Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Sept. 16 2014 1:58 PM

Democrats Baffled by Benghazi Whistleblower’s New Accusations

Yesterday, reporter Sharyl Attkisson published a long interview and profile of Raymond Maxwell, a former State Department deputy secretary who had been laid off after Benghazi and called it a scapegoating. (Maxwell had planned to retire but was staying on to deal with the aftermath of the Arab Spring.) The hook of the story, a detail newly reported—and confirmed by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, likely to be the next Oversight and Government Reform chairman—was that Maxwell claimed to have seen Hillary Clinton allies separating out documents that could have reflected poorly on them before handing anything over to investigators. After I wrote about this, Attkisson tweeted that Maxwell had told this to investigators "a year ago."

I remained amazed that such a crucial detail could be buried so long. This morning, when the Benghazi Select Committee's Democratic members gathered to announce a database of "Asked and Answered" questions, they spent some time arguing that the latest "breaks" in the story were faux. Rep. Adam Schiff, for example, attempted to douse the rumors of a "stand down" order—rumors that resurfaced when three contractors talked to Fox News last week, about the new book they were releasing. The Maxwell story didn't immediately come up, so I asked ranking member Elijah Cummings about it.

"Maxwell was interviewed by our committee, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee," said Cummings. "He was called by Chairman Issa as a witness. And he never talked about this. He had plenty of opportunities to do it. But keep in mind, we have allegations seeming to come out every week. Mr. Schiff just talked about the three contractors, who also have been interviewed, and suddenly they come out with these 'stand down' allegations. But again, Mr. Maxwell did not bring those allegations to our attention when we interviewed him extensively. Extensively."

Sept. 16 2014 11:41 AM

Klobucharmania: Catch It!

The Iowa Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a fundraiser/rallying affair that often draws the party's big stars, has announced its 2014 headliner. (Drum roll sound effect.) It's Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the two-termer whose state happens to border Iowa, unlike 2013 keynoter Sen. Chuck Schumer. The New York senator has never pretended to harbor presidential ambitions, but Klobuchar has captivated reporters who want someone, anyone, to give Hillary Clinton a hurdle on her road to the White House. To wit:

One problem with this theory: Klobuchar, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and every other female Democratic senator, long ago signed a letter calling on Hillary Clinton to run for president. Just three months ago, she signed on to a Minnesota fundraiser for Ready for Hillary, the just-add-water group rallying support for the Restoration. Klobuchar's long game, as Kate Nocera reports, looks to be remaining a popular senator in a blue state who lobbies other women to run for the upper house. Now, that doesn't hurt her if Hillary Clinton decides not to run for president, or (more likely, not that either scenario is likely) starts collapsing in trial heats with 2016 GOP candidates. At that point Democrats would become more interested in the not-Clintons. But for now? No. Phony Klobucharmania has bitten the dust.

Sept. 16 2014 10:59 AM

Ted Cruz’s Brilliant Cynicism

Last week I briefly noted Ted Cruz's dive-bomb trolling of the In Defense of Christians conference, an event intended to raise awareness of the plight of the Middle East's believers. Cruz was invited to speak; Cruz accepted; Alana Goodman reported that some of the players behind the conference were critics of Israel; Cruz showed up and started defending Israel, until boos gave him the chance to leave the stage.

My first response: Hey, smart move by Cruz. I called it a "Sister Souljah moment," embracing a trope that's always annoying; and Jonathan Bernstein was annoyed. "A true Republican Sister Souljah moment wouldn't involve taking on opponents of Israel," he argued. "Rather, it could be a smackdown of Republican-aligned fans of Israel who use extreme language."

Meanwhile, some great writers of the paleoconservative persuasion have explained exactly how cynical it was for Cruz to disrupt the conference. Jonathan Coppage grabbed audio of the entire speech—the part Cruz delivered, anyway. The boos, annotated by Coppage, grew louder as Cruz insisted that any enemy of Israel was an enemy of Christians.

In 1948, Jews throughout the Middle East faced murder and extermination and fled to the nation of Israel. And today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state. [mixed applause, boos, “come on”] Let me say this, those who hate Israel, hates America. And those who hate Jews, hate Christians. And if this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps, that the men and women here will not stand in solidarity with Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals [applause] who seek to — [applause]. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ [applause]. And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians and behead Children are the very same people who target and murder Jews for their faith for the very same reason.

As Michael Brendan Dougherty points out, Cruz was painting a unicorns-and-rainbows picture of an Israel that does not exist. "Israel has not been particularly helpful to Christians in the Middle East," wrote Dougherty. "One would imagine their 'greatest ally' would welcome Christian refugees escaping violence, or endeavor a military campaign to beat back the group that is crucifying and beheading them. The Kurds do those things. So do the Americans. The Israelis do not. No one should blame them for this, it is just the reality of their national interest. But neither should anyone claim anything more on their behalf."

If you zoom around the paleo blogs and magazines, you will hear many of these factual arguments against what Cruz did. My cynical point (less interesting, sure, than the contemporary geopolitics) is that this does not matter. Cruz wasn't talking to paleos, or Arab Christians. He was talking to the millions of conservatives—77 percent of them, and 70 percent of white evangelicals—who take Israel's side in any dispute. For them, extremism in defense of Israel is no vice.

Sept. 16 2014 9:22 AM

The Most Populist Campaign of 2014

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken had a tough first election. Everybody knows that. His win over Republican Norm Coleman and independent Dean Barkley—who took more votes from the left than the right—was so narrow that Coleman was able to tie up the results with months of lawsuits, preventing Franken from joining the Democratic majority until July 2009. (If you ever hear someone claim that the Democrats "had a 60-seat majority" throughout Obama's first term, you know he's either lying or lazy.) That tough race left the impression that Franken would struggle in 2014, but he really isn't. His 10-point lead over Mike McFadden, a businessman running a largely content-free campaign, has not prevented national profiles of the race that assume Franken is beatable. McFadden, in an interview with Alex Pappas:

He tried to build this narrative that he’s kept his head down. Well, he’s been invisible. He hasn’t done anything. He votes with the president 97 percent of the time.
Franken hasn't done anything, even symbolically, to distance himself from the unpopular president. A National Journal vote analysis conducted this month showed that, in the past two years, Franken has cast only two votes against party leadership out of 161—a 99 percent record that beats Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Given that potential baggage, Franken's campaign has been airing a series of advertisements featuring the legislation he's introduced in the Senate, including bills cracking down on tainted food, a workforce-training bill, and a credit-rating amendment.

To the impartial observer, it might seem like Franken has indeed done things. He's got probably the most focused ad campaign of any Senate Democrat running for re-election, a campaign praised by Frank Luntz for spots that briefly describe how he passed a bill and why the greedy people who try to rip you off—you, the voter—did not like it. To wit:

Franken says he "led the fight" on that, which is code for "it was ground down in negotiations," not for "and it passed." The other bills mentioned above did pass. By contrast, McFadden's campaign has tried to remind voters that Franken was a comedian, and that he voted with Obama a lot. McFadden's ads thus far have been entirely "funny," starting with one in which he uttered the "approve this message" boilerplate after being groined by a football, continuing here.

It's Sandra Lee, follow-the-recipe stuff. If Franken's running ahead of the ticket this year after running far behind in 2008, it may say something about his version of populism.

Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM

The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on His Poetry Blog

There have been so many Benghazi Bombshells that the non-obsessive might naturally wind up confused. The March 2013 CNN report on CIA agents who were not talking? Bombshell. The April 2013 House report that portrayed Hillary Clinton's State Department as incompetent? Bombshell. The May 2013 hearing at which three veterans of the State Department said they immediately classified the Sept. 11, 2012, events as an attack, by terrorists? Bombshell. This month's Fox News special, in which three security contractors said they were told to "stand down"? Bombshell.

Maybe it's because the two words are alliterative; maybe it's because one of these stories inevitably is going to change everything. Today, former CBS News reporter and current contributor to the Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal Sharyl Attkisson has a "bombshell" interview with former Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell, who was placed on "administrative leave" after a review of the attacks. In March 2013 the Daily Beast's Josh Rogin nabbed an interview with Maxwell, in which he attempted to clear his name amid charges that he was laid off for incompetence.

He believes that Clinton’s staff, not the ARB, was in charge of the review of the attack that took place during her watch.
“The flaws in the process were perpetrated by the political leadership at State with the complicity of the senior career leadership,” he said. “They should be called to account.”

In May 2013, Maxwell granted an interview to the House Foreign Affairs Committee; weeks later he talked to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The gist of the story each time was that Maxwell, who was not culpable, was scapegoated to protect the careers of others.

That's what makes the new story so baffling. If it's true, Maxwell has been sitting for at least 18 months on a story that puts Hillary Clinton's political advisers at the center of a conspiracy to conceal documents that could be damaging to the 2016 presidential frontrunner. They did it in a basement, on a Sunday, and Maxwell butted in in time to have the scheme described by "a State Department office director" who was close to the Clintonites.

“She told me, ‘Ray, we are to go through these stacks and pull out anything that might put anybody in the [Near Eastern Affairs] front office or the seventh floor in a bad light,’” says Maxwell. He says “seventh floor” was State Department shorthand for then-Secretary of State Clinton and her principal advisers.
“I asked her, ‘But isn’t that unethical?’ She responded, ‘Ray, those are our orders.’ ”
A few minutes after he arrived, Maxwell says, in walked two high-ranking State Department officials.
In an interview Monday morning on Fox News, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, named the two Hillary Clinton confidants who allegedly were present: One was Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff and a former White House counsel who defended President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial. The other, Chaffetz said, was Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, who previously worked on Hillary Clinton’s and then Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“When Cheryl saw me, she snapped, ‘Who are you?’” Maxwell says. “Jake explained, ‘That’s Ray Maxwell, an NEA deputy assistant secretary.’ She conceded, ‘Well, OK.’”

Holy ... what the ... why not mention that sooner? Previously, this was a story of a guy who was railroaded in order to protect the Clintons. It could have been a story about a guy who witnessed Clinton allies hiding evidence. You could compare this to Watergate, but Maxwell, unlike the members of the Nixon administration asked for evidence, was no longer on the team and already giving interviews about how his former bosses screwed up. Now, he says "he couldn’t help but wonder if the ARB—perhaps unknowingly—had received from his bureau a scrubbed set of documents." Why hold off on the "scrubbing" until now?

If for some reason Maxwell did hold off, this is 1) an incredible story, one that Ridley Scott should be trying to adapt, and 2) the strangest rollout of a bombshell I've ever seen. Attkisson mentions that Maxwell wrote poems that darkly hinted at the revelations he would share one day. He previously shared those poems with Attkisson in May 2013; he had declined an interview and offered verse instead. So, a year and a half ago, he let the world read a poem—on his WordPress blog, now deleted—that ended with this:

the more they talk, / the more they lie, / and the deeper down the hole they go… Just wait…/ just wait and feed them the rope.

Well, that would explain it. And if this particular Benghazi revelation falls to bits, it's nothing the GOP investigators haven't seen before.

Sept. 15 2014 4:54 PM

Poll: Voters Aren’t as Angry About Obamacare, and a Republican Is Thriving Anyway

Six months ago, Scott Brown entered the race for Senate in New Hampshire by talking about Obamacare. And talking about Obamacare. And then, after a sip of water, talking about Obamacare. He mentioned the ACA six times in his debut speech, and his path into the campaign was lined, like rose petals before a bride, with countless TV ads attacking Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's Obamacare vote.

Today three polls were released on the New Hampshire race. The results were Goldilocks-ian: A Democratic poll showed Shaheen up by eight, a CNN poll showed a tie, and a Republican poll showed Brown up by two. In every poll, Brown remained less personally popular than Shaheen and President Obama's approval rating stayed in the mid-30s, where it's been all year.

Here's what was was interesting about the Republican poll, conducted for the conservative Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire by Magellan Strategies:

Obamacare had fallen to the third tier of issues. The biggest threats were now terrorism and illlegal immigration. Funny enough, that was what Brown had been campaigning on for a month, starting with a cheap-looking ad that worked a lot better than the deluge of Obamacare spots.

In his latest spot, Brown's only mention of Obamacare is of a "health care law that doesn't work." Brown, who spent decades in the Massachusetts Army National Guard, has pivoted to "hey, doesn't the world look like a mess now that these Democrats have weakened us?" Whether or not you buy the topline numbers, you've got a Republican poll that suggests this argument is rising as the all-Obamacare argument falters. This, so soon after Democrats figured that the anti-Obamacare vote was baked in already.

Sept. 15 2014 1:38 PM

Campaign Ad Praises Senator for Supporting a Project That He Voted Against Actually Funding

On its face, there's nothing remarkable about this ad for Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts. You've got your B-roll of the senators making human contact with people who look busy. You've got your soundtrack that sounds like a Coldplay demo track. Sure, as Dave Helling points out, the ad's opening line about how "Kansans are struggling" seems to contradict Gov. Sam Brownback's sunshine-and-lollipops, prosperity-around-the-corner re-election bid. But it doesn't contradict with Brownback's own theory of his unpopularity, which is that "a lot of people are so irritated at what the president is doing, they just, they want somebody to throw a brick." (Obama's mother was from Kansas, so maybe the voters think all these people look alike.)

No, the baffling thing about this ad is that it tells the heroic story of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility and how it came to Kansas. You may notice that the headlines about Roberts' work, in the ad, come from 2007 and 2008—before he won his current term.

Why are the headlines so old? Because Roberts, facing a primary challenge from Obama's distant Republican relative Milton Wolf, voted against a January 2014 spending bill that would have kept NBAF going for $404 million. To be fair, he said it gave him "no pleasure to vote against a bill that includes an important project into which I have put my heart and soul and many hours of work." But he voted against it, and enjoyed the temporarily pleasure of a weak primary win against a guy who shared photos of "funny" medical injuries on his Facebook page.

To be fair to Roberts, everyone plays games with roll call votes. It's fairly common to see incumbents attacked for voting "for" some horrible-sounding policy because they voted against a bill that would have changed it; see this ad, which accuses a Democrat of backing "first class flights" for congressmen because he opposed the Paul Ryan budget. Roberts' ad is just unusually surreal, because to prove that he's delivering for Kansas in the dark age of Obama, it has to cite something Roberts did before Obama was president and voted to defund this year.

UPDATE: The trackers at American Bridge captured a video of Roberts talking somewhat less than compellingly about the farm bill that "we passed." 

Roberts did not vote for the farm bill.

Sept. 15 2014 12:58 PM

Hillary Clinton Joins the Elite Club of Politicians Giving Unsatisfying Answers to DREAMers

C-SPAN's policy of keeping cameras rolling live, even after the main political speeches are over, results in hours of video of loose chatter with the occasional ringing line. DREAMers, the immigration reform activists you might remember from such videos as "Rand Paul flees a half-eaten burger to avoid questions," were on hand in Indianola after the Harkin Steak Fry. C-SPAN recorded the confrontation. America Rising clipped their exchange.

"We wanted to know whether you stand by the president's delay on immigration," asked one activist.

"You know, I think we have to elect more Democrats," said Clinton.

"Should we keep deporting families?" asked another activist.

Clinton had moved on.

Much like the Libre Initiative's polling, what we have here is a Republican-oriented group soaking up schadenfreude because a Republican House and red-hatted 2014 voters have throttled a reform bill and cowed Obama out of executive action.

UPDATE: Libre's Daniel Garza responds. (I talked to Libre's Brian Faughnan for my last item about the group.)

The "broken promise" in question was Obama's pre-summer pledge to come up with a plan -- an executive action, people expected -- that would lead to fewer deportations. Obama punted last week, telling NBC's Chuck Todd that "the politics did shift midsummer," though as long ago as January the idea of the president "granting amnesty" by executive order was terribly unpopular.

I don't think I'm "slamming" Republicans, Libre, et al, by pointing out the truth. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill. The Republican House of Representatives dithered then opted not to bring up any immigration reform bill. Many voters don't know who runs either House, and the loudest activists have focused their anger on Obama's failure to use "the pen," rather than the many safe-seat Republicans who don't want to vote on a bill. See, for example, this Carmen Velasquez op-ed (3000+ shares on Facebook) that urges Latinos to "sit this election out" and make Democrats "pay a price." 

The "price" would be the defeat of several senators who voted for the immigration reform bill that activists wanted, and their replacement by Republicans who oppose what the activists wanted. Nothing negative about pointing that out.

Sept. 15 2014 11:14 AM

Poll: More Voters Trust Republicans to Fight Terror Than Ever Before

It was released on 9/11, but only now do I see how Gallup asked people about the parties' handling of terrorism. You could hardly imagine a better result for the Republicans.

A little context? OK. In November 2008, voters who participated in the exit poll who said that they were worried about "another terrorist attack in the U.S."—70 percent of voters—narrowly broke for McCain over Obama, 50-48. By 2012, fear of terrorism had sunk so far into the rearview mirror that this question was not even asked. But by a 56-33 margin, voters who were concerned with "foreign policy" broke for Obama.

Here's the current paradox. The Obama administration—most reliably Chuck Hagel and John Kerry—is describing ISIS in apocalyptic terms. According to Kerry, ISIS is "an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring quasi-state." Their goal is not really to downplay what ISIS can actually achieve, or to reflect the intelligence analysis that ISIS poses little threat to (ugh, this term) "the homeland." It's to avoid a Syria-style rebellion in Congress and assemble a coalition of Arab partners in the Levant.

But Democrats do not benefit, domestically, from the hype. Just today, New Hampshire U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown challenged Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to secure the border and sign on to legislation that would revoke the citizenship of American ISIS fighters. "If anyone (including ISIS) can cross our borders at any time, with anything in their possession, then Washington has no control over our nation's security from terrorist attack," said Brown. That statement sounds like incoherent heebie-jeebie-ism if you listen to intelligence assessments. Current estimates peg the total number of Americans who might have gone to Iraq and Syria for ISIS at fewer than 100. The threat of such an American, if he returned, is not that he'd cross an unprotected border with a knife between his teeth and jihadism on his mind. It's that he'd use his American passport at a normal TSA checkpoint.

These are the sort of questions you can paper over when your party has a 2-1 lead on "preventing terrorism." Democrats' own polling has Brown down 8; public polling has him in a tie, after weeks of attacks on the threat of unsecured borders, and the zero attacks they have enabled since one day 13 years ago.

Sept. 15 2014 9:53 AM

So 200 Reporters Walk Into a Field in Iowa ...

My colleague John Dickerson was in Iowa yesterday for the Second Coming of Hillary Clinton. From my armchair (actually, at that hour, probably from a car heading back from a friend's wedding), it seemed like the arrival of Bill and Hillary Clinton at Sen. Tom Harkin's last "steak fry"—a populist picnic for thousands of people, at which the steak is actually grilled—would confirm that Hillary wanted to run in 2016 and that the media was already in full-on Beatlemania mode about it.

Peter Hamby's dispatch from Indianola suggests that this was true. "Roughly 200 credentialed media" showed up for the steak fry, according to Hamby. (For contrast, there were only a few dozen reporters at this past summer's Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, and often only 10 reporters in the press availabilities with Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz.) The press stayed in one sector of the picnic, until "after a 90 minute wait" they were allowed to capture "a staged shot of Bill and Hillary Clinton, fresh out of their motorcade, ritualistically flipping steaks with Harkin."

And then, a miracle: Clinton talking to reporters, for a little while:

"Good to see you!" she told the assembled press, surely a half-truth. "My goodness! You guys having a good time? Good. We're having a good time today."
Strutting back and forth, Clinton declared that it was "fabulous to be back" in the state. "I love Iowa," she said, smiling as if she were in on a joke. She entertained and swatted away a bombardment of questions, mostly of the unremarkable "will you run?" variety.
"Does this whet your appetite for another campaign?" asked one reporter.

The reader may be surprised to learn that Clinton did not reveal her 2016 plans to a reporter on a ropeline. Nor to the other reporter who asked. Actually, it appeared as though Clinton was following the plan of every other 2016 candidate—pacing herself before the midterms, making a decision after them. It's almost unheard of to announce a presidential run before the previous cycle's midterms are over, and the only guy who's broken that recently was Mike Gravel, who did not become the nominee.

So, how to interpret Joe Scarborough's rant about Hillary and imperial frontrunners? Scarborough wonders (in September 2014) if Clinton is blowing it already, because in 2008 "it wasn't against her back was against the wall that she had to stop acting like a robot on the campaign trail and start acting like herself that she started winning." (Again, it's September 2014.) 

"I don't want to see you eating steak!" Scarborough moans, to an in absentia frontrunner "I want to see you talking about how we're going to stop ISIS, not behind some cute little prepackaged plan that some of your handlers fixed up or somebody helped you write in a book."

Clinton's book tour and interviews haven't mentioned ISIS? It was just a month ago that the news cycle churned over whether Clinton had attacked the Obama administration for letting ISIS happen. Clinton bemoaned the failure to vet and arm Syrian rebels when it mattered. That's not a what-to-do-now answer, and yes, we are being denied some fun stories by Clinton's decision not to comment on the administration with the frequency of, say, John McCain. But no one running in the invisible primary has an alternate ISIS-handling plan. Rand Paul, who's been getting the most coverage for his comments, has focused—like Clinton—largely on the American mistakes that enabled ISIS's renaissance.

The steak fry did present an opportunity for less hawkish progressives to light into the Clintons. The thing was started by Tom Harkin, after all—just last week, as Jennifer Bendery reported, Harkin was one of very few Democrats who worried that American policymakers were overrating the threat of ISIS. But the only attempt I saw to find the space between Harkin and Clinton came from Jonathan Karl, who asked Harkin sort of generally if Hillary was too hawkish. Harkin had "questions," he said, but he had questions for everyone.

"I must be frank with you," said Harkin. "I thought Barack Obama was a great progressive, and a great populist, and quite frankly some things have happened that I have not agreed with."

That was the end of the clip, so we don't know what else Harkin enunciated. But it was telling that he evaded a Hillary question by pointing out his disappointment with Obama. That remains the central progressive lesson of 2008: Electing a president is not everything. Notice what Harkin said, via Ana Marie Cox, when introducing Bill Clinton.

Harkin himself did Hillary no favors when his introduction of Bill included an anecdote about an earlier steak fry, when the heavens parted the moment Clinton took the stage: “The clouds disappeared, the sun came out.” There’s being in someone’s shadow and then there’s being compared with a demigod.

It's hard to hear that and not experience an acid flashback to 2008, when before the Rhode Island primary (which she won in a rout), Hillary mocked the idea that electing Obama would fix America. "The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect," she snarked.

The Hillary 2016 campaign is a minor problem for Democrats. They are generally ready to nominate her. Some of them want a progressive challenge that moves her to the left, or at least keeps her honest.* Far, far fewer believe that the party needs a savior, because it already tossed her aside for one of those.

Hillary 2016 is a far bigger problem for the media, which simultaneously is ready right now to cover her like a nominee—200 reporters!—and yet so palpably bored with how she talks, and runs.

*"Keeps a Clinton honest!" I can hear you laughing.