Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 23 2014 11:55 AM

Biden, Putin, and White House Spin

Evan Osnos' (typically) fantastic profile of Vice President Biden has been mined and aggregated for classic Bidenisms. Nothing has burned up the Internet quite like this exchange, concerning a 2011 Biden visit to Russia.

To illustrate his emphasis on personality as a factor in foreign affairs, Biden recalled visiting Putin at the Kremlin in 2011: “I had an interpreter, and when he was showing me his office I said, ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, won’t it? A magnificent office!’ And he laughed. As I turned, I was this close to him.” Biden held his hand a few inches from his nose. “I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.’ ”
“You said that?” I asked. It sounded like a movie line.
“Absolutely, positively,” Biden said, and continued, “And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’ ” Biden sat back, and said, “This is who this guy is!”

Biden's spent four decades building the rep and image that make the story credible. And it contrasts so sharply with George W. Bush's infamous insistence that he looked into Putin's eyes and saw his "soul." Biden 1, Bush 0.

But how did the White House, at the time, describe Biden's trip? From the White House's website:

Echoing messages conveyed during his earlier meetings with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the course of his three-day visit, Vice President Biden hailed the successful “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations and reiterated his call for broader economic cooperation between the two countries.

If the "soul" moment occured, the White House press shop definitely buried its lede. Who could blame it, though, when the only Biden-Putin exchange open to the press was a mutual back-scratch competition?

"Since you've been here last time, and over this period of time, Moscow and Russia has changed a lot," said Putin, "and for the better I might add."

The soul-peering vice president's response? "I would agree."

If Biden's new anecdote is true, the White House spun a fairly tense and arch meeting into another successful push of the RESET button. And it minimized the importance of Putin's attitude—something Hillary Clinton has done recently, describing the Potemkin presidency of Medvedev as a sort of truce when relations were mended and Putin did not meddle. Most everyone realized at the time, though, that Putin would grab back the presidency as soon as he was legally able.

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July 23 2014 10:07 AM

When You’ve Lost Jon Stewart, You’ve Lost Middle America

While covering the Christians United for Israel conference this week, I heard a couple of gripes about Jon Stewart's reports on Israel's operation in Gaza. His first, on July 16, was impossible to miss for the normal reason that Daily Show segments are impossible to miss. Every morning, news sites from HuffPost to TPM to Vox (not a vast "from/to" there, I know) cop the previous evening's Stewart monologue, declaring that he "nailed" or "destroyed" a topic like no other carbon-based lifeform could.* His July 16 segment mocked the disparity of power between the Israelis and the residents of the Gaza Strip.

"Most Hamas rockets are neutralized by Israel's Iron Dome technology," said Stewart. "The Israeli forces warn Gaza residents of an imminent bombing with a smaller warning bombing."

Supporters of Israel were watching a Jewish comedian who happens to have a direct line to millennials, and he was fully embracing the worst possible narrative. "His piece on Gaza, I thought, was morally outrageous," David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, told me Monday.

Yesterday, Stewart responded to the general criticism with this parody:

Having just gotten out of the CUFI conference, I was struck by how many talking points Stewart's news team got in. The "double standard" line, "human shields," etc. But the parody represented a sort of walk-back, too. When Stewart explained that his argument was not "pro-Hamas," the news team started yelling anti-"Zionist" slogans at him. Both sides do it!

This was a small messaging victory for Israel hawks, one they really needed. Dylan Byers (via a source) explains it well: Supporters of Israel, especially the CUFI variety of supporters, fret that they're losing millennials, who've never known Israel as anything but a mighty state with two occupied territories.

*Kevin Williamson has had great fun with this trope of the lefty news sites. He needs to update it, though, because John Oliver has started inspiring the same "NAILED IT" next-day embedded video clickbait.*

*Correction, July 23, 2014: This post originally misspelled John Oliver's first name.

July 23 2014 8:56 AM

The Stupidest Primary of 2014 Is Over

Way back in March, before I got the chance to report from Georgia myself, I suggested that the state's Republican primary for U.S. Senate would be the establishment's finest 2014 hour. Two embarrassing congressmen, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, were likely to lose the primary, and with it their House seats. The likely winner of the primary would be David Perdue, a first-time candidate running on his business experience with Reebok and Dollar General, a man who was running as an "outsider"—plenty conservative but unable to speak the right jargon. Sort of like Mitt Romney.

Last night Perdue narrowly won the GOP nomination, after a long runoff against Rep. Jack Kingston. The congressman had won the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce, which had helped him make the runoff, and he led in every public poll, but Perdue held on to more of his vote amid collapsing turnout. The result: a victory for Perdue's theme, which in the hands of admaker Fred Davis became an allegory about how professional politicians were whining babies. (The imagery was reminiscent of a Bloomberg Businessweek cover that ran after the 2013 government shutdown.)

Kingston fought back against that with his own baby ad.

This drew a swift response from Perdue's campaign, which did not lack for baby footage.

Seriously, Perdue had a lot of baby footage.

In the closing weeks, when it appeared that Perdue needed one more good body hit to go down, the chamber put together an ad that jiujitsu'd the baby theme in a remarkably lazy way.*

This dire air war was the most heated part of a campaign about very little. The chamber had backed Kingston over a bevy of far weaker and more gaffe-ready candidates; it had not, before the primary, had real worries about Perdue. It just bet on a member with a reliable voting record over a businessman who resembles the median chamber activist. Sort of like Mitt Romney! 

But the campaign's over now. Georgia voters face a choice between a businessman-candidate backed by few members of the party establishment, with Tea Party backing limited to that of Herman Cain, and a dynastic Democratic candidate (Michelle Nunn) running to the center. It's the closest race that no ideological camp is going to care about.

*Correction, July 23: This post originally misstated that the chamber spent $1 million to run an ad that portrayed Perdue as a baby. The chamber made a big late ad buy, but it was for other spots—I'm told the baby video never ran on TV. It was covered by the Huffington Post and ABC News, but the free media was all the media it got. Mea culpa.

July 22 2014 5:38 PM

Bruce Braley and the Challenge of Balancing Priorities

Iowa's race for U.S. Senate is one of the year's least substantive, which is really saying something, and which suggests that Rep. Bruce Braley has yet to recover fully from calling Sen. Chuck Grassley "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school." (His point, made to a room of checkbook-toting fellow lawyers, was that Grassley would be a lousy Judiciary chairman.) The gaffe itself might have been mitigated, but Braley has made tiny errors that were swiftly turned into day-long media disasters. The Narrative about Braley, as NRSC spox Brad Dayspring puts it*, is that the guy previously seen as a clever populist candidate just can't get out of his own way.

Which leads us to one of the funnier nano-scandals of 2014. I will let the NRSC's Bill Murphy introduce the story.

A click sends us to an article headlined "Braley attended three fundraisers on day of missed veterans affairs hearing." Notice the slight difference. The campaign committee implies that Braley went to fundraisers instead of the hearing. The story does not. As Jennifer Jacobs tells it:

At 10 a.m. on Sept. 20, 2012, the committee held a hearing on a backlog of disability claims and reports of problems with mental health care and stewardship of VA funding, congressional records show. The roll call shows Braley didn't attend. Instead, he went to an Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting that began at 9:36 a.m., records show.
Records from the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation show that on the same day, Braley had three fundraisers on his schedule for his re-election to the U.S. House.
He attended all three, campaign aides confirmed to The Des Moines Register.
The one from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. was a $2,500 breakfast at Johnny's Half Shell, which serves seafood fresh from the Chesapeake Bay and has a view of the Capitol dome.
At noon, Braley went to the D.C. law firm of DLA Piper for a $1,000 per person fundraiser.

In other words, Braley went to a fundraiser that ended before the missed hearing, and to a fundraiser that started two hours after the hearing kicked off. There's no defending Braley on the larger point, which is that he missed most VA hearings in 2011 and 2012. But he didn't actually ditch the VA hearing for a fundraiser. He was at some other hearing, which appeared to be more important. What, on Sept. 20, 2012, could have been more important?

Oh, man.

Braley missed a Sept. 20 hearing about something that would become a scandal because he opted for a hearing about a contemporary scandal. If today's Braley had a time machine, he'd probably tell his 2012 self that the VA oversight would become a much bigger deal than Fast and Furious, and that if he planned on criticizing Chuck Grassley he should avoid putting "farmer" in the rundown of negatives. But Braley does not have a time machine (I think), and Joni Ernst remains a lucky candidate with a team that came up hard on the Romney and Rubio campaigns.**

*On Twitter, not to me personally. Though Dayspring has been proved more right than I about the damage of Braley's first gaffe. His favorable ratings have remained steady, but he lost an opportunity to define himself before the campaign plunked into a petri dish of derp.

**The thinking six months ago, among Democrats, was that Braley was a talented candidate and fundraiser who would oppose either a rich, unrelatable businessman or a extremely right-wing state legislator. He got the legislator, but her team has run on her personal story.

July 22 2014 2:33 PM

Israeli Ambassador to U.S. Says IDF “Should Be Given a Nobel Peace Prize”

Monday's lengthy Christians United for Israel conference ended with a now-traditional celebration of the Jewish state, with singing and dancing to Hebrew songs alternating with stark speeches from Sen. Lindsey Graham and Pastor John Hagee. 

But it didn't get truly hellacious until Ambassador Ron Dermer, Israel's man in Washington, got up to speak. The ambassador devoted his remarks to the IDF, and to refuting the worst arguments made against Israel's operation in Gaza. After just a few minutes, a protester leapt up to call Dermer a "war criminal," waving a sign as security hustled to find him.

"I’ll get to the so-called war criminals later," said Dermer, as the protester was removed. "Israel deserves more than the support of the international community. Israel deserves the admiration of the international community. No military in history has taken greater care than the IDF to protect innocents of the other side."

Dermer offered a little history, to prove his point. Remember when the Germans bombed the United Kingdom? "What was Britain's response? What was Churchill's response? Dresden. The bombing of German cities." Dermer did not mean to demean Churchill—"let's have some applause for Winston Churchill"—but to praise Israel.

"No one should accept criticism of Israel for showing restraint that has not been shown and would not be shown by any nation on Earth," he said. "And I will not accept criticsm of my country at a time when Israeli soldiers are dying so innocent Palestinians can live."

A din rose up—another protester had snuck into the ballroom, which contained as many as 4,800 evangelicals and Jews supporting Israel.

"There is a section for moral idiots in the back of the room," said Dermer. "Why don't you join your friends?"

Perhaps Dermer didn't realize that the media was sitting at the back of the room, but the line worked for him, and he got to keep talking as the protester was yanked.

"Israel did not have to send its soldiers into many places they are fighting today," said Dermer. "We are sending our soldiers into this hornet's next of Palestinian terror that is booby-trapped with mines and riddled with tunnels. Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide, or putting us in the dock for war crimes. The truth is that the Israeli Defense Forces should be given a Nobel Peace Prize! A Nobel Prize for fighting with unimaginable restrait."

Incredibly, there was another protester in the room. This one didn't shout as loudly, but he gave Dermer plenty to work with.

"One day, when the enemies of Israel are defeated, and the moral idiots are silenced, people will look back and marvel at how the most threatened nation on Earth never lost its nerve and always upheld its values."

July 22 2014 1:21 PM

Here’s How Republicans Are Blaming the Damage From the Obamacare Lawsuit on Democrats

In a conference call today, while going over the meaning of the Halbig v. Burwell decision, the Cato Institute's health care freedom fighter Michael Cannon drained the national strategic chutzpah reserve. Were people blaming him and litigators for people being threatened with higher health care costs? They were fingering the wrong guy.

"If 5 million people lose subsidies, it is because the administration I think recklessly was offering them subsidies that it had no authority to offer," said Cannon. "If that causes dislocation, if that causes disruption, I think that responsibility lies with the administration."

Had Cannon and allies not sued (in multiple courts), the subsidies wouldn't have been challenged at all. But he wasn't alone in making the argument.

"This means that the President has been misrepresenting the true costs of health coverage to millions of American families," argued Tennessee Rep. Diane Black, one of the GOP's frequent health care messengers. "Consider that over a million taxpayers could already be on the hook for improper subsidy payments due to an inability of the federal government to verify income eligibility—now anyone who has received a subsidy at all on the federal exchange could potentially be faced with having to make back payments, all due to President Obama’s recklessness."

Cannon's not running for anything, and Black's in a safe seat, but the politics here are clear. The Halbig decision, which many expect to be reversed en banc, is being reported as a threat to millions of people who had been getting health care subsidies. Republicans need to reframe this, as they reframe their opposition to the overall law. (Repealing the entire law would leave the Obamacare millions without any plans at all, and would not magically restore individual plans lost or altered in 2013.)

How else can they do it? A few ways.

This proves that Obama breaks the law all the damn time. That's Ted Cruz's response today, as it was in 2013 when I asked him about the coming Halbig case. The 2–1 victory is a repudiation of "lawlessness," of the same tyrannical overreach that led Obama to delay the employer mandate, which John Boehner is currently suing over. And as Cruz goes, so go several other people.

This proves that Obamacare can never work. That's the response from Boehner, who said today that the law could "never be fixed," and that "the American people recognize that Obamacare is hurting our economy and making it harder for small businesses to hire," etc. (This argument sidles up nicely to Cruz's—the fact that Obama, DHS, and the IRS need to tweak the law proves that it's not working and indeed never could.)

This proves that Democrats never read the law. Funny enough, even though this argument seems overly arch, it's the one with the most cultural resonance. Let Oklahoma's Jim Bridenstine explain:

The (largely true) idea that members of Congress did not read all of Obamacare before forcing it on Americans—at best, few of them comprehensively understood the thing—was a powerful motivator for Republican and independent voters in 2010. It's been more than four years since the Pelosi quote referred to by Bridenstine, but if you search Twitter you see scores of people mocking it. Those idiot Dems didn't even read the ACA before rushing it through!

Everybody seems to forget the next part of Pelosi's sentence. I'll just quote the whole graf:

You've heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don't know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something that you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention -- it's about diet, not diabetes. It's going to be very, very exciting. But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy. 

History has not been kind to Pelosi, and the ACA remains largely unpopular even as some of its elements catch on. But in March 2010, she was telling the National Association of Counties that the ACA contained all sorts of great stuff that wasn't clear from the news cycle. She wasn't saying that the contents had to be concealed until the vote took place, even though that's how it's been remembered. (In 2013, David Gregory credited Pelosi for "the idea that you have to pass it before you know what's in it.")

But the Pelosi joke gets at a truth even Democrats will admit. In 2010 they found themselves up against a wall. After the election of Scott Brown, who promised to join a filibuster of the health care bill, the only way for the party to pass any version of the ACA was to pass the Senate version in a hurry. Had they gone through the normal conference committee process, where ungainly language could have been removed, the bill would have been choked by 41 Senate Republicans. So, yes, the government's official argument is that the Congress screwed up a few lines of the law. And the Republicans get to say whatever they like about that.

July 22 2014 11:08 AM

Did Conservatives Just Win a Leninist Victory Over Obamacare?

Last December I wrote about the legal and legislative challenges to the Affordable Care Act that would arrive in 2014. The big enchilada was always Halbig v. Burwell (previously v. Sebelius), a lawsuit with a helpfully direct purpose: Libertarians wanted to kill the ACA by getting a court to end subsidies in states that did not set up their own exchanges. At several points in the law, the subsidies were earmarked for such exchanges, and because the law passed with few drafting changes (in the panic after Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts), libertarians saw a way to take millions of Americans out of the Obamacare regime.

Today, as many liberal legal observers feared would happen, the libertarians won in the D.C. Circuit. A 2–1 panel sided with the plaintiff, and remanded "with instructions to grant summary judgment to appellants and vacate the IRS Rule"—i.e., the IRS's intrepretation that the drafters of the law did not mean to cut states off from subsidies if they merely used the federal government's exchange. Judge Raymond Randolph (a George H.W. Bush appointee) and Judge Thomas Griffith (a George W. Bush appointee) found this argument compelling, though they ruled more in sorrow than in anger.

At least until states that wish to can set up Exchanges, our ruling will likely have significant consequences both for the millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal Exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly. But, high as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still.

Well, yes: It means at least 4 million people, who signed up for Obamacare in states that chose not to set up exchanges (or in the case of Oregon, tried and failed to set up their own), are currently panicking about the threat of erased subsidies and higher payments. Why do I attribute this to libertarians? Like I wrote in 2013, and like Alec MacGillis has been writing, the Halbig case's chief advocate was Michael Cannon, a Cato Institute scholar who had previously campaigned to stop states from setting up their own exchanges.

Cannon's goal, stated bluntly and frequently, was that Obamacare had to be brought down by any means necessary. States that did not set up exchanges were in a better position to sue the government. Fewer people in the exchanges meant higher overall costs. To insurers, the "death spiral" was an apocalypse scenario; to Cannon, it meant freedom

"A victory for the Halbig plaintiffs would not increase anyone’s premiums," he wrote Monday.* "What it would do is prevent the IRS from shifting the burden of those premiums from enrollees to taxpayers. Premiums for federal-Exchange enrollees would not rise, but those enrollees would face the full cost of their 'ObamaCare' plans."

This is the Leninism I'm referring to in my headline. Cannon's no socialist—quite the opposite!—but he saw a solution to the Republican crisis of watching people grow used to new entitlements. Rip the entitlement away, weaken the system, and a painful short term would give Congress no choice but to undo the law. Take away some of the beams, and what do you know? The roof collapses.

The liberal panic about this decision is ... well, not muted, but not quite Hobby Lobby-level. That's because last year the Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rules that covered nominees to executive branch jobs and courts below the Supreme Court. That allowed three stalled Obama nominees onto the court, which ended a long-running conservative supermajority on the D.C. Circuit. And that's why the ideal liberal plan is now to go en banc and cross fingers as a larger panel of judges tosses out the decision of the two GOP appointees.

*Correction, July 22, 2014: This post originally misstated that Michael Cannon's Monday column was written last week.

July 22 2014 10:01 AM

It’s Up to Ted Cruz to Stop Iran

The Christians United for Israel conference spreads over two days; day one ends in a long musical celebration, day two is occupied mostly by lobbying trips to congressional offices. It does not usually happen at a moment when six months of negotiations with Iran have failed and been granted an extension, or a moment when Israel is warring in Gaza to destroy Hamas weaponry and tunnels.

But CUFI's available responses to this are suboptimal. In 2013 it backed a new Iranian sanctions bill co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk—a bill that seemed to be nearing on a veto-proof majority until the White House pushed back. Now, it was going to back whatever Sen. Ted Cruz came up with, in the wake of his successful bill to bar Iran's designated ambassador from the United States.

"We're very practical," said David Brog, executive director of CUFI (and a former Senate staffer). "I like to support bills that can actually pass, but the way Menendez-Kirk was throttled convinced me that on this issue, unfortunately, there can’t be a bipartisan effort that will pass or sustain a veto. And so we’re doing something we’ve rarely done, which is supporting bills to make a statement. I don't think the Cruz bill can become law, but I want to see it get a lot of co-sponsors. And even that could give the administration leverage that it doesn't know it wants."

In his Tuesday morning speech to CUFI, Cruz gave no new details of what sanctions he'd be asking for. He did run down the conditions for peace with Iran.

"Give up the centrifuges," said Cruz. "Hand over the enriched uranium—all of it. Shut down the ICBM program."

But the sense here, at the major evangelical coalition of support for Israel's policy, was that the Obama administration was cold to sanctions—that Secretary of State John Kerry, actually, was going to deny Israel a total victory by negotiating a cease-fire, and enable Iran by punting negotiations till after the 2014 election.

July 22 2014 8:49 AM

A Judge Tosses Out a Senator’s Obamacare Lawsuit

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is generally seen as one of the more pragmatic Republicans elected by the Tea Party wave—a non-politician who says that the doomed causes and message votes of D.C. would never work in business. But last year, Johnson sued to end the deal that allowed members of Congress and their staffers to access the same health benefits as anyone else who worked for a large organization and used health care exchanges. It looked like a reach, and lo, it was. Niels Lesniewski quotes Judge William C. Griesbach*:

Even assuming that one or both Plaintiffs selected a Gold-tier plan on the DC SHOP Exchange and received the subsidy as allowed under the OPM rule, it is hard to understand how this would constitute an ‘injury’ to either person.

But the dismissal itself offers more succor for Johnson and like-minded conservatives:

Indeed, the allegations of the complaint here, which must be accepted as true at this stage of the proceedings, Navarro v. Neal, 716 F.3d 425, 429 (7th Cir. 2013), are that the executive branch has rewritten a key provision of the ACA so as to render it essentially meaningless in order to save members of Congress and their staffs from the consequences of a controversial law that will affect millions of citizens. If proven, this would be a violation of Article I of the Constitution, which reposes the lawmaking power in the legislative branch.
The violation alleged is not a mere technicality. It strikes at one of the most important safeguards against tyranny that the framers erected—the separation of powers... Nevertheless, absent a concrete injury to the party bringing the lawsuit, there is no “case for controversy” over which the courts have jurisdiction.

Not bad, for a case that never had a chance.

*Correction, July 22, 2014: This post originally misspelled Roll Call reporter Niels Lesniewski's last name.

July 21 2014 4:24 PM

Marketing Campaign of the Day

I've written and speculated about the "derp gap" before, theorizing that the pipeline between conservative media and the Drudge Report allows stories to pop even if they might not pass muster. The Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner, and the Weekly Standard all benefit greatly from Drudge traffic; the latter two publications share an owner, Philip Anschutz.*

So, going out on a short limb, I'm going to compliment this piece of salesmanship, which made it on Drudge. Paul Bedard, the always-excited "secrets" columnist at the Examiner, reports (via "tipsters") on a guerilla marketing campaign in New York and D.C.

Pulled by advertising bikes over the weekend, the posters use themes from TV's "Game of Thrones" and "House of Cards" in portraying BillHillary and Chelsea Clinton -- and advisor James Carville -- as evil, though they don't indicate exactly what the advertising is for... One tipster asked the cyclists what the posters were about, but they remained tight-lipped. The guerrilla marketing campaign could be to promote a new movie, television series or book about the Clintons, Secrets hears.

Anything like that coming tomorrow? Why, yes: July 22 is the release date of Weekly Standard reporter Daniel Halper's first book, Clinton Inc. If I am right, an Anschutz-owned paper reported on the mystery ad campaign for an Anschutz-owned magazine reporter's book, and the whole story was linked by Drudge. That's one way to get this (actually reported) book to get eyeballs after people have already dispensed with Ed Klein.

*Correction, Aug. 7, 2014: This post originally misstated that Philip Anschutz owns the Washington Free Beacon.