Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 29 2014 11:58 AM

The Long Tail of "Dead Broke"

Yesterday, Fusion ran Jorge Ramos's interview with Hillary Clinton about her book, her wealth, and the pre-presidential campaign. Ramos took two hard swings at the wealth issue, and Republican tracking groups popped bottles when she stammered to talk about her "net worth." (She would only allow that her family was worth "millions.") And Ramos also asked if Clinton regretted telling Diane Sawyer that her family was "dead broke" upon leaving the White House.

"I regret it," she said. "It was inartful. It was accurate, but we are so successful and so blessed by the success we had."

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Clinton has spent a whole month apologizing for that quote. Right after she gave it, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave her a chance to walk it back, and she did so: "That may have not been the most artful way of saying that, you know, Bill and I have gone through a lot of different phases in our lives." Weeks later, Bill Clinton attacked the "fabricated" narrative around "dead broke," reminding a CNN reporter that the Clintons were piled up with debt in January 2001.

They've got to be sick of this by now. Maggie Haberman had it nailed three weeks ago: Hillary Clinton was "still raw over the partisan wars that hindered her husband’s legacy and left the couple with millions of dollars in legal debt." Her answer, as she told Ramos, was accurate, and it's baffling to her that this became a "gaffe." As she continued her tour, HarperCollins was printing up copies of Clinton, Inc, a tell-all by The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper. On page 18, Halper recalls that in 2001 "the Clintons were broke, owing a fortune in legal fees from the many investigations into their personal lives," and that they had to be loaned $1.3 by Terry McAuliffe. Until just a month ago, that was how even conservatives remembered the Clintons' departure from the White House.

But a conservative author could call the Clintons "broke." Hillary Clinton could not. In the sprawling world of Clinton defenders (who I spent some time with, for a story going up later) this is deeply annoying.

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July 29 2014 10:49 AM

What’s the Real Consultant Scandal in Georgia?

One day after it was leaked, the story about Michelle Nunn's December 2013 campaign memo has been simplified. It was a blunder, a gaffe, which Nunn (who was previously nailed for a troublesome guest at a fundraiser) cannot afford. The "problematic assocition" story has sunk in, even though this AJC headline gets at how far you have to leap to tie Nunn to an actual scandal: "Michelle Nunn non-profit validated grants to charity with Hamas-tied affiliate." (The verb "validate" appears because Nunn's Points of Light did not actually dispense money; the modifier "-tied" appears because Islamic Relief USA claims to be independent of the other Islamic Relief charities, for all the good that does.)

It's a fascinating picture of what is and isn't a scandal. The same day that Eliana Johnson scooped the Nunn memo, OpenSecrets reporter Russ Choma ran a long investigation of the money sloshing around a shadowy Ohio group that played big in Georgia. The story is complicated, but the gist is that Republican strategist Nick Ayers' firm has been paid by the Government Integrity Fund and the Jobs & Progress Fund.

[The Jobs & Progress Fund] more than $1.6 million into a super PAC called Citizens for a Working America. That group promptly began attacking Rep. Jack Kingston, the 11-term Georgia Republican running against David Perdue for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Saxby Chambliss.
In June, another Ohio nonprofit, the Government Integrity Fund, poured an additional $410,000 into Citizens for a Working America as the super PAC’s attacks on Kingston — and ads supportive of Perdue — continued to roll.
One ad shortly before the runoff accused Kingston of being involved with a straw donor scheme to funnel money illegally to his campaign and hide its true source. The Jobs & Progress Fund also bought its own ads directly, spending more than $138,000 and turning up the pressure further.
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Meanwhile, Ayers was scoring a win with the David Perdue campaign. Perdue happens to be the cousin of Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, whose 2002 win effectively kickstarted Ayers' career. Only the political money-watchers seem to find a story or a scandal in this. Hey, it's not like anyone validated a group that is tied to a group that is barred from working in Israel because of Hamas ties.

July 29 2014 8:36 AM

What if Medicare Spending Decreased and Nobody Cared?

Nobody can agree on what caused the good news in the latest Medicare trustees report. The trustees certainly can't. In the Washington Post, Amy Goldstein writes matter-of-factly that "Medicare’s financial stability has been strengthened by the Affordable Care Act and other forces." At Vox, Sarah Kliff warns that "some senior administration officials I spoke with cautioned against reading too much into these particular figures; receipts for services rendered in 2013, for example, might trickle after the year has ended." In the Washington Examiner, Philip Klein quotes Medicare's actuary to point out that the cuts may not "be viable in the long range." And in the Boston Globe, Stephen Ohlemacher runs the bases: "Experts debate whether the health-spending slowdown is the result of a sluggish economy or represents a dividend from President Obama’s health care law, and more recent Medicare cuts by Congress." Isn't that just like the experts! 

Perhaps the best way to read the good news, that Medicare Part A spending fell from $266.8 billion to $266.2 from 2012 to 2013, is to imagine what the reaction might have been had the numbers moved the other direction. How would we be talking about the phase-in of Obamacare, and its Medicare spending reductions? Pretty obvious: We'd be branding it a disaster, failure, debacle, impeachment-fodder, etc. After all, it's four years since the law passed, and ads for Republican candidates still scorch the Democrats for "cutting $700 billion from seniors' Medicare."

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The ads are not wrong, as the doctors already dropped from Medicare Advantage eligibility will happily tell you. But the obsession of Washington's dealmakers is Medicare spending, and finding some way to prevent a demographic apocalypse. The trustees point out that the Obamacare cuts had added, since 2010, 13 years to the life expectancy of the Medicare trust fund. Democrats don't want to campaign on the cost reductions; Republicans prefer to focus on the cuts than on the savings. The result: The White House bragging about savings, some versions of the Medicare story putting it in the lede, and public awareness remaining close to nil.

July 28 2014 4:53 PM

Meet the Libertarians Who Keep Beating D.C.’s Gun Laws in Court

At the end of last week, Senior District Court Judge Frederick Scullin Jr. handed a huge victory to D.C.'s outnumbered supporters of unfettered Second Amendment rights. The district's handgun restrictions, wrote Scullin, flew in the face of precedent. "In light of Heller, McDonald, and their progeny," wrote Scullin, referring to other cases that rolled back the gun laws, "there is no longer any basis on which this Court can conclude that the District of Columbia's total ban on the public carrying of ready-to-use handguns outside the home is constitutional under any level of scrutiny." The District was violating the Constitution by refusing to let people from other states open-carry or conceal-carry their guns. Just days before, an unlucky South Carolina activist had been arrested for trying to take his loaded Ruger into the Capitol. The people's Capitol. (It was an accident.)

Yet on my ride in to work today, I saw no fellow citizens carrying guns. The reasons are simple—it's still hard to get a gun license in the city, the city is readying an appeal and a request for a stay, and in the meantime police are being advised to "record any relevant information" about, and check the criminal background of, anyone they spot with a gun. For now, Palmer v. District of Columbia is mostly interesting as the second example in just a few days of libertarian lawyers dunking on the liberal state. Tom Palmer, listed first among the plaintiffs, is the director of the libertarian Cato University program, and a vice president of the Randian Atlas Society. He was a plaintiff in the Heller case, too; in attorney Alan Gura's words, he was "a gay man who had previously, in California, fended off a hate crime using a firearm that he happened to have on him." Just as the attorneys in Halbig found conservatives who were eager to sue, they could find ready, liberty-minded skeptics of D.C.'s gun laws.

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These people are relatively rare in D.C., until you enter the halls of Congress. (Assuming you don't try to enter while carrying a gun.) Kentucky Rep. Tom Massie, a libertarian-minded Ron Paul acolyte who wants to defund D.C.'s gun laws in the current appropriations bill, has declared this case a clear victory. Certainly, as libertarian counterattacks go, it's more effective and less personally harmful than Adam Kokesh's.

July 28 2014 3:12 PM

“Problematic Entities,” the 2014 Election Euphemism of the Day

A December 2013 memo, produced for the Senate campaign of Georgia's Michelle Nunn, is great fun for any election nerd. There's the series of flowcharts from BlueLabs, the group credited by many (not least by itself) for figuring out how to turn the 2013 Virginia electorate into a diverse simulacrum of the 2012 electorate. There's the long and honest look at how and when funds will arrive.

And then there's the bit about vulnerabilities. National Review's Eliana Johnson, who scooped the memo, finds Nunn's advisers worrying about "grants to problematic entities" from her nonprofit, the Points of Light Foundation. (This story comes just six days after a Republican primary finally determined Nunn's opponent, businessman David Perdue.) Johnson homes in on one particular donation:

According to the IRS Form 990s that Points of Light filed in 2008 and 2011, the organization gave a grant of over $33,000 to Islamic Relief USA, a charity that says it strives to alleviate “hunger, illiteracy, and diseases worldwide.” Islamic Relief USA is part of a global network of charities that operate under the umbrella of Islamic Relief Worldwide. Islamic Relief USA says on its website that it is a legally separate entity from its parent organization, but that they share “a common vision, mission, and family identity.” Islamic Relief Worldwide has ties to Hamas, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization. In June, Israel banned the charity from operating in the country because, according to Israeli officials, it was funneling cash to Hamas. 
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The Nunn campaign's response was quick: It did not actually give this money, but validated Islamic Relief USA (not Worldwide) as a worthwhile charity. Much more athletic than its response to a previous (also Johnson-scooped) scandal, in which Nunn backed away from Virtual Murrell, a former Black Panther who'd pleaded guilty to a 1994 bribe charge. Any attack like this is an attack on Nunn's studious, earned image as a figure born into, but not of, politics—the leaked memo actually runs through the Republicans who can probably come around to endorsing her.

But I'm not sure that these are Nunn's greatest problems. Democrats, who seriously lack for luck in this election cycle, are currently competitive or ahead in Georgia's race and Louisiana's Senate race. In both states, a candidate who fails to clear 50 percent of the vote in November has to fight a December runoff. In both states, black turnout among Democratic voters made the parties far more competitive in the 2008 elections (the last time these seats were up) than in the runoffs.

Update: Having talked to Nunn myself, this quote from the memo cuts too deep:

The political press is not inclined to cover a candidate repeating their message. In fact, many reporters see their job as getting the candidate to "reveal" what their "true" inclinations and orientation may lay or to cause a gaffe. Any deviation from that message will be newsworthy to them. They also understand that effective candidates and campaigns stick to their message, and will see a deviation in message as an erred campaign or candidate.

July 28 2014 12:23 PM

Poll: Hillary Clinton Does Better With White Voters Than Any Democrat Since 1976

Long ago, before the God of Narratives decided that Hillary Clinton was an out-of-touch elitist, she was seen as a fearsome 2016 contender. As the theory went, she could outpoll Barack Obama with white voters while winning nonwhite voters. The new CNN poll suggests that this is still mostly true. In a fun, cheeky trial heat, CNN's pollster asked voters whom they'd support in a 2012 election do-over: Mitt Romney or Barack Obama? Romney won in a rout, the poor guy:

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Next, the pollster asked voters to take sides in a hypothetical and inhumanely boring Clinton vs. Romney race. Clinton won easy, 55–42. It doesn't take true genius to figure out where those new Democratic votes came from. 

Would you look at that? Obama, who won only 39 percent of the white vote in 2012, is swooning because he's lost even more of it. But Clinton's grabbing 46 percent of the white vote. That's better than Obama did in 2008 (43 percent), better than John Kerry did in 2004 (41 percent), better than Al Gore did in 2000 (42 percent). It's even better than her husband did in 1996 (43 percent), though that result—like the 1992 result—is skewed by the presence of Ross Perot. You have to go back to 1976 to find a Democrat who polled better than 46 percent with whites. And when Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Gerald Ford, the electorate was 89 percent white overall. In 2016 it's likely to be closer to 70 percent white. In 2016 a Democrat who wins only 40 percent of the white vote and holds close to Barack Obama's totals with nonwhites can win easily.

Special bonus reason for Democratic gloating: In the theoretical Romney race, Clinton wins 62 percent of voters who make less than $50,000. Yes, even after the scandal of her speaking fees.

July 28 2014 11:58 AM

Paid Trackers Are Your New Press Corps

Last week a Democratic campaign sent me this photo of a tracker from one of their events. The America Rising videographer had shown up with something that looked very much like a press badge, the sort of thing that would allow her/him to be waved in to an event that might otherwise be closed.

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When I asked America Rising about the badge, Executive Director Tim Miller sent me this 2012 shot of a similarly equipped tracker for the progressive American Bridge.

"As a tracker," said Miller, "you are often getting asked who you are and why you are videoing. The ID badges make those encounters easier ... except in circumstances where the candidates aren't having open events, our policy for full-time trackers is for them to be transparent about what they are doing."

Indeed, that's what Miller told me earlier in the year when I profiled AR. Local media shrinks; the paid tracker industry, with a different profit motive, gets to be the historical witness at campaign events. Campaigns can complain about the presence of trackers, but few have figured out an effective repulsion strategy beyond just refusing to let them in and hoping it doesn't look too bad on tape.

July 28 2014 9:55 AM

In Which a Democratic Candidate Turns Off the White House’s Lights

West Virginia's Natalie Tennant, who's running a Senate race that the handicappers expect her to lose, arrives on the airwaves with an expert trolling of the White House. In her first general election commercial, Tennant tsk-tsks a White House that doesn't even know where its "power comes from," then turns off an ACME-ish switch, which diverts all coal power away from the job-killer-in-chief.

Tennant's long-term program, should she get to the Senate, is not actually Barack Obama. If successful, she'll only overlap with the incumbent for two years. The green movement that's successfully gotten EPA rules and strictures on coal burning isn't giving up or going away. And the fracking boom, which has cut right through the coal industry, could go on for decades. But just as West Virginia's Sen. Joe Manchin established himself by literally shooting a hole through a copy of "cap and trade" legislation, so too has Tennant introduced herself as a warrior against Obama and those elitist greens.

July 28 2014 8:57 AM

Sarah Palin Joins the Bustling World of Paid Conservative News Sites

On Sunday, the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president announced a new subscription video service—just $99.95 per year for all the interviews and "fly on the wall" coverage you could want.

 
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As Todd Spangler reports, the channel is being produced in partnership with the online news startup founded by the former chairman of NBC and president of CNN—lamestream media, basically. But how to distinguish this new venture, and how to find an audience?

Palin's effort, after all, comes two years after the debut of Herman Cain's CainTV, and one year after that site's subscription model withered away. (The main site, and its original content, has been replaced by links, analysis, and Cain-centric commentary.) It's three years since the more successful launch of Glenn Beck's GBTV, a subscription news service that granted conservatives special access to Beck's show and to a round of new programming. (S.E. Cupp, who used to host a show on the channel, now co-hosts Crossfire on CNN.)

All of this followed in the wake of Rush Limbaugh's Rush 24/7 program, which offered (and offers) access to Limbaugh's daily show whenever a subscriber wanted it, plus gifts and "exclusive Dittocam video." (This is a live video of Limbaugh sitting down and recording his show.) Limbaugh has remained unusually good at controlling his content; Palin, who has been a Fox News contract pundit for much of her post-gubernatorial career, has sometimes erred and broken news on the Mark Levin show or Breitbart.com. If she's about to correct that, and save her best stuff for subscribers, she's asking an audience that's given a lot to conservative media to dig a little deeper.

July 25 2014 10:05 PM

Buzzenfreude and Plagiarism

It started, as so many few things start, with an argument about socks. BuzzFeed's viral politics editor, Benny Johnson, had asked former President George H.W. Bush for advice on stylish ankle-concealing garments. (Johnson had been on this beat for a while.) The aggregation-heavy conservative site IJ Review basically stole Johnson's content—which included an exclusive quote from Bush—and Johnson tweet-shamed them into taking it down. (Believe it or not, IJ Review had also trafficked in Bush socks stories.)

That was the cue. On the blog Our Bad Media, writers known only as @blippoblappo and @crushingbort revealed that "a brief dip into the cesspool that is Johnson’s Buzzfeed articles quickly turned up several incidents of Johnson directly lifting from other reporters, Wikipedia, and Yahoo! Answers, a website where people go to ask if they can get pregnant from stepping on a rusty nail." They posted their evidence; BuzzFeed edited several of Johnson's stories to give proper credit. Not long after, Gawker's J.K. Trotter advanced the story with a comment from Buzzfeed's editor in chief, Ben Smith: "Benny Johnson is one of the web’s deeply original writers, as is clear from his body of work."

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Ever since then (well, in the 28 hours since then) it's been open season on Johnson. He has not published anything since yesterday, and his body of BuzzFeed work is being "reviewed." (I sent Johnson an email but otherwise haven't contacted or heard from him about this.) Anyone with a working Google machine can compare Johnson's text, which typically consists of captions below photos or gifs, to existing content on Wikipedia or Yahoo—the sleuthing has turned up more short phrases and sentences that look cloned.

Why is there so much heat on Johnson? The hubris started it, but there's been a healthy burble of Internet hatred toward the guy for ages. Johnson was a college Republican and writer for Glenn Beck's website the Blaze before he joined BuzzFeed, facts exposed and shamed by the mysteriously-named FeedBuzz in 2013. On the left, Johnson's probably best known as the guy behind the viral post "How to Thank a Soldier, by George W. Bush," ("14. Cook them a big-ass dinner if you can.") so writers on the left have spared nothing in gloating about the scandal.

"Describing buzz feed benny johnson as a viral load does an allusive disservice to more noble organisms like the AIDS virus," wrote Jeb Lund, who writes for the Guardian.

"Hearing that @bennyjohnson is not a paragon of ethics—its like the day I found out Santa isn't real," wrote Matt Taibbi, who now writes for First Look Media.

You can follow the links to the sleuthing, but Dylan Byers has done the best job explaining the unseemly amount of schadenfreude.

In the eyes of many journalists, BuzzFeed is constantly walking a fine line between aggregation, or "curation," and theft. Go to BuzzFeed.com and click on any one of its lists. In very fine print, buried below each photo, there will be a link to another site -- usually Reddit -- which is where the photograph came from.
Is this plagiarism? Of course not. Does it feel a little seedy? Yeah, a bit.

This is not what Johnson did. I've seen Johnson in D.C. (and once in Iowa), arriving at events with a camera and notepad to feed his stories. He's a photojournalist who fills out his stories with captions, and it's the captions that have got him into trouble. But his photojournalism is all live and earned. Just a week ago, Johnson got a lot of attention for a pair of posts about ugly federal buildings in D.C.—one in which he gave readers a tour of their worst aspects, one in which he described how security guards tailed him and shooed him away. Johnson's last post before today's "review" was a photo essay about military dogs being reunited with their owners. The few D.C. outlets that covered it gave the story a quickie "this happened" text treatment. Johnson profiled several of the dogs and owners, using very few words but plenty of schmaltzy pics. People ignored the other stories and read his.

But that's not an excuse for the lifted text. The added irony, which is upping the schadenfreude quotient, is that BuzzFeed has cornered a market in hitting politicians for plagiarism. In the fall of 2013, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski made life hell for Sen. Rand Paul, pulling pages from his books and sections from his speeches that were lifted from Wikipedia or other sources. In 2014, Kaczynski expanded the franchise, shaming candidate after candidate for lifting grafs or phrases from other Republicans, usually (funny enough) Paul. 

Kaczynski's findings were baffling and pathetic. Who were these people, who cared enough about politics to mortgage their lives and reputations on runs for office, but didn't care enough to come up with their own thoughts? The cases of plagiarism were much more blatant than what Johnson's accused of. People have found him lifting sentences that included factoids; the pols were lifting bland political thoughts, word for word. But BuzzFeed was proving that catching plagiarism had become easy, and that lifting a few sentences without a link-back constituted outright fraud. 

The result of all this? An unusual coalition of people—liberals, Republican pols, journalists—gloating that BuzzFeed has been caught. At. Last. It would be very easy to Johnson to return to his beat, being more careful to credit his sources. But there's just so much glee and animosity about the circumstances.

Update: Shortly before midnight, BuzzFeed announced that Johnson had been fired. The most interesting part of the two relevant statements—one to readers, one to staff—is this.

BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.
Today, we are one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web. On the journalistic side, we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the people we cover to high standards. We must — and we will — hold ourselves to the same high standards. BuzzTeam, too, has, over the last two years, raised its game dramatically, focusing on creative and ambitious work, and increasingly careful attribution.

That's the website putting down a marker and promising that Bennyghazi (as at least one Twitter user has called it) was the moment BuzzFeed stopped tolerating slapdash, Reddit/Wikipedia content. More eyes will be looking for it now.

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