Reporting on Politics and Policy.

March 28 2014 2:49 PM

#McConnelling: From Sweden to Iowa to Alaska, Everyone’s Doing It

#McConnelling is the name the Internet gave to the manipulation of Mitch McConnell's oddly compelling compliation of B-roll footage. After people noticed the thing on McConnell's YouTube account, much cheap fun was had by overdubbing an ill-fitting new song or inserting the Senate minority leader's turn-to-camera grin into 1990s show openings. The Daily Show discovered it, and then Sweden's TV4 made a parody starring its reporter Anders Kraft.

It's been left up to Paul Blumenthal to point out that lots of campaigns are doing this—chucking B-roll on the Internet so super PACs can grab them without "co-ordinating." Here's Iowa's Bruce Braley, before his tough week.

Here's Sen. Mark Begich, who—and I'm just assuming from the context—is from Alaska.

Continuing our march across time zones, here's Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, appointed in the winter of 2012 and fighting uphill against a primary challenger.

It's just assumed that uploads like these fit within the letter of campaign finance law. Sure, that's not what campaign finance watchdog groups like Democracy21 are saying when they issue public letters to the McConnell campaign. "The 'B-Roll' scam is being used by candidate campaigns to provide Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups with video footage to use in their ads supporting the candidate," wrote Democracy21 President Fred Wertheimer in the letters, last week. "The only problem here is that this 'B-Roll' scam is illegal."

Good luck proving it. The "B-roll scam" can go on until 1) the campaigns become embarrassed or 2) the FEC, equally divided between the parties, rules against it. And outcome 1 is far more likely that outcome 2.

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March 28 2014 1:01 PM

What the Pope Told President Obama About Abortion

Reporters following the president in Rome asked a natural question after his meeting with Pope Francis. Did, uh, the whole contraceptive mandate issue come up?

"He actually did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act," said the president. "In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law.  And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt."

The Vatican's own statement was a little less circumspect: The president, it said was told of the Vatican's concern about "religious freedom." This synced perfectly with the emerging (actually pretty standard now) conservative messaging on the mandate, and the arguments heard this week before the Supreme Court. And just as interesting was the pope's gift to Obama, a copy of Evangelii Gaudium. If Obama reads the thing, he'll eventually get to these paragraphs.

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual."
Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

Very subtle, no international incident required.

March 28 2014 11:54 AM

Americans for Prosperity–Virginia (Very Briefly) Warns of Muslim Sympathizers in White House

Not to turn this blog into an all-Twitter research service, but while poking around online last night I noticed the official account of Americans for Prosperity in Virginia tweeting strange links. To wit:

The link took me to a story about how "several key investigations have uncovered and verified a real element of concern, right in the White House" and "several known, radical Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers hold positions of power in our Executive Branch." I DM'd the AFP account to ask what was up. Today, the tweets are gone.

March 28 2014 9:37 AM

Stephen Colbert vs. the Hashtag Activists

So: On Wednesday night Stephen Colbert made sport of Washington football team owner Dan Snyder and his plan to undercut criticism of the team name by founding an organization for the uplift of "original Americans." Colbert ran though all the reasons why this was funny, then called back to a skit from one of the show's first episodes, way back from the fall of 2005—a joke about the host being caught on a "live feed" playing a racist Asian stereotype (Ching Chong Ding Dong, from Guanduong), then not understanding why it was racist. Colbert would make amends with his new "Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." He'd played versions of the game since then, dressing up in a sombrero for "Hispanic heritage month." It's one of the Colbert character's oldest gags—he "doesn't see color," so he can't ever be blamed if he accidentally does something horribly racist.

Most of a day later, the official Twitter account of The Colbert Report tweeted a short version of the joke: "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." Bad move. This attracted the ire of a 23-year-old freelance writer and hashtag activist named Suey Park, who gained prominence last year with the #NotYourAsianSidekick micromovement.

For much of the night, Park made war on Comedy Central, and thousands copied the hashtag. The network had made a powerful hashtag enemy, as Park reminded it. This was her work. She started hashtags like Comedy Central started six-episode sketch shows. The Guardian had placed her in a list of the "top 30 young people in digital media," No. 12, right below "Kid President." Her Facebook fan page and Twitter account provided information on how to book her, because she "speaks on race/gender and social media" and is a "board member of Activist Milennials." For much of the night, her Twitter feed tracked 1) the progress of #CancelColbert, 2) tweets thanking her for the hashtag, and 3) tweets from racist idiots who were angry at her.

By the time she tweeted that, the right had caught on. Tweeting at Colbert was an unexpected opportunity for cultural revenge—the petard-hoisting of a liberal comedian whose schtick was saying outrageous things in the voice of a "right-winger." The prime mover was Michelle Malkin, the Asian-American conservative (and, it is inevitably said, author of In Defense of Internment) who names and shames the people who hurl slurs at her.

If you managed to avoid the Internet last night, you missed a crash course in hashtag activism. In a smart and comprehensive piece for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg told its history, and how starting a trending hashtag on Twitter (the case study was #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen) allowed otherwise unknown activists to force discussions on their terms. Twitter is public, and individual blogs or magazines are public, but a tweet with the right hashtag can be forced into the visual spectrum of someone who might have otherwise never paid attention to an argument.

The argument happens on the hashtag founder's terms. Comedy Central and Colbert fumbled to respond, with the network taking the blame for the out-of-context tweet but—because you have 140 characters on Twitter—never explaining that the joke was at Dan Snyder's expense. The weaponized hashtag also takes power from the people who are trying to mock it—Twitter doesn't discriminate between earnestness and parody. People making fun of the humorlessness and bad faith of the hashtag end up keeping it in the "trending" column.

I'm ignoring the basic question: Does hashtag activism work? Well, any time a public figure or group of people is blitzed and told not to say something offensive, no matter how prideful they are, the instinct is to never say that again. Colbert was far, far from the first person to mock Dan Snyder's cluelessness with faux racism. Slate wrote about one effort last year; the Onion has done a bunch of stories about ways Snyder planned to improve the team name (like adding a liquor bottle to the logo); the Ego Trip collective wrote about it in "the Big Book of Racism." (I remember fondly the logo for the "New York Diamond Merchants.") The intent, in every case, was to shame Snyder or the owners of other teams with names playing on Native American stereotypes. 

That's not acceptable to the hashtag activists. As they explained in 140-character bursts, when a white comedian like Colbert joked about racism by playing a racist, he was still telling his audience to laugh at a racist joke. Anyone who disputed this was trying to "whitesplain" satire—an argument that can never be debunked. You can laugh at being told to "check your privilege," but hearing that plants an idea that you can't shake. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, even though this particular hashtag was born midair above a shark.) And if it brings fame and clout to activists who have not really done anything to win your attention previously, that's a sweet fringe benefit.

March 27 2014 8:52 PM

Cursed With Nation’s Second-Highest Turnout Rate, Wisconsin Restricts Early Voting

The 2012 election went incredibly smoothly in Wisconsin. Starting on Oct. 21, two weeks before the end of the election, voters could show up to early-voting sites and be done with their annual civic duty. Not registered? You could do that in person. Busy all week? Show up on Saturday or Sunday. The ease of the thing helped push Wisconsin turnout to 73.2 percent of eligible voters, up from 72.4 percent in 2008, the second-highest in the country. (Damn your eyes, Minnesota!)

This was clearly a problem, and it had to be fixed.

Gov. Scott Walker has quietly signed into law a bill that limits in-person absentee voting to no later than 7 p.m. during the week and no weekend hours. Walker vetoed a portion of the bill Thursday that limited the hours of early voting to no more than 45 in each of the two weeks prior to an election. He kept the prohibition on weekend voting.

Wisconsin's Republican legislature, which was strengthened by a 2011 gerrymander, has played a useful game with Walker. It's proposed balloting restrictions that go further than he likes, such as a ban on same-day registration. But when he's met them halfway, he's rolled back voting access beyond what's recommended by the Presidential Commission, and recommended by experience.

March 27 2014 5:45 PM

The California Gun-Running, Bribe-Taking Democrat Formerly Known as a Gun Control Activist

If this blog is a little too light today, it's because the universe decided to unlease thousands of pages of fascinating indictments or studies on the political press corps. I took far too long to read the criminal complaint that brought down California state Sen. Leland Yee—it's among the most baffling, thrilling tales of political corruption in recent memory. The FBI investigators tracking Yee (the ones referred to as "UCE," etc.) were brought in on a gun-smuggling operation for the apparent benefit of all parties, especially Yee, as he stretched his finances for a secretary of state campaign. It was Yee who brought up the arms dealer. 

The meetings continued, and Yee was conversant about the guns he could offer.

He also knew exactly how to grease the wheels with his contact.

He was good on his word about setting up the meeting.

And all of this, we learn, was for a four-figure campaign donation.

This is a fantastic story, and gun rights groups are adapting the film rights. Hunter Schwarz was, I think, the first to point out Yee's long and proud record of advocacy for gun control. The NRA happily gave a quote to the LA Times, calling "this poster boy for gun control" a "scumbag." On conservative news sites, the Yee story is being almost exclusively covered as a farce of gun-grabber hypocrisy.

March 27 2014 2:21 PM

Watch the House Gavel in a Basically Phony “Aye” Vote for Medicare Money


Sahil Kapur recaps what happened earlier in the House of Representatives today—the Medicare "doc fix," which would avert for one year the planned cuts to doctor payments, was passed by a voice vote. No one objected or demanded a roll call. Why did that matter? The answer is in this video of the small ordeal. Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, presiding over the House, asked for the votes. The "no" votes clearly outmatched the "ayes." Womack gaveled in the "ayes" anyway, proclaiming that, sure, they had amounted to the two-thirds needed for passage.  (UPDATE: A previous version of this post referred to the presiding member as John Duncan.)

March 27 2014 12:13 PM

Read the Largely Useless Bridgegate Internal Report That Exonerates Christie

Seems to be a classic expample of shamparency, or sham transparency—an official-looking document that reveals basically nothing yet must be discussed. And here it is. The report reiterates a claim that David Wildstein had told Gov. Chris Christie of the lane closure scheme on Sept. 11, 2013, but elevates Christie's claim that he never remembered such a conversation. Michael Barbaro's quick read of the report (quicker than mine by far) finds that it captures the drama of Christie learning how badly he was let down—adding color to the story he's given from the minute the story broke. But neither David Wildstein nor Bridget Kelly, the heels of the story, cooperated with this investigation.

March 27 2014 10:57 AM

Should Hillary Want Democrats to Lose the Senate?

On Twitter, where most good ideas come from these days, I suggested that someone (not me) adapt to the current conventional wisdom that Democrats will lose the Senate by arguing that this would be good for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. To my surprise, the idea had early takers.

The problem is that I don't agree with my own #slatepitch. Briefly, the argument that a Republican Senate in 2015 would boost Hillary Clinton's chances assumes three things.

- The new GOP Congress would be unable to keep a lid on itself. On day one you'd see a Benghazi select committee (which, the theory goes, would diffuse the scandal with overcoverage) and a fight to repeal the ACA. Republicans like John Cornyn and Jim Jordan, people in positions of power, have said that a Republican Congress would hand Obama a budget that defunded Obamacare, on the theory that winning an election and passing the thing in both houses would fatally weaken his hand.

- Clinton would get to run against Congress. "It would be much harder to diffuse blame for a 'Do-Nothing Congress,' " argues Norm Ornstein. Republican presidential candidates would have to triangulate between Clinton and their own Congress, as George W. Bush did in 2000. (That was sort of the point of "compassionate conservatism.")

- Democratic voters, who are horribly lazy about midterm voting, would be newly energized to take back what was lost. Democratic fundraising for Clinton and the 2016 Democratic Senate team would surge—useful, because Democrats want to win seats lost in the 2010 wave, in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

None of this is entirely wrong, but the Clinton optimists assume too much about how voters decide. And they don't worry enough about what a Congress can do.

- If a Republican Congress forced another showdown with a weakened, defeated Barack Obama, how interested would it be in stimulus spending? Health care funding? If you just assume that the Ryan budgets would pass both Houses, and you assume eventually both sides give up on Medicare vouchers and Obamacare repeal (for the short term), you've got a policy that leads to slower growth and voters paying higher health care premiums. Just the uncertainty that would face ensurers as the Congress debated Obamacare repeal—and the elimination of their subsidies—might raise costs. It's hard to see how a situation in which more people led worse lives would be good for the president's preferred successor.

- Let's assume it doesn't matter if a new Supreme Court nomination happens and the Senate contains 51 Democrats or 51 Republicans. Last year's filibuster reforms did not lower the vote threshold for SCOTUS nominees, but there's no precedent for filibustering Supreme Court nominees anyway. That's not a problem for Democrats. The problem would be a blockade on less-famous nominees for all manner of DOJ, EPA, and Treasury, etc., nominees. It doesn't advantage Hillary Clinton's vote-getting in swing states if, come 2016, the Democrats are unable to staff up the Civil Rights Division of DOJ. If the administration can't get its nominees in place, it's going to exercise more executive power. Voters don't always like that—and that's before a Republican Congress and presidential field calls it tyranny and demands to know whether Hillary Clinton would behave this way.

tl;dr version of what I just wrote: Hey, it didn't help Al Gore or John McCain any when their parties lost the Congress. (George H.W. Bush did win in 1988 after his party lost the Senate and shrunk its minority in the House.)

March 27 2014 9:05 AM

Rand Paul’s 2016 Network: Bigger on the Inside

There's a very meta line about halfway through Robert Costa's look at Rand Paul's 2016 infrastructure. After spending some time describing the reach of Paul's network and the relationships he's built with possible Republican donors—donors who did not necessarily back his father—Costa explains why this is being discussed in March of 2014.

"The decision to swiftly expand and announce Paul’s national political infrastructure," writes Costa, "comes after reports describing Paul’s operation as unready to compete nationally."

That's a winking reference to a buzzy New York Times lead about how Paul's backers wanted more committment from their candidate. The irony: Paul's network has been the strongest of any potential 2016-er since, oh, the day after Romney lost. Costa notes, for example, that "billionaire Peter Thiel" is one of Paul's "top west coast allies." I should hope so, because Thiel plowed $2.6 million into a super PAC that bought ads for Ron Paul in 2012. Costa reports that Nevada's GOP chair and Iowa's outgoing GOP chair are on team Paul, but close observers know they won their jobs with the support of Ron Paul's movement. Costa's story suggests that the elite of the r3volution* are staying with Paul and that he's smartly been courting donors who didn't have a horse for 2016 yet.

Most interesting developments as far as that's concerned: Well, Costa spotlights how Paul's fundraising director, Erika Sather, "a former development director at the Club for Growth, spent much of the winter introducing Paul to donors beyond the rich libertarians" who backed Ron Paul's races.** He also talks to Nate Morris, who's described as a former fundraiser for George W. Bush and a conduit between Paul and the ultra-wealthy.

“The bones for the network are there,” Morris said. “We’ll take that and bring in new talent, people who could be like Spencer Zwick was for Mitt Romney’s on finance. Among donors, there’s a fever out there, people are looking to rebrand the party and they haven’t yet been tapped.”

Still, something worth adding here: Morris is not an old Bush hand. He's just 33 years old. In 2004 he made headlines for being, by far, the "youngest Bush pioneer," a talented and gracious fundraiser who bundled $50,000 for Bush and said he wanted to run for office himself some day.

What's my point? Rand Paul's network absolutely reaches across all 50 states. The spadework of the Campaign for Liberty, created after Ron Paul's 2008 run, created the conditions for Rand Paul to build a new infrastructure based on his own appeal and causes. It's like a mansion built on the bones of a duplex built on the bones of a ranch house. And it wants the press to tour the mansion.

*the r3volution logo, created by Arizona supporters of the 2008 Ron Paul campaign, is a useful shorthand for the people who were there at the beginning.

**Costa refers to them as "the rich libertarians who poured $40 million" into Paul's last campaign, but Paul depended much more on direct mail and small dollar donations. I should probably just go back to the piece I'm writing about this subject.