Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 9 2014 7:35 PM

Ted Cruz’s Joke Department: Jay Leno, Head Writer

AMES, Iowa—Sen. Ted Cruz typically begins his speeches with a couple of jokes. Lots of politicians do this; Cruz frequently quotes something from out of the mouth of his adorable kids, or from Jay Leno. Actually, Cruz does a decent impression of Leno's nasal wise-guy act.

Here at the Family Leadership Summit, Cruz opened with the standby joke that he was pleased to be out of Washington and "back in America," and reported that he'd eaten a pork chop on a stick at the state fair.

"It brought to mind a new diet that is all the rage in Washington," said Cruz. "It's the Obama diet. It works very, very well. All you do is, every day, you let Putin eat your lunch."

I wondered if Cruz had used this before, and discovered the origin of the joke—a Jay Leno monologue, nearly 11 months ago. In this unforgiving era of Google, where pols are nailed for plagiarizing lines and grafs, I assume Cruz either forgot to credit Leno or assumed that his audience was aware of the witticism. (Previously, Rick Santorum had declared that he was "not Karnac," and most of the crowd laughed, so the demographics were definitely Tonight Show-friendly.)

Aug. 9 2014 6:41 PM

Rick Santorum Tells GOP to Stop Saying “Reagan” and Assuming Everything’ll Work Out

AMES, Iowa—Yesterday, as Rick Santorum began his speech at a GOP picnic in neighboring Boone County, an elderly man leaned over to check a fact with a friend.

"What was his job in Iowa?" he asked. "Was he from Boone?"

"No, he's from Pennsylvania," said the gentleman's plugged-in friend. "He ran for president last year."

An easy mistake to make. Santorum won the 2012 Iowa caucuses narrowly (and after vote-counters blew the first count), after almost every other rival to Mitt Romney had hit a self-destruct button, and after visiting all 99 counties in the state. (He managed to do that two months before the vote.) At the county picnic, Santorum was constantly, politely interrupted by well-wishers who had met him before. He spent much of his downtime kibbitzing with Rep. Steve King, the local congressman, who kept looking at Santorum during his remarks about how the conservative movement needed to settle on a champion in 2016. (King endorsed Fred Thompson in the eleventh hour of the 2008 caucuses, and stayed neutral in 2012.)

"We have had the same message on the economy for 35 years," said Santorum. "Every single Republican that runs, they talk about the same three things on the economy. Number one, cut taxes. Number two, shrink the government. Number three, balance the budget. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan in 1979 giving a speech and saying, 'as Wendell Willkie said'?" It was a laugh line. "Because that's how long ago, 35 years, it was from Willkie to Reagan. Wendell Willkie!"

The next day, at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Santorum gave a more upbeat speech, but made sure to revisit the Reagan riff. "Go back to when Ronald Reagan, in 1979 and 1980, laid out his economic platform," he said. "He didn't do what we do now as Republicans. He didn't say, 35 years ago, this is what worked for America. But this is what we do! We stand up and say, we need to go back to Ronald Reagan. I love Ronald Reagan, but us referring back to Ronald Reagan would have been like Reagan referring back to Wendell Willkie!"

Santorum did win the 2012 caucuses in Iowa, and he does get received like a hero in the right settings. But early polling has found him mired close to where he was in 2011—in eighth place, around 6 percent support. He's responding by acting less like a conquering hero and more like a TED talker, ready to #disrupt the GOP, if anyone is listening.

Aug. 8 2014 9:18 PM

Bobby Jindal: Israel’s Safer if “John Kerry Spends More Time in Nantucket Riding a Girl’s Bike”

KNOXVILLE, Iowa—Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal flew into the first presidential caucus state for two days of meeting and campaign stops. When I followed him around Knoxville, as he joined the GOP's candidate for Congress for a tour of the sprint car museum, and a meet-and-greet at a supporter's home, what surprised me was how many people had already met the guy. My ignorance was showing, as Jindal has been a surrogate for years—for Gov. Terry Brandstad during his 2010 comeback bid, for Rick Perry during his pre-comeback 2012 implosion. (The comeback is scheduled for next year.)

After the meet-and-greet, Jindal took a few questions, most of them about raw politics in the state and about when he might decide to run for president. I'd been thinking about how nine years earlier, as a congressman, Jindal had encouraged fellow Republicans to dip their thumbs in blue ink, in solidarity with Iraqi voters, so I asked Jindal if he supported airstrikes on ISIS and if he wanted the administration to make further committments.

"I do think that the airstrikes are appropriate," Jindal said. "However, what I think is missing here, is we haven't heard from the president a coherent, strategic perspective on what is his plan to go after ISIS."

Jindal issued forth a series of general foreign policy prescriptions and zingers. He didn't specify what else the Obama administration might need to do in Iraq. He did say "I'd like to hear him clearly articulate his belief in American exceptionalism," that the president was not doing enough to back up Israel, and that "you know that Putin wouldn't be in Crimea" had the president not waffled on Syria. (At the time, Jindal had criticized the administration for not making a convincing case to intervene in Syria.)

Seriously, Jindal was rolling. "I know that folks have been sort of teasing John Kerry about being in Nantucket and riding sort of a girl's bike," said Jindal. "Maybe Israel's safer if he spends more time in Nantucket, windsurfing or riding a girl's bike or whatever it is in Nantucket."

The crowd at the meet-and-greet basically agreed with Jindal (the Kerry line was a hit), though there was more focus on how America was back bombing Iraq, after washing her hands of the country. Steve Everly, a 63-year-old owner of an electrical business, noted with some bitterness that his son had fought in Iraq and would have "back pain for the rest of his life." What if it had been for nothing?

Aug. 8 2014 3:41 PM

By Their Game-Changing Ye Shall Know Them

If you don't read RedState or MediaTrackers, you've missed the news of an email list in which "CNN, HuffPo, Reuters contributors" and others coordinate the news. Actually, if you've read the stories on those sites, you'd still missed the news. As an accidental expert in the subject of secretive email lists that link journalists with sources, I struggle to see what Gamechanger Salon—yes, that's the gag-reflex name of the thing—has accomplished.

First, the backstory. MediaTrackers made an open-records request for the emails of a Wisconsin professor (MediaTrackers does a lot of work in Wisconsin) and discovered a "members-only Google group run by Billy Wimsatt for forward thinking and top-level political activists on the Left." Those who went to liberal arts colleges in the '90s and '00s may remember Wimsatt as "Upski," the graffiti artist and author of Bomb the Suburbs. In 2010 he mellowed and published Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs, sort of like how Leonard Nimoy followed I Am Not Spock with I Am Spock. Wimsatt has assembled cocentric circles of influence, and a spreadsheet obtained by MediaTrackers lists not just the GS members but who recommended them.

MediaTrackers somehow missed that former Weather Underground member Mark Rudd did some of the recommending. Its story—theoretically a much better story—is about media coordination. Yet here's what's been proved.

- Ryan Grim and Amanda Terkel, both Huffington Post reporters, collaborated on a scoop about a "Draft Elizabeth Warren" campaign, sourced to Erica Sagrans—a member of the email list! (I wrote my own story about the effort by contacting Sagrans, whom I knew from covering the 2012 campaign. She worked for Obama-Biden.)

- Columnist and activist David Brodwin wrote a piece arguing for a minimum wage hike; the Obama administration cited Brodwin's employer (though not his column) in its minimum wage pitch.

- Pundit Sally Kohn repeatedly emailed the list to promote her TV/speaking appearances, and encourage people to tweet about them. (Kohn has also succeeded in getting the New York Times to profile her career as a progressive Fox News pundit, but it wasn't the only outlet that heard the pitch. She pitched that to Slate in 2012, no email list required.)

And ... that's sort of the lot. The salon doesn't look to be changing many games. A source on the list insists that it's boring—and a source would say that—but the lack of any concrete action spurred by these emails, like stories killed by the emails, explains why it's not breaking out on the right.

Contrast this with Groundswell, the conservative meeting and email list exposed by David Corn in 2013. Corn's story is rich with examples of Groundswell connecting congressional staffers to reporters, and getting stories out there; I'll just quote one.

In Groundswell's first months, one of the most active members in its Google group was Danielle Cutrona, chief counsel to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. She frequently placed information—speeches, articles, press releases—on Groundswell's Google group. In February, she posted opposition research material regarding a judicial appointment and asked members to distribute it: "Any help is much appreciated." In another message to Groundswell, she requested assistance in opposing the pro-immigration reform GOP establishment. "I'm going to need help pushing back,"  she wrote. 
On one occasion, Cutrona promoted a column from the conservative site RedState.com. Headlined "Who is Going to Put an End to the McCain/Graham Circus?" this RedState.com post excoriated Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham as "Benedict Arnolds" for retreating on their opposition to Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary and for "their treachery on the issue of illegal immigration." Cutrona, who occasionally used her official Senate email to communicate with Groundswell members, was encouraging this band of conservatives to spread the word that two party colleagues of her boss were ideological traitors. A spokesman for Sessions says that this blog post did not reflect Cutrona's views and "was simply one of scores of diverse news and opinion pieces she emailed on immigration."

The old JournoList group, of which I was a member,* had a rule about government officials. You joined that team, you were off the list. In lots of scouring of the archives, investigative reporters only managed to find a few examples of people, in between government jobs, promoting something.

But maybe I'm missing the forest. JournoList exists in the conservative imagination not for concrete examples of journalists changing how the mainstream media covered stories. (The membership was avowedly liberal; the most famous coordination, of academics and reporters growing angry about coverage of the Jeremiah Wright scandal or media questions in the final Clinton-Obama debate, did not result in less coverage of those stories in the MSM.) It was proof that unconscious coordination and bias, which were obvious, jumped the circuit to conscious coordination, which had been obscured.

It should no longer surprise any awake person that journalists use many methods to befriend sources, and get scoops, and that email lists are among these methods. Absent some evidence of Gamechanger Salon blocking a story, or doing more than connecting a friendly reporter to a friendly source, it's hard to see the scandal.

*I am not a Gamechanger Salon member. Can't get past the name, anyway. Why not Disrupter's Saloon? Thinkfluencer's Tavern?

Aug. 8 2014 11:16 AM

The End of a Click-Friendly, Anti-Gay, Holocaust-Trolling Republican State Legislator

He made it into my story about Tennessee's primaries, and he was covered in my tweets about the results, but state Sen. Stacey Campfield deserves another moment. In 2012, Campfield became Internet-famous for the legislation quickly termed the "don't say gay bill." If successful—and it was introduced right after the GOP's surge of 2010 wins—it would have prevented any teaching of homosexuality to students younger than eighth grade. And just a few months ago, Campfield wrote a post that compared Obamacare signups to willfull participation in the Holocaust. "Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of manditory sign ups for 'train rides' for Jews in the 40s," he said. (Misspelling in the original, for once.)

The day before the election, I met Campfield's chief opponent Richard Briggs, most famous for being part of the medical team that worked on ABC's Bob Woodruff in Iraq. He was given a shout-out from the stage of Sen. Lamar Alexander's final rally in Knoxville. After the rally, he got a little catch-up time with Gov. Bill Haslam. From that and from a conversation with Briggs—where he stressed that "on the issues," he was not more liberal than Campfield—I got the impression that the establishment wanted Campfield out. Briggs was sore that Campfield had been attacking him for not taking a stance on "amnesty," as if that meant he was for it, as opposed to just aware that a state senator could not change immigration policy.

Briggs won by a landslide. He won 13,977 votes to Campfield's 5,824, with a third candidate taking 1,201 votes. Campfield was banished for, basically, being a local Todd Akin—a conservative who said dumb things and distracted voters from the need to beat Democrats.

He responded to the election result with a blog post consisting of four words—"Well, that was fun"—and a video of Frank Sinatra singing "My Way."

Aug. 8 2014 9:36 AM

The Muted Response to New Iraq Strikes

Yesterday, hours before President Obama announced new airdrops and airstrikes in Iraq, retiring Rep. Frank Wolf dared him to do it. Wolf, elected in 1980, had been one of Congress' least partisan Iraq scolds. (He gets and deserves credit for making the Iraq Study Group happen, for whatever that was worth.)

"Much like President Clinton has deeply regretted his failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I believe you will come to regret your inaction for years to come," wrote Wolf in an open letter. "You will come to sincerely regret your failure to take action to stop the genocide in Iraq."

Wolf's letter trafficked well on conservative media, right up until Obama's announcement. At that point, trolling the president for being weak and golfing too much* no longer made sense. As of this morning, there's not even criticism, from congressional Republicans, of what Obama's doing.

The relevant Democrats in the Senate and House are on board; there has not yet been any criticism from the libertarian wing of the GOP, like from the newly renominated Rep. Justin Amash. Maybe that's coming, as Republican presidential candidates gather in Iowa (yes, already) today and over the weekend. But so far the only outrage and snark about a new military strike on the 50th anniversary week of the Gulf of Tonkin is limited to Twitter. Conservatives had been invested in mocking Obama's nonresponse too recently.

*I agree that this is a travesty, largely because golf is boring.

Aug. 8 2014 8:45 AM

The Tea Party’s Close Call in Tennessee

It was closer than expected, and that in itself was a win. Yes, sure, fine—in my story about the final days of the final credible Tea Party challenge of an incumbent Republican senator, you'll find several allies of state Rep. Joe Carr arguing that there's no trophy for second place.

But Carr, who raised roughly $1 for every $6 raised by Sen. Lamar Alexander, held the senator under 50 percent of the vote. Carr won middle Tennessee, including Davidson County (Nashville) and the surrounding, reddening suburbs. (These are the areas where Republicans surged in 2010, unseating or spooking into retirement two Blue Dog Democrats.) In his own Rutherford County, Carr won by a nearly 2-1 margin.* Alexander simply outperformed him in most rural areas and in Tennessee's other urban hubs—Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga. In just the counties around those cities, Alexander made up half of his eventual margin over Carr. 

Why did the race close up? One reason was wan turnout. On the trail, Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam speculated that this year would see the highest GOP turnout in history. It just didn't happen. Right now it looks like 664,393 Republicans cast ballots, which is up from the 2012 Republican presidential primary but down from the 720,804 votes cast when Haslam won his 2010 gubernatorial primary. The combination could have been toxic: Thin turnout, with the most energy generated by challenges in middle Tennessee, and an overall sentiment of voter disappointment in/dread of Washington.

Still, Alexander won. And in another way that seemed too glib for my story (but is, of course, fine for a blog), it seemed fitting that the Tea Party ran aground in Tennessee. Alexander had his election party in Nashville, where four years ago the only National Tea Party Convention was held, with roughly one reporter for every four attendees. Carr conceded in Murfreesboro, which until recently was most famous for the 2009 protests of a planned Islamic Center—a "mega-mosque."

*Correction, Aug. 8, 2014: This post originally misidentified Rutherford County, Tennessee, as Murfreesboro County.

Aug. 7 2014 8:18 PM

(Sort of) Live From Tennessee

MURFREESBORO, Tenn.—It's every boy's dream—a hardware failure right before a deadline. The wireless gear I typically use on the road broke today, and a helpful Verizon franchise replaced it with gear that also failed to work (but for a different reason). There will be a story tonight about this state's Tea Party vs. Establishment showdown, but less than the usual amount blogging tonight and tomorrow.

All that said: Results in Tennessee will be posted here. The races to watch:

- The Senate race among Lamar Alexander, Joe Carr, and some also-rans. There's been next to no polling of this race, which pitted one of the more plugged-in "establishment" senators (that is to say, not someone who had to be pushed to run again, like Thad Cochran) against one of the more adept Tea Party challengers, with a defined issue—iimmigration.

- The 2nd Congressional District, held by Rep. Jimmy Duncan, is the scene of a pretty low-key Tea Party challenge. Duncan's one of the most reliably right-wing members of the House; he drew an opponent because of an anti-incumbent backlash that no one can stave off.

- The 3rd Congressional District, held now by Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, is being sought by Weston Wamp, the 27-year-old son of former Rep. Zach Wamp. Fleischmann produced a gleefully dishonest radio ad in which half of a Wamp quote ("You won't hear me criticize the president ... ") was played and replayed to make him sound like an Obama-lover.

- The 4th Congressional District is held by Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a class-of-2012-er who managed to keep a lid on the news that he encouraged an ex-wife's abortions until right before election 2012. He won that race anyway—thanks, gerrymandering!—but is being challenged by state Sen. Jim Tracy, and may survive because of scattered voting for other people who piled in.

- The 7th state Senate district race between Stacey Campfield and Richard Briggs. Campfield is one of the lawmakers most likely to appear in a Huffington Post headline. (Google "don't say gay bill" if you need a refresher.) Briggs is the doctor the establishment wants to take the seat.

Aug. 7 2014 5:08 PM

Montana’s Plagiarist Senator Will Quit His Race

In one way, Jonathan Martin's story about the plagiarized Army War College thesis of Montana Sen. John Walsh broke at just the right time. The New York Times reporter revealed Walsh's plagiarism on July 23. That was after Walsh won a primary, dispatching two opponents who ran to his left, but before Aug. 11, when the state party could replace any candidate who left a race.

And that was what Walsh eventually did. Today he quit a race that he'd always been expected to lose—one that he'd started to gain a little ground in, before his past exploded in his face—after informing his campaign staff. "I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. senator," he said in a statement. "I am proud that with your support, we held our opponent (Daines) accountable for his hurtful record to privatize Medicare to deny women the freedom to make their own health decisions and to sell off our public lands." Yes, even in defeat, he stayed with the DSCC's preferred message.

Montana Democrats now have a chance to assemble, and for less than 200 delegates to pick a new candidate. Missouri Republicans tried to pull something like this off in 2012, when Rep. Todd Akin blurted "legitimate rape" with some time left for the party to pick a new candidate. The difference: In 2012, Republicans figured (not incorrectly) that any warm body with an "R" next to it on the ballot could beat Claire McCaskill. Montana Democrats are trying to hold an open seat in a state that has not voted Democratic for president since 1992. They have an unusually good record of winning Senate races in the state, but not under these red-alert conditions.

Aug. 7 2014 2:43 PM

How Republicans Learned to Love Uber

Three months ago the young Republican technologist Derek Khanna wrote a here-try-this cover story for the American Conservative. In "The Party of Innovation," he argued that the GOP, if it could get over itself, was perfectly positioned to be the party of liberation and tech. One example among many:

Uber provides a clear example of state law run amok. This service allows users to request a town car, SUV, or taxi by using a smartphone app. Uber is an innovation that makes the city traveling experience more enjoyable and more efficient, and it helps enterprising drivers who get to keep more of the profit than with conventional taxi fleets. It’s a clear win for all parties. But Uber needs help—specifically, it needs to be left alone.

Two months later, Illinois' Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner—who has a fantastic chance of winning this year, thanks to the unpopularity of accidental Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn*—put out a statement in defense of the company, squaring himself against any threat by labor unions to shut it down or bar it. (This put him on the same team as Chicago's unpopular mayor, Rahm Emanuel.) Uber, said Rauner, is an "innovative, growing company that provides ride-share services to millions of people across the country and wants to create 425 more jobs right here in Illinois."

Rauner was doing so well with the message that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsinite who can hardly restrain himself from deriding Illinois' liberals, placed an op-ed about Uber in the Chicago Tribune.

Uber has thrived, in part because the public has spoken out in support of it But why should any company have to fight the government tooth-and-nail just to be given a chance to compete?
The issue is larger than Uber. How many companies, how many products, how many innovations have died prematurely because the government overreached and interfered in the free market? Government has a role to play, but that role isn't to protect the status quo. It should be consumers, not government bureaucrats or legislators, who decide what companies get their business.

We have a genuine trend on our hands, and Byron Tau and Kevin Robillard have more about it. The trend started with technologists who have no leadership role in the party.

*Quinn became governor in 2010, upon the disgracing and resignation of Gov. Rod Blagojevich; he won re-election that year in part because a pawn shop tycoon ran as a third party candidate.