Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Sept. 12 2014 4:56 PM

Democratic Voters Can Save Harry Reid’s Job, if They Just Realize That He Runs the Senate

Yesterday Greg Sargent talked to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and made a discovery that startles us political obsessives. Lake's firm polled 1,000 "drop-off" voters—people who vote in presidential elections but stay home during midterms—in Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina. (Democrats are increasingly favored in Michigan's Senate race, behind in Kentucky, and tied in the rest.) 

"One of the things that came up," said Lake, "is that these drop-off voters had no idea that control of the Senate was even up for grabs and were even very confused about who controlled it."

This is true for more voters than you'd think. Last year an independent Rasmussen poll found that less than two-thirds of voters know who controls the Senate. It's understandable; it's not like divided control has led to the passage of legislation, or something else worth caring about. Attention on Congress has been highest when Congress has staged a crisis and careened into it.

And this is the point of MoveOn's poll, taken for its "Voters Rising" campaign. The theory is that there are enough voters who basically support the Democrats, but don't know what's at stake, to motivate and elect the party's on-the-edge candidates. The most potent messages for these potential voters, both supported by 71 percent of them: "Republicans will shut down the government again" and "Republicans will cut funding for Head Start and K-12 Education." When told that they could make the difference between keeping the Senate Democratic or letting it fall to Mitch McConnell, 50 percent became "very interested."

When I talked to MoveOn leaders, I wondered if anything could dissuade these voters. How many progressives would stay home, say, because their president was leading new military operations in Iraq?

"There is a deep-seated worry about mission creep," said Ilya Sheyman, MoveOn's executive director. "But progressives aren't isolationists. They're deeply concerned about human rights, and about genocide. And there's some sense that George W. Bush broke this, so as a result of what we've done, we now need to prevent genocide."

And that wasn't how these voters thought, according to MoveOn. They always voted for Democrats. All they needed to be told was how bad Republicans were, and what they stood to gain if Democrats stayed home. MoveOn had seen similar message spike turnout before, as Sasha Issenberg and others had reported, and as MoveOn had learned from targeting its 8 million members in 2012. This is the dream of the final midterm: If Democrats just don't refuse to drop off like they did in 2010, if they show up proportionately, they win.

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Sept. 12 2014 1:26 PM

We Won’t Have Rob Ford to Kick Around Anymore. (We May Have His Brother.)

The Toronto Star has the news: The city's mayor, who no one needs to be reminded is named Rob Ford, is withdrawing from the race for a second term. The proximate cause is not drugs, not this time. He entered hospital upon discovery that he had a tumor in his abdomen. (Ford had steadily been losing weight since he left rehab this year.) An hour before today's 2 p.m. deadline for ballot status, he removed his name.

Some reports on the Ford saga have suggested that he was waging a comeback in the polls. It's a complicated story. Ford retained high levels of support through much of 2013, even after his crack scandal, even after the gaffes that compounded it. He only tumbled behind Olivia Chow, a former MP and the widow of the popular New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, during his 2014 relapse and rehab stint. But Chow lost altitude, especially after John Tory—like Ford, a member of the Conservative Party, and unlike Chow a mayoral candidate who got to meet voters eight years ago—surged into a lead. Tory quickly became the anti-Ford, Chow became irrelevant, and it looked for a while like the mayor might drive up the middle, with resilient support from Etobicoke and the rest of "Ford Nation."

Then he went to the hospital. Chow's first mano-a-mano debate with Tory was set for today. She hadn't been tested against just Tory since June, before her swoon, when in a hypothetical two-man race she led by 2 points. And she will not get that race. Doug Ford, the mayor's more athletic and less self-destructive brother (his gaffe CV is limited to quietly insulting members of the media as "pricks," when he thought the camera mics couldn't catch that), took Ford's old Etobicoke seat. He'd been thinking of running in the Ontario provincial elections this summer (which ended disastrously for the Tories), and was leaving the safe council seat. But as soon as Rob Ford quit the mayoral race, Doug Ford announced that he would swap in. Instead of a mayor who smoked crack as an adult, Toronto may get to elect one who merely dealt drugs as a kid.

Even if the Other Ford triumphs, Rob Ford will no longer rule North America's fourth-largest city. Unless Rob Ford runs for Doug Ford's seat, which used to be the Rob Ford seat (I'm sorry about this), will never see the Full Ford in bloom again.

This was one of two times he invited a reggae band into city hall.

Sept. 12 2014 11:17 AM

Should You Worry About Another Government Shutdown?

Probably not. (Remember Betteridge's law of headlines!) If the House GOP's agenda had survived the week, there would have been a Thursday vote on a measure to fund the government through Dec. 11—a continuing resolution. Senate Democrats had agreed to this. The last shutdown had been great for their party, producing a one-time polling surge that could not be retained as the Obamacare rollout began. As late as Tuesday, Republicans were ready to go.

And then, later that day, the Obama White House asked that funds to train Syrian forces be superglued into the CR. Even though most Republicans who stated a position were in favor of this, the bill was held. Why? Because there was no real hurry—the CR is not needed until Oct. 1—and because Republican leaders need to put out two small fires. One: The current bill includes funding for the Ex-Im Bank, which was seen as a dead letter after Eric Cantor was primaried, but which aggressive lobbying from business groups (Boeing, but plenty of other groups in the Chamber of Commerce) rescued. Two: a campaign by Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to get the House Republicans to extend the CR's funding from December to early 2015. Their reasoning is simple, and not crazy: "Presumably, a lame-duck session would be used to try to pass partisan, unpopular bills in November or December that might be indefensible before the federal election on November 4th."

The irony, and the reason why a real standoff is unlikely, is that Cruz's interests converage with the Chamber of Commerce's/Boehner's. Even if Democrats defy expectations in two months, they are guaranteed to lose at least three Senate seats and a few more House seats. (I'm assuming, say, that West Virginia's Republican candidate for Senate, Shelley Moore Capito, will not suddenly decide to quote from Todd Akin's memoir while personally closing down a coal mine. The frontrunners should remain the frontrunners.) Republicans increasingly believe that they'll win the Senate outright. In any scenario, they're in a stronger negotiating position in 2015. Just as the Ex-Im compromise allows a 2015 fight over the bank, a longer CR would allow the next Congress to kick off with a spending fight against a weakened, lame-duck president.

If Republicans worried about losing clout in the next Congress, they might scrap over what to win this month. But they're not worried. Just as the party avoided turmoil before the 2012 election, when a Romney win looked possible, they're trying to do no harm until all those new red-state senators arrive.

Sept. 12 2014 8:26 AM

Finally, a Sandy Hook Truther You Can Vote for (if You Live in Colorado)

It was almost almost exactly one year ago that the voters of Colorado's 3rd Senate District voted to recall Democrat Angela Giron. It was a lopsided result, much bigger than the one that took out the state Senate president, a 14-point landslide against one of the Democrats who'd represented a fairly conservative district yet dared to vote for gun safety bills in the wake of the Aurora and Newtown shootings.* Giron represented almost all of Pueblo County, which voted for Obama-Biden in 2008 and 2012 but can send conservatives to local offices.*

But Tom Ready might be an insurgent too far. He's running against an incumbent Democrat, Sal Pace, and wasn't expected to win even before their Sept. 10 debate. Pace challenged Ready to explain a Facebook post (now inaccessible) in which he shared theories that the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings were hoaxes perpetuated by the government in order to force a gun-grabbing bill through Congress. (Connecticut and Colorado did pass gun restrictions in the wake of the killings. Far more states loosened their restrictions.) Ready took the bait. "If you recall," he said, "there was a picture of a man walking in, whose daughter had died. He was smiling and joking. When he walked into the room, he turned, and all of a sudden he had tears in his eyes. Why? I question that. You saw these pictures. And, you know, there's a lot of stuff that floats around Facebook. Whether it's true or not, it's called an open discussion." 

The Pueblo Chieftan's Peter Strescino has more, but doesn't explain the conspiracy theory that Ready was referring to. It concerns Robbie Parker, whose daughter Emilie was murdered in Newtown, and who—before one press conference—exhaled and smiled before steeling himself. As Sandy Hook kookery goes, this is pretty derivative. Eighteen years ago, after former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash, a video of Clinton seemingly laughing then "fake-crying" when he spotted a camera was so popular it made it onto Rush Limbaugh's TV show. The thinking is that anyone who is not visibly sad at a sad event may have in fact been behind the tragedy.

Mind-bendingly dumb, right? Dumber than you know. It was one thing when Clinton revealed an insufficient pathos. Many of the Sandy Hook truthers believe that "crisis actors" were the people seen on TV, claiming to be mourning their dead children. Yes, crisis actors, professionals who are tasked with promoting vast conspiracies, yet are so incompetent that they'll slip up in ways that can be DVR'd by Infowars readers.

I can't soft-peddle the strangeness of this stuff. Sandy Hook trutherism came across my Facebook feed (which is a reliable trapeze net of weirdness) again after ISIS's murder of James Foley. There are not one but many videos claiming that Alex Israel, who knew Adam Lanza and appeared on TV to discuss him, is a crisis actress later tapped to play the sister of Foley. Yes, the two women have different voices, noses, bodies, and lives, but the truthers have fonts and editing! (One truther video goes on to claim that the crisis actor who "plays" Foley's brother was tapped to portray Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara killer).*

Metabunk has done a number on this, and to be fair, our Colorado candidate doesn't seem to have bought into the exciting sequel to the Sandy Hook conspiracy. Like all those random state representatives who say dumb things and make news, he is unlikely to rise much further in politics. But a year ago, his part of Colorado went to the polls to oust a Democrat who bought into the post-Sandy Hook "let's do something about guns" parade. You can see why he got cocky.

*Correction, Sept. 12, 2014: This post originally misidentified the Obama-Biden victory of 2012 as the Obama-Biden victory of 2016. While I may end up writing in that ticket two years from now, it will not likely be on the ballot. This post also misspelled Newtown and Elliot Rodger's first name.

Sept. 11 2014 4:59 PM

“The World Is Exploding”

Dick Cheney spoke at AEI yesterday, getting a mite less coverage than he's used to—probably the function of a presidential speech, later that day, that Cheney did not disagree with tactically. If you read the transcript, you'll find a quote from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that sounds almost insanely self-defeating.

When you have a president whose primary concern is  never to, quote, “elevate” America, it’s no surprise that we also have a defense secretary in a serious state of alarm. “The world,” as Secretary Hagel said a few weeks ago, “is exploding all over.”

Cheney sourced the Obama quote to his 2009 U.N. address, but left the Hagel quote hanging in the air. It sort of sounded like a Hagel-ism; we're talking, after all, about the defense secretary who said ISIS was "as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen" and then "beyond anything we've seen," in the same press conference. But if it seemed like "the world is exploding" was a shocking admission, it might have been because it wasn't Hagel's sentiment. It was his paraphrase, a month ago, of a question he seemed to keep getting.

Q: Good afternoon, sir. My question is that, given that the administration's primary focus is on the Pacific theater, how has all of the issues popping up in the world today, Russia, Iraq, Africa, the rest of the theaters pretty much affected that current mission? And how do you foresee that affecting the mission in the future?
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. That's a—go ahead, sit down—that's a question I got often when I was in India and Australia. And the trip I just came from was my sixth trip to the Asia Pacific area in the last year-and-a-half. I've got four planned this calendar year. And so I get that question all the time. It's a legitimate question for the very reasons you asked. The world is exploding all over. And so is the United States going to continue to have the resources, the capabilities, the leadership, the bandwidth to continue with the rebalance toward the Asia Pacific? And the answer is yes. And I think, as what I did in taking questions yesterday on this, it is pretty clear on where we are today and what we have committed to do, we are continuing to do.

The "world is exploding" part of that answer became a hit item at the Weekly Standard; this might have made its harum scarum cameo in a Cheney speech inevitable. Cheney, et al. did to the quote what the larger punditocracy did to Obama's "we have no strategy" quote about ISIS, a comment made after weeks of airstrikes that was interpreted as proof that Obama was acting without aims. And all of this is disconnected to the data or stories of threats to America, which are so easily overrated; Gary Brecher, as usual, is worth reading on that.

Sept. 11 2014 4:12 PM

Campaign Spin of the Day/Week

PHILADELPHIA—A previous post mentioned Tom Corbett, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania who won in the 2010 wave and proceeded to alienate Democrats and strike Republicans as a feckless weakling. The Connecticut-based Quinnipiac poll asked voters whether they planned to vote for Corbett again, or to replace him with Democratic candidate Tom Wolf, a businessman-philanthropist who has not lost a step since his landslide primary win. The new poll gives Wolf a 59-34 lead, the sort of dominance that is rarely overcome this close to an election, and the Steve Esack write-up is chockablock with details about Corbett's pre-deceased status.

It also contains this spin.

On Thursday, the Corbett campaign dismissed the Quinnipiac phone survey results. He pointed to the latest New York Times/CBS News online poll, released Wednesday, that showed Corbett down 11 percentage points.

Yes: To argue that a poll showing Corbett losing by 23 points was inaccurate, the campaign asked people to look at the poll in which he was down by only  11. (Context: Only two polls in 2012 showed Barack Obama beating Mitt Romney by more than 11 points in Pennsylvania. After Romney threw resources into the state, he lost by 5.)

Previously, as Jamison Foser points out, Corbett's campaign rebutted a public poll in which he was losing badly by citing a private poll in which he was ... losing by 7 points.

Why should residents of 49 other states, the District of Columbia, Guam, or the larger world care about this? I can't tell you, but I wanted to share this example of how talking to campaign spokesmen is often like talking to con artists, with the dazzle replaced by mad-lib approved statements.

(Philadelphia dateline/slow-ish pace of posts today courtesy of a story I'm writing for tomorrow. Not about Corbett.)

Sept. 11 2014 2:44 PM

In Praise of Governors Who Are Having Trouble Winning Re-Election

Seth McLaughlin reports on the only 2014 elections that seem to be breaking narrowly for the Democrats—the gubernatorial races in swing states. Democrats are currently set to obliterate Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, and in the hunt against Republican governors in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, and Maine. (The party's candidate for governor of Ohio imploded after a strange caught-in-a-car-with-a-woman scandal.) McLaughlin gets this collection of spox-speak from the DGA: "Democrats are on offense in governors’ races across the country because Republican governors, particularly those who won in blue states in their tea party wave, have gutted funding for education and raised middle-class taxes to pay for giveaways for the wealthiest, big corporations and special interests."

OK, sure. But if given the chance to do it all again, should Wisconsin's Scott Walker have moderated things a bit? Should Michigan's Rick Snyder have vetoed the right-to-work bill? Should Florida's Rick Scott have fought harder to expand Medicaid?

It depends on whether you think they should have been more interested in re-election or in fundamentally altering their states according to their party's prevailing ideology. Even if Snyder loses in Michigan, or Walker loses in Wisconsin—both are basically tied with their opponents right now—both men presided over anti-union reforms that will cripple the Democratic Party four, five, even six iPhone hardware revisions from now. In Wisconsin, union recertification elections have seens steady casualties; in Michigan, while unions have added members, the number of nonunion workers has risen faster than the number of organized workers. And if Mary Burke and Mark Schauer defeat their opponents, they'll be the Democratic governers of states that are slanted to have Republican legislatures until 2021, under gerrymanders approved of by GOP governors elected in census years.

And, hey: Perhaps they'll win. Winning an election by 20 points and winning one by 422 votes found in the truck of the Waukesha County clerk's Kia—they're effectively the same, once you settle into office. Plus, it's not like Corbett gained anything by eventually caving on Medicaid expansion.

Sept. 11 2014 1:17 PM

The ISIS-Bedwetter Watch Continues

My story from last night included new comments from a number of congressmen and senators who remembered the 2002 Iraq war vote and were weighing new action with everything from total bellicosity (Florida Sen. Bill Nelson) to distrust in official sources (Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake). Over at the Intercept, Dan Froomkin cleaves a nice divide between the Congressional Hyperbole Caucus and the Congressional Restraint Caucus. There are not as many members of that team, but one of them stands out:

Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) was talking about an alternate path in a statement he issued on Monday. “I encourage them to employ the same intelligence resources – and the same selective, highly effective means they used to bring down Osama Bin Laden,” he wrote. ”Special operations of this kind do not involve U.S. troops on the ground, the killing of innocent people, or the re-involvement of the United States in another terribly destructive, expensive, open-ended conflict in that region.”

Nolan, like Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, is a Democrat who stands at least some chance of being defeated in eight weeks yet has refused to panic about ISIS and demand we bomb somebody so we can sleep better tonight. Elected in 2012 over a one-and-done Tea Party congressman, Nolan is being challenged by Stewart Mills, the owner of a family sporting goods store who is called "the Republican Brad Pitt" because 1) he is handsome, 2) he is pretty chill, and 3) he has shoulder-length hair. Yet Mills has not really engaged on ISIS. "The people within the 8th District aren't necessarily concerned with foreign policy first," he told a Duluth paper.

Mills may be an outlier. Most every other Republican with ambition has approached ISIS in one of two ways: as a reminder that Barack Obama is a lousy president (most voters in close races agree with that proposition) or as an opportunity to feed the terror-panic. The most churlish example of this probably comes from the Iowa Republican Party, which warns that Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley is "silent about his plan for dealing with the continued terrorist threats posed to America by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (most analysts say the threat is minimal), and backed a plan to "relocate terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the Thomson Correctional Center, which is less than three miles from the Iowa border."

Three miles from the Iowa border! Up to now, Iowans have lived peacefully with the knowledge that 150 criminals are in jail nearby. But terrorist prisoners—they could escape, somehow, and theoretically launch jetpack-based assaults on Dubuque! 

The return of the "scary terror prisoners" trope suggests that the Rick Nolans and Bernie Sanderses of politics will remain outnumbered by the fist-clenching mattress-soakers who understand that voters are easily scared.

Sept. 11 2014 9:48 AM

Watch Ted Cruz Turn a Political Problem Into a Pro-Israel Sister Souljah Moment

Yesterday afternoon the Washington Free Beacon's Alana Goodman reported that an "In Defense of Christians" conference that Sen. Ted Cruz was set to appear at would "feature pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad speakers." The intersection between Arabian Christians and criticism of Israel was going to be in a D.C. ballroom, and Ted Cruz was headed there. 

Another conference speaker, Antioch Church patriarch Gregory III Laham, has claimed a “Zionist conspiracy against Islam” is responsible for al Qaeda attacks on Iraqi Christians.
“It is actually a conspiracy planned by Zionism and some Christians with Zionist orientations, and it aims at undermining and giving a bad image of Islam,” Laham said in 2010, according to the Daily Star.
The Syrian patriarch has been the subject of controversy inside the Catholic Church. In a published message welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Lebanon in 2012, he called on the Holy See to recognize the State of Palestine, causing what the Vatican Insider described as “a great embarrassment to Rome.” In 2013, a prominent French bishop accused Laham of being “an ally politically and financially” of Bashar al-Assad.

This presented a problem for Cruz. He could deliver a real stemwinder, a you-had-to-be-there, Cross-of-Gold classic defense of Middle East Christians. But a future enemy could always say he spoke at a conference "connected to Hezbollah." Just a couple of months after Cruz spoke to Christians United for Israel, this would be dissonant, if nothing else. What could he do?

He could dare the audience to boo him. And boo they did. Tristyn Bloom reports on what Cruz said:

Those who hate Israel hate America. Those who hate Jews hate Christians. If those in this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ. And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians, who behead children, are the very same people who target Jews for their faith, for the same reason

And a citizen journalist captured the hecklers who led Cruz to say could not "stand with" them.

Sister Souljah achievement: Unlocked.

Sept. 10 2014 4:55 PM

And Now, Training the Syrian Rebels

I'm finishing up a piece about Congress's thinking on intervention in Iraq, and how this has been colored by being lied to 12 years ago. From talking to members and senators yesterday, I got the strong impression that Congress was ready to punt on most of the hard decisions. There was little desire for a full vote unless the president was asking for a commitment that could last years, or could go into Syria. Most people, when asked about a vote, seemed to be looking for a way around it.

"It’s always wise to do that," shrugged Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, "although I always tend to give the president leeway in these matters. It’s a tough job, being president."

The pattern was this: Republicans would explain why a feckless and failing President Obama let Iraq fall to pieces, and then commit to supporting (with or without a vote) an action that made sense. Jonathan Weisman has the latest on what the president wants. This week, he called up House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers to ask that the CR that was to be voted on tomorrow be padded with funds for Syrian fighters. Ed O'Keefe talked to Rodgers:

They've known about this problem for over a year, they've known that we were getting to do a [spending bill] and just as I was ready to drop it in the hopper, the president calls and asks if we would consider this. In good faith, we're trying to get briefed up on what the request is, and it's a complicated, big-time change in policy that I'd hate to see us attach to a continuing resolution at the very last minute.

See the pattern? Obama screwed up; here's his money. There's no detectable conservative rebellion to this aspect of the CR. There's not much grumbling about the $5 billion counterterrorism fund that Obama's been asking for. Rather, conservatives (including the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, who do this so frequently that I need to install a keyboard shortcut) are calling for the CR to be stripped of Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, or they'll oppose the thing.

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