Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 11 2014 6:20 PM

Trackers vs. Campaign Gatekeepers: Whoever Wins, We Lose

On first look, it's campaign tracker gold. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who has put some distance between himself and challenger Monica Wehby, scheduled an invite-only event on Social Security. Some septugenarians found their way to the location. As a tracker rolled film, and Merkley's aide Jamal Raad offered the same apology multiple times, the seniors got angry and split.

"This doesn't impress me, and nor does the campaign," says a protester identified by the Oregonian as Alta Lynch.

"I was planning on supporting him whole-heartedly," says Scott Ingalls, the man in the tie-dyed overalls. "Not now."

"Stump for the other one," says Lynch. "That's what I'm gonna do."

How could a campaign do this? How could it brainlessly kick out a guy wearing tie-dyed overalls, as if he was a Republican plant?

Well ... Alta Lynch, of Scappoose, may not have been a die-hard for Merkley. On her Facebook page, she's shared an article about a Wehby meeting about the VA scandal, a meme about Barack Obama being "engulfed in scandals," and a meme that shames "race-baiters." Luke Hammill reports that Merkley apologized to the shut-out constituents anyway, which would have neutered the story, but for the video. And events like these, where politicians talk to vetted audiences, are hardly unique to Merkley, who supplements them with at least one town hall a year in each of Oregon's 36 counties.

So there are two stories here. 1) Campaigns sound ridiculous when they try to keep people out of events using the language of Kafka bureaucrats. 2) Using this, anyone who wants to embarrass the campaign of the candidate they're not voting for should show up with a video camera.

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Aug. 11 2014 5:19 PM

Meet the New Florida Gerrymander, Same as the Old Florida Gerrymander

In November 2010 the voters of Florida sent Marco Rubio to represent them in the Senate, Rick Scott to represent them in the governor's office, and a bunch of Republicans to take over open or contested seats. They also passed a ballot measure that would have ended the majority party's monopoly on gerrymandering House seats. It was no secret that this would hurt the GOP, and the ruling party spent big to defeat it, as the Ohio Republicans would spend to defeat a similar measure in 2012. But in Florida, the measure won. The map that gave 50–50 Florida a congressional delegation of 19 Republicans and six Democrats could not survive.

It couldn't, unless Republicans and black Democrats teamed up to save it. And so they did. One of Gov. Scott's first actions was rejection of the ballot measure; Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart teamed up with Rep. Corrine Brown, whose 5th District cut across the black populations from urban Jacksonville to urban Orlando and gave Democrats 2–1 landslide wins. But they eventually lost, and in July, a judge ruled for the supporters of the ballot measure by saying two districts had been drawn illegally to aid Republicans.

What happened next was a bold reassertion of Republican control. The state Senate, given until Aug. 15 to draw a new map, finished its work early and voted it through. If you click that link and look for the 5th District, you may notice that it still snakes from Jacksonville, down into the Orlando area. As Alice Ollstein pointed out, "the new map proposed by state legislators would reduce Brown’s district to 48 percent African-American, while boosting her neighbor’s district–represented by Rep. Dan Webster (R-FL) from 10 to over 12 percent African-American." 

The alliance is unbroken. This is really part of the plan for continuing Republican dominance of congressional and legislative delegations for years. In every Republican-run state with a significant black population, the reliably Democratic black vote is packed into as few districts as possible—Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. As Rick Scott showed in 2010, this is one aspect of Voting Rights Act preclearance that the Republican-run states are perfectly OK with.

Aug. 11 2014 2:49 PM

Sunday Morning Coming Down—With Chuck Todd Fever!

I've spent the day in Rockville, Maryland, covering a trial, but apparently the fetid Beltway below me is talking about this:

Chuck Todd, the NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent, is likely to succeed David Gregory as moderator of "Meet the Press," with the change expected to be announced in coming weeks, top political sources told POLITICO's Mike Allen.
The move is an effort by NBC News President Deborah Turness to restore passion and insider cred to a network treasure that has been adrift since the death of Tim Russert in 2008. 

It's been only weeks since Todd made an underwhelmed announcement after I won his show's trivia contest, so you will know I'm being honest when I say: Oh, please, let this happen. Todd is an inconsolable political junkie, who made his bones at the classic Hotline before joining NBC as an analyst, than reporter. That means he never picked up the preening habits that bedevil some TV interviewers. He goes into interviews with unexpected questions, issues a recognizable, bored "OK" when the subject is clearly retreating into talking points, and comes right back with a hard one.

As good as Todd is, I maintain that the "problem with the Sunday shows" is mostly one of format. It used to be that these shows functioned like candidate murder boards, with few commercial breaks and long, sustained grillings of guests. The turn toward short interviews and panel discussions rendered the typical MTP little better than whatever that CNN show with the British guy was called. More long, hard interviews are good for America, which is why this possible Todd promotion would at least dull some of the pain of Bloomberg axing Al Hunt—his show broke news every week.

Aug. 11 2014 12:57 PM

The Secrets of Chickengate

On the way out of Iowa, a spokesman for the state GOP gave me a small rubber chicken with the website called BraleyChicken. It was, he explained, part of the effort to further the negative brand of Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley, an effort to a make sure that every voter knows that Braley complained about a neighbor who let chickens roam onto the yard of his vacation home.

Oh, sorry, I forgot. The spokesman was Jeff Patch, a former Politico reporter who became an activist, later moving to Iowa. He broke the chicken story at the Iowa Republican. The next day, he said, he climbed on board with the state party. You can see why, because Patch wrote a hell of a narrative.

"From the Classic Deli and Ice Cream Shoppe to the Casey’s General Store," he started, "folks are talking about the hometown boy-turned liberal trial lawyer-turned congressman and his bizarre legal battle with a neighbor over her chickens." In the story that followed, littered with chicken puns, Patch reported of "$1,700 in legal fees" incurred by the homeowners asssociation after Braley launched a "a contentious legal battle." 

The lake netted a $1,748 profit from hosting a triathlon. Braley’s legal fees nearly wiped that out. Two employees received raises from $8 to $9-an-hour. Braley’s legal fees could have put an extra $70.50 in those employees’ pockets each month over the next year. The association needed to purchase new tires for a tractor that cost $1,100. Again, Braley’s litigation caused the association to waste its resources battling a sitting U.S. Representative over a few birds instead of other priorities.

Phil Rucker, the great Washington Post correspondent, traveled to Iowa to explain exactly what happened. Republicans are generally thrilled that the story is out there—it's baffling that Braley pursued this during an election year, and after enduring his gaffe about the unsuitability of a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school" becoming head of Judiciary. (Absent that gaffe, it's hard to imagine this follow-up story getting the same play.) But Rucker's reporting suggests that at least one element of the story was overplayed.

Braley didn't actually sue. The "legal battle" was Braley's call to the association's lawyer, which the attorney recalled as Braley telling him he wanted to "avoid a litigious situation" by talking out whether the chickens violated the community's ban on animals that were not "household pets."

“At no time did I ever — ever — threaten a lawsuit or threaten litigation. Never. And anybody who says that I did is not being truthful,” he said. “This was a personal dispute between my wife and a neighbor because chickens were on our property all the time.”
He added, “I just reached out to somebody I knew expecting to get a phone call back and instead this thing blows up. And I think it’s obvious why, because people who don’t want me to be the next senator from Iowa will stop at nothing to try to drag my family through the mud.”
Dale Howe, who lives next door to the Braleys, said she made a similar complaint to the association board. “I did not think that they should be roaming around,” Howe said of the chickens. But, she added, “We didn’t have the same type of problems [the Braleys] did because they didn't leave their droppings in our yard.”
Even if Braley didn’t threaten a suit, some around Holiday Lake bristled at his tactics.

Right, and Braley's family screwed up by failing to handle this directly with the animals' owner, Pauline Hampton, who went on to build a fence and then tell anyone who asked about how the animals were used for children's therapy (maybe I'm an East Coast elitist, but therapeutic hens?), and has been interviewed for a possible American Crossroads ad. Here's how Crossroads currently dramatizes the situation:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 12.48.26 PM

There was no lawsuit, no farm, and no fence. Just a well-told story that took advantage of how a guy mishandled the problem of chickens shitting on his lawn. So well-told that the Washington Post put it on A1 with no reference to how it started—with a reporter-turned-activist who broke it and then joined the state party to really take the wood to Braley.

Aug. 11 2014 11:34 AM

Ted Cruz’s Seven Conservative Victories, According to Ted Cruz

Molly Ball followed Sen. Ted Cruz down to the annual RedState Gathering  (held this year in Fort Worth), and came back with an evocative story about why conservatives adore the guy. She gets at something that's hard to convey, unless you see Cruz talk to conservatives.

Every politician creates his own version of reality, but Cruz's effect is particularly through-the-looking-glass. "Let me tell you what's not getting a lot of coverage in the mainstream media," Cruz told the Fort Worth crowd. "Conservatives are winning!" He pointed to legislation he had stopped—gun control, IMF reform—and public-relations battles, like the time last month when he "put out a long statement raising a series of questions" about the Federal Aviation Administration's ban on flights to Israel; 36 hours later, "the administration lifted the ban." And he pointed to fights still in progress, like the border bill and repealing Obamacare.

Cruz has done a version of this rundown at most of his major speeches. On Saturday, when he spoke to the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, he boiled the victories down to seven. 

Listicle machine, engage:

1: Defeat of the 2013 gun safety bills, which Cruz attributes to the filibuster threat (of the start of even debating the bills) from him and Mike Lee and Rand Paul. "It gave time for the grassroots to engage. It came time for each of you to light up the phones, to ask your senators: Why aren't you standing for the Second Amendment?"

2: The Hobby Lobby case. 

3. The unanimous passage of Cruz's bill to bar Iran's selected ambassador from the United States.

4. The liberation of Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim, which social conservatives prayed for. "President Obama somehow couldn't bring himself to stand up and say to the government of Sudan, free Meriam Ibrahim."

5. The lifting of the FAA's ban on flights to Israel. (Cruz accidentally started calling this the fourth victory, but corrected himself with a Rick Perry joke. "I could have said 'oops,' but that would make news.")

6. "Immigration"—previously this has meant the squelching of the comprehensive bill, but during this recess, it means the passage in the House of the border bill and DACA defunding favored by Cruz.

7. Obamacare. To be clear, this was not actually a win. "The final victory that we haven't yet won, but we've laid the groundwork to win, is repealing every single word of Obamacare," said Cruz. In Iowa, as he's done elsewhere, Cruz took credit for the backlash to the law by insisting that the 2013 government shutdown fight "elevated the stakes of the debate."

"And a result," said Cruz, "Republicans, instead of competiing for five, six Senate seats, are competing for 10, 11, 12 Senate seats all around the country."

Aug. 11 2014 8:56 AM

Hawaii’s Progressive Tea Party

Few journalists were wise enough to fly west and cover the Hawaii primaries; those who did found two of the year's great election stories. The lede is that Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a personal friend of the Obama family and a fixture in the state's politics for decades, lost renomination by a landslide, as polls showed him losing in a rematch to the state's former Republican lieutenant governor.

But the other story, the other race, was less definitive. One of Abercrombie's most unpopular actions in office was appointing his own LG, Brian Schatz, to fill the seat of the late Daniel Inouye. It bloomed into a full-on controversy when it became known that Inouye had personally asked for Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to take the seat; Abercrombie had denied a dying man his final wish.

And yet, Schatz may have defeated Hanabusa. The current count is 113,800 votes for Schatz and 112,165 for Hanabusa, with a spoiler picking up more than enough votes to change the margin. Polls were all over the place (FiveThirtyEight has been especialy amusing in its effort to analyze ... something, given the lack of data), but it does appear that Schatz succeeded in establishing himself as a down-the-line progressive, worthy of holding the seat against a congresswoman who wasn't as bold.

Examples? Schatz came out early on climate change legislation, any climate change legislation; he joined the "talkathon" to raise awareness of Democratic bills, and said that climate change "deniers" needed to be ridiculed out of the debate, "run out of town rhetorically." And Schatz was one of the first people to sign on to a progressive plan to raise Social Security payments, adjusting COLA upward, co-sponsored by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.

To see how that issue plays in a Democratic party, check out the ad Progressive Change Campaign Committee drew up for social media. Hanabusa had voted for one of the House's budget compromises—therefore, she had voted to "cut Social Security." Schatz supported an alternative that had no chance of passing the Senate, but he'd supported it, and that indicated that a 41-year-old senator who voted with the left might be better for the job than a 63-year-old pol who was forced into compromises. If Schatz holds on, he'll have had the advantages of incumbency, but he'll also represent a strategic lefty victory of the sort the Tea Party has grown used to winning.

Aug. 9 2014 7:35 PM

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 9 2014 6:41 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 8 2014 9:18 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug. 8 2014 3:41 PM

By Their Game-Changing Ye Shall Know Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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