Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 17 2014 12:21 PM

How Your Media Turns Everything into a “Gaffe,” in One Lesson

Yesterday afternoon I crammed into the reporter rows of the annual #MakeProgress conference, the Center for American Progress's busy one-day training session for millennials. After a boxed lunch, Vice President Biden received an award and gave a 43-minute stemwinder that skipped and zoomed from his emotions after the 1972 death of his wife to the necessity of social welfare to the greatness of the military to how much America had changed. The rhetorical climax of the speech came when Biden remembered walking across Caesar Rodney Square, in Wilmington, to leave a private law firm for a lower-paying public-sector job.

"Almost 40 years to the day," he said, "I was standing in this exact same spot, being taken right to Washington to be sworn in as the vice president for the first African-American president in the history of the United States of America." That set up his advice to a bunch of twentysomethings. "Everybody says because we tried in '08 and it didn't happen, it's not possible. Wrong. We've gone through these periods before ... folks, this is totally within our power. Change, change for the better, is absolutely possible. And I believe it's close to inevitable if you're the drivers of it."

The point, sort of hard to find a lede for, was that activists had forced change that politicians did not see coming. It's almost a common theme in Democratic speeches. This election isn't about me! You have the power! Etc. Nearly two years ago, Barack Obama went for a flourish in a Univision interview and acknowledged that his "hope and change" campaign had not in itself changed Washington. "The most important lesson I've learned is you can't change Washington from the inside," he said. "You can only change it from the outside." At that time, a few pundits and reporters wondered if Obama had gaffed. It seems pretty clear now that he hadn't.

But it's at least clear that nobody remembers it. The punditocracy has the collective memory of a newborn fruit fly. Biden's "change" line was clipped by the RNC, and by conservative media like the Washington Free Beacon and Townhall. "Change Obama Promised in 2008 'Didn't Happen.' " read the WFB headline. The partisan focus turned Biden's quote into a "gaffe," which led to its discussion on a surreal CNN panel featuring National Journal's Ron Fournier and the AP's Julie Pace:

King: You can read that, Ron Fournier, as persistence, we'll keep trying or you can read it, yeah, well, all right, we failed.

Fournier: There must be a clip after that where he says, hey, I’m just kidding. He—he basically conceded the original sin of the Obama presidency, which is, we promised to at least start changing Washington and we failed, and then later on what he does say there is we can change things if we're the drivers of the change. Well, who’s been driving the last five and a half years? It was a really bad moment for the White House.

King: You think a really bad moment. You cover the White House every day, they say this is the appeal of Joe Biden, he calls them like he sees it, he’s a straight shooter. They can't like that.

Pace: They like it when he's straight shooter saying things that help; they certainly don't like it when he's a straight shooter and saying that essentially the White House has failed in changing Washington. This is why it would be so difficult for Joe Biden to run for president because he would be running for president as an active part of this administration.

This exchange was silly enough on its own, but consider: Just two days ago, Fournier used his column to tut-tut the way Obama and his team try to make every story about the White House. "Obama would argue that he's fighting for Americans and is blocked by a stubbornly conservative House," wrote Fournier. "It's a point worthy of debate, but it's argued poorly, because Obama leans on three words that should be virtually banned from the vocabulary of any leader: I, me, and my."

So on Tuesday, the White House's problem is that it told a story in which Obama—that egoist!—was the only actor in our political drama. On Thursday, Joe Biden has gaffed by saying that activists have to drive change because it's not all up to the president. This is like some lost Escher sketch of incoherence and lazy punditry.

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July 17 2014 11:27 AM

Scott Brown’s Bathroom Break, and the Worst Tracker of 2014

A few months ago, I was talking to a Republican congressman as he walked from one of the party's conference meetings in the House basement. Paul Lewis, a reporter for the Guardian, joined the scrum and started asking the congressman the same question about the debt limit, again and again and again. We hit a turn, and Lewis drew closer to the congressman -- who drew back and snapped at the reporter to give him space. 

"Man," I thought, "British reporters do not take fluff for an answer."

That's my prologue to Lewis's piece about Scott Brown's Senate campaign in New Hampshire, which has delighted Democrats for all of the details about Brown dodging questions. When Lewis tries to ask about Hobby Lobby in a diner, Brown says "I'm all set" and avoids the question. (That non sequitur is Brown's preferred method of blowing off questions.) Brown "takes shelter" in a bathroom, but Lewis follows him, and at another event the former senator snaps at the reporter for being "unprofessional" by showing up to events not meant for the press.

It's all very sad and funny, but not uncommon. Most of the time, the downside of blowing off a reporter's question or denying him access to an event is no downside -- the busy reporter has nothing for his story. New Hampshire is also the home to one 2014's least effective tracker operations, which runs into this same issue. Citizens for Strong New Hampshire, a conservative non-profit, keeps showing up at Democratic events and trying to cobble together clips after getting shut out.

Example: The most recent video asks whether "only certain New Hampshire veterans" matter to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, as the ED of Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire wasn't allowed into an event where veterans were endorsing Shaheen.

A previous video went after Shaheen for... dodging a question.

Another grabs Shaheen insisting that "nobody's right 99 percent of the time," which is a pretty stupid way of dismantling the generally stupid practice of ranking how liberal senators are by how much they vote with the White House.

And so on. CSNH does not lack for money, but it lacks material. A bad speller like myself shouldn't point this out, but it's even run a hit on Shaheen's voting record that bungled the spelling of "disastrous."

Neither Lewis nor the trackers are actually getting answers, much less newsy answers, or gaffes. They are doing what they can with politicians who make the calculus that they should talk on the record as little as possible. The non-answer becomes the story. 

July 17 2014 10:08 AM

Rand Paul: The Republican Candidate Least Feared by Young Non-Republicans 

The new Quinnipiac poll out of Colorado and new NBC/Marist poll out of Iowa should please Democrats only for the residual pain they might cause Dick Cheney. In Colorado, Rand Paul performs absolutely the best against Hillary Clinton, among any of the 2016 Republicans—he leads her 46–43, and has led consistently since the pollster started trial heats last year. In Iowa, Paul is the only Republican who leads Clinton (within the margin of error), 44–44.

This is the summer of Rand Paul; in a way, all of 2014 has been a summer of Rand Paul. No Republican gets more positive coverage. Reporters (myself included) love to cover a politician who riffs with so little dependence on talking points. Readers click on anything Paul-related, which is among the reasons why Paul's criminal justice reform bill co-sponsored with Sen. Cory Booker got universally happy write-ups, from NPR to Politico. (The big news from Politico's Paul/Booker event was that the men took a selfie together.)

Where does Paul's support come from? The Quinnipiac poll, which offers up its crosstabs, finds that Paul is marginally more popular than other Republicans across most age groups. But he's far more popular among voters under 30. He wins them by 7 points; Chris Christie wins them by 4, Jeb Bush loses them by 4, Mike Huckabee loses them by 7. That's a small mound of evidence for the theory that Paul's "liberty movement" politics, his identification with privacy and drug law reform, etc., cracks the millennial voter code. 

The only cold comforts for Paul? This is Colorado, where for various reasons (usually underpolling of Hispanics) polls have recently underestimated the Democratic vote. And as I keep banging on about, in my Cassandra way, the Summer of Rand Paul has featured absolutely none of the negative stories that will come if Paul becomes a national candidate.

July 17 2014 8:59 AM

There’s Already an Anti-Chris Christie Ad Running in Iowa

Mark Murray writes up the new NBC/Marist poll and leads with how, in Iowa and New Hampshire, Chris Christie has higher negatives among Republican voters than any other possible candidate. One-third of Iowans dislike him, as do close to one-third of New Hampshire Republicans. It's honestly not that bad for Christie, who's seven months on from the bridge scandal and only now clawing back to his old media profile. And the Christie path to a New Hampshire win always involved votes from independents and Democrats, who can cross over (there won't be much of a Democratic primary) as they did for John McCain in 2000 and 2008.

So, no crisis yet. Funny word, "crisis"—the most interesting part of this story is that the Judicial Crisis Network is already running (as of this week) 15-second ads warning Iowans that Christie has been unreliable when it comes to appointing conservative judges.

Remember that in Iowa, "rogue liberal judges" galvanize the Republican base. In 2010, in a delayed reaction to the court's legalization of gay marriage, three liberal judges were defeated after a campaign led by social conservatives.

July 16 2014 6:45 PM

Typhoid Barry Watch: Virginia’s 10th District

Michael Warren tips his hat at my piece about scared Democrats choosing not to appear with the president this year. Warren's hook: John Foust, the Democratic candidate in the open (for the first time since 1978) 10th District of Virginia.

Now comes the news that even in Northern Virginia, the liberal region outside of Washington that's transformed the Old Dominion into a blue state, Democrats are shying away from Obama. The president appeared in McLean in Fairfax County (60 percent support for Obama in 2008 and 2012) on Tuesday to call for action on extending the federal Highway Trust Fund. But where was the Democrat running for McLean's open House seat? John Foust is a member of the Fairfax County board of supervisors and lives in McLean, but the Democrat and House hopeful was "noticeably absent" from the Obama transportation event.

True, but a little skewed. Foust is running in a district that gave 51 percent of the vote to Obama in 2008 and only 49 percent to Obama in 2012. Like the 11th, the really blue spot that Democrats seized in the first Obama wave, it's very wealthy—average household income tops $108,000. But it's whiter (74 percent) than the 11th (60 percent), and generally more conservative, capturing the more rural Frederick and Clarke counties that broke against Obama in both races.

In other words, the 10th looks a lot like North Carolina, only with fewer black voters to turn out. We will not likely see Obama stump for Foust. We will likely see Mitt Romney troll the president and swing in for the GOP nominee, Barbara Comstock, a Republican fixer who worked for his 2008 campaign.

July 16 2014 4:08 PM

Chris McDaniel Supporters: Cochran’s Black Voter Outreach Took Race Relations Back 50 Years 

Three weeks and one day after Mississippi's Republican runoff ended, attorneys for state Sen. Chris McDaniel held a press conference—their second—describing what might constitute a challenge of Sen. Thad Cochran's win.

"There's already enough evidence to file the challenge," said Mitch Tyner, the lead attorney for the insurgent Republican.

That did not mean that the campaign had found more votes cast by Democrats than votes separating Cochran from McDaniel. "There's really not a vote number threshold," said Tyner. (Mississippi law prevents anyone from voting in one party's primary and the other party's runoff for the same election.) It meant that the state had played hide-the-poll book, and made it difficult to trace how many such votes were cast. 

"Call us naive," said Tyner. "Call Chris McDaniel naive. He had no [idea] this amount of election fraud was going on. In my heart, I believe Chris McDaniel won the primary and a runoff was not necessary."

Tyner was joined by state Sen. Michael Watson, a colleague of McDaniel who asked why more Republicans weren't outraged at how the campaign ended. When they saw the ads paid for by a firm paid by the NRSC, the ads that warned black voters that McDaniel wanted to suppress their vote—this, when the campaign was only protesting illegal votes—the Republicans should have exclaimed something like "Dear God, you improperly used my money."

"Where is Reince Priebus?" asked Watson. "Where is the Republican Party? Where is the leadership that comes out and says, that was wrong, and that will not happen again?"

Tyner went even further. "The activities of the Cochran campaign are abhorrent," said Tyner. "The Cochran campaign, through their race-baiting—and let me tell you something, this is U.S. senators, this is coming straight from the top—took Mississippi back 50 years in race relations. Michael Watson will tell you, as a conservative white man in the Mississippi legislature, his fellow black senators have a level of discomfort when they begin to deal with him."

He repeated the charge. "The Cochran campaign, through race baiting took us back 50 years," he said. "United States senators contributed money for ads to call Chris McDaniel a racist, and to motivate black Democrats, through hatred, to come out and vote for Thad Cochran."

All of this, said Tyner, demonstrated why the total current count of "illegal votes" might not be necessary to challenge the election. There only needed to be doubt that accurate records were kept—or were at least kept from examination by McDaniel's volunteers during the brief post-election vetting period. Mississippians did not know how many people in the ballyhooed Cochran outreach campaign had voted Democratic on June 3, then come out and voted against McDaniel.

"Every one of those votes diluted a real vote," he said. "And it does matter."

Update: While watching the press conference (from the air-conditioned comfort of D.C.), I fired off a few live tweets about the lines that stuck out. This one, for example:

That cheesed off a number of conservatives, who accused me of planting words in Tyner's mouth. He wasn't talking about black Democrats! He was talking about illegal voters!

But that's the McDaniel campaign's awkward quandary. In Mississippi, like in no other state, race is a strong predictor of party allegiance. More than 90 percent of black voters go for Democrats (though Cochran's opponents sometimes settle for more than 80 percent); around 90 percent of whites go for Republicans. Cochran's campaign has spoken proudly of its outreach to black voters; reporters confirm that it worked. 

And Tyner spent much of his press conference explaining why that outreach was "abhorrent." McDaniel's team is trying to prove that enough illegal votes were cast to flip the election results, and it just so happens that the most likely sources of these votes were black precincts. It's just a very hard argument to make while remaining gaffe-less and genteel.

July 16 2014 1:41 PM

“The Speaker May Request That Sponsor Pay for and Provide a Presidential Glass Teleprompter”

God bless the Public Accountability Initiative, which obtained a standard-looking nine-page contract between Hillary Clinton's speaking agency and the University at Buffalo. Carping about Clinton's speaking income feels like a silly season obsession—there was little of this when Rudy Giuliani, who raked it in before running for president, mulled his 2008 run. Still, contracts between large institutions and the world's most famous people are inherently funny. Six highlights:

- The Speaker may request that Sponsor pay for and provide a presidential glass teleprompter and a qualified operator.

- It is agreed that the Speaker’s office via the agency shall have final approval of the introducer requested by Sponsor. If the agreed-upon itinerary for this engagement includes a moderated Q&A, it is agreed that Speaker’s office via the Agency shall have final approval of any moderator requested.

- If the agreed upon itinerary for this engagement includes a photo line, it is understood and agreed that the photographer will take one (1) photo of each person or couple participating in the photo line. It is understood and agreed that the Sponsor will provide each of the photo line attendees with a copy of the photo for their personal use only… any use of the photo that suggests or implies any [endorsement] is forbidden.

- The only approved speech title will be “Remarks by Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

- The reception prior to the speech will be closed to the news-media. [Ed.— “News-media?”] The Speaker’s speech plus moderated Q&A will be open to news-media… should the Sponsor seek to invite any members of the media as guests, the Sponsor shall provide the Agency with such guests’ affiliation with the Sponsor and receive the Agency’s agreement in advance of such invitations.

- The Sponsor agrees to pay a fee of $1,000 for the services of a stenography, who will be onsite at the event. The stenographer will transcribe Speaker’s remarks as they are being delivered, which shall be solely for the Speaker’s records.

When/if (let's be honest, when) Clinton finally runs for president, she gives this up. This languid pre-campaign period is her last great chance to get loaded.

July 16 2014 11:56 AM

Skeptical Questions for the Founder of the Elizabeth Warren Presidential Draft Campaign

This here blog is a proud source of 2016 narrative-bashing, a place where it is very clear that progressive Democrats want Hillary Clinton to be their 2016 nominee and are not seriously seeking a challenger. In polls, up to 90 percent of liberal Democrats say they like Hillary. She's running 30-odd points ahead of her best primary numbers from 2007. Ready for Hillary, the super PAC created by superfans, is raising more money. Etc., and so on, etc., take this cold water and dump it.

Yet there really is a campaign to draft Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race. It is embryonic, launched this week, and first reported by the Huffington Post. Ready for Warren is headed by Erica Sagrans, an online Democratic strategist with tours at the DNC and on the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, who then went to the Working Families Party as it challenged New York Democrats from the left. I talked to Sagrans today as she rode to this weekend's annual Netroots Nation conference, and the following transcript has been lightly edited. My "ums" and "uhs" were lost somewhere.

Slate: How and why did you guys start this draft campaign?

Sagrans: Well, we weren’t the only Twitter and Facebook accounts that were supporting Warren. This started as an informal conversation among friends and activists, and we formalized it with a website. We were planning a bigger launch for Netroots Nation—we’re still planning that—but word got out. Our take is that now is the time when we want to be thinking and dreaming big about what we want to see in the next president, and what the Dem nominee should look like. It should be a progressive leader. And Elizabeth Warren ends up embodying those values we’re campaigning for.

Slate: It feels like the debate in the Democratic Party is over how best to nudge Hillary Clinton to the left, or win commitments from her on economic issues. Is running Warren the best way to do that?

Sagrans: Our end goal is to convince her to run, to convince her there’s the support needed to do it. Even if she doesn’t end up running, one of our goals is to push that conversation and push for those issues she’s fought for: advocating for students facing lots of debt, breaking up the big banks. She’s been the most visible leader on those issues.

Slate: Does she have the experience to be president on Jan. 20, 2017?

Sagrans: We feel she has the experience from the work she’s done as a senator, as well as the work she’d done previously. It’s hard to say how she would avoid it, but obviously since she’s been to D.C. she’s been a real fighter on the issues she was working on before. She’s continuing to do that. But another goal of ours is to build this grassroots organization, to have a grassroots infrastructure to support other progressive candidates.

Slate: I guess the problem is that progressives have been here before; they elected Barack Obama, who got into office and had to staff the government. He was the progressive candidate, he upset the establishment—which never happens—and progressives didn't get all they wanted. How do you prevent that from happening again?

Sagrans: I think it’s about looking at who the candidates connected to, who they’ve surrounded themselves with. But it’s also important to have that grassroots pressure on someone, something that elevates them and holds them accountable. Whoever is president, you’re going to need to have that continued pressure and continued support.

Slate: Hasn't that existed during the Obama years, though? There were two years when Democrats controlled Congress, and Obama got plenty done; since the House flipped, not so much. Why focus on a presidential race, given how Congress can grind down an agenda?

Sagrans: We know it’s hard, in terms of making progress and change in D.C. There’s a lot of obstruction in Congress. It’s definitely been challenging. Regardless of what a president can do at any given time, it’s important to fight for the most progressive leader we can, and as senator Warren is the most visible and outspoken progressive.

Slate: Are you guys getting salaries? Is this a full-time organization with full-time jobs?

Sagrans: We’re still figuring out the structure. Right now we’re just building momentum and focusing on Netroots. Right now, we’re figuring it out.

Slate: And would you support Hillary if she won the nomination.

Sagrans: I personally would, yes. Some people in this group would go one way, some would go another way.

July 16 2014 10:13 AM

The Tears of a Troll

When a headline informs readers that a "former South Carolina Republican Party" official has made a shocking statement, the answer is always Todd Kincannon. Briefly the executive director of the state party, a designation that is more than enough for HuffPost or Salon hate-reading, Kincannon keeps a hyperactive Twitter schedule. Joking about how Travyon Martin would have grown up to be a crackhead? Done. Calling Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis a "whore"? Done. If a liberal site (or a cluster of liberal Twitterers) explodes with outrage, he did his job. "Politainment is the wave of the future," said Kincannon during one Twitter carnival.

"Said," past tense. After having one account shut down, and after launching a new one this year, Kincannon built up a fan base of more than 50,000 followers with jokes about having Bowe Bergdahl assassinated (the next attorney general would likely be "a friend" who could pull it off) and with gut-busters like "Why do third world countries let athletes do anything besides mine blood diamonds? Your children are starving and my wife needs earrings!" Then he went silent. In a widely circulated letter to people who'd ordered his new e-book, Kincannon explained that Christmas would not come this year. "In early June, just as I was preparing to send out my book," he said, "I received an unexpected notice from the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel that the investigation was going to continue because of comments I made on Twitter regarding a left wing political activist named Col. Morris Davis, a frequent guest on MSNBC."

Kincannon's legal complaint about the matter is worth a read, if only for the amusing bluster about how famous and funny he is.

Kincannon is actually nearly 2 million followers shy of cracking the top 1,000 Twitter accounts on Earth. He's just a troll, and an interesting test animal for free speech. "We rarely need the First Amendment to protect likeable people saying nice things," argues Ken White in the post that brought this nonsense to my attention. "We need it to protect unlikable assholes, like Kincannon."

We do, though there's really nothing in the First Amendment that allows someone to say whatever he likes, wherever he likes, and never be harmed in any way. Kincannon is claiming that his enemies are abusing the legal system to silence him, and to damage a law practice that he brags (of course) is phenomenally successful. But he's only in this position because he uses untold hours of his mortal existence to crudely insult liberals, foreigners, nonwhites, women, and whoever else hovers into his field of vision. And because the liberal hateread-industrial complex needs trolls to act out and make their readers click and click and share as they sputter about how offended they are. I'm with Ken White: Don't feed the trolls. Don't sue the trolls. If possible, ask yourself if you really need to respond to (or ask your enemies to reject-and-denounce) the trolls. If someone wants to joke in public about dead black people, you can ignore him and focus your attention on someone sentient.

July 16 2014 8:53 AM

Gov. Sam Brownback Will Keep Floundering in Kansas Because Reagan

Manu Raju's report from Kansas is worth a read. Gov. Sam Brownback, elected in the 2010 wave, was bolstered in 2012 when conservatives primaried the moderate Republicans who used to run the state. He pushed through deep tax cuts, nixing business taxes and phasing the top income tax rate from 6.45 percent to 3.9 percent, to prove that the supply-side gospel was due for a second great awakening.

The subsequent economic slump in the state is probably the best-covered in the country. "The immediate effect has been to blow a hole in the state’s finances without noticeable economic growth," reported Peter Coy in Businessweek.* "What's wrong with Kansas' tax reform?" asked Governing magazine. In the hearth of the Koch family, it's impossible to find anyone who'll jiggle the balance sheets and pretend the tax cuts work.

Back to Raju, who was in Kansas when more than 100 current and former Republican officeholders endorsed, en masse, Democratic candidate Paul Davis. To the disbelief of Republicans and surprise of pollsters, Davis is consistently tied with Brownback in a state that's steadily trended Republican. Brownback's dismissal of Davis indicates just how he thinks about the long term.

[Davis] said he would try to delay the second phase of the income tax cuts in order to spend more money on public schools. Such a delay could add more than $1.2 billion to the revenue of the state, prompting Brownback to paint Davis as a tax-and-spend liberal.
“What’s Paul Davis’ answer? To raise taxes?” said Brownback, who also has backed increased spending for public schools. “A campaign is about choices at the end of the day: Are you going to choose a Reagan approach or an Obama approach?”

So, to delay a tax cut is to "raise taxes," and to be Reaganesque is to rule out any tax raises. The second part of the answer is actually the weakest—anyone who forgets that Ronald Reagan course-corrected on taxes, 11 times, has mentally substituted a fantasy of Ronald Reagan for the one who governed the country for a bit. But maybe this points to Brownback's salvation. Like Scott Walker, he needs to recast his experiments as a twilight struggle againt liberalism. If he loses, so do tax cuts, for now and ever.

*Correction, July 16, 2014: This post originally misspelled Peter Coy’s last name.