Gun-Running, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Border Crisis
The Fast and Furious scandal, if you've forgotten, concerned the bloody aftermath of a Three Stooges plan to let guns "walk" into Mexico so that federal agents could track down their eventual owners.
Right, right, it didn't make much sense—except as the casus belli for a gun-grab. That was the NRA's going theory from the time the scandal broke to whenever we stopped hearing about it. "Over a period of two or three years, they were running thousands and thousands of guns to the most evil people on Earth," said the NRA's Wayne LaPierre in 2011, with his usual lack of hyperbole. "At the same time they were yelling ’90 percent … of the guns the Mexican drug cartels are using come from the United States.'"
The theory was that the Obama administration wanted to stoke a crisis in order to build political momentum for gun control. No federal gun control bill was backed by the administration until the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. But the mindset—that this White House is so tricky, so venal, so incompetent that it will set Reichstags on fire—is still with us.*
Example: Last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry testified on the crisis of young would-be illegal immigrants surging across the border. He then went on Fox News to speculate about why this was happening.
"We either have an incredibly inept administration, or they're in on this somehow or another," said Perry. "I mean, I hate to be conspiratorial, but I mean, how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?"
ABC News' Martha Raddatz got Perry on the network's Sunday talk show, where she asked him to revise and extend the remarks. "We have been bringing to the attention of President Obama and his administration since 2010, he received a letter from me on the tarmac," Perry said. "I have to believe that when you do not respond in any way, that you are either inept, or you have some ulterior motive of which you are functioning from." Given the chance to explain that he was just using a rhetorical flourish, Perry repeated himself.
And why shouldn't he? The data shows that deportations of undocumented immigrants under 18 have tumbled since a peak in 2008, and tumbled further since Obama's 2012 announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The White House's response: Hey, look again at that 2008 number. In 2008, in the lame-duck session of a presidential year when the party's president and nominee were both immigration reformers, Congress easily passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act. (Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who led the slavery abolition movement, had just been portrayed in a sleeper film.) No one in the House or Senate opposed a law intended to rescue children from exploitative pimps—legislation that allowed young people to attain "special immigrant juvenile status." The Obama administration is citing this as the reason why deportations have plunged, and asked Congress to fix it. We dare you. You just killed immigration reform—now, go ahead and make it easier to for young Central Americans to be sent into sex slavery. (I'm paraphrasing.)
So nothing's going to get done. It's broadly true that the administration has pursued policies that it hoped would make immigration reform easier to pass. The main policy: more processing and removal of illegal immigrants. Through 2013, the Obama administration could say that it was "removing" more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration had. And indeed, the clout and energy of anti-reform groups had faded from 2007 (the last time Congress fought over a bill) to 2012. The hope was that the decreased pressure would cut a path through Congress.
Didn't work. The mistrust just ran too deep. The idea of a bumbling, scheming Obama administration stoking the border crisis for its own gain fits snugly with the 2014 conservative theory of how this administration works.
*To be perfectly fair, incoming White House chief of staff did say "you never let a serious crisis go to waste" back in 2008, meaning that the empowered Democrats would respond to the financial crisis by passing some long-stalled priorities.
One Super PAC to End Them All, and Why It Could Beat Scott Brown
In the latest of my ongoing Weigelcasts, I talk to Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and nonpartisan political strategist Mark McKinnon about Mayday PAC, their new (and thus far succesful) campaign to raise a bunch of money and use it to thrust campaign finance reform into the 2014 election. Yes, it is a super PAC designed to scare Congress into ending super PACs. One of the slogans: "Embrace the irony."
Another slogan might be "oh, wow, we're pulling this off." I talked to Lessig and McKinnon slightly before they succeeded in hitting their second-round goal of $5 million in donations and pledges. (Round one was for $1 million.) The project is crowdfunded, with some extremely wealthy people (like libertarian Peter Thiel) committing big money to goals for four reforms, two of them initially proposed by Republicans, two by Democrats.
Why has the slack fallen on campaign finance reform? Not because it stopped being popular, said Lessig. Because the issue won. "The reform community thought, OK—we did it!" he said. "We got McCain-Feingold!" In 13 years since the issue was so powerful that George W. Bush had to sign it (and hope for the Supreme Court to shred it), reformers failed to evolve. Their argument, said Lessig and McKinnon, needs to be that they're expanding access to free speech—vouchers and tax deductions for participating—not limiting it.
I asked Lessig and McKinnon which races they'd get involved in, and when. The latter answer: soon. The former answer: Well, there was a strong hint that recent New Hampshire transplant Scott Brown, who agreed to a super PAC-limiting pledge in his 2012 race but won't agree to a new one, is in Mayday's sights. What better way to announce the return of campaign finance reform than in clubbing a famous candidate in the first presidential primary state, just weeks before candidates start announcing?
Happy Independence Day!
I am not yet independent from the first draft of my book, so this is how I'm celebrating. Join me.
What a Failed Ethics Coup in the House Tells Us About Gerrymandering
This came up earlier, but the conclusion is worth repeating. On June 30, National Journal's Shane Goldmacher reported that the House Ethics Committee had ended the rule requiring disclosure of who paid for congressional junkets. As Goldmacher reported at the time, "House Ethics Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, did not return a call for comment; ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., referred questions to committee staff." No one on the committee, which is split equally between the parties, wanted to take ownership.
Four days later a source told Goldmacher that Conaway had reversed himself. He'd done it while on recess, while talking to a local radio show. An inspiring story on its own, but made so much better by the quotes.
Conaway said the firestorm occurred "only because one reporter who makes a living jacking people up about these trips" wrote about the issue.
"We had gotten not one complaint from the public," he added of the unannounced change. "Not one person had looked for this information except this reporter."
A little context. Conaway was elected to Congress in 2004 after a mid-decade redistricting of the state by the new Republican legislature. A conservative but Democratic seat held by Rep. Charlie Stenholm was wiped out of existence; a new, safe seat was created in northwest Texas covering Midland and Odessa. Conaway won the seat and has never sweated a re-election. In 2012 both he and Mitt Romney won 79 percent of the vote in the new 11th District.
The irony: The conservative Stenholm was one of very few Democrats open to Social Security privatization. Had he remained in Congress in 2005, he would have given George W. Bush some bipartisan cover on his reform push. But gerrymandering pushed him out of office, replacing him with a guy so confident of re-election that he'll mock a reporter for pointing out that the House just blurred its disclosure rules.
The Seven Senate Races Democrats Should Be Optimistic About in 2016
Look, I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. I'm not going to pretend Washington -- by which I mean the journalism/politics/lobbying/evil establishment that's based in the capital -- is at work today. Very, very little is happening in national politics, which is why respectable outlets are running stories like "5 Democrats who should run against Hillary Clinton" and "Sunny job report won't save Democrats." We can't all be Shane Goldmacher, who more or less single-handedly got the House to back off a loosening of an ethics rule.
Bowing to reality, I'd like to summarize something the more realism-minded Democrats have been pointing out to me. The 2014 election map, is, as we've discussed, comically brutal for the president's party. It's basically up to voters in Alaska and Louisiana, voters who went for Mitt Romney in a landslide, to save his final two years from full on Darrell Issa-fication. But the 2016 election map gives Democrats a chance to refight the troublesome 2010 elections, and to do so with Hillary Clinton atop the ballot.
The best case 2014 scenario for Democrats is that they only hold the Senate by one or two votes. (A Republican strategist was telling me yesterday that Republicans would consider 2014 a failure as long as Harry Reid remains majority leader. That means they could win five seats and write it off as a loss.) The worst case scenario? They get wiped out in red states and lose some blue state races, taking them down to maybe 46 seats. Could they come back in 2016? Yes. Here are their best-shot states, ranked from lowest to highest.
6/7. Missouri/New Hampshire. Both of these states were seen as Democratic pick-up opportunities early in 2009; both fell easily to Republicans. But in both states, Democrats have elected broadly popular governors who've run ahead of Obama. Missouri's Jay Nixon (who lost a 1998 Senate race by 9 points) will be finishing a second term, as (probably) will New Hampshire's Maggie Hassan. (She's up again this year but not struggling.) If either are coaxed to run, they make competitive races.
4/5. Kentucky/Florida. Both states are represented by senators with barely-disguised national ambitions. Neither can run for re-election if he runs for the presidency. After Arkansas and Missouri, Kentucky is the state where the Clinton-led ticket is expected to run most strongly ahead of the two doomed Obama-Biden tickets. (This has at least a little to do with race.) It's also one of the last red state redoubts of electable Democrats. If Attorney General Jack Conway or Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes lose races this year and next year (he's running for governor, she's running for Senate), both would be beseeched by Democrats to look at the open Senate seat. Florida's Democratic bench is weaker, funny enough, but the state is trending blue.
3. Wisconsin. First-time candidate Ron Johnson defeated Sen. Russ Feingold easier than anyone not paid by Johnson had thought possible. Feingold left politics, joining the Obama administration to work on African issues. Johnson has established himself as a b.s.-free conservative who refused to engage in shutdown politics and has picked smart fights with the Obama administration. He is, according to reporter Ken Vogel, seen by the Koch network as a model politician. But in 2016 he'll be running in a state likely to break for Hillary Clinton. Feingold could return from the Bush, or Rep. Ron Kind could finally make the statewide run he's been passing on for years.
2. Pennsylvania. Sen. Pat Toomey narrowly lost a 2004 primary to Arlen Specter, spent six years building a political base, then scared Specter out of Republican politics. In November 2010, Toomey narrowly (narrower than polling predicted) triumphed over Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak. This was the recent apogee of the Pennsylvania Republican party; four years later, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett looks certain to lose to challenger Tom Wolf. Democrats are giddy about their chances of winning Pennsylvania with Hillary atop the ticket, and either Sestak or another ambitious Democrat will happily oppose Toomey. In a recent PPP poll, he actually trailed Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who was elected in the surprisingly strong Democratic year of 2012.
1. Illinois. As soon as Barack Obama won the presidency, Illinois's Democratic majority started fumbling away everything they'd done. Gov. Rod Blagojevich immediately plunged in a scheme to basically sell Obama's vacant Senate seat. It ended Blagojevich's career and destroyed Rep. Jesse Jackson, who had big ambitions for statewide office. Like a member of The Who leaving a 1970s hotel room, Blagojevich went out by ruining things for his party, appointing the vainglorious and dim Roland Burris to the Senate seat. That made Rep. Mark Kirk's seemingly impossible job -- winning the president's old Senate seat -- doable. And even then, Kirk only beat scandal-plagued State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias by 1.9 points, falling short of an outright majority.
In 2011, Kirk survived a stroke that dramatically limited his movement. He's recovered remarkably well, and remained a force in the Senate, a foreign policy hawk who darts to the middle on social issues. But even in December 2013, close to the nadir of the Obamacare debate, pollsters found Kirk in a dead heat with a possible Democratic challenger. In 2016, he will have plenty of money but need to overcome the Democratic vote for Illinois-born Hillary Clinton.
That's the blue optimism side of all this. A pessimist would point out that Nevada Sen. Harry Reid would probably draw a stronger challenger in 2016, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet had a hell of a time in 2010.* I'm only describing how Democrats feel -- that 2016 looks like a buffet of exotic desserts, after the leftover Lunchables offered in 2014.
*I also noted that "West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin might retire," as he's said, but it's been pointed out that Manchin won a special election in 2010 and a full term in 2012. He's not up again until 2018, where Dems will be scrambling to save senators like Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly, who won against flawed candidates in red states.
And We Would Have Passed Immigration Reform if It Wasn’t for Those Meddling Kids
Mickey Kaus has a lot of fun with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Florida Republican who had refused to let the lamp dim for immigration reform, and who (according to Politico) was this close to getting a damn bill. According to a superb Sueng Min Kim and Carrie Budoff Brown history of "how immigration reform died," Republicans were closer than anyone knew to maybe sort of introducing a bill that a majority of their conference could support. "Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) had been quietly shopping a PowerPoint presentation of a border enforcement and legalization bill to his colleagues and secured soft commitments from at least 120 Republicans," they report.
Kaus is skeptical. So am I—not of the reporting, but of Diaz-Balart's own reliability as a narrator. He has been claiming that he had legislative language and was on the cusp of a breakthrough for at least six months.
Jan. 15, Politico:
Politically, it has always been a very difficult issue — very difficult, very controversial, very emotional, very difficult issue. So it’s a big ask, but I think there’s a lot of people here who are willing to do what they believe is right for the country even above personal, political considerations.
Feb. 21, the Washington Post:
Can you draft legislation that has serious border and interior security, with sufficient leverage to force this or future administrations? I think we have drafted a way to actually do that. Can we deal with the undocumented in a way that is fair, that makes sense, that adheres strictly to the rule of law? I think we’ve also cracked that nut.
March 26, Politico:
Can we deal with the folks that are here in a way that is reasonable, that does not violate the rights of folks who have done things legally, [and] can we strictly adhere to the rule of law? Some of us think we’ve achieved that magic formula.
April 30, Politico:
I’m out there speaking to colleagues on the issue, and every day I get more and more members who understand that what we have right now is unacceptable.
June 4, Roll Call:
Every day I’m getting more and more Republicans — conservatives — who are frankly approaching me saying, ‘How do we move forward?’ I feel very very confident that a majority — a strong majority — of Republicans want to finally tackle this system that everyone understands is broken — with some caveats.
June 30, Roll Call:
The majority of the Republican conference wants to move forward. We still have a shot.
Note that Eric Cantor lost his primary on June 10, and this was apparently the incident that killed Diaz-Balart's momentum (if you can call six months of the same thing "momentum"). Twenty days later, Diaz-Balart was doing his best impression of Kevin Bacon in Animal House.
The reader of that Politico story gets the impression that immigration activists were naive about the House, that they should have worked it harder and earlier. Well, if they were listening to Mario Diaz-Balart, they had nothing to worry about! He had legislation ready to go. Not that you or anyone else could look at it.
Hillaryworld Wants You to Know Her Book Is Selling Just Fine
Hillary Clinton's first memoir featured revelations about how she learned about one of the sex scandals of the century. Her second memoir, Hard Choices, does not. Washington's press corps is salivating over the result of this—the first run of Hard Choices, a million copies, is not going to be sold out soon. In the Huffington Post, Howard Fineman* reports that sales have been falling by 50 percent each week, down to 26,190 in the latest week, and that this might challenge the idea of Clinton's 2016 inevitability.
Seems silly, but this has burbled up from enough sources to warrant an official response from Correct the Record, a project of David Brock's progressive messaging network (Media Matters, American Bridge) that is fairly explicitly out to defend Clinton. They sent this around yesterday:
ATTACK: The right wing launched an attack that Hillary Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices,” has not been successful so far.
• “Hard Choices” is #1 on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list for the third week in a row.
• “Hard Choices” has sold more copies than books by a number of leading Republicans including Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy.
• “Hard Choices” sold more in its third week than Rand Paul and Jeb Bush’s books did total, combined!
• In the third week for sale, “Hard Choices,” sold more copies than Scott Walker’s, Rick Santorum’s and Bobby Jindal’s book ever sold.
• The book’s sales saw less of a drop-off in the percentage of sales in its second week of publication than her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” which went on to sell 1.1 million copies.
• “Hard Choices” debuted on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list as the No. 1 “Nonfiction Print Hardcover,” No. 1 “Nonfiction E-Book,” and No. 1 “Nonfiction Combined Print & E-Book.”
It goes on like that.
*Fineman's story originally described the sales decline this way:
It now describes it this way:
There is no disclaimer on the page about why the sentence was altered.
The Elizabeth Warren Demonization Society
Last weekend, Sen. Elizabeth Warren traveled to Kentucky to stump for Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. The Democratic secretary of state has remained competitive in the race against Sen. Mitch McConnell, and has thus far avoided the damage from some concerted Republican trolling tying her to the Obama administration. Like West Virginia's Natalie Tennant, she's attempting to run as an anti-"Washington" candidate who'll also oppose EPA rules. Tenannt, too, is going to get a campaign visit from Elizabeth Warren this month.
The Republican reaction to the Warren visits has been wholly predictable. "If she's elected her only problem with Barack Obama would be that occasionally he's not liberal enough for her taste," said a McConnell spokesman of Grimes. American Crossroads welcomed Warren to Kentucky with this Web ad, calling Warren the "queen of class warfare" by applying a Tim and Eric-style cut to her 2011 speech about what the rich owe the American system.
The coal thing I get; the EPA thing I get. "The underwhelming candidate has not only failed to separate from the liberal left's anti-coal leaders like Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Elizabeth Warren," said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen, "she has cozied up to them."* Noted. A Democrat in coal country cannot be trusted unless he/she starts each day with a rant against the EPA and a heaping bowl of coal flakes.
But the rest of the political messaging here seems fairly rote. What is Warren talking about when she credits Obama for "squaring his shoulders" and fighting? The creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, opposed by Republicans in Congress but favored by as many as three out of four voters. How unpopular was Warren's "the rich should pay more taxes" riff? Very popular; at the time she said it, voters approved of raising the top tax rate by a 2-to-1 margin.
What makes Warren so fascinating is that her Senate career is the third or fourth act in a fairly long and uncontroversial career as a bankruptcy and finance analyst. In 1999, before Scott Brown was even a state senator, Warren was publishing books about bankruptcy; in 2004 she was appearing on Oprah to talk about personal finance. It's relatively unusual to see someone enjoy a long public career divorced from partisan politics, and then run for office in his/her 60s. Well into her 40s, Warren was actually a Republican.
Does this make her above reproach? Ha, of course not. It's just interesting to watch voters in red states, who likely have unformed opinions of Warren, be told that she is a far-left Democrat more left-wing than Barack Obama. It plays right into Warren's hands, just as attacks from the Chamber of Commerce on Republicans who want to kill the Export-Import Bank play into their hands. It forgets just how far Rand Paul got in 2010 by portraying Washington as the puppeteer and puppet of bailed-out banks.
Warren's trying to remain identified with an issue-specific populism that was broadly popular before she entered politics. Republicans are trying to blur lines and portray anything she does as hopelessly far-left. Didn't really work in 2012; similar tactics and arguments haven't really dented the appeal of Rand Paul. The greater danger, it would seem, is running on absolutely nothing.
*Correction, July 3, 2014: This post originally misspelled NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen's first name.
Dead Presidents in Mississippi
Here's a postscript to yesterday's pot-banging insanity in Mississippi. The accusations that have rallied many conservatives (RedState, Mark Levin, Sarah Palin, etc.) back to the Chris McDaniel banner are basically these: He lost only because Democrats illegally crossed over to vote in the GOP primary, and because Sen. Thad Cochran's campaign "bought votes." Cochran's campaign has rebutted the latter charge by arguing that the money handed out to some volunteers was intended for Get Out the Vote Activities. This hasn't satisfied some conservatives, who see the distribution of "walking around money" as a scandal.
Critics are firing back, pointing out that McDaniel's FEC reports reveal that he handed "petty cash" to Dawn Walters, the assistant treasurer of the campaign. And indeed he did.
But a campaign petty cash fund is not typically used for "walking around" purposes. I looked into this only to demonstrate that both sides in Mississippi are now combing the records of an election that was considered over, to see if there's any new advantage to claim.
Mississippi Senate Battle Descends Into Madness
A few hours ago, the campaign of Sen. Thad Cochran —which had (understandably) assumed the June 24 primary election to be on the books already—held a press conference to vigorously rebut charges of fraud. For days, Tea Party activists and the campaign of Chris McDaniel had been looking at poll books for evidence of illegal crossover voting, hoping to find enough to cast doubt on the result. In the last 24 hours, the conservative election watchdog True the Vote and the defeated Tea Party umbrella group FreedomWorks had, respectively, sued on behalf of the people scouring poll books and asked for the FBI to investigate a claim that Cochran had bought votes.
The press conference went largely without incident. The same could not be said of a follow-up conference call with national reporters. At 3:46 pm ET, reporter Charles Johnson—who had reported the "vote-buying" story, which went viral on conservative media—tweeted the details of the call, encouraging followers to "crash it with me."
Press conference details... Crash it with me in fifteen minutes? Call is 3 PM CST Tuesday Call in number: 530-881-1000. PIN: 287517# #mssen— Charles C. Johnson (@ChuckCJohnson) July 2, 2014
About eight minutes into the rote call, someone butted in to ask the Cochran campaign's Austin Barbour why "it was okay to harvest the votes of black people."
"I will be happy to answer any questions from any members of the media," said Barbour.
The interrupter was not done. "I'd like to know if black people were harvesting cotton, why is it okay to harvest their votes? They're not animals."
"I'm happy to answer any questions from the national media," said Barbour.
"Why did you use black people to get Cochran elected when they're not even Republicans?" asked the interrupter. "You treated them like they were idiots."
The call spiralled into insanity from there, with Barbour jumping off, reporters asking for the interrupter to ID himself (he didn't) and more crashers deploying Obama soundboards and a loop of John Vernon's immortal quote from Animal House. "The time has come for someone to put his foot down, and that foot is me."
Left with no official response or answers from Team Cochran, journalists ran to the wires with stories about the botched call. But this was only the tip of the weirdness iceberg. It baffles the Cochran campaign that Johnson, a freelance journalist with a proud conservative bent, has been able to drive a narrative in this race. I've written a couple of pieces criticizing two Johnson stories—one 2013 piece that raised doubts on Cory Booker's residence in Newark (a story Booker's opponent called a press conference to publicize) and one 2014 piece that mistook a satirical news story for proof that a New York Times reporter had posed in Playgirl. Johnson has predicted that his critics would try to discredit him by bringing up stuff like that, so, having cleared the decks, I offer this brief guide to Johnson's Cochran reporting—which is tweeted in what seems like real time.
1. That time he said the National Republican Senatorial Committee's spokesman is culpable in the suicide of a Tea Party leader.
2. That time he defended paying for the vote-buying story.
Cochran campaign attacks me 4 paying 4 the Reverend Fielder's time. I guess they ignore David Frost paid for Nixon tape interviews. #mssen— Charles C. Johnson (@ChuckCJohnson) July 1, 2014
3. That time he described his talk with an impressed FBI agent.
FBI agent on phone just asked me what I want 4 evidence I have presented. I said justice. He said 1st time journalist said that 2him. #mssen— Charles C. Johnson (@ChuckCJohnson) July 1, 2014
4. That time he said Cochran will resign if McDaniel successfully challenges the election.
REPORT from credible source: Cochran is planning to resign if a special election is called.. #mssen— Charles C. Johnson (@ChuckCJohnson) July 2, 2014
5. That time he made a Breaking Bad reference to shame Cochran's spokesman.
6. That time he said "bring it on, bitches" to Team Cochran.
7. That time he said he could have run the Romney campaign better than Cochran's strategist.
You know you'd like to see me run the Romney campaign against Obama. Stuart Stevens who? #mssen— Charles C. Johnson (@ChuckCJohnson) July 2, 2014
Johnson cannot be cowed; he frequently names his critics and laughs at the idea they would ever sue him. This is the driving force in the Mississippi Senate race's aftermath.