Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Sept. 18 2014 8:58 AM

Does This Colorado Poll Show Latino Voters Bailing on the 2014 Election?

Do you remember "unskewed polls"? Do you remember all the fun America had with the (fringe, then more mainstream) conservative theories that 2012's polling was skewed to expect more Democratic voters, and underrating the coming Romney win? It was very funny, and it helped sanctify Nate Silver (this had its downsides), but it might have ruined the punter's game of challenging polls by arguing that they don't reflect the likely electorate.

Throat duly cleared, I will now ask what's up with the Quinnipiac poll of Colorado. Most surveys have shown Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who's been running an aggressive prevent defense against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, narrowly ahead. Quinnipiac has Gardner up 48–40, making a Udall comeback look almost impossible; out of nowhere, Gardner's soared to a +10 favorable rating while Udall is gurgling under the waves at -8. The two candidates are tied among female voters. The optimistic Republican can look at this and say that Gardner's attempt to reframe the abortion issue by promising over-the-counter access to oral contraception has driven a sword through the "war on women" meme.

But man, those crosstabs! Quinnipiac's demographic base was 80 percent white, 9 percent "other/don't know," 8 percent Latino, and 3 percent black. That's anticipating a lower Latino share of the electorate than even in the Tea Party year of 2010, when Latino voters were 12 percent of the total. In 2012, Latinos made up 14 percent of the electorate. And in both years, pollsters generally underrated the total Democratic vote in Colorado by 4 points. Quinnipiac's final 2012 poll of the state had Romney up 1; he lost by 5.

Could Quinnipiac be doing the same thing? Well, it's mid-September, and I don't know. I do know that the last Q-poll of Colorado, which had Gardner up by only 1, anticipated a 13 percent Latino electorate. Since then, the Obama administration has announced that any decision on deferring more deportations of illegal immigrants will be held until after the midterms. It is possible that Gardner's campaign has cracked the "war on women," which would surprise all the women pointing out how unsatisfying "we'll repeal Obamacare and let you spend your paycheck on the pill" is as a message. It is possible that Latino voters have taken some punditocracy advice and decided to sit out the election. Whatever the case, it's always worth checking the demographic crosstabs—unskewing be damned.

Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM

Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity

By now it is clear that whenever the House Science Committee calls a hearing to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency, it is a euphemistic way of allowing congressmen from coal-producing districts to rake climate change over the coals. The title of a hearing Wednesday— “The Administration’s Climate Plan: Failure by Design”—gets that message across.  

This is a shame, for it is both legitimate and important to ask just how a shift from coal-powered plants (which produce 39 percent of the country’s electricity) to lower-emission sources would work. Currently, 74 percent of power plant CO2 emissions are from coal-powered plants. Last year, President Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan, promising to invest millions in developing technologies and standards to reduce carbon pollution. This June, the EPA proposed a new set of rules that asks states to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent from their 2005 levels. Proposals for how to do so are due in 2016. The goal is to meet targets by 2030. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, and Janet McCabe, an EPA administrator, testified before the committee this morning to address questions on these respective initiatives.

As happens so often when it comes to science, politics gets in the way. Observers of Republicans in the House can attest that there are three kinds of climate-policy criticism: outright refusal to accept the evidence of anthropogenic climate change; disbelief that climate change is worth addressing because any policy will be too costly; or accepting scientific evidence but taking a skeptical stance that a policy being proposed is the right way to go. You can see all three on display in clips from today’s hearing, below. (A fourth kind of attack—resorting to ad hominem bashing—sadly also showed up.)

Rep. Dana Rohrbacher of California presents some flippant questions about how harmful CO2 emissions actually are to human health:

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the committee, argues that the impact of the proposed EPA carbon cutting regulation will be offset by pollution from China, and so is not worth implementing. He also has little faith in American leadership (an oddly unpatriotic-seeming stance from a Republican):

Holdren later points out other countries are making efforts to be greener, while in the United States, those efforts are stalled by a poisoned political atmosphere. (In fact, it is worth noting that China and India are both decreasing their “carbon intensity”—which measures emission rate against economic activity—more quickly than the United States.) The air is so thick with acrimony that Rep. Bill Posey of Florida is compelled to make some peacekeeping remarks:

Questions asked subsequent to Rep. Posey’s were thankfully of a more constructive nature. Yet, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia could not resist a parting shot at representative from the White House:

Sept. 17 2014 6:09 PM

Here's Who Voted to Fund Syrian Rebels and Get This ISIS Conflict Really Cooking

There was precious little suspense about today's House vote on an amendment to include funds for the training of Syrian rebels in the CR. The debate was heated, sure, but these debates are always slanted toward the people who want to talk. The pro-funding side was so confident that Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Iraq veteran and leadership ally, took to the floor to mock the people who had not wanted this funding sooner.

"I don’t remember these colleagues stepping forward a month ago," he said. "By many, I was called a warmonger or a guy who wanted to start a war in Iraq."

Kinzger won his gloating rights when the House voted 273 to 156 for the Syria amendment. That number was not far off, actually, from the 296-133 vote twelve years ago that kicked off the Iraq War. But the Iraq War vote almost suceeded with the votes of Republicans alone, 214 of their 222 members voting "aye." This time, only 159 Republicans voted for the funds, and 114 voted against them. Democrats were narrowly with the "no" side, splitting 85-71 against the funds.

So, who voted aye?

Everybody in competitive races. Georgia Rep. John Barrow, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, and West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall are among the very last Democrats in districts that voted for the Romney-Ryan ticket in 2012. They went "aye." So did Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley and Michigan Rep. Gary Peters, both Senate candidates in tough races. On the Republican side, Senate candidates Tom Cotton and Steve Daines voted "aye," as did Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman and Florida Rep. Steve Southerland. They're the only two Republicans in seats that appear now to be toss-ups, with strong Democratic challengers cutting through the headwind.

Most Democratic leaders. The top three Democrats in the House -- Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Jim Clyburn -- were ayes, as was DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The only leadership figure to break with the president was Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

Every Republican leader. From John Boehner to the deputy whip team, the GOP was on board.

Who voted no?

Most anti-Iraq War members. Most of the Democrats who were in the House for the 2002 Iraq vote were against that war. (The 2010 election cut down plenty of the pro-war Blue Dogs, who backed war then claimed to be fiscal conservatives. Strange.) Sixty of the 81 are still serving. Thirty-eight voted no; 22 voted "aye." In general, the Democrats who won their seats by challenging the war in 2006 voted "no." Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, who won her seat by challenging a pro-war Democrat in two primaries, was also a no. Some outliers? New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney voted for the Iraq war and against this amendment; New York Rep. Joe Crowley voted for both.

Sept. 17 2014 5:06 PM

How the First Benghazi Committee Hearing Humbled the Hillary Clinton State Department

The reporter who walked into this morning's first public meeting of the House Special Committee on Benghazi saw something shocking and unforeseeable: empty chairs. Staffers had given the media a couple of dozen chairs on both sides of HVC-210, one of the more accessible rooms in Congress, but there was no queue to see the hearing and no great bustle among the press. Halfway through the hearing, one reporter packed up and left. A careful eye, scanning the room, could see more than a few people yawning or waging unsuccessful battles against their heavy eyelids.

This was sort of the point. South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy had made the first public meeting focus on one of the least juicy aspects of the Benghazi story: "Implementation of the Accountabilty Review Board recommendations." Rather than handing Hillary Clinton a subpoena, rather than airing new accusations from the "scapegoated" whistleblower Raymond Maxwell, Gowdy was going to focus on the issue Democrats always brought up first, the one that sounded like a dodge.

Remember when Hillary Clinton blew up at Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson's questions about Susan Rice's talking points and asked, "What difference, at this point, does it make?"? Her point was that the government should focus on preventing future Benghazis. That seemed to be the point Gowdy, his Republican colleagues, and the minority Democrats agreed on.

The result was two hours of slow-building arguments about whether the State Department's crowded org chart prevented quick action or accountability when it came to diplomatic safety. Only after that did Gowdy take back the mic and set a trap for Gregory Starr, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security who worked briefly under Hillary Clinton and returned to State last year. Gowdy read from an unnamed document full of promises to fix up embassy security.

" 'We praise the ambassador for seeking security enhancements long before the attack,' " said Gowdy. "Do you know what that's from?"

"I believe it’s part of the ARB report," said Starr.

"From nineteen-ninety-nine," said Gowdy, drawing out each number.

Starr cheerfully tried to recover from Gowdy's throat-punch. "After Nairobi, correct?" he asked.

Gowdy moved on. "That was the ARB from 1999, and you can lay it almost perfectly on Benghazi," he said. "They were disappointed that the recommendations after the bombing in Beirut were not implemented."

The Republicans on the panel, from ambitious Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo to the ever-shirtsleeved Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, did not manage to hide their grins as Gowdy dug into the 1999 report.

"'The Secretary of State should personally review the security situation of diplomatic facilities, closing those which are threatened,' " said Gowdy, quoting the report. "Why do you think the 1999 ARB went out of its way to use the word personally?"

Starr paused. "No comment, sir," he said.

Gowdy was temporarily stunned. "Is the answer privileged?" he asked. "That’s a recommendation from the 1999 ARB. The secretary of state should personally review. I’m asking you, with all due respect—we’re not going to get to the word review. We’ve got to get past the word which modifies review, which is personally."

Starr had an answer, finally. "I think ultimately the secretary, who bears responsibility, has to be brought the information necessary for him to make decisions," he said. "That is my job."

Starr went over a few ways that staffers needed to, and did, keep the secretary abreast of security issues. "Your answer mirrors what the 1999 ARB further said," countered Gowdy, "which is first and foremost that the secretary of state should take a personal and active role in carrying out the responsibility of securing the safety of U.S. personnel. Is that being done now, and was it being done prior to your tenure?"

"I have heard every secretary talk about the importance of security," said Starr. "I have heard every secretary state the personnel department that security is their function. That goes for Secretary Albright, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Rice."

Not good enough. "I think words have consequences, and they have meaning, and that people use words intentionally," said Gowdy. "A personal review is not simply talking about it."

Gowdy was hanging Hillary Clinton with Starr's own words. In another context, Democrats might have suggested he was hanging all those other people, included two of George W. Bush's secretaries of state, who presided over attacks on embassies. But ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings and other Democrats stuck to sober promises that Congress wanted to prevent future disasters. They addressed some of those remarks to tourists, who'd shown up to see in person the drama that could decide who wins the next presidential election.

Sept. 17 2014 2:57 PM

ISIS Helps Snuff Out Conservative Opposition to Government-Funding Bill

This almost never happens, so it's worth taking a little time to analyze it. The Club for Growth, which had been one of the hardest-charging opponents of Export-Import Bank renewal, withdrew its "key vote" against the short-term continuing resolution. It was the club that clipped video of then-candidate Barack Obama, in 2008, attacking the bank; it was the club that led a Washington Post piece, by Zach Goldfarb, about how this became a flashpoint issue. Previously, the club and Heritage Action had warned that a "no" vote would be counted on a member's permanent record. Now, Heritage is alone on the limb.

The club's rationale is pretty simple. Yes, the current CR continues the charter of the Ex-Im Bank. Yes, it expires during the lame-duck session in December, not in the new year when everyone agrees that more Republicans will be in Congress. (Ex-Im would continue for another year, smack in the middle of the Leader Mitch McConnell era. Probably.) But "the addition of the ISIS language does not make this a revealing vote about economic policy," said club VP for government policy Andrew Roth. "Instead, it will be largely driven by foreign policy, something the Club for Growth does not take an official position on."

That's it? That's it. When I harangued club spox Barney Keller, and asked whether the club just saw that this version of the CR had too much Democratic support to fail, he returned to Roth's arguments. "It's not more complicated than the vote is about foreign policy and we don't do foreign policy," he said. "The scorecard measures commitment to economic freedom, that's it."

When I asked whether the club perhaps preferred an Ex-Im vote at a later date: "Just because we’re not scoring the vote doesn’t mean we’re not opposed to the CR. It just means we’re not scoring it."

Well, sure, and the club has withdrawn scores before. In the past it's usually been done after a bill was amended to match the policy demands of the club, as in 2011, when a revised version of the House GOP debt limit increase was packed with more spending caps. The decision to walk away from the table because the CR will now be amended to include funds for Syrian rebel training is, perhaps, the first congressional foreign policy win of the Obama administration all year. This bill is like a gigantic soldier with a tiny Trojan Horse inside of it.

Of course, had conservatives rebelled and killed the bill, Democrats were confident that their candidates would be helped.

Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM

Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running

It was one of the year's great political scoops: Eliana Johnson, a reporter for National Review, got her hands on a campaign memo prepared for strategists working for Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn. For those of us in the glamorous trade of political reporting, it was a depressing look behind the curtain. We always assume that our questions are viewed as irritants that must be spun away; we don't necessarily need to see that "every request should be considered on its merits and how it will help or hurt the campaign disseminate its message." Mark Leibovich's story about the memo was illustrated by a cartoon of Nunn, as a robot, being built with cash. How much worse could a campaign get?

Never ask that question. For the past two months, outside groups have been ripping into Nunn with a clever trick. The campaign memo delineated a few "distortions" that the campaign would need to be ready to rebut. For example:

In August, after David Perdue won the Republican primary, the Ending Spending Action Fund put out an anti-Nunn ad that simply pretended the "distortions" of the campaign memo were completely true facts about Nunn. She was a "lightweight." She was "liberal." And "her foundation directed grants to Islamic group tied to radical terrorists."

The terror allegation had been explored in Johnson's original NR piece. According to Johnson, Nunn's Points of Light charity had given grants totaling $33,000 to Islamic Relief USA, which was under the umbrella of Islamic Relief Worldwide. Islamic Relief USA insisted it was an independent entity, but that wasn't the problem. It's best to quote from Nancy Badertscher's report for Politifact.

From 2003 to 2011, MissionFish was a Points of Light business unit that allowed eBay sellers and buyers to direct all or part of the proceeds from a transaction to their favorite charity, Weiss said.
EBay users could donate to any of 20,000 organizations, all of which were registered 501(c)(3) nonprofits or the overseas equivalent, she said.
"These nonprofits were vetted regularly to ensure tax-exempt status, good standing with the IRS, and exclusion from terrorist watch lists," Weiss said.
Islamic Relief USA was one of them and "remains an eBay Giving Works-approved charity," she said. (Points of Light sold MissionFish to eBay in 2011.)
Points of Lights’ IRS 990s show Islamic Relief USA, which describes itself as an independent affiliate of Islamic Relief Worldwide, received about $13,500 in contributions from eBay buyers and sellers in 2006, 2007 and 2010. National Review has corrected its story to show that the $33,000 figure was in error.

So, Points of Light did not directlly give the money to the charity, and the aggregated money that donors had used a POL tool to give was slightly more than one-third of what had been reported. Politifact branded the attack "mostly false."

This did not stop it from running. Earlier this month, Perdue's own campaign went after Nunn with an ad featuring EXACT QUOTES from her campaign plan. (This is rather like saying "I want to debunk the idea that my hair is green" and someone exactly quoting you as saying your "hair is green.") Most dangerously, "in her campaign plan, Michelle Nunn admits she's too liberal, and her foundation gave money to organizations linked to terrorists."

The Nunn campaign carped about this, citing the niggling "not actually true" point. And yet a week later, presto: a new ad, this time tying those people who clicked "Islamic Relief USA" on their eBay charity buttons to the ISIS agents amassing on the border. "Michelle Nunn's own plan says she funded organizations linked to terrorists," warns the new ad. "She's for amnesty, while terrorist organizations say our border breakdown could provide an entry for groups like ISIS."

Leave aside how "amnesty," which is perhaps better defined as support for an immigration bill that features new border funding as well as paths to citizenship, means a glide path for ISIS. This is one of the more tendentious attacks of 2014, based on a line of a memo that was meant to describe tendentious attacks.

Ah, well. It's a step up from the race for this same seat, 12 years ago, in which votes against certain Homeland Security amendments were turned into de facto pallin' around with Bin Laden.

Sept. 17 2014 10:25 AM

An Alaskan Nationalist on the Scottish Independence Movement

My latest story, sort of a lark, looks at how America's eternally optimistic secession movements view the Scottish independence vote. From Vermont to Texas to Oregon—sorry, Cascadia—they are generally cheered, and hope that the attention paid to Scotland will build up other independence movements. The only dissent, from secessionist thinker Kirkpatrick Sale, was that a narrow election in Scotland (whichever way it went) would not mean anything for secessionists. They needed to win their own arguments, about the unaffordability of empire.

After the piece was up, I got a call back from Bob Bird. In 2008, as an Alaskan Independence Party candidate for US Senate, Bird won 4 percent of the vote in a race that now-Sen. Mark Begich won for the Democrats by only 1 percentage point. Bird wanted to clarify that his party did not want Alaska to leave the union. Rather, it wanted an Alaska returned to territorial status, restoring the rights citizens had before the deal that made them residents of the 49th state.

"It would not be secession any more than the Phillippines seceded," said Bird, somewhat confusingly. (I'd have gone with Guam or Puerto Rico.) "We are an empire. Empires normally don’t last very long. They are notorious for imposing one-size-fits-all government. We would see much more respect given to our state than we are receiving right now if we changed the terms of statehood."

An example? "If I owned a 20-acre ranch in Illinois and there’s oil found on it, the oil’s mine. Alaska, by the terms of statehood, has no sub-surface mineral rights. I think the union can and will still work if people in Washington respect the Constitution. But they don’t. It’s not FDR, not even Lincoln, that started this trend. It goes back to Alexander Hamilton."

This wasn't to say that Bird was bearish on Scotland. Quite the contraray. "The Scottish event is perhaps the tip of the iceberg," he said, "and it might create a renewal of respect for states' rights around the world. I hope it survives. Good luck to them!"

Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM

Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of The Death of Klinghoffer After All

Yesterday evening BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray reported that Sen. Ted Cruz would "join a protest outside Lincoln Center on Monday against a controversial opera about the murder of of a disabled American Jew by Palestinian terrorists in 1985." The Death of Klinghoffer, a modernist opera by John Adams that had lost its mania-making powers until very recently, became a target again after the Met announced a new performance and some supporters of Israel demanded it be shut down. (The Death of Klinghoffer dramatizes the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by the PLA, and the murder of the wheelchair-bound Klinghoffer by Arabs who are portrayed in a way that an audience can empathize with.)

Ronn Torossian, a spokesman for the protest, told Gray that Cruz would definitely be there. Cruz's office begs to differ. "We have a scheduling conflict and can't go," says Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the senator. Sure enough, this is the last scheduled week of Senate activity before a pre-election recess, and the idea of a senator leaving votes to appear at a protest four hours up I-95 was a head-scratcher.

Cruz's scheduling conflict saves him from appearing at two controversy-laden events about the Middle East in the space of one week. Last week the senator was famously carried out of a Middle East Christian conference on a wave of heckles. Had he shown up today, Cruz would be on the same team as Ronn Torossian, the promoter who has been organizing against the Met's performance, and who once waxed to Jeffrey Goldberg about the need for Israelis to exterminate Arabs.

Torossian and I started talking about Israel's right to reprisal for terrorist attacks. I was arguing in favor of some sort of proportionality (this was after Jenin, in which the Israeli army chose to root out terrorism block by block rather than bomb the city from the air) but Torossian interrupted: "I think we should kill a hundred Arabs or a thousand Arabs for every one Jew they kill." I was somewhat taken aback, of course, because this is a Nazi idea, rather than a Jewish idea. I asked him to explicate: "If someone from a town blows himself up and kills Jews, we should wipe out the town he's from, kill them all. The Israelis are suckers. They should have destroyed Jenin." He went on like this for some time. 

Anyway: Cruz will not be sharing a stage with that guy.

Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM

Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race

The Senate race in Kansas has become one of those wonderful, unpredictable goat rodeos that renders the modern Data Journalist useless. Nobody predicted that Sen. Pat Roberts would be beatable in a general election; he is now trailing independent candidate Greg Orman in polls, with a 29 percent approval rating. And as Dylan Scott reports, Secretary of State Kris Kobach has lost his battle to keep Democrat Chad Taylor on the November ballot. Taylor, seeing an opportunity for someone else to retire Roberts, attempted to pull out of the race; Kobach argued that the Democrat did not prove he was incapable of serving, and thus had to stay on the ballot. Justice Dan Biles was not convinced by Ed Greim, Kobach's attorney, who wanted him to overlook other candidates whom other secretaries of state had allowed off the ballot with less justification than that offered by Taylor.

"He has discretion on which parts of the law he has to comply with?" Beier said. "Does the secretary have the discretion to decide which parts of the law must be compiled with and which can be dismissed?"
"He has discretion to say whether someone has declared that they are incapable or not," Greim said.
"There are at least four or five letters of the letters you submitted without any kind of acknowledgement," Beier said. "Is he also vested with discretion to ignore that aspect?"

And so on. The punchline, if you have to settle on one, is that Kobach himself has wounded his own re-election. The attorney and Bush administration veteran won an easy 2010 race for his office, promising to go after voter fraud. He helped Alabama write an anti-immigration bill that proved disastrous; he did not manage to round up many ACORN agents, given that the organization stopped existing while he was in office.

But he was in better shape before he started bailing out the Roberts tugboat. In the PPP poll that shows Roberts losing, voters disapprove of Kobach's ballot trick by a 44-26 margin. Kobach leads Democratic opponent Jean Schondorf by a thin 43-42 margin -- none of the other downballot Republicans are in any trouble at all. In another poll, conducted by Survey USA, Kobach trails by a 46-43 margin after previously being tied.

Sept. 16 2014 5:44 PM

“I’m Relieved That 70 Percent of People Believe Our Homeland Is Threatened”

A perfect political compromise has broken out over ISIS. Maybe "broken out" is hyperbole—for a whole month, the preferred position of most members of Congress about Iraq intervention has been that Obama can do what he wants, and Congress can be consulted if that makes things easier. Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston described the position of "a lot of Republicans" as "we can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long."

That wasn't his position. He wanted a vote. But the retiring congressman, who lost a close Senate primary this summer, is not exactly throwing up blockades in order to get that vote. Nobody is. As usual, Roll Call's team of reporters talked to the right people and discovered that few Republican members—20, maybe—planned to vote against the continuing resolution that was delayed for a week to include money for training Syrian rebels. By and large, the members I talked to jumped at a chance to criticize the president, but did not commit to "no" votes. Jonathan Strong talked to Democrats, who criticized the strategy in a different way ("I don't understand the end game"), but were hardly as ready to commit to "no" than they were a year ago, asked to support airstrikes in Syria.

The Republican political position is fundamentally more sound—even if it's sort of easy and nonsensical. Any Republican running for office now can tell woeful tales of a world that Barack Obama set on fire. He can be confident that voters are worried about terrorism in a way they have not been for years. 

"I'm relieved that the two polls came out, the first one being three days ago, that 70 percent of the people believe that our homeland is threatened," Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe said today. "Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal poll came out and said the the same thing. I think that perhaps politicians are misreading the people at home, and running a little bit scared, and not willing to do the right thing. People are smarter than the politicians think they are, for them to understand what the threat is out there."