Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 29 2014 2:57 PM

The Most Important Race That Will Absolutely Change the Course of American Politics

Wonks! Politicos! Pollsters! Come, gather ‘round, and let us find the most important race of the midterm elections, the race that will prove that midterm elections are not to be ignored, but rather closely examined, read like tea leaves in the cup that is the future of U.S. politics.

The gubernatorial race between Scott Walker and Mary Burke is hugely important. It is so important that it could shape the future of U.S. politics for years to come. So writes Noam Scheiber in his analysis of the race for the New Republic. If Republicans lose the Senate and Walker wins, he writes, then “Walker, the governor who managed to destroy the left and live to tell about it in a swing state, will loom as an incredibly appealing model.”

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All right! To Wisconsin!

But wait! Scheiber himself admits that the only race that truly matters is the race for who will control the Senate. Indeed, and in the Senate race in Georgia, Democratic senate candidate Michelle Nunn has, in an effort to distance herself from the least popular elements of her party, hinted that, if elected, “she wouldn’t necessarily vote for keeping Reid as leader.” There could be ramifications for Democratic Senate leadership if the Democrat from Georgia wins office! (But there probably won’t be.)

Friends! To Georgia!

Georgia? Is Georgia the state in which the Democratic gubernatorial candidate is “bringing along enough of the center-left working class white male vote while maintaining strong support among women and young people and the future of Texas politics?” No, because that state is obviously Texas. Wendy Davis could be turning Texas blue, or at least purple. That could shape the future of Texas politics—and Texas politics shape American politics, and so, by the transitive property, your eyes should be trained on Texas.

Don’t mess with careful observation of the race in Texas!

Actually, if you’d really been paying attention, you’d have seen that the Washington state primary foretold the midterm elections, and thus the future of U.S. politics, already, according to Real Clear Politics. And what does that future look like? “Right now, it doesn’t look like a full-on GOP wave…But it isn’t a very good environment for Democrats, either.” (The future, it turns out, looks a lot like the present.)

Give it up. The Washington state Primary may have told us all we need to know.

Wait, no! Actually, Rev. Al Sharpton says that the 2014 midterm elections might be more important than the 2016 elections, writing, “A few months away from the midterm elections, and at a time when so much of our progress is under threat, this just might be one of the most pivotal moments before us.”

Whatever you do, do not stop caring about these elections.

But if you do stop caring, it’s OK. Nate Silver, expert of predictions and well-timed burrito storiessays that the 2014 election is the least important in years.

Stop. Stop with the 2014 elections. Don’t even think about them. (Why are you still reading this?)

Wait, no, sorry. Come back. Jim Geraghty of the National Review says that the elections do matter. (Actually, he says, “Heck Yeah, the 2014 Midterm Elections Matter!”) Geraghty’s point is actually not dissimilar from Silver’s: Silver writes that these elections are mostly important in how they position U.S. politics for 2016, and Geraghty notes that that is indeed important. (Or, rather, that “that sure as heck is important!”)

2016 is important. 2014 is important, too. Wisconsin is important. Georgia is important. Texas is important. The Washington state primaries were important. And, certainly, getting people to care about them through dramatically headlined pieces of journalism is important, too.  

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Aug. 28 2014 1:11 PM

Elizabeth Warren Sides With Israel, Not With the Liberals Who Keep Daydreaming About Her

Last month's Netroots Nation conference brought about a virtual epidemic of Warrenmania: The contagious theory that freshman Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is ideally positioned to challenge Hillary Clinton for president, and that she hasn't really ruled that out. I was skeptical, because she has ruled this out, many times, and because of a nagging worry some Clinton doubters shared with me. They didn't know where Warren was on foreign policy. Clinton's neoliberal hawkishness, which had created the conditions for beating her in 2008, was well known. But Warren had never really staked out a foreign policy vision, not even in her memoir. In Detroit, when reporters for the conservative Capitol City Project ambushed Warren with a Gaza question, she Speedy Gonzales'd her way to a hotel elevator.

Via Glenn Greenwald, here's a report from C. Ryan Barber on how Warren handled the Israel question. (The report is one week old; maybe we were all busy with real news last week.) In Cape Cod, a Warren supporter told the senator he disagreed with her recent vote to fully fund Israel's Iron Dome, and that people were "disagreeing with Israel using their guns against innocents." He was not alone; according to Gallup, Democrats viewed Israel's operation in Gaza as "unjustified" by a 47-31 margin, and independents opposed the operation by a 46-36 margin.

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Yet Warren didn't agree with them, or with the voter.

"America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world."
Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel "indiscriminately," but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have "not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for." When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel's attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the "last thing Israel wants."
"But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself," Warren said, drawing applause.

A few weeks ago, when Warren announced a post-midterms trip to Israel, it was covered as a box-checking exercise for a possible 2016 run. What if it's not that? What if Warren has the foreign policy views you might expect from a baby boomer who was a registered Republican during much of the Clinton presidency? In that case, she's not well positioned at all to build a left-wing political coalition against the Clintons, as she keeps saying she won't do. Brian Schweitzer—now, there's a guy ready to go to Hillary Clinton's left on foreign policy. But well, you know.

I asked organizers of Ready 4 Warren about the Israel quote, and will post any response, though there's nothing about foreign policy in its organizing statement.

Aug. 28 2014 10:24 AM

Mitt Romney Leads in Iowa, Which Tells You a Lot About Polling the 2016 Primaries

The 2016 Iowa caucuses are 17 months away, which means that the political press corps must locate a Republican front-runner right now. A little while ago, based on polling that gave Sen. Rand Paul a margin-of-error advantage over the field (one poll put him at 12 percent in Iowa) and residual support for his family, Paul was anointed the "Iowa frontrunner." But today brings an even click-worthier story:

The day after Mitt Romney opened the door to another possible presidential run, a new poll shows he has a huge lead among likely 2016 Iowa Republican caucus voters.
According to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Wednesday, 35 percent of likely GOP caucus voters would vote for the 2012 GOP nominee in 2016. When Romney’s name was added to the pool, no other candidate received double-digit votes.
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This Politico story, written by breaking-news reporters, has been shared more than 17,000 times on Facebook. In August. Of 2014. How many Iowans actually support Romney for 2016? One hundred seventy Republicans were polled, and 60 chose Romney.

The Romney Renaissance (Romniassance? No.) is an irresistable story for the press corps, based on a few scraps of news that are weightier than this poll. One: When asked if they could retake the 2012 ballot, most voters say they'd pick Romney over Obama. (Most say they'd choose Hillary Clinton over Romney.) Two: Romney has remained just-engaged-enough in high-level, donor-level Republican politics, gathering supporters in Utah this year so they could meet some GOP stars. Three: Romney, like a lot of Republicans, has benefited from a 2014 electoral map that slants toward red and purple states. He won West Virginia by 26 points, Arkansas by 24 points, and North Carolina by 2 points, and lo and behold he's campaigning there while Democrats want President Obama to stay away, or turn to jelly when reporters mention the president's name. Romney can even campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states he lost to Obama, thanks to the reliable "don't blame me, I voted for the other guy" effect.

Yet none of this means that Romney, who is five months older than Hillary Clinton, will run again. Look what happens in Iowa when Romney is not presented as an option for 2016.

Twenty-five fewer people say they're "undecided" if Romney's in the race. Eleven fewer people say they'd vote for Chris Christie. Seven fewer people say they'd vote for Marco Rubio. So on and so on—Romney's a familiar face, whom Republicans were told was going to win the presidency, and his name distracts Iowa Republican voters from the people they have never even seen a TV ad for (with the exceptions of Huckabee, Perry, and Santorum). Honestly, it feels a little cruel for the voters who gave Romney only 25 percent of the caucus vote, and second place, for two consecutive election cycles, to come off like they've got Romneyphilia. They just aren't paying attention to the next presidential election. Why should they?

Aug. 27 2014 1:58 PM

Mitch McConnell’s Non-Flub Flub

Sixty-one percent of Kentuckians support raising the federal minimum wage, but the state’s senior senator and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is tired of voting on this “gosh darn” proposal, he told those gathered at American Courage: Our Commitment to a Free Society, a strategy meeting organized by the Koch brothers held June 15. (The event was apparently codenamed “T&R Sales Meeting” to keep it secret). McConnell has voted against raising the minimum wage 17 times, says a new ad from his Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes released last week.

Student loan reforms “will make things worse,” McConnell went on to his audience. “These people”—presumably not those of the Koch-minded variety gathered before him—“believe in all the wrong things.” On Tuesday, The Nation posted audio of McConnell’s remarks. In the recording, the Republican is heard pledging to pass spending that will hamper health care service, environmental regulation, and finance regulation:

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Saying things to please donors that are unpopular with voters has gotten candidates in trouble before: Months after his infamous “47 percent”  remark, Mitt Romney was still trying to insist that he “didn’t say that” and was misperceived. (Incidentally, Romney will be flying into Kentucky in October to campaign for McConnell.) But the disdain McConnell expresses for lifting wages may not make much of a splash in the race as it currently stands. “The only thing we’ve really been hearing about in these campaigns is how much both candidates love coal,” says Jasmine Farrier, a political scientist at the University of Louisville. “The only difference is that Grimes loves coal miners and McConnell loves coal companies.” Kentucky politicos gripe that neither candidate has engaged in substantive policy debate: On Monday, it was announced that a debate scheduled for next week at Centre College has been canceled. McConnell leads Grimes in the most recent polls by 3 points. 

Aug. 26 2014 7:00 PM

Election Night in America: Arizona! Florida! (Vermont, if You’re a Completist.)

Polls close in Vermont at 7 p.m. There are no competitive races that the non-Vermonter needs to bother himself with. Lovely state, though.

Polls close in most of Florida at 7 p.m. and in the last pesky panhandle counties at 8 p.m. At the top of the ballot is the governor's race, and both Gov. Rick Scott (running for re-election as a Republican) and former Gov. Charlie Crist (running for his old job as a Democrat) have primary challengers. Scott's challenger is a joke, but Crist's challenger, longtime Democratic pol Nan Rich, is the sort of sacrificial lamb the party might have nominated had Crist not come over. She's won over a few dozen minor Democratic endorsers, and made some noise—enough that a weak victory for Crist will be hyped by a Republican Party that cannot stand to look at the guy.

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There are some strange races down the ballot because, well, Florida. In the 9th District, Rep. Alan Grayson faces a primary challenge from a Democrat who mystifyingly switched from an easy nod in a Republican district to a primary against a wealhy, nationally known progressive. Grayson's 2012 comeback became a cakewalk when a weak candidate emerged—with Grayson's help—from the Republican primary. If Jorge Bonilla fails to win the Republican nod, we'll know Grayson lucked out again. In the 18th District, one-time Connecticut U.S. Senate candidate Alan Schlesinger is vying for the right to challenge Rep. Patrick Murphy, who beat Allen West two years ago. If Schlesinger wins, Democrats will get a buy in a seat they really never should have won. And in the 20th District, Rep. Alcee Hastings is being primaried by a former professional wrestler. 

I did say that these elections were being held in Florida.

Results will be right here.

Polls close at 9 p.m. in Arizona, the site of a great intra-Republican fight and a magnificently dumb Democratic fight. The Republican race for governor is a dogpile, under which are the bruised limbs of Treasurer Doug Ducey (endorsed by Ted Cruz), Mesa Mayor Scott Smith (the moderate who still loudly denounced Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and has been endorsed by Gov. Jan Brewer), Secretary of State Ken Bennett (endorsed by nobody in particular), and a few other people. A Ducey win, obviously, would be the latest victory for conservatives in a year when people keep writing that the Tea Party is dead.

The other race to watch is in the 7th District, a safe Democratic seat centered in Phoenix. When Rep. Ed Pastor retired, rising star Ruben Gallego (a state representative who left his seat to run) announced that he was ready to move up. Gallego, a Harvard-educated Iraq war veteran, had been tipped for stardom. But his path appeared to be blocked by Mary Rose Wilcox, 30 years his senior, who called in decades of chits from Latino political battles in the hopes of rising from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to a retirement gig in Congress.

Wilcox is—how to put this?—a singularly silly and desparate candidate. She has sent out mailers linking Gallego to the killing of Trayvon Martin, because Gallego sided with the NRA on some gun bills. She briefly challenged Gallego's right to appear on the ballot under his name, his mother's name, which he adopted late in life because his father abandoned his family. Yet Wilcox scored endorsements from some prominent Hispanic pols, like Rep. Luis Gutierrez and former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, while Gallego won backing from MoveOn, the Sierra Club, labor unions, and Arizona's senior Latino member of Congress Raul Grijalva (D-Tune Inn). Gallego won the support of Larry Lessig's Mayday PAC, which to Walter Shapiro was a sign that MayDay had no idea what it was doing. A win for him would be a generational shift in Arizona Latino politics. A win for Wilcox would be a feather in the cap for Emily's List, and the other groups that decided that, sure, a 65-year-old pol mostly known for legal fights against Joe Arpaio was the right person to hold a safe blue seat.

Election results will be posted here.

Aug. 26 2014 10:49 AM

Dan Page’s Deeply Disturbing Views on Race, Sexual Assault, and Government 

Does it come as a shock that Officer Dan Page, who was suspended by the St. Louis County Police Department after shoving CNN correspondent Don Lemon mid-reporting, has some bizarre and offensive ideas about blacks, women, and the government? A number of outlets have pointed to a rant Page delivered earlier this year.*

In a handful of interviews unearthed by Rachel Tabachnick of Political Research Associates, Pages further opines that there is a military plot to overthrow the United States and establish a one-world government, that sexual assault in the military is “99.9 percent” fictitious, and that “through our government education system your Caucasian females are telling young black males that the white male is the enemy.” Listen to him for yourself:

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Page on TruNews, a right-wing radio program, talking about world government on July 10, 2014:

Page discusses “bogus” military sexual assault on the John Moore Radio Show, May 12, 2014:

Page’s rhetoric on race from a Caravan to Midnight interview May 29, 2014 is deeply disturbing: 

Anyone has the right to think what he wants, even as troubling and utterly wrong-headed as those ideas may be. But as the recent unrest in Ferguson amply demonstrated, when those ideas are held by those tasked with enforcing law and order, it’s not hard to see how things can go terribly wrong.

Update, August 26, 2014: This post has been updated to include an additional video. 

Aug. 23 2014 10:36 AM

Here's What You Need to Know About Politico's Coverage of Vox, in Two Charts

Politico's media reporter Dylan Byers is out with a strange piece describing how “many journalists and news executives find themselves in need of an explanation” of how Vox.com is actually changing journalism. The start-up, founded by Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and my former colleague Matthew Yglesias, has attracted brickbats and mockery from the word "go." There was the launch video, in which a then-29 Klein analyzed the “problem in journalism” of old formats not being ideal for storytelling and context, and Bell promising to change the site if the creators were wrong about what people might read. There was the suit jacket Yglesias wore in the launch video. And there was all the chatter, in this self-important beltway community of which I am a time-sharing member, of how the Washington Post had let its most promising star and his team of reporters walk away—just like how it had let some Bush-era reporting stars walk away and start Politico. Some people wanted the rebels to win; some people thought the Empire was right all along.

Byers' piece seems to side with the Vox critics, but in the least convincing way. I expected some mention of the site's mistakes. (A thinly-sourced mention of a "bridge" connecting Gaza to the West Bank will live in infamy, especially because the bridge does not exist.) There's none of that. “Some media observers,” quoted by Byers, say the site is doing well. Some do not. One anonymous editor disagrees with Klein that anyone refers to “the spinach” or “the vegetables” of journalism. (Some people do.) There is a long parenthical about a 2010 piece Klein wrote about vegetables, and the assertion that Vox has posed “little threat” to old media institutions. 

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Is there any #datajournalism that can back this up? Byers:

With all the big news stories this summer — racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., Iraq, Ukraine, and Gaza — a site like Vox seemed destined for success. Those stories cry out for explanation, context, perspective. Vox does its best to offer that, and it has seen some promising traffic numbers... More people are reading Vox than Silver’s “FiveThirtyEight,” another analytical, data-driven site that re-launched last year under ESPN — which is impressive, given the mega-platform that is ESPN. Klein said Vox.com had over 9 million unique visitors in July, and would surpass that in August.

Curiously, these are the only traffic numbers mentioned in the piece, and they are not corroborated by a traffic meter like Quantcast. Since Quantcast is free and easy to use, I popped over to check its measure of Vox's traffic. In July, according to Quantcast, Vox had 8.2 million unique visitors. 

The problem: We don't know what to compare this to. Is 8.2 million or 9 million any good? Let's compare it to Politico, launched in 2007. Here's a chart of the two sites' unique visitors over the last three months.

In a very short time, Vox has tied then passed Politico for unique visitors. A big factor has to be this month's coverage of the protests in Ferguson, which Vox has churned out posts and stories about. After I posted this chart on Twitter, a few people suggested that beating Politico in a recess month of a midterm year was no big deal. For context, here's Quantcast's full history of Politico's monthly traffic.

Since 2009, Politico has maintained pretty stable readership with a big spike during the presidential election. Clearly, Politico isn't failing to “change journalism.” It brought an attitude and obsessiveness to journalism that forced other organizations to catch up; Ben Smith, who edits BuzzFeed, spent his first years as a national reporter at Politico.

Yet Politico has not been a traffic monster; nor has it tried to be. In 2011, it launched a "Pro" shop that produces stories for people who subscribe at a fee of $3,295 per year. It sends out multiple newsletters that are sponsored by advertisers. (Klein started a newsletter when he was at the Post, and it continues without him. There is no Vox newsletter.) Vox's advertising is much, much more spare. Like Slate (specifically, like my interview podcast) it partnered with GE for a series of thinky #Pressing videos. It's now running sponsored content from Goldman Sachs (sidenote: Really? “Some editors say” was a better criticism hook than “sponsored by Goldman Sachs”?) that borrows the formatting and design of Vox content, much the way BuzzFeed's sponsored posts look just like the posts designed by its editorial team. This is not the “new journalism model” people like to think about, but there it is.

So: How can we assess Politico's lead story, and its claim that Vox is not living up to the hype? It's not suffering for traffic. It has not obviously changed the way older media outlets work, in that other outlets have not copied the Vox “cards” or the other innovations. But Vox, like Slate, is a product of an Internet that reads less by Googling or checking homepages, and more by checking social media. The early pioneers in this Internet were Business Insider (with its endless “here's what you need to know” or “here's what matters” headlines), BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and Klein's old Wonkblog. The New York Times reacted to the WonkBlog phenom with a new vertical, The Upshot. The Wonkblog ethos have permeated the Post, which employs a large number of people who quickly run buzzy memes or graphs without bothering to write long pieces about them. There's not much room in this Internet for some say/others say, premise-first pieces—except, I guess, to make fun of them with charts. Thanks for reading!

Aug. 22 2014 6:18 PM

Women, Guns, and the NRA

This week the NRA debuted the first ad in a campaign against Michael Bloomberg, who has poured millions of his fortune into gun control efforts, and pledged in April to contribute $50 million more through his group Everytown for Gun Safety. The spot stars a trim blonde woman driving a truck through simulated American heartland hills and suburb, while the female voiceover paints Bloomberg as an out-of-touch liberal elite who wants to trample on Americans’ right to defend themselves, along with their rights to eat and drink what they want. NRA ads used to feature tough looking men talking about good guys versus bad. Now it wants to appeal to the country’s feminine half.

Not long ago, few people paid attention to women and guns (apart from crass pin-uppy “gals with Glocks” spreads ubiquitous in certain lad mags). The American gun industry was historically far more interested in the wants of white middle-aged men. Advocates for better gun laws, on the other hand, used to focus their research on regional and socioeconomic attitudes rather than gender, says Lanae Erickson of Third Way, a think-tank. But both camps in the gun debate seem to have woken up to the importance of women and their potential as an under-engaged but powerful demographic.

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Much of this came in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook. “Before that, I didn’t know much about guns,” says Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense shortly afterward. “But after Sandy Hook, I started learning more, and I think a lot of mothers saw what happened and said ‘not my child, not me’ and decided to get active.” Her group united with Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns to form Everytown for Gun Safety: Making gun violence a voting issue for women is a key objective she told the New York Times, as is affecting corporate tolerance for lax gun policy. Women may be in the minority in Congress and in boardrooms, Watts points out, but they make 86 percent of household spending decisions. That has the NRA scared, because “they know how strong our message is” when mothers stand against the gun lobby.

“The NRA knows that women have recently been effective messengers on gun safety and gun access issues,” says Erickson, “and they’ve been very smart in crafting a way to appeal more to a demographic they’ve not been very good with.” Female witnesses for the NRA are put forward at congressional hearings. Gun manufacturers increasingly pay attention to products marketed toward women. Within the last few years, women have stepped “out of the shadows” and connected with communities of other women who are interested in guns, for sport or for protection, says Carrie Lightfoot, an NRA licensed instructor and founder of The Well Armed Woman, a shooting and gun education society. “We are moving towards a new mode of women as our own protectors and as protectors of our families,” Lightfoot says.

Lightfoot says she understands the impulse of mothers like those in Watts’ group that advocate for better gun laws after senseless school shootings. But echoing the message from many gun groups, she believes it’s better to be armed than defenseless.

She is not alone in the sentiment: Gun ownership among women has risen (slightly) in the last year. “Glocker Moms” against Bloomberg made a splash at this year’s annual NRA meeting. They see Bloomberg and gun law activists as paternalistic figures who think they know what’s best for these women’s families—this is what the new ad speaks to with its “get your hands off” narration. (Everytown for Gun Safety supports the choice to own guns, and some mothers in Watts’ group are gun owners). That has helped the NRA’s guns-as-empowered self-defense message resonate, despite evidence that women with guns in their household are more likely to experience violence.

Women like Lightfoot are in the minority, says Erickson. Most women back more gun regulation. And Lightfoot and women like her don’t want to see guns fall into the wrong hands, either. The difference is that she buys the NRA’s argument that we should not have more regulations, but do a better job of implementing current background checks. But it is hard to square that with the fact that the NRA opposes legislation to expand background databases, such as the Klobuchar bill, which seeks to prevent stalkers—usually men targeting vulnerable women—from buying guns. 

Aug. 21 2014 11:17 AM

Can Anyone Remember Which President Ed Gillespie Worked For?

Ed Gillespie, who currently trails by 19 points in his somewhat hubristic bid against Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, is out with his first campaign ad. Being able to battle Warner on the air is sort of the point of the Gillespie campaign; he's got at least 29 years of donor contacts, if you start the clock from his days at the RNC and keep it running through his time launching a bipartisan lobbying firm. He's worth at least $10.3 million, and Warner's set to become the richest man in the Senate when Jay Rockefeller leaves next year, so the ad's a particular fine example of the trend (explained here by Mark Leibovich) of wealthy candidates assuring you that their family's rootsiness was passed down to them like singing ability or heart disease.

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Gillespie does not have the résumé that a consultant might dream up for his candidate. He has not fought in Iraq, like Iowa's Joni Ernst, or in Afghanistan, like Alaska's Dan Sullivan. He's basically been a political operator, a little-loved career, though not unpopular enough to sink now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe on his second statewide run. And he ... what's that résumé item near the start of the ad? "I helped pay for college as a Senate parking lot attendant," says Gillespie, "and eventually became a counselor to a president."

Which president? Gillespie does not say, but anyone who has paid attention to politics since 2000 or so probably knows that Gillespie was counselor to George W. Bush during his final term. Previously he was an RNC chairman who assured audiences that the president's decision to invade Iraq was a humdinger. "I’m not alone in feeling that I was a better person after 20 months at his side," Gillespie wrote of Bush in 2013, in one of the many "Miss Him Yet?" pieces of the Obama era, "and we look forward to the day when the facts about his time in office are more widely understood."

That day is not Aug. 21, 2014. Maybe tomorrow?

Aug. 20 2014 6:05 PM

Smart Policing Takes Good Training, Not Just Diversity

Since the turmoil in Ferguson began last week, there has been much discussion over the lack of diversity in American police departments. As of 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, just one in four officers nationwide was a minority, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1987 it was one in six. The Washington Post has put together a helpful infographic from 2010 census data of cities where police departments don’t resemble the neighborhoods they serve. Three-quarters of them have a higher proportion of white officers than the white population in the community.

Yet greater diversity on police forces is hardly a magic solution. Though it is good policy and clearly needed given the troubled racial history in American policing, it will take “more than diversification to ‘cancel out’ skepticism of minority citizens” toward police, says Joshua Cochran, a criminologist at the University of South Florida. What is needed (but far less examined) is to ask how recruits and officers, of any background, are taught to think about race when policing. There are no national standards for evaluating police departments along these lines. Training regimens on dealing with bias are left up to individual states, and the requirements vary widely, according to data from the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, or IADLEST. Alabama does not require any such training. Massachusetts mandates 30 hours of course material, while Georgia requires just two. No national body keeps track of the types or results from such courses, and data is sketchy. (IADLEST’s figures are from 2005 and the most recent available.)

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A study of police recruits from the Midwest conducted last year by Michael Schlosser of the University of Illinois Police Training Institute found that few would-be officers enter police training with an awareness of their own racial biases or the need for racial sensitivity education. Many scorned the notion that diversity training would be fruitful or important. “Although police academies have experimented with numerous forms of diversity training for six decades,” Schlosser concludes, “it appears the situation today is not much different from the 1940s.”

Officers and police departments are often “indifferent to hostile” to lessons about diversity, says Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, who conducts police training throughout the country. “I think the way we’ve been teaching the subject in this country has been wrong,” she says, because what education there is often begins with the assumption that police are explicitly racist, and many therefore reject it. Fridell and her colleagues have developed a curriculum to address implicit bias—prejudices a person might consciously reject, but reflexively influence their behavior—which, studies show, can trigger excessive violent action in police work. Schlosser and his colleagues at the Police Training Institute are piloting another curriculum. Both report anecdotal successes (e.g., when officers report using the training to diffuse a difficult situation or stop them from acting on unwarranted reflex), but longitudinal studies have not yet been done. The relative newness of these ideas speaks to the gap in crafting better policing policy. That will require a change not just to composition but also to policing culture. 

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