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Ted Cruz Signs Up For Obamacare Is Your Short-Sighted Media Fixation Of The Week

Jason Linkins   |   March 29, 2015    7:30 AM ET

Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements, and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall convene every Sunday and attempt to decode and defang in a way that will hopefully leave you feeling unharmed and less confused. We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!

ted cruz act

As you may have heard, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) this week officially joined the 2016 GOP primary scrum (or, if you've a yen for parsing narrow legal definitions, leaped past that scrum), in a fancy to-do at Liberty University -- a fitting venue for Cruz to lay down the foundation of his pitch to the conservative base, in which he adopts the persona of Jesus H. Reagan. Or, if you prefer, Ronald H. Christ -- it's essentially the same concept, and I am not a picky man.

But what Cruz did next was very puzzling: He signed up for Obamacare. A loud chorus of "Duh fuh?" ensued.

It couldn't go unnoticed that Congress' leading antagonist of the Affordable Care Act had gone out and voluntarily enmeshed himself and his family in Obamacare's loving graces. And don't worry -- it didn't. The political press got right to work, etching the narrative -- the tale of a man who'd gone out and faffed something up, produced a wincing gaffe in the hours after his much-hyped announcement.

The headlines tell the tale. ABC News went with "Ted Cruz Will Sign Up For Obamacare, the Law He Hates." Politico made sure to mention that Cruz was "one of the Affordable Care Act's harshest critics" in a report headlined, "Ted Cruz says he's going on Obamacare." The Washington Post's James Downie penned a piece titled, "Yes, Ted Cruz is a hypocrite for going on Obamacare." Slate's Jamelle Bouie disagreed, writing, "Cruz slipping on a political banana peel doesn’t make him a hypocrite," in a piece titled, "It’s Hilarious That Ted Cruz Is Signing Up for Obamacare." Vox took Cruz on a shopping trip for an Affordable Care Act plan. Life was full of laughs. (Or, if you prefer, laffs.)

Though the gaffe-chorale was loud, there was little thought to what Ted Cruz might do next. One of those things being: maybe not signing up for Obamacare after all. Or, decline to take a subsidy. That is, an additional subsidy -- as a sitting member of the Senate, it's subsidized anyway, which is something that Cruz himself alluded to at the time:

"We'll be getting new health insurance and we'll presumably do it through my job with the Senate, and so we'll be on the federal exchange with millions of others on the federal exchange," Cruz said.

Asked whether he would accept the government contribution available to lawmakers and congressional staffers for their health care coverage through the ACA, Cruz said he will "follow the text of the law."

But as ThinkProgress' Igor Volsky pointed out, even though Cruz "framed the decision" to join Obamacare "as one of inevitability," this wasn't actually the case:

The Affordable Care Act does not compel members of Congress to enroll in DC’s health care exchange; it simply cuts off the government contribution to their insurance plans if they buy their policies elsewhere. “The final rule extends a Government contribution towards health benefits plans for Members of Congress and designated congressional staff so long as the health benefits plans are purchased via the appropriate SHOP as determined by the Director,” a summary of the final rule says. “Nothing in the final rule or the law prevents a Member of Congress or designated congressional staff from declining a Government contribution for him or herself by choosing a different option for their health insurance coverage.”

In other words, Cruz “could purchase coverage in the outside market but would get no subsidy from the FEHBP program,” Tim Jost clarified for ThinkProgress, referring to the acronym for the federal health care program. “It seems like the primary other option he would have is to take advantage of COBRA through his wife, though he’d be forgoing the employer contribution. He could also buy non-group coverage,” Larry Levitt, Senior Vice President at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said. Cruz could also potentially purchased insurance through his presidential campaign’s presumptive health care insurance. In those instances, however, he would have had to give up his employer’s contribution and likely pay more for insurance than he is now being charged under Obamacare.

So, why then, would a guy with options that he could easily afford -- and that weren't the hated Obamacare: a) not take those options, and b) open himself to this dose of ridicule? Is Cruz unwittingly setting himself up for some Saul-like conversion, if the Affordable Care Act ends up working to his benefit? No, readers, banish that thought. I would submit to you that, far from a gaffe, this is actually a fairly shrewd gambit from Cruz. The part where Cruz likens himself to the "millions of others on the federal exchange," is a key tell. Cruz, having firmly established himself as Obamacare's most ardent philosophical opponent, will now have the chance to oppose the law as a participant.

There are some fundamentals involved that Cruz is no doubt intelligent enough to understand. One of those fundamentals is a structural conundrum that the Affordable Care Act has always faced: The universe of people participating in the law is several orders of magnitude smaller than the universe of people who have opinions about the law. This has bedeviled the law's supporters since its conception -- as poll after poll shows the public does not care for the law. However, it's also proved to be a problem for the law's opponents, whose fishing expeditions for Obamacare horror stories have tended not to yield the desired result. But Cruz will be able to present himself, rhetorically at least (you know: "optics"), as the living embodiment of the thing that squares that circle.

It also assists him in his mission to cut a contrast with other members of the GOP's 2016 field -- like, say, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had a direct hand in preventing Obamacare's Medicaid expansion from coming to his state, while Cruz was leading unsuccessful efforts to destroy the law in Congress. Cruz will now be able to say, "I'm in this system, I hate it, and this is why I was leading the way in Congress so that Scott Walker wouldn't have to worry about it." That's what our blinkered Beltway touts refer to as "leadership," in their pundit coloring-books.

And as Dave Weigel points out, Cruz is borrowing a strategy that's already proven successful:

Cruz is deftly using the oddly-enough angle of this news -- Obamacare-hating senator forced into Obamacare -- for a populist cause. He's not the first Republican to do so. In his successful 2014 campaign for Senate, Colorado Representative Cory Gardner repeatedly talked about the family plan he'd held onto until it was scrapped for not meeting the ACA's standards.

"I got a letter saying that my family's plan was canceled," said Gardner in a TV spot. "Three hundred and thirty-five thousand Coloradans had their plans canceled, too."

"At personal cost," Weigel writes, "[Gardner] took a decision that made him more relatable and vulnerable to the insurance market. And now Cruz has done the same." That's likely Cruz's gambit here. Going "on Obamacare" will allow him to deepen his relationship with the people who hate the law out of suspicion, while simultaneously allowing him to claim himself as one of those aforementioned, non-elite Americans "on the federal exchange." That's no mean feat, considering that the only reason he's forced to make a choice in health insurance at all is because his wife is taking a leave of absence from her job at Goldman Sachs.

So Cruz, with the added enhancements of insider credibility and common-folk fealty, will go on excoriating Obamacare with his typical fervor. Naturally, I don't expect any of these criticisms to be non-disingenuous, but remember, this is a "political campaign," not a "be relentlessly honest and have perfect grasp of the facts contest."


Meme of the week.

What's one thing that unites many of the high-profile characters running for president, from top-tier contenders like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, to dark horses like Ben Carson and Martin O'Malley? As Daily Intelligencer's Jaime Fuller points out, it's a lack of expertise. And that's not a criticism or an opinion of the field -- that's the self-professed accounting of the candidates themselves. Per Fuller:

Jeb Bush is not an expert. Last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the former Florida governor even confessed that he wasn't an expert in Washington politics -- though he sure seems eager to take part in them.

Bush is not alone in not being an expert. As you can see below, other 2016 presidential possibilities have invoked this necessary caveat when seeking to comment on things they have no business talking about -- or when trying to avoid subjects they'd rather not comment on.

It might be fun if some reporter asked the candidates, "Is there any field of human endeavor or study that you can, in fact, plausibly claim to be an expert?" Give credit to Carson: He can at least say "neurosurgery," which is an actual thing.

"Draft Warren" winds brow increasingly stale

run warren run

For as long as mankind has known of Elizabeth Warren, a sizable portion has wanted Warren to seek a political office. So, she did. And nearly as soon as she arrived in the Senate, many of those same people have wanted Warren to run for president. Warren has deftly resisted the siren song emanating from those who would unwittingly have her embark on a life-ruining career path, but it is nevertheless a flame that always burns, a desire that remains unquenched, a boundless amount of energy that really could be put to more productive purposes.

Last Sunday, The Boston Globe ran the latest entreaty from Anna Galland, executive director of Civic Action, whose members launched "Run Warren Run, a major effort to highlight the immense grass-roots support that exists for Senator Warren's vision," and who must, in all honesty, be deemed successful in demonstrating the truth of this claim. But when I heard about this, I immediately thought of so many thus far unsuccessful attempts to convince Warren to run, and I wondered: Is there anything original that can be said at this point that might tip the balance?

The answer is: "LOL, no." Let's take a look.

GALLARD: "Senator Elizabeth Warren has established herself as the country’s leading advocate for working and middle-class families. The Democrat has proven equally adept behind the scenes and in the media spotlight, and has stood up to Wall Street banks and other powerful interests to win changes that are improving millions of Americans’ lives."

WARREN HEARD IT ALREADY FROM: Bill Lipton, of New York's Working Familes Party: “We know a champion for working families when we see one ... The only thing better than watching Elizabeth Warren take Wall Street to task from the Senate would be helping her bring our issues to the center of the national debate.”

GALLARD: "Put simply, this moment was made for Elizabeth Warren. With income inequality at its highest level on record, and corporations and lobbyists wielding enormous power in Washington and state capitals around the country, we need a president who is firmly grounded in making government work for regular people."

WARREN HEARD IT ALREADY FROM: Gallard's first paragraph.

GALLARD: "And Senator Warren hasn’t just studied the struggles of America’s working families -- she has lived them, having been born and raised in a family she describes as being 'on the ragged edge of the middle class.'”

WARREN HEARD IT ALREADY FROM: Uhm, Warren herself? Who is Gallard trying to convince here?

GALLARD: "Regardless of which candidate they favor, most Americans agree that it’s important to have a vigorous contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. The New York Times’s David Leonhardt recently wrote that without a slate of strong candidates, Democrats 'may conduct one of the least competitive nominating contests in modern political history.'”

WARREN HEARD IT ALREADY FROM: The New York Times' David Leonhardt.

GALLARD: "It would be unprecedented for a candidate -- Hillary Clinton -- to march to the nomination largely unopposed, as many observers predict could happen if Warren doesn’t run. Such a scenario would be bad for both the party and for our country. A strong competitive primary campaign gives candidates a running start in the general election by giving them experience in articulating a clear vision and responding to crucial issues. Winning a competitive primary prepares the eventual nominee to face a battle-tested Republican candidate."

WARREN HEARD IT ALREADY FROM: Literally tens of political pundits and reporters who have questioned whether Hillary running unopposed would be a bad thing for Hillary Clinton. (Also, are we drafting Warren to win this race, or are we drafting Warren to enter the race and make Hillary Clinton doubleplusawesome?)

GALLARD: "Poll after poll has shown that her message of economic justice and standing up to Wall Street resonates not just with liberal Democrats, but across the spectrum of potential voters. In fact, large majorities of likely voters who identify as independent and Republican in battleground states support Warren’s agenda, according to a recent poll commissioned by Run Warren Run."

WARREN HEARD IT ALREADY FROM: That time people reported on that poll.

GALLARD: "Some continue to argue that Senator Warren would be more effective in the Senate than in the Oval Office. That’s just not true ... And those calling for her to stay in the Senate would do well to remember that she doesn’t have to make the choice between running for president and being a senator — she can run for higher office while remaining in the Senate ... If Senator Warren does run, she’ll either become President Warren or continue being Massachusetts’ senior senator. It’s a win-win."

WARREN HEARD IT ALREADY FROM: Never mind that. Pick an argument. How is it a "win-win" if Warren loses and remains in the Senate, from which position she would be less effective, as you argue? It sounds more like a "win-consolation prize," except that Warren returns to the Senate having damaged her brand and with scads of campaign debt.

"To be clear," Gallard writes, "Senator Warren has said she's not running for president, and we take her for her word. But we also believe she's open to persuasion." That is, indeed, plausible. But you're not going to persuade her with the same arguments that have, thus far, proven themselves to be stupendously unpersuasive.

All I ask, at this point, is that somebody who wants this to happen to come up with even one new argument, for funsies. Please, please.

The Week In Predictions

Jeb Bush: Bush is going to fail in Florida. And also in South Carolina. Or neither of those things. But he will have a talk-radio problem. But that's okay, Cruz's entry into the race will be a good thing for him.

Ted Cruz: Cruz is going to be a long shot. Unless he isn't. He could siphon support from Bush. Unless he doesn't.

Joe Biden: Biden will be "waiting in the wings" to swoop into the race if Hillary Clinton "falters." It's all part of his "long game."

Bobby Jindal: Jindal will wait until June to make his own announcement for president, because of "the state of his state." Per Charlie Cook: "“I think he could make a judgment that he needs to tend some fences back home ... It sure wouldn’t look good to jump in a race when your job-approval rating back home is 27 or 28 percent.” Sure! By June, I'm sure all of that will be fixed.

Lindsey Graham: Graham "may be the only politician who can stop global warming," so ... sorry about that, Planet Earth!

All The Advice That's Fit To Aggregate

Rand Paul advises Hillary Clinton to return the money Saudi Arabia gave to the Clinton Foundation, because Saudi Arabia has reprehensible policies toward women. Which is true! But surely that makes the case for taking the money, not giving it back, to fund more anti-woman stuff. Hillary Clinton should also get a "
sparring partner
" in the form of a competitive primary.

Mike Huckabee should stop giving Hillary Clinton a hard time about that whole email thing. Chris Christie should be more like Bill Clinton. Rick Perry should get way, way into looking at "data."

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker "should stop comparing themselves to Reagan: it makes them look like a bunch of kids." (Bush, Rubio, Perry, and Huckabee, on the other hand, are in the clear!)

And Bobby Jindal has some advice of his own: The GOP should nominate, you know, a conservative governor, probably. Just spitballing!

We'll Leave You With This, Whatever This Is

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'Rise Of Super PACs' Set To Ruin The RNC's Plan To Avoid A Brutal Primary Season

Jason Linkins   |   March 27, 2015    1:47 PM ET

As I've had the opportunity to write about before, the Republican National Committee emerged from the 2012 election bent on making a series of dramatic changes in the hopes of achieving better results. One major area that the RNC examined was the length of the 2012 primary season itself, which to their mind had become a debate-happy horrorshow that ended up playing a role in imperiling their chances. As The Washington Post's Aaron Blake noted in the wake of the RNC voting to "significantly compress its presidential nominating calendar," the big takeaway from the 2012 contest was that it had become "a long, sometimes nasty primary process that Republicans think hurt their chances of winning the presidency."

So, how are things looking, now that they've made major reforms to the primary calendar and limited the number of debates? Take it away, Patrick O'Connor of The Wall Street Journal!

The race for the Republican presidential nomination is shaping up to be one of the most drawn-out in a generation.

The candidate field looks unusually crowded, with more than a dozen contenders appealing to different slices of the GOP. The rise of super PACs allows candidates to stay in the race longer than before. And nominating rules meant to compress the process may complicate a front-runner’s ability to amass the delegates necessary to win.

The result, some GOP strategists say, is that next year’s contest has the ingredients to be the longest since then-President Gerald Ford prevailed over Ronald Reagan at the 1976 convention.

The most eye-catching thing about this? That whole part about "the rise of super PACs," which threaten to artificially keep primary bids aloft long past their sell-by date. Republican pollster Bill McInturff shows up in O'Connor's report, emphasizing this:

This cycle, because of all these structural rules changes and the advent of super PACs, people are not going to drop out,” predicted Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who advised Arizona Sen. John McCain in both of his presidential bids.

Candidates abandon their bids and unify behind the front-runner when either they run out of money or a rival has gathered a majority of delegates, conditions that won’t materialize quickly this time around, he said. “Republicans have created a system where, because of super PACs, it is hard to project someone winning until late May or early June.”

So, it's our wonderfully new and corrupt system of financing elections that's going to ruin it for everyone? I have to say, that's as deliciously ironic as it was predictable.

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Hillary Clinton Moved Her Head, According To Crack Campaign Reporters

Jason Linkins   |   March 24, 2015    1:05 PM ET

Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was a featured guest Monday at the Center for American Progress' "Expanding Opportunity in America's Urban Areas" conference in Washington. According to the liberal think tank's website, the event "[brought] together a small group of public, private, philanthropic, and nonprofit leaders to discuss challenges that our metropolitan regions face, as well as emerging solutions, laying the foundation for a vision of a thriving urban America that supports national prosperity."

Clinton's participation in the event offers a hint as to what her own economic policy priorities might be, and to whom she might turn for help in crafting a presidential platform. As Bloomberg's Melinda Henneberger put it: "For the many progressives who wonder where exactly Clinton stands on a number of issues, including trade, Wall Street reform and how she'd address income inequality, inspiring the feeling that they are being heard as she's still sketching out the policy particulars of her expected presidential run is no small thing."

Except it was a small thing, at least to Henneberger, who used the better part of her word count to inform readers that Clinton successfully made gestures and said some things, including fairly uncontroversial remarks about how the middle class is good and kids should be able to go to school and stuff. Per Henneberger, Clinton "nodded vigorously" and "took copious notes" and did so "with great enthusiasm." And like, you also had to listen to the notes she wasn't playing: "In a way, the message [Clinton's] body language sent was perfect: I'm here. I'm listening more than I'm talking. And I am even willing to go to school."

Yes, in a way. In another way, there was this whole policy conversation going on about how to improve urban economies. Henneberger caught snatches of this conversation and arranged them in a pastiche. Here's a taste:

When [Clinton] did speak on Monday, she talked about investing in infrastructure, including human infrastructure. Among the most pressing questions, she said, are, "What do we do to better equip our people to be able to take the jobs? And how do we keep middle-class families in cities where they want to stay? They don't want to leave, but they're being priced out."

Several unconnected instances of Clinton dialogue follow. In a way, the message that Henneberg's report sends is perfect: "I was here. I listened more than I talked. And I did the bare minimum to prove that to my credulous editor."

Clinton's remarks accounted for just a few minutes of the hourlong session, in which multiple politicians, advocates and policymakers offered their thoughts on how to address the (very important, and very daunting!) problems that face American cities. One of the more interesting points, and one that came up again and again, was that many of the assembled experts see urban economic renewal as something that begins at the local level -- something conceived among community stakeholders, municipal and regional governments, and private or philanthropic investors. In other words, Monday's roundtable was no festival of top-down, let-the-federal-government-take-the-lead policy ideas. So one might wonder: How, exactly, would Hillary Clinton, or any other president, facilitate this sort of change from the Oval Office?

I mean, when I say "one" might wonder, it's shorthand for "one substantively invested in a presidential election." But probably what most people want out of their political coverage is an Instagram video of Hillary Clinton nodding her head. Good news, then, because that's what The New York Times' official Hillary Clinton chronicler, Amy Chozick, got out of the session.

If you're into the whole "policy ideas that could affect people's lives" side of this story, the Center for American Progress has listed a bunch here, along with links to other reports they've written that deal more specifically with things like lessening the burden of people with criminal records as they move back into the productive economy, facilitating the establishment of "anchor institutions" in underserved communities, clearing out some of the regulatory impediments to infrastructure construction and expanding access to credit among distressed consumers.

But, if you prefer, here once again is that crackerjack video of Clinton nodding, because with 21st-century political coverage, you are there.

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Jason Linkins   |   March 18, 2015    4:21 PM ET

There have been a lot of stories in the news in recent days about reality television's Donald Trump and his intentions to run for president in 2016. He will not be returning for another season of his NBC show, "The Apprentice," we hear. He is forming a "Presidential Exploratory Committee," we are told. He is even making key hires in early primary states, according to people who, I guess, treat the creation of any political campaign job from the ether as a "key hire" relative to no hires at all. All of which may lead you, the reader, to wonder how seriously the 2016 Speculatron is going to take a Trump campaign.

Let me assure you: We do not plan to take it even a little bit seriously.

We could, if we wanted to, go on at great length about the numerous reasons why nobody should take a Donald Trump campaign for president seriously. But you'd have to take it a little bit seriously to do so. We don't, so we won't.

We literally take the presidential prospects of any other human more seriously than we do Donald Trump's prospects. Robert Durst. Fred Durst. Any other alleged murderer or former member of Limp Bizkit. Anyone. We feel that the prospect of Congress changing the Constitution to allow newborn deer to be eligible to become president of the United States is an idea that is 1,000 times more worthy of serious, intellectual consideration than a Donald Trump candidacy.

Our position will not change at any time, for any reason. That's a guarantee.

Another guarantee: In the super-duper unlikely event Trump becomes president, we will find a way for all of you, if you'd like, to just "opt-out" of America. We'll declare it was a good run, but it's time to move on. And move on we shall.

However, if you examine the numerous things that would have to transpire for Trump to become president, it becomes abundantly clear that most of the planet's population would have to be dead, or unconscious, or raptured, or kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians. In other words, we'd all have much bigger problems anyway.

Trump running a presidential campaign is, in short, not a thing that you will need to expend even one scintilla of concern over, ever.

Okay, good talk, everybody.

Trail To The Chief: The Darkest Of The 2016 Dark Horses Edition

Lauren Weber   |   March 16, 2015    5:53 AM ET

The Darkest of the 2016 Dark Horses Edition

Let's talk about the enduring story of the "dark horse" candidate. Anyone remember the halcyon days of March 2007? The pre-primary season was in full swing, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was said to be "solidifying" his lead atop the GOP primary polls. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was the entrenched favorite, with former Vice President Al Gore and a senator named Barack Obama vying for second place. And then, a year passed, and one of the lessons we learned was that early primary polling is not very accurate!

But another lesson we learned is that as much as we might think we know who the contenders for the Oval Office are, a year in advance of meaningful primary voting, our political system still has the capacity to surprise. When Obama jumped into the race in February 2008, the idea that he'd ascend to the top tier of candidates -- let alone became the nominee -- seemed far-fetched. As recently as 2012, Republican Rick Santorum defied the Beltway touts who had him penciled in as a permanent also-ran by emerging as Mitt Romney's most capable opponent, his gradual slide from the far reaches of the debate stage to the center spotlight serving as testament to the idea that you've always got a puncher's chance.

So, is the field really set? Do we really know as much as we think we do about who has the best shot at the White House? In deference to the wonderful way events can change everything and capsize our tidy ideas, we challenged ourselves to think about the potential for a dark horse candidate to emerge and wreck the conventional wisdom. We've pulled our distant hopefuls from the bottom of 2016 listicles, the back pages of memory and even from some of your shrewd suggestions. We are surely forgetting someone, so if you know something we don't, please let us know!

In “The Case For Kasich,” the National Journal says, “no Republican politician would run a more fascinating, provocative, original campaign.” (Is there such a thing as an “original” campaign, though?)
A Democratic standard-bearer, a potential comeback story and a liberal favorite. Most intriguing quality may be his ability to play well with the other side.
There was a brief mad moment when he was actually dropping hints. There was also a longer period when he was a health care lobbyist.
There was a brief period of time when Pataki wasn’t dropping hints that he wanted to run. That time? When he was asleep. Really, really, really wants you to think of him as a candidate.
Hispanic, woman, western, governor. Checks a lot of boxes. Has perennial buzz as a “candidate to watch.”
Has shown real skill as a legislator and maintains her cheerful Midwestern appeal back home. No national name recognition, but the media have been known to prick up their ears when she pays a visit to Iowa.
Has managed to find herself on those “women who could/should/might run for president” lists. Tapped for leadership role in House GOP. Hasn’t shown much interest, however.
Former Romney adviser Stuart Stevens once named Hickenlooper as the candidate who’d beat Hillary in the primaries. Of course, former Romney adviser Stuart Stevens once named Mitt Romney as the candidate who’d beat Obama in the general.
The Elizabeth Warren who's from Ohio.
The Mike Huckabee who's from Indiana.
The GOP has lots of female governors that are always thought to be suited for a presidential bid. When will one of them actually make the attempt?
The dark horse candidate most likely to terrify all the normal horses.
“Is Tim Kaine the new Harry Truman?” asks The Washington Post. Sure, why not?
Peter King actually started telling people he wanted to run for president years ago, but it’s not clear that what he’s actually doing is just trolling Rand Paul.
Can you imagine all the insane things that would have to happen for Joe Scarborough to become a presidential nominee? If so, you should write science fiction!

Candidate Photos: Getty, Associated Press

Trail To The Chief: The Non-Existent Democratic Bench If Hillary Doesn't Run Edition

Lauren Weber   |   March 8, 2015   10:02 AM ET

The Non-Existent Democratic Bench If Hillary Doesn't Run Edition

In the world of anonymous sources calling for an actual Democratic primary to boost Hillary Clinton's campaigning chops, there's much bemoaning about the lack of viable 2016 contenders that would truly put ol' Hil through the ringer. But what about the bemoaning that would ensue should Clinton actually "implode entirely" -- as all the think pieces from her latest email dust-up imply?

One possibility is that we're about to find out. Of course, another possibility is that it's really early in the campaign and this email scandalette will burn itself out eventually and we'll look back on another premature deployment of the "Dems in disarray" meme with detached amusement. But if this doesn't rattle Clinton, surely it has to rattle the Democratic Party a little bit. If the GOP's main problem is a candidate logjam between last year's losers, this year's saviors and also-rans of every order, the Democrats' yawning worry has to be the lack of timber to send to the mill. There's very little sign that the party has done any serious work recruiting future officeholders and grooming them for the national spotlight. And the lack of fresh faces means that fresh ideas -- or fresher takes on old ideas -- are hard to come by.

Once you get past Clinton, is there a "Democratic bench"? Yes. But the problem is, it's probably an actual bench.

With Clinton out, everyone's calculus completely changes. With Clinton, Warren had every reason to stay out of the race. Now, why doesn't she jump in?
Ok, but seriously you need to think of someone else.
Calm down. Take a deep breath. Think of any other name.
Bold enough to use a hashtag at this stage in the game: #webb2016.
Suddenly there is an opportunity for Clinton's running mate.
Say what you will about Uncle Joe, but the man has the human touch -- literally.
If the mainstream Democratic Party wanted to keep Sanders from being a top-tier candidate, maybe some of them should have been good enough to be top-tier candidates.
New Jersey still has one senator not in trouble with the law.
He's constantly listed as the reason Dems are unexcited about the lack of primary candidates. Ouch.
Imagine a Hillary Clinton with two-thirds of the experience and none of the baggage.
A David Axelrod protege, Patrick has said he’s not running, which means he’s thought about running.
See, this is what we’re talking about: Start considering the “Democratic bench” and within 15 minutes it’s become a “Back To The Future” sequel.
All those ethical concerns up in Albany could be problematic. But then again, his last name is Cuomo.
This is another Democrat we’ve heard of.
If dropping hints got you votes in Iowa...

Candidate Photos: Getty, Associated Press

62 Takeaways From CPAC 2015, Ranked

Jason Linkins   |   March 2, 2015    4:37 PM ET

Any time a thing happens in politics, the media has "Takeaways" about that thing. And whenever the media has a bunch of Takeaways, Eat The Press gathers all of those Takeaways in one place, so that you can sate your yawning hunger for Takeaways. This past weekend, the Beltway played host to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which, by Eat the Press' count, resulted in 62 hot, delicious Takeaways. Here is a definitive ranking of all of them.

Before we get into the rankings, here's how the GOP's likely 2016 presidential contenders fared in terms of who got the most Takeaways. Jeb Bush got the most Takeaways, with 8. He was closely followed by Carly Fiorina and Scott Walker -- each of whom got 7 Takeaways -- and Chris Christie, who had 6. Rand Paul received a respectable 4 Takeaways, followed by Ted Cruz with 3. Bobby Jindal, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum got 2 Takeaways each. Ben Carson and Rick Perry brought up the rear, with only one Takeaway each to their name.

So congratulations to Jeb Bush, King of Takeaways!


1. The "hawks" are back.

2. In fact, the "hawks" are so "back" that "non-interventionism" is so yesterday, man.

3. That could be bad for Rand Paul.

4. John Bolton is hoping that Rand Paul will come around on foreign policy and be more like John Bolton.

5. Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal demonstrated that they think "the best way to reach the top tier of the GOP field is to climb over the backs of their rivals."

6. The RNC's plans to have ideological allies moderate their primary debates came into question after some CPAC interviewers proved to be a bit too softball.

7. "Rick Santorum is the Republican Rodney Dangerfield."

8. Carly Fiorina could be the next "breakout star."

9. Carly Fiorina could be "a serious VP contender."

10. Carly Fiorina "could be an early VP favorite."

11. Carly Fiorina emerged as a "dark horse" candidate for president.

12. Marco Rubio's comeback didn't happen.

13. Reince Preibus thinks Hillary Clinton is "disqualified" because of foreign donations to the Clinton Global Initiative.

14. Ted Cruz proved that he can be "a force in Iowa," but he still needs to demonstrate "how a zealous base will give him the math needed to win the nomination."

15. Ben Carson doesn't want to end welfare programs; he just wants to end "dependency."

16. Republicans haven't quite "figured out how to prosecute ... Hillary Clinton's economic priorities."

17. Scott Walker has momentum.

18. Scott Walker has momentum.

19. Scott Walker has momentum.

20. Scott Walker has momentum.

21. Scott Walker has momentum (but stumbled a bit).

22. No one was the "clear rising star," but "Walker came closest."

23. Scott Walker "cast himself" as a "champion" of "hard working taxpayers."

24. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) wants to know if government employees will be punished if they fail to follow President Barack Obama's executive actions.

25. Jeb Bush faced a lot of critics.

26. Many of Jeb Bush's critics are members of the conservative media.

27. Jeb Bush talked about immigration and Common Core.

28. People at CPAC were "skeptical" about Jeb Bush.

29. Jeb Bush "found his footing after an uneven start and managed to escape unscathed."

30. Jeb Bush "beat expectations."

31. People walked out of the room when Jeb Bush started talking.

32. But Jeb Bush "isn't backing down."

33. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) is against the "clean" deal to fund the Department of Homeland Security.

34. Senators are so hot right now.

35. Rand Paul wants to "defend the whole Bill of Rights."

36. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have "passion."

37. Ted Cruz was upset at GOP leadership for "cutting a deal" on immigration.

38. Chris Christie faced tough questions.

39. Chris Christie "is still struggling to find his footing."

40. Chris Christie: People laughed and cheered.

41. Chris Christie "convinced" people that he was "still alive."

42. Chris Christie "came up short."

43. Mia Love doesn't want the GOP to "yield the moral high ground."

44. People at CPAC really like Israel.

45. "Few were talking about potentials" like Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Donald Trump.

46. Carly Fiorina was, like, really yelling at Hillary Clinton.

47. People really noticed how Carly Fiorina was yelling at Hillary Clinton.

48. "Ferguson is not an epidemic," said this one guy.

49. Rick Perry is against President Barack Obama.

50. Carly Fiorina thinks that Hillary Clinton is "beatable."

51. Bobby Jindal is against ISIS.

52. Marco Rubio has a book out that he is promoting.

53. Phyllis Schlafly: still a thing.

54. "I want to do it so badly," said a thirsty Donald Trump.

55. Joe Scarborough was there, for some reason.

56. Sarah Palin did a pretty good job!

57. "Duck Dynasty's" Phil Robertson speech was not good.

58. Republicans are way into selfies now.

59. People were tweeting stuff.

60. Other people "analyzed" those tweets.

61. While CPAC was a thing that happened, other things -- things that aren't CPAC -- are also going to happen at some point.

62. Newt Gingrich explained how he would win the votes of blacks and Hispanics if he were running, which he's not, and didn't really do a great job when he did. I guess sometimes it gets to be a long day at CPAC and people just start indulging in Socratic exercises.

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Lauren Weber and Jason Linkins   |   March 2, 2015    5:36 AM ET

The CPAC Effect Edition

This week, the field of hopefuls on the Republican side of the 2016 nomination circus faced a critical acid test -- the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. Every year, CPAC brings together the nation’s most engaged conservatives -- dedicated activists, media renegades, big-think specialists, and the college kids who all want to be a part of it. From there, their collective pull summons those in the Republican Party who most want to be its standard-bearer.

And this, in turn, presents every would-be presidential candidate with an interesting challenge. Because CPAC isn’t about gratifying party elites or wealthy Republican grandees. Neither is it about pleasing the Republican “base” -- by which we mean the masses of voters who prefer conservative policies. At CPAC, you try to satisfy the conservative movement itself -- whose members are most on the cutting edge of American conservatism, and always spoiling for a fight with anyone deemed to be lacking in purity.

So, we’re going to take another stab at ranking the GOP’s would-be nominees. However, this week we’re going to force ourselves to examine the field while looking through the CPAC prism -- a filter capable of making you question if the contender you thought was golden is really black and blue.

May have had the most perfect week of his career had he not compared Wisconsinites to ISIS; now learning all about damage control.
Fulfilled family obligation by winning CPAC poll, but couldn't keep the luster off of Walker's star.
First time in a while that he’s walked into a room without just getting quietly handed some money; hopes it’s the last.
His best advocates weren't the firebrands but the crowd of kindly old grandmothers.
Straw poll bronze medalist, but it felt like he finished off the podium.
This year’s version of the candidate that everyone loves but that no one will vote for.
Tells CPAC crowd that he’s “learned his lesson” on immigration. So, that’s a start, at least.
His big CPAC strategy was to assail “Washington.” You know, like everyone. Desperately needs a gimmick of his own.
It's not the media that's your problem, governor.
Came to CPAC with an aim to get his “groove back.” His 1.1% in the straw poll put him behind Chris Christie (2.8%) and -- oof! -- Donald Trump (3.5%).
Nothing against the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, but the modern conservative movement is at CPAC.

Candidate Photos: Getty, Associated Press

Chris Christie: Watercolor Memories Of A Candidacy That 'Peaked Too Soon'

Jason Linkins   |   March 1, 2015    7:30 AM ET

Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements, and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall attempt to decode and defang this world with a regular dispatch that we're calling "This Week In Coulda Shoulda Maybe." We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!

chris christie bad month

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was still settling into his swivel chair at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference, his interlocutor for the Q&A session, conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham, began by asking about his "rough couple of months ... in the media."

"They just want to kill ya," Christie said, "but I'm still standing." Christie was, at the time, referring semi-explicitly to The New York Times. "I don't subscribe, by the way," Christie said, to a smattering of applause. Moments later, he had another quip for the Grey Lady. "I went to my parish priest and said I’m giving up The New York Times for Lent,” Christie joked. “Bad news: He said you have to give up something you’ll actually miss.”

Pro tip for anyone who wants to demonstrate that the media isn't living rent-free in your head: Maybe just pick one funny story about how you gave up reading The New York Times.

But Ingraham couldn't have been more right about Christie's recent woes. In the last two weeks especially, it seems as if the political press has decided en masse to start spading the graveyard soil over Christie's once-lush aspirations for higher office. There is varying enthusiasm for the duty.

NBC News' Perry Bacon has discussed the "growing skepticism from influential Republicans about his likely presidential run." Politico's "caucus" of Iowa insiders couldn't find a place for Christie in their deliberations. FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten, after examining the ratio of name recognition and net favorability among the potential GOP candidates, offered up this 16-word coffin nail: "Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, is well known, but not particularly well liked."

A charitable Peter Grier, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, suggests that Christie merely "peaked too soon," and reckons that the bad news is coming in heaps because the fix was in:

Do you think it’s a coincidence that The Washington Post and The New York Times and Politico all had stories running down Christie’s chances within days of one another? If so, we’ve got an exclusive deal to sell you a section of the Garden State Parkway.

"Christie can still come back," insists Grier. Tell that to The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who says all that's left of Christie is to take "lessons" from his "collapse."

Perhaps the most telling description of Christie in this avalanche of bad news comes from The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi, who typically noses out tri-state train wrecks with a sommelier's skill. Nuzzi catches Christie at a D.C. hotel, tending over an audience of soused New Jersey politicos who had just made their way to the nation's capital aboard the "Walk To Washington's" booze train: "Things are less existential at the Marriott," she writes, "where a disengaged Christie is walking to the podium. He is thinner, but looks tired. His marsupial face sags around his pronounced nose, making him take on an almost Nixonian quality."

Onstage with Ingraham, Christie sought to recapture some of his former brio. Presented with despairing poll numbers by Ingraham, Christie summoned some steel: “Is the election next week?” (To which Hot Air's Noah Rothman responded: "If that sounds a lot like 'the only poll that matters is the one taken on Election Day,' e.g. the universal declaration of a losing candidacy, it does to me as well.")

Indeed, it is not. And yet, this week, there's the knowledge that some opportunities have been lost. Christie took a swipe at Jeb Bush on the CPAC stage, quipping, "If the elites in Washington who make back room deals decide who the next president is going to be, then he's definitely going to be the frontrunner." Maybe so, but the uncomfortable truth is that Jeb has, by now, won over many of the elites that Christie was used to hosting in back rooms of his own. As has Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

And that story -- the one in which Christie's decline is twinned with Walker's rise -- has deep roots. Back in February, Politico's Anna Palmer described "Republican strategists" as being of the opinion that "no one [was] in a better position to get a boost from the Christie Bridgegate scandal than Walker." But even as Bridgegate failed to become the albatross that so many Christie critics promised, Walker kept on shining in comparatively favorable light. Flash-forward to Feb. 26, and you find The Fiscal Times' Liz Peek training her eyes far from Fort Lee. "Unfortunately for Christie, New Jersey’s finances are once again in crisis, and it could get ugly," writes Peek, in a piece titled "Scott Walker Stealing Christie's Playbook."

The Walker-Christie dynamic was explored further this week by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, but given the fact that Christie either hasn't subscribed to The New York Times in a long time or just gave up reading for Lent, there's a good chance he missed it.

But the comparison is irresistable. Christie versus Walker. How do you want to play it? Compare the governor with a sling of YouTube clips of him yelling at public sector employees to the governor who bested them in a series of political brawls? Place the guy who wanted a blowout win over nobody Barbara Buono next to the guy who zealously relishes the opportunity to brag about surviving close calls? You can't help but see Christie as the guy who went through much less, and has come out looking the more tired of the two.

Walker, of course, arrived at CPAC on the last gusts of balloon juice vented over Rudy Giuliani's infamous contention that President Barack Obama doesn't "love America." As Giuliani was sharing that particular moment with Walker, the Wisconsin governor faced a fusillade of inquiry as to whether he shared those sentiments. Walker merely shrugged and took advantage in a way that put fresh veneer on his status as a conservative folk-hero -- by using the contretemps as one more instance of being targeted unfairly by the liberal media.

Meanwhile, here's Chris Christie, at CPAC, begging Laura Ingraham to be allowed to take a piece of that narrative for himself.


So what is the 2016 election about this week?

Fighting ISIS! Robert Kuttner: So, like it or not, the 2016 presidential election will be about national security. And most Americans and most voters will be very fearful of the threat that the Islamic State represents and confused about how we should respond.

Security and stability! The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter: "All of this is coming together for a lot of voters, in the sense that nothing seems to be going right. Domestically, again, there are some of the immediate problems, but still the big underlying problems about jobs not coming back, an economy that is well for some people, not everybody. So, I think that what voters are looking for is somebody to come in and say, 'I know we have an unstable world that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Let me tell you how I’m going to do that, both internationally, but here at home, to stabilize it and make you feel more secure.'"

The family-friendly workplace! Syndicated columnist Robert Samuelson: "If you're wondering what the 2016 presidential election will be about, here's one dark-horse possibility: the family-friendly workplace. As millions of Americans struggle to balance family and job demands, proposals requiring paid maternity leave and emergency sick leave have an obvious appeal for Hillary Clinton or any Democratic candidate. The subject is thornier for Republicans, who have resisted new taxes and regulations while also favoring pro-family policies."

How to read a poll, Scott Walker edition

scott walker

Public Policy Polling had the hot, hot scoop: "PPP's newest national Republican poll finds a clear leader in the race for the first time: Scott Walker is at 25% to 18% for Ben Carson, 17% for Jeb Bush, and 10% for Mike Huckabee." Quinnipiac University's poll numbers showed up a day later, with fearful symmetry: "An early look at likely Iowa Republican Caucus participants shows a strong conservative tilt as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leads the pack with 25 percent, twice as high as his nearest rival."

Now, it wasn't long ago, in these pages, that we discussed the matter of way-too-early polls, and their way-too-off tendencies in corresponding with reliability and predictability. There's political science that backs this up, and what the science says sort of reads as the cover story in the recent issue of the Journal Of Obvious Studies: the polls get more reliable and accurate as we get closer to Election Day. It makes you wonder why pollsters even conduct these polls. Do they need the practice? Are they trolling us? Actually, the answer is probably yes.

But remember: A lot of what pollsters do is about the journey, not the destination. Those top-line numbers, where the candidates are matched head-to-head and someone is allowed to seize the mantle of "frontrunner," are just the entry into another layer of data with their own stories to tell. Here, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait shows you how it's done:

A new Quinnipiac poll showing Walker leading in Iowa is more telling. The revealing data is not so much the top line numbers (Walker stands at 25 percent, with the next-highest candidate, Rand Paul, pulling 13 percent, and Bush at 10 percent). What’s more interesting is the favorable numbers. Walker receives 57 percent favorable ratings, against just 7 percent negative. Jeb Bush has a miserable 41 to 40 percent favorable rating among Iowa Republicans. That is a plus 50 percent favorable rating for Walker against plus 1 percent for Bush.

The way Walker has paid to conservative doubts in Iowa tells you a lot more about the vitality of his candidacy then the fact that he's staked out a slight lead over Ben Carson.

The Week In Predictions

Hillary Clinton: Hillary is totally going to raise $1.7 billion to run a 2016 campaign, according to an oddly specific Spencer Zwick. That suggests that there is a real hunger for a Clinton candidacy, right? Wrong, says Charles Krauthammer.

Rand Paul: "Sen. Rand Paul will likely get what he wants in Kentucky ... a way around state law preventing him from appearing on the ballot twice," writes Fred Lucas in The Blaze. But will Sheldon Adelson's promise to bankroll the effort to stop Paul's candidacy succeed? Ask Newt Gingrich, the horse that Adelson backed last time around (and who dropped serious coin on Bain Capital-themed oppo to stop Mitt Romney), how that worked out.

Lindsey Graham: Here's a bold prediction from former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson: "If the Republicans win the White House, Lindsey Graham will have his choice of being Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State, if he [campaigns] right.” O-kay!

All The Advice That's Fit To Aggregate

Hillary Clinton should talk about income inequality. Jeb Bush should take a position on the wars his brother started. Rand Paul should gird his loins for a challenge from Wall Street's elite. Scott Walker should "resist the pull from the right to define himself in ways that make him less attractive to other segments of the party and to a general electorate."

And Joe Biden? Well, some say he should run for president, others would like to see him stay the vice president until the end of time. Either way, he has got to stop touching people in weird ways.

We'll Leave You With This, Whatever This Is

There's no doubt that Jeb Bush dreamed of the day he would tweet about having to follow the dude from Duck Dynasty at CPAC.

Overused Management Bromide Now The Exclusive Property Of Carly Fiorina, Apparently

Jason Linkins   |   February 25, 2015    3:40 PM ET

Those who closely followed the 2014 midterm elections were treated to any number of compelling stories about candidates poaching one another's ideas and passing them off as their own. Well, here in the early stirrings of the 2016 campaign, we have our first similar accusation, and -- my, oh my! -- it establishes a near-unmatchable standard for silliness. Per The Daily Caller's Al Weaver:

During her speaking event in Silicon Valley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemingly snagged a campaign line from potential GOP 2016 candidate Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

Clinton, the presumptive 2016 candidate for the Democratic Party, called on attendees at the conference to “unlock their full potential,” a line Fiorina uses.

That's right -- for whatever reason, the Carly Fiorina campaign has decided to claim exclusive ownership of one of the hoariest phrases in the universe of vapid corporate platitudes. All political campaigns are hopelessly trite, but it's a rare one indeed that chooses to go to war over its triteness. "Back off," the Fiorina camp seems to be saying. "Banalities are our shtick."

Some backstory: Fiorina has been, at various times, a tech CEO, an adviser to John McCain and a contender for the U.S. Senate -- activities that she performed to varying degrees of "meh." Now she's a 2016 presidential hopeful, in the sense that she hopes to gin up enough interest in her candidacy that someone will come along and insist she be "drafted" into the presidential race. To that end, she has set up a political action committee called "Unlocking Potential."

That is, at the very least, a unique name for a political action committee. Where the names of most PACs seem to suggest "we threw a particularly patriotic set of magnetic poetry tiles at the Frigidaire to see what stuck," Fiorina's PAC name tells a different story. And that story is: "Yo, Cory says the whole development team is going to a yoga retreat in Palo Alto this weekend."

The real purpose of Fiorina's PAC, of course, is to "unlock" the "potential" of the savings accounts of various elite mega-donors. In fact, this is the real purpose of every PAC. So in a way it's nice that Fiorina's camp is sort of winkingly honest about it. However, according to Sarah Isgur Flores -- formerly the deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee, and now a member of Fiorina's team -- it is objectionable for anyone else to use the term "unlocking potential," because this is a concept the Fiorina campaign has decided it owns.

Of course, as most residents of Earth probably know, "unlock your potential" is basically a banal utterance, used by any number of management consultants, life coaches, personal trainers and ashram owners. It's what the personal growth guru tells his audience in the Radisson ballroom right before he has his assistants, Parker and Trish, come out with the T-shirt cannon.

In fact, "unlock your potential" may actually be the most banal phrase these Thought Leader types employ. You know how in the last puzzle of every "Wheel of Fortune" episode, the contestant is just given the five most popular consonants and the letter "E"? Well, "unlock your potential" is the management-speak version of that. Attempting to claim exclusive rights to the phrase suggests an interesting combination of mile-high chutzpah and pride in clearing the lowest bar imaginable.

If you think I exaggerate about the ubiquity of potential-unlocking, I'll note that Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan have all used the phrase at one time or another. The savvy Amazon shopper can also get similar advice from Todd Wissler, C. James Jensen, Brian Tracy, John Mattone, Mark McDonald, Michael Hera, Phil Parker, Dominic Carubba, Patrick Bunker and Joyce Handzo. Winston Churchill has talked about it. Deepak Chopra has talked about it. Even Confucius has, apparently, discussed this. Has New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman used the phrase? It insults me that you'd even ask me to check.

Honestly, I feel bad for everyone involved in this story -- The Daily Caller for writing about it, the Fiorina camp for whining about the issue, Hillary Clinton for sounding like an instructor at a Bikram studio, everyone with a political action committee who won't bite the bullet and just call it "Give Me Money So I Can Win An Election And Get Connected To The Gravy Train Of Corporate Lobbyists." I feel a great pity for the lot of them. But I am glad that this somehow, against the grain of good sense, became a thing, because this was hilarious. Imagine if the Fiorina campaign had just done something like, I don't know... substantively rebutted Hillary Clinton's policy ideas and decisions with well-reasoned arguments? They might have managed to unlock their hidden potential.

If I could offer some advice to the Fiorina campaign, there's something that I always say in these situations: Politics ain't beanbag. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there and you've got to wake up pretty early in the morning if you want to go big or go home. Go ahead and use those lines, guys -- just cut me a check first.

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Anonymous Sources, Political Reporters Courageously Forge On After Criticism

Jason Linkins   |   February 23, 2015    5:33 PM ET

A few days after the over-reliance on anonymous sources in coverage of Hillary Clinton's proto-campaign was sharply criticized on the record by actual intimates of the campaign -- raising questions about whether political reporters should install higher standards for citing anonymous sources -- anonymous sources and political reporters bravely forged ahead, ensuring the continuance of the practice.

From today's Washington Post:

In 2016, a challenge for Clinton will be adapting to the political moment with a fresh image while remaining true to her settled identity. “Look at Budweiser,” said a former campaign adviser to President Obama, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “That’s what Hillary Clinton is. She’s not a microbrew. She’s one of the biggest, most powerful brands ever in the country, and recognizing that is important.”

This is a thing that happened: A person who simply wanted to offer the opinion, "This politician is a powerful brand, as big as it gets," had to conceal their identity to speak "candidly" about it. What a world!

Anyway, "We've got to include the banal observations of this nobody in this hot, hot story about whether Hillary Clinton is a fast-food burrito or a bottle of beer," reporters Philip Rucker and Anne Gearan told their editor, who for some reason agreed.

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Hillary Clinton And The Not Too Bitter, Not Too Smooth, Just Right Primary

Jason Linkins   |   February 22, 2015    7:30 AM ET

Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall attempt to decode and defang this world with a regular dispatch that we're calling "This Week In Coulda Shoulda Maybe." We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!

This week: We focus on one specific question -- what if they have a Democratic primary, and only one presidential candidate shows up?

the empty primary

It shouldn't be controversial to say that at this point in the 2016 race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoys virtually every possible advantage in the Democratic primary field. She's the best-known candidate with the highest level of name recognition and visibility. She has a long-nurtured campaign apparatus and the ability to call campaign infrastructure into being on the fly. Against the rest of the Democratic field, she's the overwhelming favorite in every poll that's ever been conducted.

Of course, anytime we talk about a "Democratic field," we should really say, "insofar as one exists." Her competition -- so far a dimly lit constellation of long shots (and perhaps the current vice president) -- isn't shaping up as a particularly robust challenge. Clinton plays a role in that simply by looming on the landscape. As has been discussed previously, Clinton has the power to "freeze the field" -- meaning that her dominance is such that Democratic party elites and mega-donors are loath to invest in a competitor, creating a sort of vicious cycle in which no viable competitors can truly present themselves.

There is a very real possibility that Clinton could face only a nominal challenge in a Democratic primary, and potentially none at all. And that's produced an interesting phenomenon among the members of the political media who, expecting a competitive primary to generate monetizable content and grist for "The Narrative," find themselves somewhere in the middle of a story that doesn't seem to have started. This is how you can understand the constant attention given to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- a woman who is not running for president -- as a "foil" for Clinton. Every great protagonist needs an antagonist, and the political press would dearly love, if possible, to will one into being.

Elsewhere, there are the Hot Takes, suffused by the media's drug of choice, counter-intuition. Are all the advantages that Clinton secretly holds actually disadvantages in disguise? Is Clinton's ability to quelch all viable contenders for the Democratic nomination actually the Achilles heel that will lead to her undoing? A better question might be: Are all the people offering that opinion simply planting a flag for a future "Told ya so" story down the line?

I think it's fair to say that most of us, if we wanted something important (like, say, a job), wouldn't spend much time regretting the news that we were the only person in the running. Just about everyone would prefer to win in a blowout. At the same time, there is something that we all understand instinctually about the nature of competition: It tests mettle. And the old eyeball test informs us of the virtues of tested mettle. When we look at the 27-1 Gonzaga University men's basketball team alongside the other basketball teams in the top four of the NCAA's national rankings, many of us downgrade the Bulldogs because we know that they didn't play against the same level of competition as Kentucky, Virginia and Duke did. So, in the back of our mind, Gonzaga looms as a paper tiger.

That said, eventually Gonzaga is going to have ample opportunity to show that they're superior to their competition -- just like Clinton will, even if she runs in an uncontested primary.

Of course, the fact that there isn't already vigorous competition for Clinton to face tells us a few potentially ominous things. First and foremost, it shows that the Democratic Party's bench is not terribly deep right now. Elections are, at bottom, a competition of ideas -- one in which a losing candidate's vision may persist beyond the candidate's own electoral hopes. That's a good thing for any political party. Furthermore, a quickly decided primary could negatively impact state-level political organizing, which in turn would impact the vitality of down-ticket campaigns.

But let's stick with the question: Is Hillary running virtually unopposed a bad thing? As Vox's Matt Yglesias points out, having a competitive primary means "real debates, real media strategy, real policy rollouts, and all the other accompaniments of a presidential nominating congress." He goes on to note that "competition" in this instance goes well beyond simply having other credible opponents:

A vigorous primary campaign is a means through which, among other things, the key potential vulnerabilities in a candidate's biography get aired. Was Clinton lying about her opposition to gay marriage the way David Axelrod says Obama was? Have too many years at the pinnacle of American politics left her out of touch with middle class struggles? Can she distance herself from Obama administration foreign policy initiatives that didn't work out (settlement freeze? Russia reset?) without sounding disloyal or ineffectual? Can she answer questions about the complicated finances underlying her husband's foundation?

As long as she's "not running," we just don't know. And the closer she gets to obtaining the nomination without answering the questions, the more vulnerable the position she leaves herself in for the general election.

Here's the thing: All of that is smart-sounding stuff. It's thoughtful argument that appeals to our instincts. You can take that to a Beltway soiree or the set of a Sunday morning talk show, and with a little charm, you'll hold up. And yet, it's still really just gut feelings. It's still that instinct that pushes you to take an at-large team from the ACC deeper in the tourney than the one-loss Western Conference champions -- a good enough gamble that could, nonetheless, leave your bracket in tatters.

And it's worth pointing out that over on the GOP side, Republican elites are making their own set of gambles with their primary. The Republican National Committee's interpretation of their 2012 cycle woes has led them to believe that the long primary cost them dearly. The RNC believes that their primary afforded too many fleeting also-rans too much media coverage, that the length of the competition provided too many opportunities for their party to be shown in a bad light, and that ultimately, everything conspired to force their nominee into a bunch of positions from which the extrication was too difficult. They have, subsequently, undertaken a number of moves to "fix" this problem, and while they've not created a situation in which one candidate has a massive advantage over everyone else, it's still a drive toward limiting the competition, all based on some gut feelings.

Can we get closer to the truth of how, if at all, a competitive primary brings benefits -- or pitfalls -- to candidates? Well, if we turn to political science, there seems to be one constant notion: A competitive primary is very good for candidates, right up to where the competitive primary becomes a divisive primary, at which point the benefits of competition tend to fade.

The virtues of competitive primaries are hotly debated, as it turns out. Back in February of 2008, The Monkey Cage's John Sides embarked on an exploration of the topic, noting that the most relevant research at the time pointed to other factors as being far more determinative of success in a general election. From a gambler's point of view, the health of the economy and the popular regard for the presidential incumbent matter a lot more than what happens during a primary.

But Josh Putnam, proprietor of Frontloading HQ, nevertheless saw something interesting in the notion that a competitive primary could take a dark, blowback-producing turn. Just as the RNC concluded after the 2012 cycle, the factor that fascinated Putnam in 2008 was timing -- the notion that on a long enough timeline, a competitive primary eventually, maybe inevitably, turns divisive. Per Putnam:

At what point does the positive competitiveness of the race for delegates turn into the negative, party-splitting divisiveness? Should Clinton do well in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday, then 2008 may have reached that point for the Democrats. But in the Super Tuesday era (1988/1992-2004), no challenger has been afforded such an opportunity. That era was marked by frontrunners who were able to snuff out insurgencies before competitiveness turned to divisiveness. ... [Walter] Mondale quelled Gary Hart before a movement started (No, this isn't within the era I defined above but it is a good example.). George W. Bush kept [John] McCain at bay. And [John] Kerry silenced John Edwards. Competitiveness yielded to reality in all three cases before divisiveness took hold or could attempt to take hold.

It's almost as if there's a sort of "uncanny valley" phenomenon happening, in which competition elevates everyone until it gets too hot or turns too personal. There's a sweet spot: Ideally, you want your level of competition to be challenging, but not bedeviling. You want the primary race to look like a collegial bit of tire-kicking, not a campaign in which you're sending arsonists out to torch the rival dealership. So maybe all of the people who continually pen that "Elizabeth Warren versus Hillary Clinton" fan fiction are onto something, instinctually: They have a sense that the Jim Webbs and Martin O'Malleys of the world might not make it out of Iowa and that Clinton needs someone who can stay in the game long enough to make it to Super Tuesday. But not much further than that.

In the end, that data-driven conclusion about competitive primaries that we really want remains elusive -- or at the very least, not strong enough to talk us out of our horse-sense feelings on the matter. But let's return to one last study, cited by The Monkey Cage's Jonathan Robinson, about that 2008 competition between Clinton and Barack Obama:

Using a survey that tracked individual voters from the primary to the general election, Michael Henderson, D. Sunshine Hillygus, and Trevor Thompson ... examine whether and why Clinton supporters did or did not support Obama in the general election. They find that 71% of Clinton supporters ended up voting for Obama. Moreover, supporters of Clinton and the other Democratic candidates were no more likely to stay home on Election Day. The most important factors that predicted a vote for McCain among supporters of the other Democratic candidates were not frustration with the primary election’s outcome but ideology and political issues, especially the Iraq War.

All of that suggests that even though the 2008 Democratic primary got fiercely competitive, it still stoked an energy that lasted throughout the election cycle, ensuring that Democratic voters stayed engaged over the long haul. Perhaps what a political party, ideally, wants out of a primary is a contest where the competitiveness fosters some amount of voter engagement without tipping into a grotesque spectacle that leaves those who had engaged with it feeling nauseous, discouraged and just plain done with politics for the year.

Handled the right way, a contested primary creates a number of "products" organically that would need to be manufactured by other means in a non-contested primary. Competition helps to present those Big Ideas to the electorate, a vision of the future for which to fight. It breeds passion and gets voters to start using those muscles of commitment, which eventually get them out of the house and to the polls on Election Day. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the candidates to make connections with those activist members of the electorate, who'll use their muscles to make sure those committed voters know how to get to those polls on time.

At this point, it sure looks like Hillary Clinton can grab the nomination without too much trouble. Trouble is, some trouble might be a nice thing to have.

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Does Hillary Clinton Have An Anonymous-Sources Problem? We Asked A Bunch Of Anonymous Sources

Jason Linkins   |   February 19, 2015    5:22 PM ET

Over at National Journal, Emily Schultheis reports on a problem that's been bedeviling those who are closely tied to the proto-campaign of former secretary of state and presumed presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton: the bewildering welter of sources and commenters who show up in news reports, using the veil of anonymity to pass themselves off as bona fide "Clintonland" insiders. Schultheis notes that Clinton is basically cursed by her long history in politics and in Washington, since there's now virtually no end to the number of people who can semi-credibly claim to be "familiar with her thinking" or have "deep knowledge of the Clinton campaign," or who are simply "Clinton allies."

All of which has created a mess for the people who are really running the show. Per Schultheis:

"There are three parties to this equation: We're one, the source is two, and the media is three. And arguably we have the least amount of influence on any of this," said longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines. He conceded, though, that there's no real way for her team to control it. "We just have to sit back. We just have to grin and bear it."

The issue is singularly frustrating for people who work and have worked in Clinton's press operation and dealt with the issue first-hand -- enough so that several of whom, like Reines, were willing to give rare on-the-record interviews for this story.

That Schultheis actually got these on-the-record interviews is itself significant -- it means she's done the virtuous work of ensuring that her readers know who is opining on this matter. The whole episode raises an interesting question: Sure, this is a mess for the Clinton campaign, but... should it really be their mess? Isn't the onus on the actual reporter to ensure that the people they quote, the people speaking for, to, and about Hillary Clinton -- about anyone or anything, really! -- are in fact legit? Wouldn't there be less of a mess if journalists simply exercised some judgment about whom they allow a platform?

To help answer the question, I have solicited a bunch of anonymous quotes from people whose tenuous claims to knowledge on these matters are probably no better and no worse than most of the anonymous people you see in political reporting -- all of whom sound much better when you don't know who they are.


Here in the way-too-early part of the 2016 campaign -- when not much is happening, but political reporters act as if every micro-event is of sea-boiling significance -- anonymous sources of the most loopy varietals flourish. It's a time when that "long-time GOP foreign-policy expert who is not yet part of the Bush team but has consulted with the candidate informally" gets to hold court. A period in which "every talk" you've had with the close confidants of a would-be candidate leads to an embarrassing game of media telephone and hastily discarded headlines.

CNN ran a report on Feb. 2 that presumed to have the goods on the internal debate within the Clinton campaign about when she should announce her candidacy. That piece included this amazing attribution: "Democrats on both sides of the debate spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity so they could make their case without upsetting Clinton or those close to her for talking openly about internal deliberations."

If you don't want to upset Clinton by speaking out of turn about internal deliberations, isn't the simplest solution just to not talk to CNN? HuffPost asked some knowledgeable parties for their opinion. "It's crazy. It's like saying that you're really worried about your cocaine addiction, and so you've decided to just do all the blow you have on hand so that it's not there to tempt you anymore," replied one political writer, who asked for anonymity in case that hastily constructed metaphor didn't land.

Earlier this week, the rabbit hole of anonymous sourcery opened up after former Obama adviser David Axelrod, currently promoting a book about what a big ol' Obama adviser he was, offered up some unsolicited advice for the Clinton campaign, including the tip that Clinton needs to "define herself." From there, The Hill's Amie Parnes wrote a story -- "Axelrod quips irritate Clintonland" -- that opened with a flurry of anonymous sources digging at Axelrod for his "rash of recent comments." It went like so:

“It's not helpful, and it's definitely not appreciated,” said one Clinton ally. “The last thing we need is another round of headlines about lingering tension, and this is doing exactly that.

“When he speaks, it gets picked up, and people listen,” the ally added.

Another supporter added: “I think a lot of us are scratching our heads. Why is any of that necessary?” A third added, "She's been a great team player, she's been very supportive of the president and she hasn't gotten in front of him on a lot of issues so what's he trying to do?"

Were any of these people claiming to be "allies" and "supporters" actually, in fact, deeply embedded with Clinton's inner circle? Given the progression from Axelrod's commentary, to Parnes' reported rebuttal, to Schultheis' reporting today, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that, uh, no, they were not. Schultheis says as much in the headline of her piece: "When a Clinton 'Ally' Isn't an Ally at All." As she puts it:

The thing is, a Clinton "ally" could be anyone: a top donor or a former staffer in the know, sure, but also a Democratic strategist on the outside who is just sharing an opinion, wants to feel important, or is hoping to settle a score. What's more, it's far harder for the campaign to chastise someone for saying things they shouldn't -- or stop telling that person privileged information -- if they're quoted anonymously and you don't know for sure who said what.

But why would anyone who's not part of Clinton's inner circle want to offer an anonymous defense? What's in it for them? Once again, HuffPost sought the opinions of learned parties. "I don't have the faintest idea what you get in return for defending her if no one knows who you are. And these quotes could come from anyone. It could be Lanny Davis, for all I know. Doesn't he have a column at The Hill? I bet it's just Lanny Davis," said one Washington-based reporter who requested anonymity to avoid a phone call from Lanny Davis.

Others suggested that anonymous sources can sometimes wrangle benefits for themselves if they play their cards right. "There's always the prospect of maybe outing yourself as an anonymous defender somewhere down the line," said one political reporter with knowledge of these matters. "You know, you're at a party, you collar someone in the real Clinton universe, tell 'em, 'I felt like I had to go to bat for you guys.' Maybe you get a favor out of that."

But the Clintonites that Schultheis gets on the record sure seem to be signaling that this is not the way to earn a favor. In fact, they say it's a "constant problem" that's "never helpful."

It's an open question, of course, how much this will all ultimately matter. Some say that this is an overblown non-story. "The idea that Clinton has a problem with anonymous sources is overblown. It's a complete non-story," said an anonymous source who requested anonymity so as not to offend other anonymous sources by diminishing their importance to the campaign.

And if you take a data-driven approach to this conundrum, and really examine the numbers, you find evidence for that. "The numbers for Hillary look great," said a D.C.-based pollster and former Clinton campaign consultant.

So, whose responsibility is it? Should the Clinton campaign police this stuff, or should reporters stop passing off non-insiders as intimates for the sake of good copy? This is where opinions diverge.

In the words of one experienced Capitol Hill reporter, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity to avoid the repercussions of trash-talking her colleagues: "Sometimes I think people think it makes them sound better and more impressive to have anonymous sources. I'm so important that I can get even people who don't want to talk to reporters to talk to me! It's like when people begin tweets with Sources tell me... Congrats, you have sources! You are a reporter. Good job."

But you'll find other experienced newsroom hands who blame the Clinton insiders themselves, suggesting that their current problem with anonymous sources is no one's fault but their own.

"The Clinton campaign isn't an official campaign and therefore has no official spokespeople, so for them to complain that reporters aren't getting on-record quotes from nonexistent people is a little too clever. But it's all familiar: People around her have historically been hostile to the press, closed off and mistrustful, in love more with playing games, lying and settling scores than actually communicating openly, always amplifying their non-candidate's worst instincts. I can't imagine why reporters go to people who both have access to Clinton and speak with some frankness," said one top Washington editor who just can't fathom that "we have close to two years of this to endure, if not more."

Others preferred to speak in confounding non sequiturs. "I was once alone in a Senate elevator with Hillary, and I'm pretty sure she winked at me in a 'Hey, I'm really into you... like into you into you' way," said one female Capitol Hill reporter who requested anonymity to protect everyone's relationships.

"What Ryan said," said one veteran political reporter and published author who requested anonymity and then also requested that he be allowed to identify one of the other anonymous sources in this piece by their first name, only to then disappear from the piece entirely, leaving behind a tantalizing but ultimately unsolvable mystery.

Schultheis' article seems to come down on the side of the Clinton camp, depicting this as a problem they can't solve on their own. Of course, one can't dismiss the possibility that Schultheis has penned a good old-fashioned "beat sweetener," siding with Clinton's real inner camp on this issue to smooth the way for future reporting. And so the rabbit hole continues.

Ultimately, the problem may be even more profound. "The real issue here is that no one knows the real Hillary," said one insider who requested anonymity because she couldn't prove she knew the real Hillary.

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Jeb Bush's 'Big Tent' Welcomes Iraq War Screw-Ups

Jason Linkins   |   February 18, 2015    1:01 PM ET

This week, the 2016 campaign takes us back to Iraq as the media grapples with the emerging foreign policy philosophy and advisory team of Jeb Bush. The potential presidential candidate is laden with the burden of memory -- specifically, the memory of his brother's misadventures in Iraq. The early indication is that Jeb reckons he may as well turn into the skid. As the Washington Post's Philip Bump explains, "If Bush's goal is to present himself as his 'own man,' that list of advisers undermines the point somewhat: 19 of the 21 people on it worked in the administrations of his father or brother."

As Bump notes, "the foreign policy team of any Republican president would probably draw heavily from the experience of the past three Republican administrations." This is, sadly, the drawback of a political culture that's insular in just about every way -- it's hard to simply excommunicate the incompetents. For the same reason, most Democratic administrations will inevitably be advised by the dim goobers that brought you the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.

One way of looking at this is to ponder the gleam of the polished turd and find virtue in the shine. That's what one of President George W. Bush's former Iraq advisers insists we do in another Washington Post piece from Ed O'Keefe and Philip Rucker, telling those reporters that Jeb is taking a "big-tent approach" to his foreign policy team. But unlike the approach taken by former GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who Bump reports at least "branched out" from the Bush era because "the Bush-era advisers on foreign policy were too damaged" at the time, what "big tent" means in this instance is big enough to find room for the cock-ups of yesteryear.

As Feaver explains: “He’s not giving in to the idea that anyone associated with the Iraq war is out of consideration. That’s not practical. Keeping them out would reinforce a cartoon critique of the former president’s Iraq policy.”

The one exception, according to O'Keefe/Rucker, is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who we learn has had "more complicated" interactions with Jeb because "there's a sensitivity that it would be a carbon copy of his brother's administration," according to an anonymous "foreign policy expert" who is now in the running for the 2015 "You Don't Say!" Award.

Meanwhile, also in contention for the same award is this throwaway line from O'Keefe and Rucker: "Democrats have long blamed George W. Bush with a failed execution of the Iraq War."

That's a pretty curious way of putting it, considering the fact that the matter is not up for debate. But it's a construction that the media seems to want to use, nowadays. Here's a CNN report doing much the same (emphasis mine):

Democrats are vowing to tether him to the controversial decisions of his brother, President George W. Bush, who they blame for starting a war in Iraq on false pretenses and for presiding over a disastrous occupation that cost trillions of dollars, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi lives and destabilized the region.

Well, in the first place, it shouldn't be too hard to "tether" Jeb Bush to those controversial decisions, considering Jeb Bush literally signed his name to them. But more to the point, you sort of see why Democrats might have to make this Herculean effort (complete with vows!) to do so. It becomes necessary if the media is going to use that amnesiac construction in which Democrats "blame" Jeb's brother for starting the war in Iraq ... as if this weren't simply a fact beyond dispute. It's sort of like the way I blame the driver of a blue four-door sedan for side-swiping my car in a hit-and-run on Gallows Road back in 1998, because that driver was the guy who did it. It's not a great mystery. The problem I face is that they never caught the guy, so I run the risk of one day incorporating him into some future administration of mine.

Would that I had the luxury afforded Jeb Bush, who seems puzzlingly averse to taking it. There are undoubtedly some foreign policy minds Bush could tap who are not only untainted by the Iraq War, but who are also willing to acknowledge those failings and be informed by that critique. But this is not how our political meritocracy works: The existence of Iraq war critics -- conservative, liberal, or otherwise -- is a "cartoon," and they should be shunned as "not serious."

At any rate, I think the answer to the question, "Can Jeb Bush escape his brother's legacy in Iraq?" is, "Sure, he easily can if he wanted to, simply by not consorting with the people who brought about that legacy. But Jeb clearly doesn't want to, so he won't." This stuff isn't hard.

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