound pathetic? Good eye. That's one of the realizations that hits you on the way down. How many millions of people are in legitimately less fair, less pleasant situations than you? They cope, and you can't? Like Tabin says, the mind is able to lie to itself. The moments when you need help, anything from tricks you've learned to help from friends to real therapy, are the moments when your synapses are crackling with ways to make you hopeless.

It's a very good thing to see people reacting to the Williams suicide by talking honestly and asking if any of their friends need help. Depression is the weak disease that convinces you it's invincible. And voices of reason can stop that.

Aug. 12 2014 12:51 PM

Bloggers on Trial in Maryland

ROCKVILLE, Maryland—If the blog traffic is a little light today, there's a perfectly cromulent reason. I'm reporting on the trial of bloggers Aaron Walker and William Hoge, reporter Robert Stacy McCain, and Republican strategist/National Bloggers Club founder Ali Akbar. All are being sued by Brett Kimberlin, who was convicted for a rash of bombings in Indiana in the 1970s, and remade himself as a political activist.

Until his multiyear battle with the conservative bloggers started, Kimberlin was best known for claiming to have sold marijuana to a young Dan Quayle, and for organizing opposition to electronic voting machines after the 2004 election. But this is his life now—this lawsuit, a larger federal RICO case against more famous critics (like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin), and managing the personal crises that years of online defamation cases can wreak.

It's a gripping and strange courtroom scene. Kimberlin, who is representing himself, had to fight for the right to testify—the defendants argued that his 1973 perjury conviction made him unable to testify in Maryland. He's still trying to find a way for his oldest daughter to testify; in the meantime, he's cross-examining the bloggers who claim he's a pedophile, as his mother and youngest daughter watch from the back of the room. Akbar, who was shocked when Kimberlin earned the chance to testify, decided to represent himself pro se. Patrick Ostronic, who is representing the conservatives pro bono, gave a limited opening statement, while Akbar used his chance to stare down Kimberlin and ask the jury to end his "30 years" of war on free speech.

The trial is supposed to end today, though Kimberlin's first cross-examination, of Walker, went on so long that the judge reminded him that jurors have lives to get back to. (This was after Kimberlin's opening statement, interrupted dozens of times by objections, as he tied the case to Benghazi, the suicide of Robin Williams, and the motivations that spurred the 9/11 terrorists.)

Aug. 12 2014 10:56 AM

The Forgettable Liberal Politics of Robin Williams

Of all the interesting things to be said about Robin Williams, this is not one of them: The late comedian was a reliable Democrat. Over the years he donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates—Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Al Franken. His political commentary was always liberal, in the general sense that Hollywood is liberal. George W. Bush was stupid; John Ashcroft lost to a dead man; etc. There are good reasons why these routines are not making it into the tributes to Williams. They weren't offensive, just sort of rote, spiced up by Williams' fast-switching impressions.

And I don't see many references to Williams' most explicitly political film, the justly forgotten Man of the Year, a strange, commodifed fever dream of the Bush-era left. Filmed during the pre-surge backlash to the Iraq war, released shortly before the 2006 midterms that gave Democrats their first real electoral victory in a decade, the film starred Williams as Tom Dobbs, the host of a Daily Show lookalike who was so damn honest about politics that he was successfully goaded into running for president.* In this (pretty typical) scene, Dobbs totally #disrupts a presidential debate by making fun of the major-party candidates' corruption and riffing on alternative energy.

The film took a twist that was not implied by the trailer, and seems quaint in a way that "Jon Stewart as truth god" does not. (Even now, in 2014, next-day videos of The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight are guaranteed traffic-makers on liberal news sites.) Dobbs wins the election because the shady company that built America's new voting machines made them busted and rigged. The company, exposed by a whistleblower (Laura Linney), is called Delacroy; the company that mid-aughts liberals worried was stealing elections was Diebold. Man of the Year made back its budget, but failed to anticipate the liberal comedy and snark that, by focusing obsessively on facts and individual stories, would come to define the Obama years.

*Correction, Aug. 12, 2014: This post originally misidentified Robin Williams' character in Man of the Year, Tom Dobbs, as Bob Dobbs.

Aug. 12 2014 8:21 AM

Bold New Idea: Regime Change in Iraq

President Obama gave a short Monday statement of congratulation to the new leaders in Iraq's parliament. Little mistaking the intention—Obama was praising the people who had weakened Nouri al-Maliki's position and removed him as prime minister. Eli Lake has some deep reporting on how we got here.

[T]he president has instructed his diplomats in Washington and Baghdad to find an alternative to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since June those diplomats have quietly supported a member of Maliki’s own political party to be the next prime minister. On Sunday, the effort appeared to pay off, when a majority of Shi’ite politicians threw their weight behind Haidar al-Abadi, leading to Iraq’s president to instruct him to begin forming a new government.

In my story from yesterday, about the struggle among Republicans (politicians, activists) to interpret what's happening in Iraq and why, I note that Mike Huckabee called Maliki a "liar" and blamed him for the failure of modern weapons to get to the Kurds. Anti-Maliki sentiment has been burbling up for months in the American press, which meant, inevitably, that it reached even the Republicans who see themselves as beyond media influence.

Even in Hillary Clinton's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the lede of which was Hillary's insistence that the administration (which she'd left, by that point) missed a chance to intervene in Syria, her consistent message was that the United States had "learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy," while learning the "importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained." One way to read that? For starters, not allowing a weak regime to lose Iraq.

Aug. 11 2014 6:20 PM

Trackers vs. Campaign Gatekeepers: Whoever Wins, We Lose

On first look, it's campaign tracker gold. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who has put some distance between himself and challenger Monica Wehby, scheduled an invite-only event on Social Security. Some septugenarians found their way to the location. As a tracker rolled film, and Merkley's aide Jamal Raad offered the same apology multiple times, the seniors got angry and split.

"This doesn't impress me, and nor does the campaign," says a protester identified by the Oregonian as Alta Lynch.

"I was planning on supporting him whole-heartedly," says Scott Ingalls, the man in the tie-dyed overalls. "Not now."

"Stump for the other one," says Lynch. "That's what I'm gonna do."

How could a campaign do this? How could it brainlessly kick out a guy wearing tie-dyed overalls, as if he was a Republican plant?

Well ... Alta Lynch, of Scappoose, may not have been a die-hard for Merkley. On her Facebook page, she's shared an article about a Wehby meeting about the VA scandal, a meme about Barack Obama being "engulfed in scandals," and a meme that shames "race-baiters." Luke Hammill reports that Merkley apologized to the shut-out constituents anyway, which would have neutered the story, but for the video. And events like these, where politicians talk to vetted audiences, are hardly unique to Merkley, who supplements them with at least one town hall a year in each of Oregon's 36 counties.

So there are two stories here. 1) Campaigns sound ridiculous when they try to keep people out of events using the language of Kafka bureaucrats. 2) Using this, anyone who wants to embarrass the campaign of the candidate they're not voting for should show up with a video camera.

Aug. 11 2014 5:19 PM

Meet the New Florida Gerrymander, Same as the Old Florida Gerrymander

In November 2010 the voters of Florida sent Marco Rubio to represent them in the Senate, Rick Scott to represent them in the governor's office, and a bunch of Republicans to take over open or contested seats. They also passed a ballot measure that would have ended the majority party's monopoly on gerrymandering House seats. It was no secret that this would hurt the GOP, and the ruling party spent big to defeat it, as the Ohio Republicans would spend to defeat a similar measure in 2012. But in Florida, the measure won. The map that gave 50–50 Florida a congressional delegation of 19 Republicans and six Democrats could not survive.

It couldn't, unless Republicans and black Democrats teamed up to save it. And so they did. One of Gov. Scott's first actions was rejection of the ballot measure; Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart teamed up with Rep. Corrine Brown, whose 5th District cut across the black populations from urban Jacksonville to urban Orlando and gave Democrats 2–1 landslide wins. But they eventually lost, and in July, a judge ruled for the supporters of the ballot measure by saying two districts had been drawn illegally to aid Republicans.

What happened next was a bold reassertion of Republican control. The state Senate, given until Aug. 15 to draw a new map, finished its work early and voted it through. If you click that link and look for the 5th District, you may notice that it still snakes from Jacksonville, down into the Orlando area. As Alice Ollstein pointed out, "the new map proposed by state legislators would reduce Brown’s district to 48 percent African-American, while boosting her neighbor’s district–represented by Rep. Dan Webster (R-FL) from 10 to over 12 percent African-American." 

The alliance is unbroken. This is really part of the plan for continuing Republican dominance of congressional and legislative delegations for years. In every Republican-run state with a significant black population, the reliably Democratic black vote is packed into as few districts as possible—Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. As Rick Scott showed in 2010, this is one aspect of Voting Rights Act preclearance that the Republican-run states are perfectly OK with.

Aug. 11 2014 2:49 PM

Sunday Morning Coming Down—With Chuck Todd Fever!

I've spent the day in Rockville, Maryland, covering a trial, but apparently the fetid Beltway below me is talking about this:

Chuck Todd, the NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent, is likely to succeed David Gregory as moderator of "Meet the Press," with the change expected to be announced in coming weeks, top political sources told POLITICO's Mike Allen.
The move is an effort by NBC News President Deborah Turness to restore passion and insider cred to a network treasure that has been adrift since the death of Tim Russert in 2008. 

It's been only weeks since Todd made an underwhelmed announcement after I won his show's trivia contest, so you will know I'm being honest when I say: Oh, please, let this happen. Todd is an inconsolable political junkie, who made his bones at the classic Hotline before joining NBC as an analyst, than reporter. That means he never picked up the preening habits that bedevil some TV interviewers. He goes into interviews with unexpected questions, issues a recognizable, bored "OK" when the subject is clearly retreating into talking points, and comes right back with a hard one.

As good as Todd is, I maintain that the "problem with the Sunday shows" is mostly one of format. It used to be that these shows functioned like candidate murder boards, with few commercial breaks and long, sustained grillings of guests. The turn toward short interviews and panel discussions rendered the typical MTP little better than whatever that CNN show with the British guy was called. More long, hard interviews are good for America, which is why this possible Todd promotion would at least dull some of the pain of Bloomberg axing Al Hunt—his show broke news every week.

Aug. 11 2014 12:57 PM

The Secrets of Chickengate

On the way out of Iowa, a spokesman for the state GOP gave me a small rubber chicken with the website called BraleyChicken. It was, he explained, part of the effort to further the negative brand of Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley, an effort to a make sure that every voter knows that Braley complained about a neighbor who let chickens roam onto the yard of his vacation home.

Oh, sorry, I forgot. The spokesman was Jeff Patch, a former Politico reporter who became an activist, later moving to Iowa. He broke the chicken story at the Iowa Republican. The next day, he said, he climbed on board with the state party. You can see why, because Patch wrote a hell of a narrative.

"From the Classic Deli and Ice Cream Shoppe to the Casey’s General Store," he started, "folks are talking about the hometown boy-turned liberal trial lawyer-turned congressman and his bizarre legal battle with a neighbor over her chickens." In the story that followed, littered with chicken puns, Patch reported of "$1,700 in legal fees" incurred by the homeowners asssociation after Braley launched a "a contentious legal battle." 

The lake netted a $1,748 profit from hosting a triathlon. Braley’s legal fees nearly wiped that out. Two employees received raises from $8 to $9-an-hour. Braley’s legal fees could have put an extra $70.50 in those employees’ pockets each month over the next year. The association needed to purchase new tires for a tractor that cost $1,100. Again, Braley’s litigation caused the association to waste its resources battling a sitting U.S. Representative over a few birds instead of other priorities.

Phil Rucker, the great Washington Post correspondent, traveled to Iowa to explain exactly what happened. Republicans are generally thrilled that the story is out there—it's baffling that Braley pursued this during an election year, and after enduring his gaffe about the unsuitability of a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school" becoming head of Judiciary. (Absent that gaffe, it's hard to imagine this follow-up story getting the same play.) But Rucker's reporting suggests that at least one element of the story was overplayed.

Braley didn't actually sue. The "legal battle" was Braley's call to the association's lawyer, which the attorney recalled as Braley telling him he wanted to "avoid a litigious situation" by talking out whether the chickens violated the community's ban on animals that were not "household pets."

“At no time did I ever — ever — threaten a lawsuit or threaten litigation. Never. And anybody who says that I did is not being truthful,” he said. “This was a personal dispute between my wife and a neighbor because chickens were on our property all the time.”
He added, “I just reached out to somebody I knew expecting to get a phone call back and instead this thing blows up. And I think it’s obvious why, because people who don’t want me to be the next senator from Iowa will stop at nothing to try to drag my family through the mud.”
Dale Howe, who lives next door to the Braleys, said she made a similar complaint to the association board. “I did not think that they should be roaming around,” Howe said of the chickens. But, she added, “We didn’t have the same type of problems [the Braleys] did because they didn't leave their droppings in our yard.”
Even if Braley didn’t threaten a suit, some around Holiday Lake bristled at his tactics.

Right, and Braley's family screwed up by failing to handle this directly with the animals' owner, Pauline Hampton, who went on to build a fence and then tell anyone who asked about how the animals were used for children's therapy (maybe I'm an East Coast elitist, but therapeutic hens?), and has been interviewed for a possible American Crossroads ad. Here's how Crossroads currently dramatizes the situation:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 12.48.26 PM

There was no lawsuit, no farm, and no fence. Just a well-told story that took advantage of how a guy mishandled the problem of chickens shitting on his lawn. So well-told that the Washington Post put it on A1 with no reference to how it started—with a reporter-turned-activist who broke it and then joined the state party to really take the wood to Braley.

Aug. 11 2014 11:34 AM

Ted Cruz’s Seven Conservative Victories, According to Ted Cruz

Molly Ball followed Sen. Ted Cruz down to the annual RedState Gathering  (held this year in Fort Worth), and came back with an evocative story about why conservatives adore the guy. She gets at something that's hard to convey, unless you see Cruz talk to conservatives.

Every politician creates his own version of reality, but Cruz's effect is particularly through-the-looking-glass. "Let me tell you what's not getting a lot of coverage in the mainstream media," Cruz told the Fort Worth crowd. "Conservatives are winning!" He pointed to legislation he had stopped—gun control, IMF reform—and public-relations battles, like the time last month when he "put out a long statement raising a series of questions" about the Federal Aviation Administration's ban on flights to Israel; 36 hours later, "the administration lifted the ban." And he pointed to fights still in progress, like the border bill and repealing Obamacare.

Cruz has done a version of this rundown at most of his major speeches. On Saturday, when he spoke to the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, he boiled the victories down to seven. 

Listicle machine, engage:

1: Defeat of the 2013 gun safety bills, which Cruz attributes to the filibuster threat (of the start of even debating the bills) from him and Mike Lee and Rand Paul. "It gave time for the grassroots to engage. It came time for each of you to light up the phones, to ask your senators: Why aren't you standing for the Second Amendment?"

2: The Hobby Lobby case. 

3. The unanimous passage of Cruz's bill to bar Iran's selected ambassador from the United States.

4. The liberation of Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim, which social conservatives prayed for. "President Obama somehow couldn't bring himself to stand up and say to the government of Sudan, free Meriam Ibrahim."

5. The lifting of the FAA's ban on flights to Israel. (Cruz accidentally started calling this the fourth victory, but corrected himself with a Rick Perry joke. "I could have said 'oops,' but that would make news.")

6. "Immigration"—previously this has meant the squelching of the comprehensive bill, but during this recess, it means the passage in the House of the border bill and DACA defunding favored by Cruz.

7. Obamacare. To be clear, this was not actually a win. "The final victory that we haven't yet won, but we've laid the groundwork to win, is repealing every single word of Obamacare," said Cruz. In Iowa, as he's done elsewhere, Cruz took credit for the backlash to the law by insisting that the 2013 government shutdown fight "elevated the stakes of the debate."

"And a result," said Cruz, "Republicans, instead of competiing for five, six Senate seats, are competing for 10, 11, 12 Senate seats all around the country."

Aug. 11 2014 8:56 AM

Hawaii’s Progressive Tea Party

Few journalists were wise enough to fly west and cover the Hawaii primaries; those who did found two of the year's great election stories. The lede is that Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a personal friend of the Obama family and a fixture in the state's politics for decades, lost renomination by a landslide, as polls showed him losing in a rematch to the state's former Republican lieutenant governor.

But the other story, the other race, was less definitive. One of Abercrombie's most unpopular actions in office was appointing his own LG, Brian Schatz, to fill the seat of the late Daniel Inouye. It bloomed into a full-on controversy when it became known that Inouye had personally asked for Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to take the seat; Abercrombie had denied a dying man his final wish.

And yet, Schatz may have defeated Hanabusa. The current count is 113,800 votes for Schatz and 112,165 for Hanabusa, with a spoiler picking up more than enough votes to change the margin. Polls were all over the place (FiveThirtyEight has been especialy amusing in its effort to analyze ... something, given the lack of data), but it does appear that Schatz succeeded in establishing himself as a down-the-line progressive, worthy of holding the seat against a congresswoman who wasn't as bold.

Examples? Schatz came out early on climate change legislation, any climate change legislation; he joined the "talkathon" to raise awareness of Democratic bills, and said that climate change "deniers" needed to be ridiculed out of the debate, "run out of town rhetorically." And Schatz was one of the first people to sign on to a progressive plan to raise Social Security payments, adjusting COLA upward, co-sponsored by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.

To see how that issue plays in a Democratic party, check out the ad Progressive Change Campaign Committee drew up for social media. Hanabusa had voted for one of the House's budget compromises—therefore, she had voted to "cut Social Security." Schatz supported an alternative that had no chance of passing the Senate, but he'd supported it, and that indicated that a 41-year-old senator who voted with the left might be better for the job than a 63-year-old pol who was forced into compromises. If Schatz holds on, he'll have had the advantages of incumbency, but he'll also represent a strategic lefty victory of the sort the Tea Party has grown used to winning.