Reporting on Politics and Policy.

March 18 2014 9:19 AM

The Hunt for the Elusive Obamacare Lover

My latest piece asks a question that some nervous Democrats have been pondering—how come the Republicans get all the heart-tugging testimonial ads about Obamacare? Why are there millions of dollars' worth of TV spots featuring people who blame the ACA for dropping their coverage, and none promoting the law? The simple answer is "not enough money."

Because these people do exist. Yesterday I talked to Matt Grove, a bagel shop owner in Utica, N.Y., who appeared in a short-lived 2011 TV campaign to promote the ACA. He said then, in ads shot by "Know Your Care," that the ACA's tax credits had saved him money and expanded coverage to staff.

"We're actually even increasing our contribution to health care," he said. "We used to only contribute 50% to premiums. Because we get the tax credit, we pushed that to sort of a weird number, 88%."

But the point of the story is that Know Your Care ran some ads then went defunct in late 2012. Website's still up, but no one's paying to share those stories. Would they rescue the ACA's popularity all by themselves? Well, no, but Democrats wonder why they can't hear any of this above the clamor.

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March 17 2014 5:57 PM

That Conservative-Backed Campaign to Hike California’s Minimum Wage Probably Won’t Happen

It was exactly two months ago, during the brief and happy summer of Republican anti-poverty initiatives, that California conservative millionaire Ron Unz told me of his plans to put a minimum wage hike on the state's November ballot. Unz went on quite a blitz, apparently (and then not apparently) winning support from Wal-Mart, drawing attention from all manner of Thought Leaders.

Here's where Thought Leading gets you. Unz has e-mailed supports to admit that it's "unlikely that my $12 Minimum Wage initiative will reach the November ballot." Unions, always skeptical, never got behind it. Unz's whole memo on the fizzle is below.

March 17 2014 3:55 PM

This Audi-Driving Hipster Will Save the Republican Party

Had the Republican National Committee just held off and taken the snow day to itself, the Internet would have had plenty to mock. The White House had launched an "ACA bracket," a strange Cronenbergian mish-mash of NCAA hype and gifs, complete with malapropisms about YOLO-ing. Surely, this was as bad as youth outreach could get.

Not so.

A sharp-eyed Democrat notes that this man, who says he "shouldn't have to check my bank account before I fill up my car," is apparently driving an Audi.

March 17 2014 2:25 PM

His First Book Tore the Organization Apart. Why Is the President of FreedomWorks Writing Another?

When the story of FreedomWorks' public problems is told, it usually starts with the book deal. According to Ken Vogel, tensions between FreedomWorks' president, Matt Kibbe, and its chairman, Dick Armey, boiled over "when Armey balked at a deal that Kibbe struck with HarperCollins to write a book called Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government’s Stranglehold on America." Kibbe and Armey had collaborated on a book about the Tea Party, but Kibbe was doing this on his own and—to Armey's surprise—claiming that the entire thing had been churned out over a Christmas vacation, not with the help of FreedomWorks staff.

Cue: Armey leaving FreedomWorks on a $8 million golden parachuse. Cue all of this playing out in Mother Jones, not exactly a friendly Tea Party outlet. The publication of Hostile Takeover, and its subsequent promotion, was either a spark for the inferno or a strange hubristic distraction. According to Nielsen's BookScan, the Armey-Kibbe book had sold 20,000 copies. Kibbe's own book sold only 10,000, and multiple reports claimed that the organization had purchased thousands to boost sales/distribute the wisdom to activists.

Why do I bring this up? Because next month, Kibbe is releasing another book. Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff is being released by William Morrow, publisher of the first two books autored or co-authored by Kibbe. Like Hostile Takeover, its cover art calls Kibbe a "#1 Bestselling Author," a reference to the defunct Washington Post Book World's No. 1 ranking for the Armey-Kibbe book. (Hostile Takeover never went to No. 1, here or in any book list.) I noticed the book's promotion when I stopped by this year's Students for Liberty conference and saw, in the promotional book, an ad encouraging attendees to "tune in, turn on, drop out" and watch Kibbe's speech on the book's theme. ("Don't kill people and take their stuff," a similar way of putting the idea, was coined by the conservative pundit Bill Whittle.)

The Internet has yet to buzz with anticipation for the book, but Glenn Beck's sort of been talking it up. This is significant. According to a 2013 interview that Dick Armey gave Media Matters (he later said he was confused about who was calling), FreedomWorks handed Glenn Beck a million dollars for promotion and partnerships. The golden-voiced radio host has delivered, in ways, though when he tried to talk up Don't Hurt People on his show, the result was a strange garbling of the title that made it on to one of Beck's official YouTube accounts anyway.

I asked FreedomWorks how many copies of Hostile Takeover had been purchased by the group. (The book is now available, in hardcover, at a steep discount.) I didn't get an answer. The group had a successful morning, though, getting Politico to report exclusively on a batch of new endorsements of House Republican incumbents—including Rep. Louie Gohmert, whose primary is already over. 

March 17 2014 11:45 AM

Scott Brown Laughs Off the Idea of Another No-Outside-Money Campaign Pledge

Back in December, the conservative 501(c)(4) Ending Spending spent $100,000 to run this ad in New Hampshire.

In January, Americans for Prosperity spent $700,000 on New Hampshire media for a very similar ad. Not that they were coordinating—hey, "if you like your plan" is the goose that keeps on laying eggs.

It was into this climate that the Senate Majority PAC, a pro-Democratic group, finally struck. It dumped $150,000 on this ad, which angered Scott Brown. "Not even a candidate and they are in attack mode," he told Politico. "Is that even legal?"

The point of the Ending Spending/AFP buy was to encourage someone—OK, to encourage Brown—to enter the race. Come in, water's fine, money's flowing. Brown was obviously encouraged, by a number of factors, to enter the race. 

So over the weekend, while on a West Coast fundraising tour with the DSCC, Shaheen issued a statement asking if Brown would sign a new version of the leave-us-alone pledge he signed in his 2012 Senate race. That year, when he started out with a huge fundraising advantage against first-time candidate Elizabeth Warren, Brown agreed to a "People's Pledge," a sort of Citizens United START Treaty, that cut outside spending to about one-tenth of what the candidates themselves spent.

Would Brown do it again, with Shaheen? No.

"Before I even thought of becoming a candidate, Jeanne Shaheen's allies in Washington were running negative ads against me for months," said Brown in a statement. "And right now, while I'm meeting with the people of New Hampshire, she is on the West Coast raising money so third-party groups in D.C. will have money to run even more outside negative ads against me. It's hard to view Jeanne Shaheen's actions as anything other than hypocritical and self-serving. The people of New Hampshire can see through the Washington-style game she is playing."

If you're a gourmond for chutzpah, you've got to enjoy that statement. Brown, the guy who moved up the highway after losing a Senate seat in his home state, is the one "meeting with the people of New Hampshire." (He is right now, but come on.) The pro-Shaheen PAC's ad buy, less than one-fifth as big as the anti-Shaheen ad buy, represented an unconscionable offense. By coincidence, American Crossroads is about to spend $650,000 on ads for Brown, days after he started an exploratory committee. The chutzpah has a purpose: In other circumstances, Brown might look like he's hypocritically going back on a good-campaign standard now that he needs the outside money.

March 17 2014 9:58 AM

Obama Sanctions Ousted Ukrainian President, 10 Others

Ever since the outbreak of hostilities in Crimea, the Obama White House has been pressured to use a tool that had been sitting around gathering dust. The president could use the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to personally sanction actors in the crisis, to prevent them from accessing "all property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the   possession or control of any United States person (including any foreign branch)."

Today, the White House picked up the tool. The most recognizable name on the list of sanctions (issued in two letters to the White House) is Viktor Yanukovych, who was the president of Ukraine until his ill-advised trip to flee Kiev protests. According to the guidelines provided to reporters, "President Yanukovych is being designated for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes. After abandoning Kyiv and ultimately fleeing to Russia, Viktor Yanukovych called upon Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops into Ukraine."

The other banned persons, via the White House (wording theirs):

Vladislav Surkov:  Surkov is being sanctioned for his status as a Presidential Aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 
Sergey Glazyev:  Glazyev is being sanctioned for his status as a Presidential Adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Leonid Slutsky:  Slutsky is being sanctioned for his status as a State Duma deputy, where he is Chairman of the Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration, and Relations with Compatriots.  
Andrei Klishas:  Klishas is being sanctioned for his status as a Member of the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation and as Chairman of the Federation Council Committee of Constitutional Law, Judicial, and Legal Affairs, and the Development of Civil Society.  
Valentina Matviyenko:  Matviyenko is being sanctioned for her status as Head of the Federation Council.
Dmitry Rogozin:  Rogozin is being sanctioned for his status as the Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.
Yelena Mizulina:  Mizulina is being sanctioned for her status as a State Duma Deputy. 
Sergey Aksyonov:  Aksyonov is being designated for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes.  Aksyonov claims to be the Prime Minister of Crimea and has rejected the authority of the legitimate government in Kyiv.
Vladimir Konstantinov:  Konstantinov is being designated for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes.  Konstantinov is the speaker of the Crimean parliament, which on March 11, 2014, declared independence from Ukraine.
Viktor Medvedchuk:  Medvedchuk, leader of Ukrainian Choice, is being designated for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes.  He is also being designated because he has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support to Yanukovych and because he is a leader of an entity that has, or whose members have, engaged in actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine and actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine.

There we go, that's the latest response to the crisis, a day after the gunpoint election in Crimea that no one's recognizing as legitimate.

March 17 2014 8:55 AM

The New, Fact-Checker-Proof Koch-Backed TV Ads Against Democrats

Americans for Prosperity has acted as the tip of the spear for 2014's Republican campaigns, plowing millions into early TV ads attacking the Affordable Care Act. The standard AFP ad took a lesson from Priorities USA's successful anti-Romney ads of 2012, the ones that found people who blamed their job losses on Bain Capital. AFP found (sometimes via members of Congress) average, usually female victims of Obamacare, with specific problems to blame on President #Obummer.

These ads led to inevitable and time-wasting news cycles—"fact-checking" cycles. In Michigan and Arkansas, for example, the AFP ads featured critics of the law who claimed to have lost insurance and to have gotten a cancellation letter. In Michigan the victim actually kept her doctor under a changed plan; in Arkansas the plan had subsequently been extended to 2017.

Needlessly complicated. With this fresh $850,000 ad buy against Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (equal to about 12 percent of what the Republican candidate spent against Udall in 2008), AFP returns to a blander, less challenge-able message. A woman tells her audience (you) that no matter what you hear, health care is about people.

I say AFP is "returning" to this message because the exact same woman/wording appeared in an ad directed at Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor.

If there's no personal story of Obamacare, there's no potent emotional impact. There's also no bright, glowing, pulsating target for the fact-check stormtroopers. We may see more of these "it's about people" ads as AFP keeps pounding the terrain for Republicans.

(Incidentally, as Democrats engage in their usual panic about how to avoid losing everything, you've got to ask why they can't find any Obamacare beneficiaries to show off in ads. I've met some, people who were able to leave lousy jobs or get insurance for the first time. In Florida I met a 27-year-old independent film editor who got "Obamacare" and a day later ate bad sushi that sent him to the hospital. Not Rudy, as inspiring stories go, but surely the Democrats will want to find people who benefited from the law.)

March 14 2014 7:04 PM

Scott Brown, the Senate Candidate Brought to You By Obamacare Hubris

After 11 long and tedious months of speculation, half-term Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is, indeed, seeking a full term in the upper house from New Hampshire. Like anything else in life, the strangeness of the endeavor faded over time and was replaced by boredom. News reports on Brown's announcement, at a two-day regional Republican conference, barely mention the carpetbagging. Brown spent so much time listing his granite birthright—"there were summers at Hoyt’s cabins, exploring on the Rocks along the Rye Coast, playing around at Hampton Beach"—that it might have escaped attention.

In a short announcement speech, Brown mentioned "Obamacare" no fewer than six times. "A big political wave is about to break in America," he said, "and the Obamacare Democrats are on the wrong side of it." And what did that mean? "There’s only one way to get rid of Obamacare once and for all, and that is to get rid of the Obamacare Democrats who rammed it through Congress and forced it upon the American people."

Like Virginia's Ed Gillespie, a first-time candidate with a bio that included stops in those beloved institutions of lobbying and the Bush administration, Brown's run is an example of Obamacare hubris. The Republican bet is that the backlash to the law will be so intense—"a wave is coming," said Brown—that anyone with a pulse can win on the "repeal" platform.

For as long as Brown had been threatening to run, Democrats had been raising money off the threat. In just a few hours, I got these messages from New Hampshire Democrats:

"Rove, the Kochs and Brown’s other shadowy special interest backers look at Brown and see the chance to pick up a seat in a purple state." (Shaheen campaign)

"Scott Brown is for Scott Brown and the Wall Street and Big Oil millionaires that back him, not New Hampshire." (New Hampshire Democrats)

"Rove, the Koch brothers and national Tea Party groups will dump tens of millions into attacks. Brown himself raised $44 million in his last two races, much of it from Wall Street." (Shaheen again)

After 11 months of rote noncampaigning, get ready for seven and a half months of rote campaigning.

March 14 2014 6:02 PM

The Clinton White House Memos From 1993 and 1995 That Obama Could Use

Another tranche of documents from the Clinton years has been released by the former president's library. As was the case last time, for anyone seeking grand or damaging insights into Hillary Clinton, it's mostly a wash. The fun is in finding unknowing foreshadowing of events that would hurt Clinton and Barack Obama, in different measures.

First this: In a January 1993 memo to Hillary Clinton, she was given this background about a congressional leader she'd have to deal with.

Screen shot 2014-03-14 at 5.15.23 PM

Now, of course, the failure of 24 states to expand Medicaid, holdups instigated by Republican legislators, is a problem that benefits the GOP. The party is not getting blamed in any real way, by voters, for not expanding Medicaid. The Chamber of Commerce still spends to elect its candidates.

Next, in this March 1995 memo to pollsters and speechwriters, an aide brainstormed and came up with these ideas for rebutting Republican attacks.

Screen shot 2014-03-14 at 5.29.30 PM

That seems to have worked, on the margins, for the Obama White House—Republicans have helped by being easily diverted from story to story.

March 14 2014 4:59 PM

Steve Stockman Had a Cunning Plan

It may be the only thing I wrote this week that anyone cares about, so let me recorrect and restraighten the record about it: Steve Stockman's hot tub party. Floyd Brown, the towering creator of the 1988 Willie Horton campaign, uses his column at WorldNetDaily to whack at the media's coverage of it. I quote him quoting WaPo, then his own words.

The Washington Post characterized it this way: “The real-life CPAC party, held at a suite in the Gaylord Hotel where the conference was taking place, featured an expletive-spewing congressman, Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, offering $20 to whoever would jump into the bathroom’s hot tub, according to Slate’s Dave Weigel. Weigel witnessed Stockman, the quirky challenger who was just crushed by Sen. John Cornyn in the state’s Senate Republican primary, offer this eloquent toast: ‘F–- the left!’”  
First, Stockman wasn’t drinking alcohol at the party. The hot tub was outside and not in a bathroom. Everyone in the hot tub had bathing suits on. This is just another mainstream media hit job that fabricated facts.

OK, it's true that WaPo (not me) muffed the location of the hot tub. It was outside. I never said otherwise, and the photos prove it. I didn't ask Stockman what he was drinking (who cared?), but it was, I'll say, browner than spring water typically is. No one claimed the hot tub party was naked—that would have been the lede.

But Brown's writing about something else. "Stockman did exactly what he set out to achieve," he argues. "He knew Karl Rove was intent on taking him out in his congressional primary, so he upped the ante and forced Rove to spend millions protecting his crown jewel, John Cornyn."

That doesn't make sense. Stockman didn't have a primary opponent. When he filed for Senate, on Dec. 9, no one credible had filed to run against him in the House race. Brown says Stockman forced Cornyn-allied groups to spend up to "$10 million" against him. We need to wait to see the final total, but the pro-Cornyn PAC Texans for a Conservative Majority spent only $1 million before the start of early voting. And Cornyn was facing a bunch of Tea Party candidates who ran harder than Stockman did. It's not like the money wouldn't have moved if Stockman hadn't sleepwalked into the race.