Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 24 2014 10:16 AM

A Congressman Signs Up for the Dinesh D’Souza Tantrum Tour

Dinesh D'Souza's America—a movie and companion book not to be confused with the country in which most readers are seeing this post—is trudging toward a decent performance. Not a blockbuster, but decent. Last weekend America finally started to be removed from theaters, and its box office gross fell 30 percent from the previous weekend. That's comparable to the fall-off for 22 Jump Street, a movie people are seeing without being told that their ticket sale will make a political statement. At this rate, the movie will be lucky to gross half as much as D'Souza's surprise 2012 hit, 2016: Obama's America.

Enter Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the pot-decriminalizing, climate change-denying iconoclast conservative from SoCal, who tells the Hollywood Reporter that Congress should investigate whether Google biased search results against the movie. The company buckled after America producers wrote a letter asking why their movie was not showing up swiftly in searches for the seven-letter word. It was being outpaced, for a while, by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie with an anti-surveillance theme that has grossed almost $250,000,000 more than D'Souza's widely panned documentary.

Rohrabacher:

This doesn't deserve to be ignored. We need to verify the statistics in some way, and I will be suggesting the appropriate committee or subcommittee have some kind of hearing on this. We know there were significant incidences, and that would suggest there was intent behind Google's nonperformance.

In other words, the federal government should investigate a private company to determine whether it ever biased search results against a privately distributed movie, even after the results were rejiggered so successfully that when you now type in America, you are immediately informed of which nearby empty theater is playing the D'Souza movie.

It's a fun story, but Rohrabacher is a pretty marginal figure on the Hill. (He's the 13th-most senior Republican, and will become the ninth-most senior after the 2014 elections, but he's never held a leadership position or a full committee chairmanship.) The threat of hearings is mostly a reflection of D'Souza's successful campaign to cry "censor" and "bias" and draw more attention to the content he's selling. 

Anyway. Today, Rep. Paul Ryan will release the poverty-fighting plan he has been talking about for most of 2014. The conservative discussion will resettle.

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July 24 2014 8:55 AM

Right-Wing Groups Just Scored Their First Victory Over Kevin McCarthy

When conservative outside groups fail to defeat a bill in Congress, the cheers come from all over D.C. Business groups mock the incompetence of the groups; Republican leaders declare that they've been taught a hard lesson by the shutdown; Democrats just like to see 'em lose. The House's passage last week of the highway trust fund bill overcame opposition from the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which made the passage look like a big win. (Easy to forget that it was the latest way to mark time because Republicans and endangered Democrats don't want to raise the gas tax.)

There's been less coverage of this week's narrow conservative win. The Securing Energy Critical Elements and American Jobs Act, or SECEAJA (not a lot of thought put into that acronym) was the brainchild of Rep. Eric Swalwell, a freshman Democrat from nothern California. If Swalwell succeeded, his bill would have replaced a 30-year old rare earth elements bill with a new regime that would reward companies/researchers who were stretching the uses of the elements. (This is superficially pretty boring, so the lack of coverage makes sense. I certainly didn't notice it!) It would, for example, give the Department of Energy new ability to make loan guarantees "for the commercial application of new or significantly improved technologies."

Loan guarantees? Shades of Solyndra; shades of the Export-Import Bank. It was easy for conservative groups to make a case against this bill. Picking themselves right up after the highway fund defeat, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth told conservatives to kill the bill. Rather than incentivizing new programs, argued Heritage, "the government should open access to the 13 states where rare earths lie and establish an efficient regulatory pathway that provides companies the certainty needed to extract REE." The Club, warning about the loan guarantees: "We can only assume that supporters of this bill will seek to implement these guarantees after this program has firmly found its place in the federal government after a few years."

It worked. Swalwell's bill was introduced under suspension of the rules, protecting from amendments (like, say, one that would legalize mining in public land, which was the gist of Heritage's argument). The bill needed 269 votes; it topped out at 260. A majority of the GOP conference, 142 members, voted "no." 

Swalwell immediately fingered the conservative groups, accusing Republicans of being cowed, panicking that "the Department of Defense will continue to be at the mercy of China." Certainly, the groups aren't turning down credit. This little vote was actually the first defeat of Rep. Kevin McCarthy's new career as majority leader. He supported the bill. His new whip, Rep. Steve Scalise -- a conservative who came to the job from the Republican Study Committee -- voted against it. He was joined by Rep. Peter Roskam, the "establishment" candidate he beat for the whip job.

July 23 2014 4:55 PM

Plagiarism Probably Just Ended a Senate Race in Montana

OK, Democrats, here's the good news: Montana Sen. John Walsh was not likely to win his race this fall. No poll showed him winning; the only ray of hope, recently, came in a PPP survey that showed him trailing Rep. Steve Daines by 7. This was not seen by anyone as a jump-ball race like North Carolina's or Colorado's. The Democratic "firewall" had been built elsewhere.

The bad news? Jonathan Martin's reporting has revealed that Walsh, formerly adjutant general of the state National Guard and formerly the state's lieutenant governor, clearly plagiarized sections of the essay that completed his degree from the Army War College. The story gets more brutal with every paragraph, but strong men may start weeping (or laughing, depending on partisan affiliation) when they see that the essay in question was 14 pages long.

And the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee really has nothing to say about the plagiarism.

No one's denying that Walsh served in Iraq. His campaign, up to now, had leaned heavily on that fact.

But the list of people who have recovered from plagiarism charges in the heat of campaigns is blank. The most useful precedent came four years ago, in Colorado, where Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Scott McInnis was kneecapped by revelations that he'd taken a cushy foundation job where he published plagiarized material. If anything, Walsh's story is worse—it's academic, and it got him a degree that advanced his career. He might not be a senator today without that 14-page paper. Which he plagiarized.

July 23 2014 4:09 PM

Andrew Cuomo Says It’s OK That He Shut Down an Ethics Commission, Because He Started It

How to read the New York Times' lengthy report on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the ethics commission he terminated before its time? The story relies on three months of investigation and plenty of quotes, revealing instances when the commission looked into a problem, found it was connected to Cuomo, and was told to back off.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand is to look at Cuomo's office and its response. This is how it started a memo to the NYT.

Your fundamental assertion is that the Commission was independent. It wasn’t. No Moreland Commission can be independent from the Governor’s office. It is purely a creation of the Governor’s power under the law, which vests subpoena power in the Governor or his designee. Governor Al Smith twice appointed himself as a Moreland Commission. This Commission, by law, reports directly to the chamber. It is appointed by the governor. It is staffed by executive employees. Its appointees often have preexisting relationships with the governor.

That's pretty brazen. When I was in New York last week, Cuomo's challenger Zephyr Teachout told Democratic voters to pay attention to the throttled commission.

"He's become part of this broken system," said Teachout. "He himself is now getting investigated by a federal prosecutor for meddling with the Moreland Commission. The Moreland Commission, which he set up to investigate corruption, then shut down prematurely."

Today, Teachout told the New York Daily News that the NYT's story made it hard for Cuomo to carry on. "If Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed or even knew that his top aide was obstructing and interfering with the Moreland Commission, he should immediately resign," she said. "When he set up the Moreland Commission, he said it would be independent and people can sleep better at night."

And then he ran a TV ad about it.

But the argument made after Cuomo shut down the commission, and the argument made to the NYT today, is that it was his—it was a commission that investigated other people, that shook the legislature loose, and once that was accomplished Cuomo could end it.

If Cuomo was the only Democrat running for governor, there might be less friendly fire today. But Teachout is a friend and stalwart of Democratic Party and progressive reform movements, and it did not take long for MayDay PAC's Larry Lessig to weigh in with another call for Cuomo to go.

"If the charge is true, then Cuomo should go: as quickly as Spitzer did," said Lessig, "for the hypocrisy here is worse."

Lessig's PAC has hit its fundraising goals, notching more than $5 million to spend on to-be-determined campaign finance test cases. When I talked to Lessig, he was not yet ready to say which five elections Mayday would enter, only that the PAC would make those elections about corruption in politics.

July 23 2014 1:42 PM

Scott Brown Has the Single Most Chutzpah-Rich Response to Halbig

As readers of the Internet's many explainer sites know, yesterday two Republican-appointed judges on the D.C. Circuit ruled that language in the Affordable Care Act limited subsidies to the participants in state health care exchanges. Hours later, the 4th Circuit made a 3–0 decision that endorsed an antithetical argument, but if it bleeds, it leads, and the news industry/Republicans/your friends and neighbors are speculating about what would happen if the once crazy-sounding reading of the law were upheld by SCOTUS.

Why did the "state" language survive? According to Democrats (and to people who closely covered the debate), it was an error that should have been fixed, but after Scott Brown was elected to the Senate, Democrats chose to pass the Senate's version of the bill in a hurry, without starting a conference process. (It would have ended with a new vote that could have been filibustered by Brown and his 40 Republican colleagues.) "The ghost of Scott Brown lives on in these unceasing challenges of this duly-passed law," wrote Alec MacGillis last year. Most coverage of the decision has reflected this—Democrats were late to see the problem, then late to realize that libertarian-minded judges could grab on to it to argue that Congress totally meant to pass a law that would screw people who signed up for the federal exchange.

Massachusetts, where Brown won his last race, has a state-run exchange and would be unaffected even if Halbig were upheld. But New Hampshire, like several blue states, maintains a state/federal partnership—the state handles some of the bureaucracy, the feds handle the exchange. How is Brown reacting to a court decision that would rip away subsidies from people who thought they had them?

Well, yesterday, he reacted as if Halbig was now the law of the land and Democrats had just raised taxes on people.

The court’s ruling means that people receiving subsidies for their insurance coverage will lose those subsidies. Either they will have to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay the full cost of their insurance, or taxes will have to be raised on all of us to make up the difference.

Today, Brown's campaign sent reporters a quick analysis, by Avalere Health, warning that "Americans who signed up for the Affordable Care Act could see dramatic increases in their health care premiums." According to the Brown campaign, "in New Hampshire, premiums for those who have subsidies could jump 70-74 percent."

Of course, the state could prevent the subsidy hikes by doing something rather simple. It could create a state exchange. That way, even if Halbig were upheld, New Hampshire residents would continue to get the subsidies.

But Brown isn't saying anything about New Hampshire creating its own exchange. My own question about whether he'd favor that hasn't been answered—anyone in the Granite State who wants to ask him, be my guest. If Brown does answer, he might come up with something like this reaction from Florida's Republican state Senate President Don Gaetz.

I will never support the state of Florida serving as the instrument by which individuals and businesses are forced into a federal mandate to purchase a health insurance product they may not want. Maybe I'm just partial to the legislative process designed by our founding fathers, rather than the dictates of unelected bureaucrats who seem to change the application of this law as often as President Obama plays a round of golf, but perhaps we ought to look to those members of Congress who not only supported this law but suggested that it be voted on before it was read and see if they can suggest a legislative solution.

Some rambling in here, but the gist is that Gaetz "will never" allow Florida to set up an exchange, even if it's the one thing preventing Floridians who got health care through the ACA from paying soaring, bankrupting new premiums, because Obama. Saying "no" protects Floridians from the mandates.

Last year a Kaiser poll found that awareness of the ACA was surprisingly low. In April 2013, 59 percent of Americans knew that the ACA was being implemented, while 19 percent thought it had been overturned or repealed. Since then, millions of enrollments and the troubled launch of several exchanges has raised awareness of the law. 

And now voters who signed up on most exchanges are being told that their premiums will go up, without being told of how likely this is, or how their current elected officials could fix it.

July 23 2014 11:55 AM

Biden, Putin, and White House Spin

Evan Osnos' (typically) fantastic profile of Vice President Biden has been mined and aggregated for classic Bidenisms. Nothing has burned up the Internet quite like this exchange, concerning a 2011 Biden visit to Russia.

To illustrate his emphasis on personality as a factor in foreign affairs, Biden recalled visiting Putin at the Kremlin in 2011: “I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!’ And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him.” Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’ ”
“You said that?” I asked. It sounded like a movie line.
“Absolutely, positively,” Biden said, and continued, “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ” Biden sat back, and said, “This is who this guy is!”

Biden's spent four decades building the rep and image that make the story credible. And it contrasts so sharply with George W. Bush's infamous insistence that he looked into Putin's eyes and saw his "soul." Biden 1, Bush 0.

But how did the White House, at the time, describe Biden's trip? From the White House's website:

Echoing messages conveyed during his earlier meetings with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the course of his three-day visit, Vice President Biden hailed the successful “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations and reiterated his call for broader economic cooperation between the two countries.

If the "soul" moment occured, the White House press shop definitely buried its lede. Who could blame it, though, when the only Biden-Putin exchange open to the press was a mutual back-scratch competition?

"Since you've been here last time, and over this period of time, Moscow and Russia has changed a lot," said Putin, "and for the better I might add."

The soul-peering vice president's response? "I would agree."

If Biden's new anecdote is true, the White House spun a fairly tense and arch meeting into another successful push of the RESET button. And it minimized the importance of Putin's attitude—something Hillary Clinton has done recently, describing the Potemkin presidency of Medvedev as a sort of truce when relations were mended and Putin did not meddle. Most everyone realized at the time, though, that Putin would grab back the presidency as soon as he was legally able.

July 23 2014 10:07 AM

When You’ve Lost Jon Stewart, You’ve Lost Middle America

While covering the Christians United for Israel conference this week, I heard a couple of gripes about Jon Stewart's reports on Israel's operation in Gaza. His first, on July 16, was impossible to miss for the normal reason that Daily Show segments are impossible to miss. Every morning, news sites from HuffPost to TPM to Vox (not a vast "from/to" there, I know) cop the previous evening's Stewart monologue, declaring that he "nailed" or "destroyed" a topic like no other carbon-based lifeform could.* His July 16 segment mocked the disparity of power between the Israelis and the residents of the Gaza Strip.

"Most Hamas rockets are neutralized by Israel's Iron Dome technology," said Stewart. "The Israeli forces warn Gaza residents of an imminent bombing with a smaller warning bombing."

Supporters of Israel were watching a Jewish comedian who happens to have a direct line to millennials, and he was fully embracing the worst possible narrative. "His piece on Gaza, I thought, was morally outrageous," David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, told me Monday.

Yesterday, Stewart responded to the general criticism with this parody:

Having just gotten out of the CUFI conference, I was struck by how many talking points Stewart's news team got in. The "double standard" line, "human shields," etc. But the parody represented a sort of walk-back, too. When Stewart explained that his argument was not "pro-Hamas," the news team started yelling anti-"Zionist" slogans at him. Both sides do it!

This was a small messaging victory for Israel hawks, one they really needed. Dylan Byers (via a source) explains it well: Supporters of Israel, especially the CUFI variety of supporters, fret that they're losing millennials, who've never known Israel as anything but a mighty state with two occupied territories.

*Kevin Williamson has had great fun with this trope of the lefty news sites. He needs to update it, though, because John Oliver has started inspiring the same "NAILED IT" next-day embedded video clickbait.*

*Correction, July 23, 2014: This post originally misspelled John Oliver's first name.

July 23 2014 8:56 AM

The Stupidest Primary of 2014 Is Over

Way back in March, before I got the chance to report from Georgia myself, I suggested that the state's Republican primary for U.S. Senate would be the establishment's finest 2014 hour. Two embarrassing congressmen, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, were likely to lose the primary, and with it their House seats. The likely winner of the primary would be David Perdue, a first-time candidate running on his business experience with Reebok and Dollar General, a man who was running as an "outsider"—plenty conservative but unable to speak the right jargon. Sort of like Mitt Romney.

Last night Perdue narrowly won the GOP nomination, after a long runoff against Rep. Jack Kingston. The congressman had won the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce, which had helped him make the runoff, and he led in every public poll, but Perdue held on to more of his vote amid collapsing turnout. The result: a victory for Perdue's theme, which in the hands of admaker Fred Davis became an allegory about how professional politicians were whining babies. (The imagery was reminiscent of a Bloomberg Businessweek cover that ran after the 2013 government shutdown.)

Kingston fought back against that with his own baby ad.

This drew a swift response from Perdue's campaign, which did not lack for baby footage.

Seriously, Perdue had a lot of baby footage.

In the closing weeks, when it appeared that Perdue needed one more good body hit to go down, the chamber put together an ad that jiujitsu'd the baby theme in a remarkably lazy way.*

This dire air war was the most heated part of a campaign about very little. The chamber had backed Kingston over a bevy of far weaker and more gaffe-ready candidates; it had not, before the primary, had real worries about Perdue. It just bet on a member with a reliable voting record over a businessman who resembles the median chamber activist. Sort of like Mitt Romney! 

But the campaign's over now. Georgia voters face a choice between a businessman-candidate backed by few members of the party establishment, with Tea Party backing limited to that of Herman Cain, and a dynastic Democratic candidate (Michelle Nunn) running to the center. It's the closest race that no ideological camp is going to care about.

*Correction, July 23: This post originally misstated that the chamber spent $1 million to run an ad that portrayed Perdue as a baby. The chamber made a big late ad buy, but it was for other spots—I'm told the baby video never ran on TV. It was covered by the Huffington Post and ABC News, but the free media was all the media it got. Mea culpa.

July 22 2014 5:38 PM

Bruce Braley and the Challenge of Balancing Priorities

Iowa's race for U.S. Senate is one of the year's least substantive, which is really saying something, and which suggests that Rep. Bruce Braley has yet to recover fully from calling Sen. Chuck Grassley "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school." (His point, made to a room of checkbook-toting fellow lawyers, was that Grassley would be a lousy Judiciary chairman.) The gaffe itself might have been mitigated, but Braley has made tiny errors that were swiftly turned into day-long media disasters. The Narrative about Braley, as NRSC spox Brad Dayspring puts it*, is that the guy previously seen as a clever populist candidate just can't get out of his own way.

Which leads us to one of the funnier nano-scandals of 2014. I will let the NRSC's Bill Murphy introduce the story.

A click sends us to an article headlined "Braley attended three fundraisers on day of missed veterans affairs hearing." Notice the slight difference. The campaign committee implies that Braley went to fundraisers instead of the hearing. The story does not. As Jennifer Jacobs tells it:

At 10 a.m. on Sept. 20, 2012, the committee held a hearing on a backlog of disability claims and reports of problems with mental health care and stewardship of VA funding, congressional records show. The roll call shows Braley didn't attend. Instead, he went to an Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting that began at 9:36 a.m., records show.
Records from the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation show that on the same day, Braley had three fundraisers on his schedule for his re-election to the U.S. House.
He attended all three, campaign aides confirmed to The Des Moines Register.
The one from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. was a $2,500 breakfast at Johnny's Half Shell, which serves seafood fresh from the Chesapeake Bay and has a view of the Capitol dome.
At noon, Braley went to the D.C. law firm of DLA Piper for a $1,000 per person fundraiser.

In other words, Braley went to a fundraiser that ended before the missed hearing, and to a fundraiser that started two hours after the hearing kicked off. There's no defending Braley on the larger point, which is that he missed most VA hearings in 2011 and 2012. But he didn't actually ditch the VA hearing for a fundraiser. He was at some other hearing, which appeared to be more important. What, on Sept. 20, 2012, could have been more important?

Oh, man.

Braley missed a Sept. 20 hearing about something that would become a scandal because he opted for a hearing about a contemporary scandal. If today's Braley had a time machine, he'd probably tell his 2012 self that the VA oversight would become a much bigger deal than Fast and Furious, and that if he planned on criticizing Chuck Grassley he should avoid putting "farmer" in the rundown of negatives. But Braley does not have a time machine (I think), and Joni Ernst remains a lucky candidate with a team that came up hard on the Romney and Rubio campaigns.**

*On Twitter, not to me personally. Though Dayspring has been proved more right than I about the damage of Braley's first gaffe. His favorable ratings have remained steady, but he lost an opportunity to define himself before the campaign plunked into a petri dish of derp.

**The thinking six months ago, among Democrats, was that Braley was a talented candidate and fundraiser who would oppose either a rich, unrelatable businessman or a extremely right-wing state legislator. He got the legislator, but her team has run on her personal story.

July 22 2014 2:33 PM

Israeli Ambassador to U.S. Says IDF “Should Be Given a Nobel Peace Prize”

Monday's lengthy Christians United for Israel conference ended with a now-traditional celebration of the Jewish state, with singing and dancing to Hebrew songs alternating with stark speeches from Sen. Lindsey Graham and Pastor John Hagee. 

But it didn't get truly hellacious until Ambassador Ron Dermer, Israel's man in Washington, got up to speak. The ambassador devoted his remarks to the IDF, and to refuting the worst arguments made against Israel's operation in Gaza. After just a few minutes, a protester leapt up to call Dermer a "war criminal," waving a sign as security hustled to find him.

"I’ll get to the so-called war criminals later," said Dermer, as the protester was removed. "Israel deserves more than the support of the international community. Israel deserves the admiration of the international community. No military in history has taken greater care than the IDF to protect innocents of the other side."

Dermer offered a little history, to prove his point. Remember when the Germans bombed the United Kingdom? "What was Britain's response? What was Churchill's response? Dresden. The bombing of German cities." Dermer did not mean to demean Churchill—"let's have some applause for Winston Churchill"—but to praise Israel.

"No one should accept criticism of Israel for showing restraint that has not been shown and would not be shown by any nation on Earth," he said. "And I will not accept criticsm of my country at a time when Israeli soldiers are dying so innocent Palestinians can live."

A din rose up—another protester had snuck into the ballroom, which contained as many as 4,800 evangelicals and Jews supporting Israel.

"There is a section for moral idiots in the back of the room," said Dermer. "Why don't you join your friends?"

Perhaps Dermer didn't realize that the media was sitting at the back of the room, but the line worked for him, and he got to keep talking as the protester was yanked.

"Israel did not have to send its soldiers into many places they are fighting today," said Dermer. "We are sending our soldiers into this hornet's next of Palestinian terror that is booby-trapped with mines and riddled with tunnels. Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide, or putting us in the dock for war crimes. The truth is that the Israeli Defense Forces should be given a Nobel Peace Prize! A Nobel Prize for fighting with unimaginable restrait."

Incredibly, there was another protester in the room. This one didn't shout as loudly, but he gave Dermer plenty to work with.

"One day, when the enemies of Israel are defeated, and the moral idiots are silenced, people will look back and marvel at how the most threatened nation on Earth never lost its nerve and always upheld its values."

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