Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM

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My final day at Slate was pleasingly ordinary, and included a tricky travel problem, a blown deadline, and several blog posts about politics on the general theme of people Doing It Wrong. Yet I'm really done now—I am at the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend, hence the travel—and can't stick around much longer. You've met that guy, right? The one who keeps saying goodbye at the party then keeps appearing for progressively awkward goodbyes? If not, I'll illustrate:

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No one wants to be in that position. So for all the fun I've had at Slate, for all the time I could spend pointing to our—suddenly their—fantastic coverage, it's time to admit that I've already done that, here and here. You should subscribe to Slate Plus. You should follow the team at Bloomberg Politics. And you should be tingling with excitement about what Slate's political reporters do next. As if through osmosis, this place makes you a better writer, reader, and debater of fine points in comment sections. My goal with this blog and with my stories and podcasts was to cover politics as if you and I were having a conversation, with plenty of context and digression. I learned that from Slate.

To the commenters: Thank you for all the lively and funny and "oh, I didn't think of that"-filled conversations. I would have engaged in more of them, had I not learned that the busiest threads were often the ones where people made jokes about my typos. This is the Internet, and typos can be fixed in real time instead of crying over a botched print issue. But more people should follow the example of Auros Harman and traumatize writers directly, by emailing them about their pratfalls, instead of snarking below the posts. Every moment you spend publicly dunking on a writer for forgetting an "L" in "Hillary Clinton," and insisting that this error of eyesight or finger movement proves that the author's entire argument or story is worthless, is a moment you could have been working on the great American novel.

And in closing: I was going to write a quick item yesterday about the 1987 folk album/interview tape released by then-Burlington, Vermont Mayor Bernie Sanders. Asawin Suebsaeng beat me to it, and beat me to my angle, of talking to music critics about the relative worth of this art.

I talked to a critic anyway.

"It's funny," wrote Pitchfork senior editor Ryan Dombal in an email. "Bernie's spoken word parts make this weirdly distinct and actually more powerful than it would be otherwise. It's like if Dylan was a little out of it after dental surgery and decided to crash Peter, Paul and Mary's 'Blowing in the Wind' session."

Readers: Live every day like you're high on novocaine and crashing a folk music studio session.

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Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM

Chris Christie, Better Than Ever

The unstoppable Robert Costa talks to a bunch of Republicans from all sectors of the party and finds them cheery about Chris Christie's future. Yesterday, NBC News reported that a nine-month DOJ probe of Christie's role in Bridgegate found nothing. And because Costa is Costa, he even got Chuck Laudner, who literally drove Rick Santorum around Iowa in 2011, to praise the Christie resurrection. "To have that not hanging over his head puts him back where he started from," says Laudner, an activist who you would never expect to back the New Jersey governor.

My only argument about any of this: Christie is fundamentally better off because Bridgegate happened. Before the story, Christie was assumed to not just the 2016 Republican frontrunner but a beltway-approved, Morning Joe-feted savior of the Republican Party. You can look at the Judicial Network ads that follow Christie along every trip to South Carolina to see how that plays.

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The scandal removed Christie from that position, and bestowed a new one upon him. He was now, like Scott Walker and like Rick Perry (and Richard Nixon, etc and etc) a Republican trying to do his job before being attacked by the thuggish, criminalizing Democrats. He was no longer an MSNBC morning hero; he was the subject of hundreds of segments that linked him to corruption. Christie discovered the right's enemies, and now he's back, attacking state Democrats who keep investigating him as "people who are addicted to MSNBC and the front page of your papers."

Sept. 19 2014 5:19 PM

Washington’s Acting Roles

Earlier this week, Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s choice to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, withdrew his name from consideration. He is not the first presidential nominee to do so: Adegbile joins 70 or so other would-be Obama appointees since 2009 to withdraw their names for jobs that require Senate confirmation. At least half were due to political pressures, estimates Ian Ostrander of Texas Tech University. That was the case for Adegbile. Despite excellent credentials, Republicans (and even some Democrats) found him controversial because he served as a defense lawyer for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row for killing a police officer in Philadelphia. The Senate first rejected Adegbile’s bid in March.

More than a thousand executive and judicial office positions are taken up by presidential appointments with approval from the Senate. But filling them has never been harder. Republicans are loath to approve presidential picks for even the minutest office. Alas, changing rules to curb the filibustering of executive nominations—the “nuclear option” Senate Democrats pushed through last autumn—has become a reason for partisans to double down on slowing approvals.

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Nominations use to move to a vote by unanimous consent from the Senate chamber. Today, this happens more rarely: The Senate leader must now call what’s known as “cloture” to compel his colleagues to vote. A chart from Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution shows the rise in clotures—so far this year, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has had to file 16 clotures a month, compared with seven a month in 2013. Many of these were simply to compel votes on nominations.

This has left agencies to be run by “acting” or temporary officials. That’s not entirely new; there was a quip during the second Clinton administration that Washington seemed to have more acting roles than Hollywood. But unprecedented levels of partisanship and obstructionism mean acting heads are likely to become the norm, says Robert Rizzi, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington law firm.

Impermanence at the top is likely to leave an agency neutered, says Paul Light of New York University. Acting heads have the same legal authority of permanently installed ones, but their temporary status usually means that they will forestall making big decisions. Acting chiefs are limited to serving for 210 days, which makes it hard to have any long-term outlook. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is already on its second temporary agency head.

The Obama administration says it is working to find a new nominee to replace Adegbile. Whoever it turns out to be, he or she will likely face a long slog. The vetting process has lengthened, as have wait times for getting confirmed. (The Senate took an average of 60 days to confirm Obama executive appointees in 2009, compared with 49 days for Clinton’s in his first year, and 51 for Bush Sr.’s.) Even the paperwork is a bigger headache than it used to be. Security clearance questionnaires—first introduced amid the witch-hunting McCarthyism of the Eisenhower years—have lengthened to more than 100 pages. The only thing more frightening than a communist, it seems, is a fresh new bureaucrat. 

Sept. 19 2014 1:38 PM

The Gaffe Police Are Back to Make Politics Glib and Boring

This is my final day at Slate, and if I'm gonna go out, it's gonna be while defending Joe Biden from the gaffe police. My bias is clear: Joe Biden is one of the last products of a bygone political era, before the tracker, before the Twitter news cycle, when politicians could hang out and say whatever. For this, for his refusal to be predictable and boring, he is regularly pummeled. Sometimes rightfully so—he probably should not have referred to "Shylocks" in Iowa this week, because it is the year 2014.

Sometimes—often—the shaming is unwarranted. We have an example of that today, in the reaction to Biden's comments at a DNC women's conference. Biden was on a familiar tear about how the Republican Party intends to win the midterms by tightening access to the polls in swing states. This was not always so. "It was Republicans who expanded access to the polls," said Biden. "It was Republicans in the Judiciary Committee who expanded Motor Voter. It was Republicans that were involved—guys like Mac Mathias, Packwood, and so many others."

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Mac Mathias was a liberal Republican from Maryland who retired uneventfully in 1986; Bob Packwood was an Oregon senator who resigned in disgrace in 1995, after the Washington Post broke the news that he'd sexually harassed women for years. Undoubtedly, this is what Packwood is known for in 2014, and reporters have universally branded this a gaffe. Packwood "isn't really the kind of person you should be speaking well of at a women's conference," writes WaPo's Aaron Blake. "For a Democratic Party who has made such a big deal of the GOP's supposed 'war on women,' praising someone with Packwood's history is a really bad idea."

Leave aside the old trope that the "war on women" can be neutralized by pointing out that Democrats have not condemned this or that creep in the party. Leave aside that Bill Clinton, who was impeached after lying about an affair with an intern, remains a popular figure in the Democratic Party, and that his wife is expected to be the party's next nominee. Leave aside JFK's dalliances, and FDR's, and Ted Kennedy's, etc. No reporter in the room has actually produced a woman who was offended by Biden's reference to Packwood, just as they are unoffended by the Democrats listed above.

No, more than that, reporters have chosen to forget why the Packwood scandal was so searing. Packwood was one of the Republicans best liked by women's rights activists. Packwood, elected in 1968, introduced an abortion legalization bill before Roe v. Wade was decided. As the Republican Party became uniformly pro-life, Packwood held out to the extent that Gloria Steinem raised money for him. You don't have to spend much time looking for Packwood stories to find one NARAL lobbyist's account of how Packwood opposed a right to life amendment at the apogee of the Reagan revolution.

At one point, despite the fact that it looked like we would easily defeat the measure, Packwood suggested that he filibuster the proposal. We could not say no to him, so we went along with him, letting him have his day in the spotlight. Indeed, when we suggested that we could get other Senators to join him, he demurred, saying he could do it alone. So, we watched him read the U.S. Constitution with a catheter attached to his leg.

This was the impression people had of Packwood when the allegations broke. He was fighting a re-election campaign; he lied; he won. Weeks later, the reaction to his resignation was colored by the fact that he'd defrauded voters. And it was tragic, for women's groups, because they'd trusted their increasingly lonely Republican ally while he'd been harassing women.

There, that's the short version of the story. Packwood's famous for the scandal, but if he died tomorrow, you'd probably see obit-writers struggling to contrast his downfall with all the reasons that Steinem, et al. had trusted him. The history of pro-choice Republicans, 1986's tax reform, and the less-partisan Senate are all skewed by the presence of Packwood, but he was there, and—hey!—Joe Biden mentioned it. And because people like to be retweeted, and to feign outrage, this becomes a gaffe, instead of a harmlessly off-key reference to one of Washington's great, strange, self-destructive careers. 

Sept. 19 2014 11:15 AM

Hey, Data Journalists: Lay Off the Scottish Referendum Pollsters

The final average of polls in Scotland's independence referendum pointed at a narrow 52-48 victory for the "No" campaign. (Fine, fine: The "Better Together" campaign, if you want to be a stickler.) The final result was 55-45 for "no." The gurus at UK Polling Report concede that this looks like "some systemic error," and that a final YouGov survey might have revealed that one in 50 voters ended up changing their minds as they closed the door on the polling booth. YouGov's final "recontact" showed a 54-46 break for "No," close enough to the result.

Yet this cannot save the pollsters from a Nate Silver post titled "The Scotland Independence Polls Were Pretty Bad." Silver admits that he "behaved like a television pundit" last year when he was asked about the vote by a Scottish audience if "No" had a chance. "If you look at the polls," he said then, "it's pretty definitive really where the no side is at 60-55 percent and the yes side is about 40 or so."

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And it was definitive. In all of 2013, the only poll that had "Yes" cracking 40 percent was conducted by the Scottish National Party. For much of 2014, the "No" lead was steady, with the occasional close result spurring a few wouldn't-it-be-funny-if news stories, then fading. It like this until the last two weeks of the campaign, when a debate win by the SNP's Alex Salmond over Better Together's avatar Alistair Darling preceded a "Yes" surge.*

Now, it's true that if you locked yourself in cryo-freeze nine months ago and expected a "No" win, you'd have been right. Just as you'd have been right if you said "I bet the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, wins the GOP nomination" in 2011, and ignored everything else that happened. If you want to shake your head at the reporters who wrote that "to walk through virtually any Scottish town this week was to be confronted by an apparently unassailable army of people voting Yes," you can!

But you would have missed a panic that changed the future of 5.4 million Scots. The "No" coalition, composed of the three main British parties, responded to the "Yes" surge by pushing up or amending their own promises for further Scottish devolution. They had been expected to offer some of this stuff in six-odd months, in party manifestos. Instead, they tried to head off a "Yes" win by assuring wavering voters that unemployment programs, some housing programs, and significant taxing powers be devolved to the Scottish parliament. Banks and investors threatened to bolt the country. Ironically, this decision of "yes" or "no" was less binary than the standard U.S. presidential election. When one of our candidates wins, he wins. When the "Yes" campaign got close to winning, the "No" campaign made huge concessions, and this simply wouldn't have happened had the polls stayed at 60/40 for "No."

Silver points out that a YouGov poll that showed "Yes" surging "did so only because of its weighting procedures" and "on an unweighted basis, it had 'no' ahead by about 6 percentage points." That's an imporant point, being lost elsewhere. But what does it tell us about how "No" should have responded? Should they have rested comfortably in the knowledge that the "Yes" surge was slowing? Should they have promised less to Scots? Even if that unweighted poll had been dead-on, they'd have seen the union saved by a 53-47 margin, down from the 20-point margin of a few months previous.

*Correction, Sept. 19, 2014: This post originally misspelled Alistair Darling's first name.

Sept. 19 2014 9:34 AM

The Senate’s Roll Call Vote on Syria, Explained

Yesterday, as the Senate was smelling jet fuel* and voting on the continuing resolution that would fund the government and throw some coin to rebels in Syria, I was at the Liberty Political Action Conference down the highway from D.C. The annual event gathers together the more directly political, election-centric elements of the Liberty Movement—Ron Paul's faction—and offers up some networking, speeches, and training. First Sen. Rand Paul trashed the CR, then Michigan Rep. Justin Amash joined the pummeling.

"You saw they stuck arming the Syrian rebels in a bill to fund the government?" Amash asked the crowd. "About a year and a half ago, they were complaining about the fact we didn’t have a 'clean CR.' This year they want to throw things into it!"

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So why wasn't there more resistance? Because the numbers were not there. The thinking in Rand Paul's camp was that a filibuster could only delay the vote by a day. Better to make an impassioned speech, work the crowds at a friendly conference, then head to California for some GOP events that had long been scheduled. The roll call confirms the wisdom of Paul's plan—only 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted "no."

Who were they? On the Republican side, Paul was joined by Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the "three amigos" who regularly cast libertarian votes. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who is fighting a surprise challenge from an independent candidate, voted no; his colleague and NRSC chairman, Sen. Jerry Moran, stuck with him. Both Idaho senators and both Wyoming senators voted no, as they are perhaps the least vulnerable members of the upper house in America. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions voted no after his amendment to end the DACA program was tabled; Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, retiring at the end of the year, joined him. (Nevada Sen. Dean Heller was also a "no," citing "too many uncertainties.")

On the Democratic side, it may irritate Secretary of State John Kerry that both of his state's senators voted "no." Sen. Ed Markey, who holds the old Kerry seat, faces an easy re-election in six weeks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's vote was more notable (even if, as I think, the 65-year-old freshman senator never runs for another office) because her progressive fans had been waiting for her to stake out any kind of foreign policy position. They were upset when she repeated the standard administration line on Israel's Gaza war this year. They are calmed, a bit. Warren was joined by senators from blue states, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who at 47 is considered a possible national candidate someday. 

But the only Democrat facing a tough race who voted "no" was Alaska Sen. Mark Begich. His opponent, Bush administration veteran Dan Sullivan, said he would have supported the vote. Every other Democrat facing re-election in a swing state this year voted "yes."

*A Capitol Hill expression, which is less well-known than I sometimes think, meaning they want to jump on the planes and go home already.

Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM

A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill

Rep. Tom Cotton has yet to blow away Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas' Senate race. Molly Ball has you covered on all the reasons why. Unlike Rep. John Boozman, a Republican who defeated the state's other Democratic senator in a massive landslide, Cotton has a voting record that Pryor has enjoyed punching holes out of. But Cotton is fighting back, with this explanation of why he opposed the farm bill.

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Very clever, even if the verb usage is a bit much. The farm bill was not suddenly transformed into a food stamp bill; it's a long-standing agreement that food stamp funding be packaged with farm bill money, so that urban members are forced to lock arms with rural members. Also, 17 percent of Arkansans are on food stamps. But 83 percent of them aren't—important to consider, when you're counting votes.

Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM

In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote

Today, the House of Representatives and the Senate will recess, allowing members to campaign for re-election—or, if they're retiring, to take calls from people begging them to transfer money from their respective campaign accounts. The two bodies will do this without holding any new votes on the intervention in Iraq and Syria, apart from the continuing resolution, which will fund the government with a nice side pocket for Syrian rebels.

Should Americans be offended by this? On the one hand, it's great for the parties—they get to carp about the lack of will from the other side. (See this National Review attack on Senate Democrats, whose "response to ISIS" is identical to that of House Republicans.) Republicans are slated to win more seats, and in key races they're more comfortable attacking Democrats and the president for letting these terrifying, beheading-centric terrorists flourish.

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It's less fun if you're a member of Congress who believes the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force have been stretched out of all proportion. At today's Conversations with Conservatives, a monthly Heritage Foundation event with a half-dozen or so House Republicans, some Class of 2010 members worried about intervening in Syria without a new AUMF. South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney pointed out that loose AUMF language had been circulating (thanks to departing Rep. Frank Wolf), but it was not encouraging.

"It was very broadly defined, in going after terrorists or terrorism," said Mulvaney. "I'd personally like to see it limited in duration. I think the fact that we're scabbing on a military effort in 2014 based upon a resolution that was passed 13 years ago shows some very poor decision-making."

"No one who voted for the AUMF in 2001 envisioned that in 2014 a president of the United States would use that authorization to invade another country," said Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador. "We should go after the people who killed the reporters. We should have limited strikes."

Labrador, who often aligns himself with the libertarian wing of the party, cited an old Ron Paul argument. George W. Bush had won the presidency in 2000, calling for a "humble foreign policy." What happened to that? "We need to be a bit more humble in our advocacy for the use of force."

But no one was throwing up hurdles on the way back to their districts. Over in the Senate, there was talk about an authorization vote after the election, but nothing now.

My headline is only half-serious. It's hard to look at Congress's complain-and-leave approach to the war as anything serious, or anything like its constitutional obligation. Still: Compare this moment with the weeks before the 2002 election. The Bush administration demanded a vote on authorization for a possible war in Iraq before a midterm election that largely came down to elections in red states like Missouri, Georgia, and South Dakota. (Republicans lost South Dakota narrowly, but won Minnesota after Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash.) Democrats were asked to take a vote, which was not particularly related to the timing of the war, at a moment of maximum political danger.

This year, the Congress is being allowed to punt and blame the president if anything goes wrong. Progress!

Sept. 18 2014 1:14 PM

Ex-Im Bank Creates New Jobs for Political Consultants

I wrote yesterday about how the introduction of funds for Syrian rebels into the continuing resolution bollixed up the conservative fight against the Ex-Im Bank. The Club for Growth, which had warred against the bank, withdrew its "key vote." Conservatives were suddenly freer to back a CR that extended the Ex-Im charter into September 2015, several government shutdowns from now.

Suddenly, via Damian Paletta and Brody Mullins, we have a pro-Ex-Im super PAC founded by a businessman who specializes in "business-to-business services for importers and exporters," and is not named George Costanza

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Maybe "suddenly" is the wrong word to use here. Ex-Im has already been drumming up business for D.C. "strategists"—don't call them lobbyists!—who can work over members, op-ed pages, and social media in defense of free money for Boeing. Hamilton Place Strategies, for example, has been relentless in sending dignitaries onto TV and finding small businesses that can talk to the press about how great Ex-Im has been. The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have been out there, too.* They said they would be in the summer, when I asked whether the club/Koch/Tea Party push against Ex-Im was going to work. "I don’t sense that there’s a massive grassroots opposition to Ex-Im," the chamber's senior director of international policy told me. 

It depends what "grassroots" means. This hasn't been a front-burner issue, ever. It was a signifying issue that Republicans belatedly realized they could run on, to make Democrats look like tools for big business. The club was even scoring hits on Elizabeth Warren for supporting Ex-Im. "It's shameful that someone like Elizabeth Warren, who has spent her entire career demonizing Wall Street and big corporations, is siding with them on the Export-Import Bank," the club told Zach Carter last month.

The trolling will have to pause for a little while. If this CR passes, the pro-Ex-Im corporations have bested the anti-Ex-Im corporations and libertarians. And some consultants and ad-makers will be able to pay off mortgages as the fight drags into 2015.

*Correction, Sept. 18, 2014: This post originally misidentified the National Association of Manufacturers as the National Organization of Manufacturers.

Sept. 18 2014 10:23 AM

From Fringe to Mainstream: How We Learned to Panic About Terrorists Crossing the Border

Seven years ago, as he trudged toward a pre-Iowa caucuses withdrawl from the GOP presidential race, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo released a campaign ad that doubled as a horror movie. Soundtrack: an ominous ticking sound. Visual: a hooded man with a backpack sneaking around a mall and dropping his well-concealed bomb next to a populated plaza. The ad ended with a "boom," in case the message was lost on anyone.

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The ad got barrels of free ink, which helped, because there was only about $100,000 in the Tancredo campaign account. Immigration restrictionists declined to comment on it. The press generally saw the ad as a kooky production from a fringe candidate. The GOP went on to nominate John McCain for president, despite his once and future support for comprehensive immigration reform.

It didn't occur to me until after I wrote about David Perdue's latest ad in Georgia that this sort of border panic is now in the Republican mainstream. Perdue, a businessman and first-time candidate, is on the air with this image:

The first problem with this ad is that the Texas Department of Public Safety did not quite say that. An Aug. 28 bulletin obtained by Fox News warned that "a review of ISIS social media messaging during the week ending August 26 shows that militants are expressing an increased interest in the notion that they could clandestinely infiltrate the southwest border of US, for terror attack." Perdue's campaign hit the trusty delete key on "an increased interest in the notion," etc., turning chatter online about how ISIS thugs would like to attack through Mexico into proof that they could do it right now. Just look at that grainy video of ISIS members walking through a desert! Is it the desert closest to you? Maybe! But these were just messages on social media, in the same forums where ISIS supporters have promised bombs in American embassies and attacks on New York City. They have been too busy getting blown up by airstrikes to pull that off; intelligence estimates say they're not even close.

But that's not what David Perdue says, or James O'Keefe says, or Rick Perry says. Three years ago, as Jesse Walker reminds us, Perry was telling Republican voters that "we know that Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico" with designs on attacking America. The subsequent lack of Hamas attacks in Corpus Christi has done nothing to Perry's credibility—he is still asking fellow Americans to fret about terrorists creeping over the border. It's a spectacular campaign of misdirection, given that the problem posed by ISIS is that some sympathizers are already living in the West, traveling around legally.

Walker's whole column is worth reading, and it's worth watching how many more campaigns discover the "terrorists crawling through the desert" image. Other campaigns are attacking Democrats and the Obama administration for not seizing the passports or revoking the citizenship of Americans who sign up with Islamists. That's a much trickier and more resonant debate. Unlike the "terrorists on the border" attack line, it has not gotten a chance to look ridiculous after the panic settled.

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