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No Precedent for 'First Gentleman'

Chris Weigant   |   May 6, 2015    8:20 PM ET

While watching the television interview with Bill Clinton the other night, I began thinking about the practical problems of how to treat him if his wife becomes president. I have to admit, Bill did drop one offhand line about his future -- something about what he'd do if he were "called to public service again" -- which sounded rather suspiciously (to my ear, at any rate) like: "Perhaps Hillary will put me in her cabinet, who knows?" I have to admit a snatch of the song "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" from The Sound Of Music also flitted through my head. But then, Bill Clinton is known to have strange effects on your outlook, at times.

Kidding aside, it did start me seriously thinking not only about what Bill's role might be in a Hillary Clinton administration, but also about the unprecedented nature of the problem. We've never faced this problem as a nation, and not just on one single level, either. Like all things Clinton, it's complicated. The line that became the soundbite from the interview, after all, was Bill talking about continuing to give high-priced speeches if Hillary wins, and his "gotta pay our bills" attempt at making light of the situation. As I said, multiple levels of this situation to consider, all of them unprecedented.

Traditionally and historically, First Ladies were nothing more than official presidential hostesses for formal events. There's even one woman who is considered to be a First Lady who wasn't actually the president's wife (Harriet Lane, niece of the only bachelor president, James Buchanan). That's all pretty much ancient history, though, since the role was fundamentally transformed by perhaps the greatest First Lady of all time, Eleanor Roosevelt. She showed that the power of the presidential spouse can reach far beyond giving a good dinner party. She made a difference in the lives of many Americans, and was revered as highly as her husband (if not more so, in some quarters), precisely because she was so hands-on.

Since that time, First Ladies who are so inclined (not all of them are) choose one or two "pet projects" and become spokeswomen for a cause. Betty Ford quite admirably championed the causes of fighting breast cancer and drug addiction. She also spoke out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, although that is not as well remembered today. Nancy Reagan was on the forefront of the War On Drugs, and is best remembered for the "Just Say No!" campaign. Hillary Clinton has already made her mark in this respect, leading the (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to achieve comprehensive health care reform. Laura Bush championed literacy, and Michelle Obama is known for her efforts on both healthy food for kids and wounded veterans.

All First Ladies, though, have essentially put their own careers (where they previously existed, of course) on hold when their spouse entered the White House. Hillary Clinton didn't actively continue being a lawyer during the years Bill was president, for example. But we've simply never been faced with a spouse of a president going on to become president in their own right. There are no precedents.

Modern ex-presidents -- again, those who are so inclined -- have gone on to do good works for society. If they're not so inclined, they retreat into a world of golf (Gerald Ford), painting (George W. Bush) or cashing in on their fame (Ronald Reagan, and others). Ronald Reagan, though few remember it now, cashed in to the tune of $2 million immediately after leaving office by giving a few speeches in Japan, and continued to rake in big bucks on the speaking circuit until he physically became unable to do so.

Bill Clinton is kind of in a class by himself. While the greatest ex-president in modern times is unarguably Jimmy Carter (when measured by good works done after leaving office), who became the symbol of a charity which built homes for poor people, Habitat For Humanity. But -- importantly -- he didn't create this charity, he just eagerly jumped on board the good works they were already doing. Bill Clinton decided to follow Carter's model of doing good works globally, but to do so he set up his own foundation (originally the "William J. Clinton Foundation," then the "Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation," now just known as the "Clinton Foundation"). He also, of course, followed the route Reagan had taken, and he regularly cashes in big time on the speaking circuit by giving very expensive speeches to well-heeled groups.

If Hillary Clinton wins office, he'll become "First Gentleman" Bill Clinton. Again, this is unprecedented on two levels: an ex-president being the spouse of a new president, and the first "First Gentleman" in history. The gender issue won't be a big deal, of course, although the press may have a bunch of fun coming up with an alternate title for Bill than "First Gentleman" (my guess is that "First Bubba" will become the favorite, but that's just a wild guess). Still, the novelty of a woman president will be a lot bigger than the novelty of a male "first" spouse, so what to call Bill isn't going to be all that huge a problem.

However, what Bill will actually be doing while Hillary is in the Oval Office is open to more interesting speculation. Bill, unlike all other first spouses, knows the White House and how it runs. He spent eight years there, after all, in the big chair. The only First Lady who even comes close to this base of knowledge would be the second time Frances Folsom Cleveland became First Lady (since her husband served two non-consecutive terms). Clinton is already hinting that maybe, just maybe, his wife might give him a real job in her administration, which is indeed an interesting concept to contemplate.

Would Hillary Clinton give her husband a job? What job would she give him? There would, of course, be howls of "nepotism," but it's hard to make that charge stick when Bill Clinton is obviously more qualified than most to hold any White House job she could choose for him. Nepotism usually means giving an undeserving or underqualified relative a plum position, in other words. Republicans are going to howl at both Clintons anyway, so this would just add another reason to their list.

It is actually kind of fun to speculate what job Bill Clinton could do in Hillary's administration. He could become secretary of either the departments of Housing and Urban Development, or perhaps Health and Human Services -- both would be good tie-ins to the work the Clinton Foundation is already doing. She could even give Bill the spot she vacated: Secretary of State (although I'm personally kind of skeptical of the chances of that happening). Perhaps ambassador to the United Nations, though? I could see that possibility.

The most interesting job Hillary could give Bill would be to name him her chief of staff. That would truly be the "co-president" concept that the Clintons have always spoken of. As everyone who has ever watched The West Wing (or any other Washington political drama) knows, the chief of staff is the ultimate "gatekeeper" in Washington. He or she has the power of access to the president -- anyone wanting time in the Oval Office has to get the chief of staff's permission first. Would Hillary trust Bill with that much power? It's a fascinating question to consider.

If Hillary does win, Bill will be sailing in uncharted waters, that's the only thing that is sure. But, somehow, I don't think he's going to get away with making money on the speaking circuit while his wife's in office. He may have bills to pay, but he's going to have to put them on hold for a few years, that's my guess. The quote "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion" will become a favorite of the pundits, that's almost guaranteed.

The bigger question is what he's going to do with his eponymous foundation. If Jimmy Carter's wife had been elected president in the 1980s, he could have just stopped working for Habitat For Humanity for the duration of her term. But this is the Clinton's own foundation, after all. Will Hillary and Bill turn the reins of control over to Chelsea? Would that make the conflict of interest disappear, or would it just lessen it by one remove (Chelsea, after all, would still be the daughter of the sitting president).

There's really only one completely acceptable answer to this unprecedented problem, and that would be to turn the entire foundation over to some sort of "blind trust" (headed by a few trustees of the Clintons' choice). If they both divorced themselves completely from the foundation's workings until they were both private citizens again, it would completely preclude any influence-peddling charges by Clinton opponents. The foundation could continue doing good works in the Clinton name, but without any ties whatsoever to either of the Clintons themselves (or even Chelsea).

Of course, this just returns us to the problem of what to do with Bill for four (or eight) years. Bill Clinton would unquestionably be an invaluable asset to Hillary as she transitions into her new job, especially (to give but one example) when it came time to deal with individual members of Congress. At the very least, Bill should be considered for some sort of senior adviser role (whether an official position or in a version of the "kitchen cabinet"), since he's got eight years of experience in the workings of a presidency.

One thing is for sure, though, and that is that "First Gentleman" Bill Clinton is not going to be content with just being the perfect host for formal dinners.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Bernie's Running: It's The Perfect Storm for the Left

David Russell   |   May 1, 2015    8:03 AM ET

Senator Bernie Sander's announcement that he will seek the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency creates the best possible circumstances for Liberals and traditional Democrats to get their policies accepted as a mandate for action. Now Liberals have to focus on promoting the delivery mechanism.

Since it may finally be dawning on Liberals that their favorite, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, will not seek the nomination and Sanders has thrown his hat in the ring, hopefully they can see the benefits that come with these events. The best chance for policy change comes with Sanders on the hustings and Warren standing on the sideline coaching Hillary Clinton: policy changes that affect middle class income, wage and working conditions, consumer protection, Wall Street re-regulation, strengthened financial safety nets, education, veterans' benefits, campaign finance reform, and improved civil liberties. The added benefit is Warren's ability to run block in the Senate protecting the Liberal flank from the DINOs (Democrats in Name Only) whose "moderate" positions have contributed to the income morass that most Americans deal with every day.

The logic of this "combo" may not have been intentional but the circumstances work well for the hope Liberals have of effecting change. These two can revive the hope that has been missing for the past eight years since our "late to the party" President has only been mouthing a progressive agenda in the out years when he hasn't had the slightest chance of getting any of it passed into law. But it also works well because it allows the President to continue giving lip service to the ideas and not get in the way of the ensuing policy debate.

It is not a matter of faith among economists and thoughtful politicians, but it is a well established conviction that the deregulation of the Reagan/Clinton/Bush years contributed mightily to the economic volatility of the last twenty years. Likewise, it is the "moderates and conservatives" who happily stripped away worker protections, education and training and supported the decidedly jaded tax and trade policies that have "hollowed out" middle class incomes.

The impact of Sen. Warren's protests on behalf of the middle class has already been mimicked by candidate Hillary Clinton. As Warren will tell you from her interactions with Clinton when she was First Lady and again as Senator, Hillary Clinton can be for an issue before she is against it. In an excellent article by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker entitled, "The Virtual Candidate," he details Clinton's willingness to flip flop on issues. Thus, even though she is talking tough on middle class income and mass incarceration and sounding more and more like the Liberal she'd like us to think she is, it will take a lot of public prodding to insure that, should she be elected, she actually attempts to make political promises a reality.

Lizza, however, points to an even more important role that Warren will play over the next year and half. He echoes the sentiments of Barnie Frank (retired Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts) in quoting him "Right now, she's (Warren's) as powerful a spokesperson on public policy as you could be in the minority...because Democrats are not going to cross her ... No Democrat wants Elizabeth Warren being critical of him (her)."

Mainstream commentators are welcoming Sanders to the presidential race because his positions will help Candidate Clinton "hone her debating skills." They give Sanders zero chance of getting nominated. Whether that is true or not, the positions the two candidates will be forced to discuss on the campaign trail will allow the Democratic Party to do what it should have done starting in 2008 -- calling out the Republican Party for what it is, the defender of financial elites, promoter of divisive wedge issues and hypocritical champion of an imaginary system of free enterprise, independence, freedom and opportunism.

This cast of players insures that the election will be about ideology. Because Sanders and Warren are in the positions they are, the issues will be defined for the public. The Democrats are about a community of interests, a government that serves all of its constituents not the financial few, regulated capitalism, and support for redistributive legislation for resources and income. Republicans will wrap themselves in a laissez faire free enterprise flag and preach freedom, small government, independence, and deregulation.

Whether they are aware of it or not, Sanders and Warren provide the perfect storm. They are the best players available for the articulation of the Liberal agenda. The real question will be whether or not their followers understand the logic, and they then refocus the vain effort that has been underway for the past year to persuade Warrant to seek the nomination. What is needed now is as much financial support for Sander's candidacy as they can muster.

We are all aware that huge sums of money are needed to launch, and to sustain, a presidential campaign. Since it is quite clear that the Republican candidates will each have their respective billionaire to underwrite their efforts, and it is equally clear that little or none of those resources will be directed to Sanders, his campaign will have to be a grassroots effort all the way. That, in itself, is not the worst thing since the campaign results for the 2012 election indicate that Obama raised over $500 million in donations of less than $200 a person from over 4.2 million people.

None the less, there is an element of sobriety that should be posted lest anyone think that all is "nectar and honey." Warren's current polls are at 12.7 per cent approval, and Sanders are at 5.6 versus Clinton's 62.2 per cent (as reported by Real Clear Politics). Circumstances can always change, and a refocused support for Sanders may well enable the emergence of a viable candidacy. Absent that, however, it is a most reassuring to know that the Liberal agenda will be an active part of the Democratic presidential nomination dialogue.

Hillary Clinton Agrees With Elizabeth Warren On Trade Dispute With Obama

Zach Carter   |   April 30, 2015   12:00 AM ET

Hillary Clinton is opposed to a critical piece of the Obama administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would give corporations the right to sue sovereign nations over laws or regulations that could potentially curb their profits.

The policy position is contained in her book Hard Choices, and was confirmed to HuffPost by a spokesperson for her presidential campaign. Obama and congressional Democrats are locked in a bitter public feud over TPP -- a deal between 12 Pacific nations -- with much of the controversy derived from concerns it will undermine regulatory standards.

Clinton writes in her book:

Currently the United States is negotiating comprehensive agreements with eleven countries in Asia and in North and South America, and with the European Union. We should be focused on ending currency manipulation, environmental destruction, and miserable working conditions in developing countries, as well as harmonizing regulations with the EU. And we should avoid some of the provisions sought by business interests, including our own, like giving them or their investors the power to sue foreign governments to weaken their environmental and public health rules, as Philip Morris is already trying to do in Australia. The United States should be advocating a level and fair playing field, not special favors. (Emphasis added.)

Obama's TPP deal would be enforced by a process known as "investor-state dispute settlement," which allows foreign companies to attack domestic laws or regulations before an international tribunal if they believe those rules unfairly curb investment returns. Those tribunals can't directly overturn laws, but they can impose hefty fines on the countries they rule against.

Financial watchdogs and environmental activists are particularly concerned the process will be used to stymie future rulemaking with the threat of international fines. Congress often considers trade commitments when debating domestic legislation, at times diluting or derailing it. Foreign countries have halted anti-smoking rules over ISDS lawsuits.

Obama has vigorously defended ISDS against criticism from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others, insisting it is necessary to protect American companies abroad.

"In a lot of countries, U.S. companies are discriminated against, and going through their court system would not give them relief," Obama told reporters on a conference call last week. "The notion that corporate America is going to be able to use this provision to eliminate our financial regulations and our food safety regulations and our consumer regulations -- that's just bunk. It's not true."

The Australian case that Clinton referenced in her book, however, is instructive. The Australian government enacted legislation that would require tobacco products be sold only with plain, simple packaging that includes health warnings -- labeling the tobacco companies objected to. Philip Morris Asia is suing Australia under a different free trade pact, using a similar ISDS provision, arguing that the Australian law is cutting into its profit. It's easy to see how laws in, say, New York City, would be similarly targeted.

On the same conference call, Obama defended the system further:

There are over 3,000 different ISDS agreements among countries across the globe, and this neutral arbitration system has existed since the 1950s. The United States has investment agreements with 54 different countries over the last 30 years. Under these various ISDS provisions, the U.S. has been sued a total of 17 times. Thirteen of those cases have been decided so far; we’ve won them all.

They have no ability to undo U.S. laws. They don’t have the ability to result in punitive damages. ISDS has come under some legitimate criticism when they’re poorly written, because they’ve been used in particular by some tobacco companies in some countries to challenge anti-tobacco regulation. And that’s why we have made sure that some of the legitimate criticisms around past ISDS provisions are tightened, are strengthened so that there is no possibility of smaller countries or weaker countries getting clobbered by the legal departments of somebody like R.J. Reynolds so that they can’t pass anti-smoking legislation. That, by the way, is more of a legitimate concern for the other signatories to the deal who would not be able to manage expensive litigation, than it is an argument that our laws would be challenged.

Indeed, environmental watchdogs are concerned corporations will use TPP to undermine environmental protections abroad. And while ISDS provisions have existed for a long time, companies didn't really take advantage of them until the 21st century. As Warren noted in an op-ed for The Washington Post, less than 100 ISDS cases were initiated between 1959 and 2002, while 58 were filed in 2012 alone. Warren and others are not only worried the U.S. might lose ISDS cases, but that expanding the ISDS regime will prevent governments from enacting future regulations.

There are other ways to enforce trade deals that do not elevate corporations to the same status of sovereign nations. Under World Trade Organization treaties, companies must first convince their home government to accept the case. The governments of the two countries then face off before WTO adjudicators.

Clinton has been cautious about Obama's TPP deal since launching her campaign. In mid-April, a Clinton spokesman issued a statement saying Clinton "will be watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation" and to "improve labor rights, protect the environment and health" in the final deal.

"We shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers," the statement reads.

Obama opposes using TPP to combat currency manipulation -- a tactic by which Japan and China have been able to curb U.S. exports by making their own goods cheaper.

Other potential candidates for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, have been sharply critical of TPP.

Committees in the House and Senate approved legislation last week that would grant Obama "fast track" authority on trade, stripping Congress of its power to amend whatever deal the administration ultimately reaches.

This story has been updated to include further comments from Obama's conference call.

Bernie Sanders Jumps In

Chris Weigant   |   April 29, 2015    8:12 PM ET

We've had a President Jimmy and a President Ronnie, so why not a President Bernie?

That was my first thought on hearing the news that Senator Bernard ("Bernie") Sanders is going to formally announce his candidacy for president tomorrow. Often, first thoughts are not the most profound, as I seem to have proved here. But upon reflection, a deeper meaning can be teased out of my sophomoric response: why not a President Bernie? I'm pretty sure there will be many in the media who laugh Sanders off as some sort of "not serious" candidate, and attempt to pigeonhole Sanders into the role of court jester to Hillary Clinton: there to amusingly point out foibles, but in a way that cannot be taken seriously. This is a mistake. Bernie Sanders is a serious candidate, no matter what his chances at the ballot box may ultimately be. He cares deeply about the issue of inequality, and he is not afraid to say exactly what he thinks. You can question how viable a candidate Sanders will be, but no matter what the answer to that turns out to be, Sanders will be a serious candidate. The issues he will raise on the campaign trail deserve serious discussion and consideration, from not only Hillary Clinton but also from the media themselves.

Bernie Sanders will be unique among presidential candidates because the first step he'll have to take is to become a Democrat. Up until now, Bernie has called himself a Democratic Socialist (although he does caucus reliably with the Democrats in Congress). This raises a big question, one that he will hopefully answer tomorrow. Will Sanders, if he loses the Democratic nomination, run as an independent in the general election? This could set up a Ralph Nader problem for Hillary, but it doesn't seem likely that Sanders would actually go that far. But the question is a valid one, which is why it'll be interesting to see if he addresses the issue in tomorrow's announcement (or soon thereafter).

I realize it's pretty pessimistic to begin analyzing a campaign by assuming defeat in the primaries, so let's instead consider a path to victory for Bernie Sanders. Will he be able to raise enough money? Well, he sure won't be able to match Clinton's totals, at least at first. But will that matter? There is already a groundswell in the Democratic Party for a more Progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton, but up until now it has been focused on a woman who keeps swearing -- over and over -- that she is just not going to run. Sooner or later those advocating for an Elizabeth Warren candidacy are going to have to start believing the words Warren is saying, one assumes. When they do, the most attractive candidate for them to focus on is going to be none other than Bernie Sanders. Ideologically, at least on the major Progressive issues of the day, Sanders and Warren are two peas in a pod. There isn't a lot of daylight between them on, for instance, their attitudes towards Wall Street and Main Street. So Sanders will be a good fit for the Warren enthusiasts.

It remains to be seen how much enthusiasm Sanders could raise among Democratic Party primary voters as a whole, though. The policies he advocates are actually very popular -- something Progressives love to point out -- even if they do meet with a lot of sneering contempt by all the "serious people" inside the Beltway. If a Bernie Sanders candidacy catches a little fire with the public, however, the mainstream media might actually have to start discussing his issues. The more media coverage he gets, the more his ideas get heard. Which could spark a wave of support for Sanders among Democrats.

The conventional wisdom says that Sanders will be nothing more than a goad to Hillary Clinton. He'll be pulling her to the left, but she'll easily co-opt his issues (in some milder, more-centrist way) and bury him with the millions in her campaign chest. This could turn out to be true. But money doesn't always win in politics. Ask Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman, they'll tell you. If Bernie Sanders has a truly winning message, it just might trump all the money spent against him.

Obviously, if Sanders does have a path to victory, it would certainly help if Clinton stumbles at some point along the way. This stumble could take many forms -- a scandal that the public actually considers scandalous, a health issue, or perhaps getting caught saying something insensitive along the campaign trail -- but any such bump in the road for Clinton would help Sanders (and any other Democrats who run). Both Clintons are known for political stumbles, but they're also known for overcoming them and quickly putting them in the rearview mirror. So even a Clinton misstep might not be enough for Sanders to break into the frontrunner position.

Sanders has one other liability when compared to Clinton. He's an old white guy. That's not very demographically exciting. He wouldn't be the first old white guy to be president, to put this another way. The media has become jaded over Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to (as she put it) "break the glass ceiling," but there are millions of women out there who will be very proud and excited to cast their votes for the first woman to lead the country. Sanders is at a disadvantage, due to not being the first of his kind with a chance at the White House.

That's not an impossible obstacle to overcome, though. If Bernie Sanders does well in the first two primary contests, he'll be taken a lot more seriously. Iowa might be the tougher of the two, because it will require a lot of effort (and having a lot of money wouldn't hurt that effort). New Hampshire is right next to Vermont, where Bernie hails from, but that also doesn't automatically mean he'll be accepted by New Hampshire voters. There is a sort of friendly animosity between New Hampshire and Vermont, where anything from the other state is viewed with a healthy amount of suspicion. Still, Bernie Sanders is a lot more well-known in New Hampshire than he is elsewhere. He won't have to "introduce" himself the way he will have to in Iowa, in other words, because many New Hampshire voters already know who he is and what he stands for. In Iowa, Sanders will likely try a grassroots-style campaign, talking to as many voters in person as he possibly can. Sanders has always been comfortable talking to people in this fashion, so he could be more successful at it than might initially be imagined.

Bernie Sanders has one big thing going for him: authenticity. He's an honest guy -- he'll tell you exactly what he thinks without resorting to a focus group beforehand. There is no trust issue with Sanders -- if he gets elected, he'll do exactly what he promised he'd do (or, at the very least, he'd sincerely try to make good on his promises). Compare that to the way many Democrats view Hillary Clinton -- they're pleasantly surprised when she gives a speech that takes a liberal position (as she did this morning, in fact), but they also harbor seeds of doubt as to whether Hillary really believes what she's saying or whether she's just saying it because she thinks it's what the voters currently want to hear. There are questions about how much Democrats should trust Clinton's stances, to put it bluntly. There would be no such question with Bernie Sanders. He's exactly who he says he is, and he speaks from the heart about issues like inequality. That could play very well in places like Iowa and Nevada.

If, for the sake of argument, Sanders does somehow beat Hillary Clinton and becomes the Democratic nominee, what chance would he have against the Republican in the race? That's hard to predict, for a number of reasons. In the first place, it will matter how he beat Clinton. Did she stumble badly and take herself out of the running as a result? Or did Sanders just catch fire with the public and Clinton's ideas and message couldn't compete? How strong Sanders would be in the general election might depend on the answers to those questions. If his ideas were the reason for his primary victory, then it'll depend on how the Republican nominee stacks up against him on those issues. A more-moderate Republican might do better than an extremist, to state the obvious.

No matter who ultimately gets the Republican nomination, they'll be attempting to paint Sanders as a "lefty extremist." Look for the demonization of the word "Socialist" to be prominent in these attacks. Now, the spectre of the big, bad Socialism doesn't pack the same punch as it used to back in the days of the Cold War, but it still does have an impact with the public. People who can't explain the difference between Socialism and Communism usually don't approve of either. Sanders could overcome this built-in animosity only by clearly explaining his platform of taking the side of the little guy.

That sounds dismissive, but it isn't. Taking the side of the little guy is going to be a big issue in the 2016 campaign, no matter what happens. It's such a potent issue that the Republicans are actually trying to co-opt it. Of course, their policy positions are pretty much guaranteed to make inequality worse (especially when "give rich people big tax breaks" is so central to everything Republicans want to do), and Bernie Sanders is possibly the best candidate to point this out in no uncertain terms. Once again, Elizabeth Warren is not going to run, leaving Sanders to champion the Progressive positions. People are fed up with Washington coddling Wall Street, and Sanders (unlike all the Republicans) won't have to twist himself into a pretzel explaining what his plans are to fix this problem.

Not to be too dismissive, but the other Democrats so far mentioned as possible candidates seem like they're running to be first choice for Hillary's veep. I don't think they'll be challenging her in the way that Bernie Sanders will. Sanders is going to be an unapologetic Progressive voice in the race, and is going to freely criticize Hillary Clinton whenever she tries to advocate half-measures or use weaselly language to define her positions. No matter what you think his chances of winning the nomination (or the presidency), Bernie Sanders is going to force everyone else to focus on the little guy. Which, for me, absolutely makes him a serious candidate. President Bernie is a concept we should all take seriously.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Toughening Up Hillary

Chris Weigant   |   April 20, 2015    8:47 PM ET

I write today to challenge what is fast becoming conventional wisdom in the political world -- in particular, the notion that Hillary Clinton really needs a strong primary challenge to "toughen her up" for the upcoming race with whomever the Republicans decide upon. When you deconstruct the logic behind this idea, however, it falls apart.

There are many reasons for wishing Hillary will have a competitive primary race with at least one other strong Democratic candidate. The biggest of these is the hope that someone will "challenge her from the left," and thus draw Clinton further in that direction. Liberals have a healthy amount of mistrust of Clinton, and would really like to see an Elizabeth Warren (or perhaps a Bernie Sanders) campaign to challenge Hillary on the finer points of fighting income inequality and Wall Street banks.

Ideology aside, the pundit class (including many liberal commentators) are already pretty bored with the Hillary Clinton campaign, and we're still a year away from most of the primary contests. The punditocracy craves a dustup in the Democratic primary race for the crassest of reasons: entertainment value. I shouldn't even be that exclusive -- there are plenty of voters who would also enjoy lively Democratic Party debates before the primaries. What is the alternative, really? Hillary sitting in a chair on a stage by herself? Yawn. At best, it appears we'll have Hillary sitting on a stage while the other Democrats vie to be named her veep. Not exactly a recipe for excitement, in other words.

There's a third reason a lively primary fight might be hoped for by some, but I should say that so far I don't see any signs of this happening. Barack Obama supporters were (justifiably) angry with Hillary Clinton in 2008 for a number of reasons, but the final one was that she refused to gracefully exit the race, even though mathematically it had become all but impossible for her to win the nomination. Clinton kept running for two or three months longer than most candidates would have done. She refused to throw her support behind Obama until the last vote in the last primary was counted, which proved what the mathematically-astute had known for weeks: she couldn't win. There was a lot of hype at the time about Hillary's supporters being so upset that they'd refuse to vote for Obama (remember the "PUMAs" -- "Party Unity My Ass"?), but this never really manifested itself outside of the blogosphere. So it's pretty far-fetched to think that Obama supporters could have held a grudge for eight years against Hillary and would now wish her a bruising primary battle, on the grounds of it being her just desserts. It could happen, I suppose, but I don't think it's very likely.

But all of these reasons for wishing a lively primary for Hillary are just that: reasons for wishing. None of them address the practicality argument at all. To put it another way, these are reasons for wanting a primary challenger for Hillary, not a reason for why she might need a primary challenger. This is the argument that doesn't hold water: Hillary needs a challenger to toughen her up, to sharpen her campaigning skills, and to guarantee that when the general election rolls around she'll be in top form. On the face of it, it seems a cogent argument.

But while it might be desirable (for other reasons) to see Hillary in a tough nominating fight, it is by no means necessary for her at all. There are two sides to this argument, both with handy recent historical examples. Barack Obama was unquestionably toughened up by Hillary's campaign. He faced many hard questions and had to refine his positions accordingly. Because Hillary's team threw a lot of mud at Obama, much of it was "old news" by the time the general election campaign began -- which took the wind out of Republican sails when they attempted to use the same negative tactics. On the flip side of this coin, Mitt Romney had to run a grueling primary campaign against multiple strong opponents. But it didn't do him any good in the general election at all. In fact, it hurt his chances because he had been forced to move so far to the right that tacking back to the center just wasn't possible. Granted, the two primary races were different, but other examples can be used just as easily (Obama and Romney are merely the most recent).

Hillary Clinton is a different sort of candidacy, though. I say this because she has the highest possible name recognition imaginable. You could poll 1,000 Americans on what they thought about Hillary Clinton, and my guess would be that at least 990 of them would have some opinion (positive or negative) about her. Very few would respond: "Hillary who?" So Hillary doesn't even have that biggest of first steps most other candidates have to face: introducing yourself to the American public. Everybody already knows who she is.

But the real reason the "she needs to be toughened up" argument falls apart is that it completely ignores reality outside of the Democratic primary race. Sure, if you vowed to read only news about what other Democrats are saying about Hillary Clinton for the next year, you could make the argument that she really needs a strong primary challenger. But that would be ridiculous, because there will be plenty of media attention given to the Republican primary race during that period.

If this were a normal (although wide-open) presidential race, the two parties would be much more concerned with their own primary races. Nobody would know (until the end) which candidate would appear victorious from the other side. So very little energy would be spent (at least, at this early a stage) on attacking any particular candidate across the aisle, because doing so might be a wasted effort if the nomination ultimately went to someone else. The real Democrat-versus-Republican mudslinging wouldn't begin until it was obvious which two people would be in the final race.

That is probably not going to happen this year, obviously. Republicans are already off and running in Iowa and New Hampshire, and they all know exactly who they're going to face in the general election. Because it is so obvious, they have already begun aiming most of their attacks against Hillary Clinton, rather than (as would happen in a normal year) at each other. So Hillary Clinton isn't just going to have one or two Democrats "toughening her up," she's going to have 20 or more Republicans incessantly beating up on her.

Again, pushing aside all the reasons people might want a Democratic challenger for Hillary, it's pretty easy to see that it won't be necessary. The onslaught of anti-Hillary invective has already begun, and it's only going to get more and more frenzied as the Republican nomination race heats up. This is as it should be, since each and every Republican candidate will be auditioning to be the best Hillary-basher of the lot. That's how they figure they're going to win the general election, so they'll be straining to outdo each other in this regard. Who will be snarkiest? Who will be downright vicious? Who will skate over the line of outright misogyny? The contest will be fought over who can score the most points against Clinton, like it or not.

Hillary Clinton is going to be the favorite target for Republicans. However, by doing so this early, they might just undercut the strength of all their mudslinging. The Clintons are no strangers to having mud slung at them, as the right-wing orgy of Clinton-hating in the 1990s should easily prove to anyone who was alive back then (see: Richard Mellon Scaife). Bill Clinton's campaign moniker was actually "The Comeback Kid" because he overcame so many stumbles.

The Republicans risk, by their early targeting of Hillary, playing their cards too early. The American public, as a whole, doesn't pay a whole lot of attention to politics in general, and they have a notoriously short attention span. So any "scandal" that happens quickly morphs into "old news." And old news isn't considered effective in the waning days of a campaign. The easiest example of this might be Benghazi, in fact. Republicans were so sure they had the Hillary-killing scandal to beat all Hillary-killing scandals that they pretty much stomped the issue into the ground. Nowadays, the word "Benghazi" prompts nothing short of eye-rolling among most of the public. "There they go again," is the overriding feeling. Likewise, by next November's election, my guess is that few people are going to care about Hillary Clinton's email server. The story will have been hashed over so many times for so long that it will have lost whatever shock value it might once have had.

So what might conceivably happen is that the Republican field focuses so strongly on Hillary at the very beginning of their primary race that they run out of ammo by the time the general election rolls around. This is precisely what people are predicting when they repeat the conventional wisdom of, "Hillary needs a primary challenger to toughen her up for the general election," though. This is, after all, exactly what Hillary Clinton did for Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008. She threw everything but the kitchen sink at Obama, and it helped him in the general election because by the time John McCain brought the same things up, the Obama campaign could just shrug and say, "We've already addressed that," and move on.

Granted, having the Republicans be sort of a de facto primary opponent will be different than having an actual Democrat opposing Hillary. The attacks will certainly come from a different direction. Because of this, though, Hillary won't be pulled too far to the left. All she'll have to do is appear reasonable and sane in response to all the hysterical screeching from the Republican primaries. That'll be a pretty good contrast for her to paint. By the time the Republicans do decide on a nominee, the cupboard of "new mud to sling at Hillary" will be all but bare. The public will also be tired of Republicans endlessly rehashing Hillary's record, as what might be called "Clinton-bashing fatigue" sets in.

Though it runs counter to the conventional wisdom inside the beltway, the truth is that by being the sole target for Republicans all throughout the primary campaign season, Hillary Clinton will likely emerge much tougher than she would if all she had to cope with was a single Democrat pulling her slightly leftwards. This is why what seems like an intuitive idea falls apart. If there really were a truly competitive race on the Democratic side, then Hillary would have to face less hostile attacks from Republicans (whose focus wouldn't be as clear), and fewer of them. With no challenger, she's going to have a much tougher time in the primary season, because she won't just be facing a few Democrats or one Republican, she'll be subject to attacks from 20 or more Republicans. And that, I have to say, will indeed toughen her up just fine.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Why Hillary Clinton Left Obama To Fend For Himself On Trade

Zach Carter   |   April 17, 2015    8:05 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's trade agenda took a beating on Friday, as House Democrats threw cold water on his bid to fast-track the biggest free trade pact since the 1990s, and 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton declined to back the plan.

Although Republican leaders in Congress are on board with Obama's effort to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping deal between the U.S. and 11 Pacific nations, Democrats have been persistently critical of the negotiations. The White House had hoped that a Thursday compromise between Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would help thaw progressive opposition.

Obama got no help from Clinton. Late Friday, her campaign released a statement saying she "will be watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation" and to "improve labor rights, protect the environment and health," as first reported by The New York Times.

"We shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers," Clinton's statement reads.

These are standard Democratic objections to the TPP -- that whatever gains the deal might create for economic growth will come at the expense of the middle class and the environment. Labor unions, environmental groups and open Internet advocates have aggressively opposed the pact. The fact that Clinton is echoing these concerns several years after the negotiations began says a lot about how liberals think the deal is shaping up. The Obama administration has kept drafts of the TPP deal secret, but parts have leaked, intensifying Democratic concerns.

Clinton's statement does not reject TPP outright. But by refraining from coming down on the deal, while echoing concerns that aren't likely to be assuaged -- the Obama administration has made clear that there is no currency manipulation provision in TPP -- Clinton is leaving Obama to fight for Democratic votes on his own.

And Obama faces an uphill battle, particularly in the House. On Friday, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) vowed to take down the Wyden-Hatch fast track bill, which would strip lawmakers of the authority to amend any trade deal that Obama ultimately reaches. Without fast track, also known as Trade Promotion Authority, few on Capitol Hill believe TPP can win congressional approval. Levin is the top Democrat on Ways and Means Committee -- the key panel that any trade legislation must clear before getting to the House floor.

Fast-track legislation offers Congress the ability to set negotiating objectives for trade agreements -- about five years late for TPP -- and Levin said Friday that the terms of the bill fall well short of what he is prepared to support. Levin said he had been excluded from negotiations that led to the fast-track deal involving the White House, Hatch, Wyden and Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

"The administration has essentially given us the power to defeat TPA," Levin said. "I'm out to defeat the Hatch-Wyden bill."

Only 11 of the 46 members of the congressional New Democrat Coalition came out in favor of the bill after it was released. New Democrats are friendlier to major corporations than most other Democrats, and typically support free trade deals. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has suggested he needs at least 50 Democratic votes in order to pass a fast-track bill, due to opposition among Republicans skeptical of ceding authority to Obama.

But Democrats simply do not trust Obama on trade. Levin's exclusion from White House negotiations with a former GOP vice presidential candidate is just the latest in a long line of Democratic frustrations. Liberals in both chambers say that the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has obstructed their access to TPP documents for years.

"From my own experience, USTR’s consultations with Congress have been -- I hesitate to use this adverb, but I will -- pathetically inadequate," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said at a Thursday hearing, before listing a host of failed efforts by his office to get information on the deal's impact on the auto industry.

While the president has publicly committed to requiring upgrades in environmental and labor standards in any bill, his trade enforcement record is very weak on both fronts.

"The sad reality is that widespread worker abuse is taking place all over the world while virtually nobody in the USTR’s office is paying attention," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a potential challenger to Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, told HuffPost. "Words on paper don’t mean anything if they are not enforced. ”

Sanders' sentiment is shared by many House Democrats, who say the president's recent promises on trade policy aren't backed up by his record in office. In November, the Government Accountability Office released two reports taking the Obama administration to task for spotty oversight of both labor and environmental conditions in existing trade agreements.

"USTR has never once brought a trade dispute over an environmental issue, over noncompliance with an environmental chapter, even when there has been clear documented evidence of violations," said Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s responsible trade program.

A spokesman for USTR pointed HuffPost to a list of the agency's labor rights efforts in Guatemala, Colombia, Jordan, Bahrain and other nations.

But USTR has made little progress on those cases. Union members in Colombia have been assassinated repeatedly since Obama approved a trade pact with the country in 2011. The administration has raised only one formal labor rights challenge to a trade deal. That dispute involves Guatemala, and remains unresolved after six years.

Clinton Campaign Will Accept Donations From Lobbyists And PACs

Sam Stein   |   April 16, 2015    1:09 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign will accept donations from lobbyists and political action committees, a difference in policy from the man she's hoping to replace, President Barack Obama.

The Clinton campaign confirmed that there would be no prohibition on such donations, after The Huffington Post was tipped off by two lobbyists supportive of the former secretary of state's run for the White House.

“Hillary Clinton has a long history of taking on tough fights against special interests, whether or not they’re donors to her campaigns," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the campaign. "She strongly supports campaign finance reform and has voted for tough lobbying reform, but as long as Republican groups and candidates are going to spend millions attacking Hillary, we need the resources to fight back.”

The approach is consistent with the one Clinton took in her last White House run in 2008. But it differs from what Obama did that same year and four years later. Though accepting donations from lobbyists and PACs comes with some risks -- to the extent that it adds to the criticism of Clinton as a creature of Washington -- even some good-government figures downplayed its significance.

"Self-imposed rules, in general, are not reform by themselves," said David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice, an organization that advocates for transparency and against the influence of money in politics. "Americans should be much more interested in the proposals her campaign will share about how to address the problem of money in politics -- and more importantly, what she'll pledge to do to make those proposals a reality if elected."

Clinton's vulnerability on accepting donations from lobbyists and PACs likely will be limited by the fact that few, if any, other potential presidential candidates are likely to apply the prohibition to themselves. That wasn't the case in 2008. During their square-off in the Democratic primary that year, Obama used his refusal to take cash from K Street as a key point of distinction and a way to deflect attacks.

“Eleventh-hour smears, paid for by lobbyist money," went one ad run by the Obama campaign. "Isn’t that exactly what we need to change?”

At the time, Clinton defended her acceptance of lobbyist contributions at the progressive YearlyKos conference in 2007, saying, “A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans.” Her remarks drew a round of boos from the audience.

The Obama policy, however, proved easier to tout than to execute. On several occasions, money from lobbyists did make it through the screen, forcing the Obama campaign to issue refunds after it was reported.

It also became apparent the policy was largely ceremonial in terms of limiting the ability of powerful interests to fund campaigns. Executives and board members of large corporations spending huge sums on lobbying, and with their own political action committees still provided hefty contributions to the Obama campaign, as did non-registered lawyers working for firms registered to lobby for clients. Obama’s policy also did not cover lobbyists registered at the state level.

The total amount of money from lobbyists and PACs available to a presidential candidate isn’t overwhelmingly consequential. Clinton's 2008 campaign raised $1.4 million from political action committees and just under $2 million from registered lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The benefit of empowering lobbyist donors comes from their ability to raise money. There were at least 22 lobbyist bundlers for Clinton’s last presidential campaign.

Obama’s policy of refusing lobbyist and PAC money extended to the Democratic National Committee as well. The party’s central organ banned cash from these two sources as soon as Obama became the effective Democratic presidential nominee, after Clinton withdrew from the race in June 2008. This policy is perhaps more consequential, as the contribution limit is much higher for individual donors to the party committee ($33,400 per year) than to a candidate’s campaign ($2,700 per election). Political Action Committees, meanwhile, can donate $15,000 to a party committee and $5,000 to a candidate's campaign.

The DNC generally takes direction from the leader of the party. It isn’t clear when or if the DNC will turn on the spigot for lobbyist cash in the 2016 election cycle.

Will Hillary Show up to Netroots Nation?

Chris Weigant   |   April 13, 2015    9:27 PM ET

And so it begins. Hillary Clinton is now officially in the race for the White House. Her announcement, like pretty much everything else about her upcoming campaign, will be microscopically analyzed within an inch of its life. Was she too generic? Was she appealing enough? Where were the specifics? What about Bill? And what was up with that laughably 1970s campaign logo? Most of these deep-dive analyses won't make a tiny bit of difference, in the long run (well, OK, that logo is pretty bad, hopefully that's the first thing Team Hillary decides to change...). But it'll certainly give all the pundits something to do in the meantime.

As campaign rollouts go, Hillary is obviously going for the lowest key she can manage. She hasn't even scheduled any big rallies or events for the first few months, and her announcement video didn't even show her face until the minute-and-a-half mark. She has, obviously, learned her lesson about the whole "inevitability" thing from the last time around. She is going to start campaigning by going on a "listening tour," starting in Iowa. This worked wonders for her as a senator, and it could be valuable if she meets some interesting people and does actually listen to their concerns along the way. The most interesting thing about her launch is that she's actually driving from New York to Iowa. Well, not personally driving (she's still got a Secret Service escort, like all former First Ladies), but still -- traveling the country's Interstates is a lot better way to reconnect to the common man and woman than chartering an airplane. Sure, it's a stunt, but it could turn out to be more than that, depending on the people she meets in the rest stops of the Midwest.

Hillary Clinton, like all presidential candidates, is going to have to perform a balancing act. She's got to reach out to the undecided voters that will be crucial for the general election, and she's also got to shore up her base. Right now, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is somewhat leery of Clinton (and that's putting it politely). Hillary is seen as being much more hawkish than the base is really comfortable with, and much closer to Wall Street than any Elizabeth Warren fan wants to see. That first one is pretty much of a given -- Hillary can transform herself in many ways out on the campaign trail, but she'll never be able to go back and erase her vote for the Iraq War. In her recent book, she stakes out a more aggressive foreign policy stance than President Obama, so it's pretty hard to see her walking this back all that much. But then again she's still going to have to work hard to be an acceptably-tough president for some voters, seeing as how she is the first woman to ever have a decent crack at winning.

Many Democrats are ready and willing to, if not actually forgive her for her hawkishness, at least accept it as part of the Clinton package. But when the subject turns to domestic issues, progressives are going to push a lot harder for Clinton to champion the causes of progressivism. Giving either Robert Reich or Elizabeth Warren a prominent place among Hillary's close economic advisors would go a long way towards quelling progressive fears that Hillary is but a reluctant progressive, at best.

But there's one other big thing Hillary could do to build bridges with the left of the Democratic Party -- attend this year's Netroots Nation conference. Because if you're going to woo liberals, the best way to do it is to travel to where the liberals will all be, in mid-July.

Eight years ago, the second annual Netroots Nation conference was held in Chicago (it was actually called YearlyKos back then, the name wouldn't change until 2008). Seven of the eight Democratic candidates appeared at the 2007 conference, including both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It was a different time, of course, since the primary race was a lot more openly contested than it likely will be this year. Since that time, the conference has grown into the premiere event for the "netroots" -- liberal bloggers, progressive activists, Unions, progressive politicians, and many other lefty influences (and influencers). It's the one time of year all of them can be reliably found under one roof.

This is why it is almost imperative for Hillary Clinton to attend this year's Netroots Nation in Phoenix. There is already some degree of controversy about the choice of site this year (some people are still boycotting Arizona over the anti-immigrant law they passed a few years back). But that shouldn't deter Hillary, who (after all) is going to have to campaign in all 50 states.

Hillary Clinton is not the netroots' favorite candidate. That's about as politely as I can put it. Instead, many progressives are putting a whole lot of time and energy into what is almost guaranteed to be a futile effort: convincing Senator Elizabeth Warren to run and be their champion. Warren has said -- over and over and over again -- that she is not going to run. Sooner or later, her fans are going to have to come to grips with this. If Hillary Clinton truly is the only viable candidate from the Democratic side ("viable" meaning "polling above ten percent," say), then the only real option is going to become trying to influence Hillary to be the most progressive candidate possible.

That's a disappointing prospect for many. Other Democrats may become favorites of the progressives who will be looking for "anyone but Hillary," but the question will become whether they'll get any real traction beyond the halls of Netroots Nation. A much more possible outcome is trying to get Hillary to see that progressive ideas are popular ideas, and indeed the ones she should be eagerly running on.

The differences between Hillary Clinton (and even Bill) and the netroots are not as great as some may think, however. After all, it is not radically leftist to be in favor of a higher minimum wage -- it's in fact been a standard Democratic position for decades. Most of the real friction comes over how to treat Wall Street and the big banks, where progressivism becomes downright populist in nature. Hillary Clinton may get a little squishy on the question of taxing hedge fund managers and the one percent, and on strictly policing Wall Street in general. But her positions on women's rights and equal pay should be completely in tune with progressives. So while she's got some work to do to convince the netroots that she hears their issues and supports most of their agenda, it doesn't mean she has to completely reinvent herself to do so.

Ignoring the netroots (and skipping Netroots Nation), though, would be a big mistake for Hillary. Because she's going to need not only the independent voters in the general election, she's also going to need a big turnout from the coalition that Barack Obama put together -- the same coalition that largely didn't show up at the polls in 2014. What 2014 proved is that when the base shows no excitement, Democrats can lose elections in a big way. The people who attend Netroots Nation are, to a large extent, the people who can actually generate this excitement. These are the people who walk precincts and get heavily involved in Democratic politics, after all. They need convincing so that they can go out and convince others, to put this another way.

Personally, I will be attending Netroots Nation this year. I truly hope to see Hillary Clinton there as well. I think it's the best thing she could do to shore up those in the Democratic base who still have reservations about supporting Hillary wholeheartedly. Sure, not everything she'll have to say is going to be wildly applauded -- she might even get booed a few times. Hillary Clinton is already a known quantity, and parts of her political persona aren't going to be in line with everyone in a Netroots Nation audience. The question for her is whether she can get beyond that and get the crowd a little fired up on the issues where Hillary does see eye-to-eye with progressives. Hillary needs the netroots to be not just begrudgingly for her, but to actually get excited about the prospect of four (or eight) years of her in the Oval Office. The best way for her to accomplish this is to show up, explain her positions, and let people see she's listening not just to people along the Interstates of America and in Iowa living rooms, but also to the folks in the big keynote hall of Netroots Nation.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Hillary Clinton Team Holds Off-The-Record Journalist Dinner Ahead Of 2016 Announcement

Michael Calderone   |   April 10, 2015    9:22 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Hillary Clinton's campaign team held an off-the-record dinner Thursday night in Washington, D.C., for roughly two dozen journalists and staff members at John Podesta's house, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The dinner signals that the Clinton team is trying to engage with top reporters in the days before the Democrat's expected announcement of a 2016 presidential run. It also suggests the new campaign team is looking to change course from the toxic relationship with the press that plagued the 2008 race. The Clinton team is also holding a private event in New York on Friday night for journalists, according to sources.

Podesta, the campaign chairman and a seasoned cook, made a pasta with walnut sauce for the dinner guests, which included reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Bloomberg, McClatchy, Reuters and several major TV networks.

A Huffington Post reporter attended the dinner, but did not discuss it with this reporter.

The guests also enjoyed a shrimp appetizer, homemade cookies, and a selection of wine and beer -- including, appropriately, Brooklyn Lager.

Clinton herself did not attend the dinner. But several key Clinton staffers, including Campaign Manager Robby Mook, Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri, Strategic Communications Adviser Karen Finney, Senior Adviser Mandy Grunwald and pollster Joel Benenson, were there.

A Clinton spokesman declined to comment on the gathering.

Clinton has long had a fraught relationship with the media, going back to scandals and controversies during her husband's presidency in the 1990s. But in recent months, Clinton sources have promised that the 2016 campaign would be different.

She took questions from the press for about 15 minutes last month following revelations that she exclusively used a private email account for government business throughout her four years as secretary of state, but hasn't since given an interview.

During a journalism awards ceremony late last month, Clinton suggested she wanted a fresh start with the Fourth Estate.

"I am all about new beginnings," Clinton said. "A new grandchild, a new email account. Why not a new relationship with the press? So here it goes. No more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. But first of all, before I go any further. If you look under your chairs, you'll find a simple nondisclosure agreement."

This post has been updated with a more complete list of who was in attendance and to mention a Friday event in New York.

The Case Against Political Dynasties in American Politics

Daniel Wagner   |   April 7, 2015   12:16 PM ET

The Founding Fathers of the United States warned against the perils of dynastic succession in American politics. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington that "... a hereditary aristocracy will change the form of our Government from the best to the worst in the world." At that time, he called ancestral political rule a "scourge" that had condemned the overwhelming majority of France to a "cursed existence."

Yet, for some strange reason, many American citizens today seem to believe that because an individual may have come from a privileged background or a 'political' family, they should either have a right to attain elected office or will naturally do a better job than someone who isn't 'privileged' or part of a political dynasty. A January 2015 Washington Post-ABC News poll noted that only a third of voters polled would be less likely to vote for a Bush, and 14 percent less likely to vote for a Clinton, because of their surname.

Where did merit get lost in the equation, I wonder, and why do Americans fall for the 'dynasty trap'? At least part of the answer is apathy. Voter turnout for the 2014 mid-term elections was just 36.4 percent -- the lowest since 1940. At the beginning of World War II, just at the time when voters should have been motivated to ensure that fascism didn't consume America, the voting public chose to remain politically apathetic. The current propensity of American voters to be so indifferent to political dynasties appears then to have something to do with a lack of interest in politics, the idea being to go with the devil that you know.

Apathy appears to have spread beyond politics, to knowledge more generally, with a substantial decline in the number of Americans who regularly read a newspaper or a book. A 2012 Pew Research poll noted that only 23 percent of Americans read a newspaper regularly, and a 2013 Huffington Post poll showed that 28 percent of American hadn't read a book in more than a year. On this basis, how actively interested is the average American likely to be in politics or politicians? Not very.

What does history teach us about the wisdom of going the 'easy' route and voting for candidates from political dynasties? Does being part of such a dynasty impart one with greater political wisdom or a higher level of achievement? The Roosevelts and Kennedys greatly contributed to modern American liberalism, while the Bushes did the same for conservatism. But the longer historical record is far more mixed.

Our country's first two experiences with political dynasties did not end particularly well, with the Adams and Harrison Administrations being largely considered failures. Franklin Roosevelt's dramatic expansion of executive power resulted in a greater ability to promote economic reform and enhance military preparedness, but it also created a cult of personality and an enduring era of big government. The Kennedys were supremely devoted to public service and lofty liberal ambitions, but in the process, also to the acquisition of political power and the virtual elimination of competition in some areas of Massachusetts state politics.

While Bill Clinton has made a significant contribution to solving some of the world's more pressing problems through the Clinton Global Initiative, he and Hillary have become extremely wealthy since they left the White House -- something that would surely not have been so easily achieved had they not ridden their own political coattails to fortune. George W. Bush's legacy will likely be played out for decades to come as a result of the disastrous Iraq War and its lingering global consequences. Could a third entanglement in the Middle East be the result of a third Bush presidency?

With that all said, I actually believe that the American people will choose not to elect another Clinton or Bush to the presidency in 2016. Despite their political aloofness, the American people must know that political dynasties are not what the Founding Fathers intended, and that in this country, dynasties have not proven to be a net positive throughout the course of history. Moreover, given the current state of the world, what is clearly needed is some fresh thinking and the ability to move beyond the legacies of recent political history. At least it is my hope that, given the stakes at hand, the voting public has the common sense to become more engaged in the political process and consider the consequences of prolonging the Clinton and Bush dynasties.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions.

Success, Service and Sexism

Kayla Behbahani, D.O.   |   April 3, 2015    1:49 PM ET

During my first year of medical school, we had a sports medicine lecture. The professor introduced himself, then scanned the room, making note of the fact that there were more men than women. He asked for the male-to-female ratio. Sitting in the front, I replied with the figure that had been quoted to us at orientation: "60 percent male." He looked at me then and asked, "Is that why you're here?"

He meant it as a joke and people did laugh, but the truth is, the reason that response garnered the reaction it did is because it played on a stereotype, one that's insulting and long-since outdated, but still considered politically correct -- the stereotype that women will attend college, or in this case medical school, just to land a man. I assure you such a stereotype couldn't be further from the truth. I attended med school with some of the smartest, most accomplished women I had ever met and now as a doctor, I'm working alongside some of the brightest minds in medicine. To have our accomplishments reduced for a few cheap laughs is frustrating. What's even more frustrating is that it's not restricted to academia.

Last December, Barbara Walters revealed her "Most Fascinating People" list. Among the contenders, there was Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who took a bullet to the head while advocating for women's education, or Brittany Maynard, the Oregon newlywed diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who incited controversy when she chose to enact Oregon's "death with dignity" act and take her own life when her suffering became too much to handle, or Janet Yellen, the first female to serve as chair of the Federal Reserve, or any of a number of other women whose accomplishments helped to shape the world.

But instead, Ms. Walters chose Amal Clooney, the woman who married George Clooney.

In fairness to Amal Clooney, she actually is quite an accomplished woman. She's a graduate of NYU's law school; she clerked for a Supreme Court Justice; she practices as an international attorney; she has represented noteworthy clients in some of the most controversial cases in recent history. Had that been why Ms. Walters selected her, at least her reasoning would have made sense. But instead, Ms. Walters chose her because she was able to "fascinate one of the most fascinating men in the world," referring to actor George Clooney, and that, by far, seemed to be the point of the piece.

The five-minute clip marginalized Amal Clooney's education and career and centered primarily around her new spouse, referencing all the women who previously dated him and failed to get a ring and calling George's commitment to Amal, "one of the greatest achievements in human history." High praise, indeed.

With Senator Ted Cruz's campaign kick off, the 2016 political season has begun and among the speculated contenders, Vice President Joe Biden, former Governor Jeb Bush, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2008, then-Senator Clinton made her first bid for president and out came the critics. Criticizing her on policy was fair game for a presidential candidate, but her candidacy was reduced to criticism of her clothing, criticism of her hair and in perhaps one of the most bizarre media fixations since balloon boy's mid-air flight over Colorado, criticism of her cankles. National commentators attributed her success in politics to her husband's affairs, said that she looked like everyone's first wife standing outside the probate court, and even compared her to Glenn Close's chilling portrayal of a mentally unstable jilted lover in Fatal Attraction. Her historic candidacy became a punchline for every sexist joke that slipped the lips of both men and women.

So why then are people surprised that the closer we get to her announcement to run for president (if she truly does), the more her team stiffens their shoulders and steals their hearts for a replay? We can hope that past mistakes won't be repeated, that the national debate has progressed to a point that we no longer define our candidates by their gender, but considering the charges of sexism were never fully acknowledged the first time around and the recent backlash earned by the now-infamous "coded sexism" memo circulating in newsrooms around America, I don't plan to get my hopes up.

Obama's Foreign Policy: Continuity Rather Than Contradictions

Pierre Guerlain   |   March 31, 2015   12:21 PM ET

Analysts of foreign policy often dream or fantasize more than they analyze. Every single ideological stripe or every single political Internet site produces its analyses in accordance with preconceived notions or preferred frames of references. It is often difficult to know if analysts from different backgrounds are talking about the same events or policies. I am not talking about realists vs idealists for there are many more foreign policy churches than just two.

It is often like the famous Indian story about the blind men and the elephant: every one has a totally different conception of the elephant. Usually only time, and therefore history, enables one to find out which interpretations were the correct ones. Thus we now know that the missile gap between the US and the USSR during the Cold War was not the one which so many politicians and simple war-mongers referred to in the West: the US was always ahead and its economy was always much stronger, even at the time of Sputnik.

Now with the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program and the multiple battles in the Middle East a myriad of contradictions have flourished in articles, blogs and books. Obama is accused of cozying up to Iran with his eyes wide shut, some even argue that it is a return to the alliance with the "Persians" which shows Obama is ready to throw Israel under the bus. Saudi Arabia is said to doubt the US because it feels its President is so weak. Egypt supposedly turned to France to buy its latest aircraft for similar reasons.

In Europe some analysts also consider Obama is weak and that is the reason why he is not giving Ukrainians the lethal weapons (an oxymoron by the way) they request. Others argue that Obama is to the right of the Bush 1 administration and lets his adviser Victoria Nuland run the show which can only lead to a new Cold War (now threatening to become a hot one).

With Syria Obama is blamed for not bombing the Assad régime in 2013 and therefore appearing weak. He is now accused of forming a tacit alliance with the butcher of Damas and also with the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to defeat ISIS. But then the US supports Saudi Arabia in its intervention in Yemen although the UN did not authorize it. So the US is cooperating with Iran in Iraq while cooperating with Saudi Arabia in its major anti-shite bombings. The US also cooperates with its allies in Europe over Ukraine though Ms Nuland keeps insulting Europeans (fuck Europe) or bashing Germany (Merkel a defeatist). Obama talks tough on Russia but is on the same side as Putin against Islamists in Syria.

Netanyahu keeps trying to frighten the world about Iran, knowing full well that Iran does not have a nuclear bomb nor could it use one if it had it. Israel is talking as if the US were its enemy over Iran although it is financially, diplomatically and economically dependent on America. Friends use the rhetoric of enemies and enemies work together. Iran shares an objective with the US in Iraq but is radically opposed in Yemen. This is the stuff foreign policy is made of. Always.

Obama plays the foreign policy game the way all American presidents have played it. Iran-contra, for those who remember, involved the US, under supposedly super tough Reagan, illegally delivering weapons to Iran although the US supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its war of aggression against the Islamic Republic. The proceeds from this sale of weapons were used to illegally support the contras in Nicaragua. Cynicism and double-dealing are the rule in international relations. After 9/11, Iran and the US cooperated in the fight against the Taliban--without becoming friends for all this. Then the US, with its close ally Israel, resorted to sabotage of nuclear installations in Iran (stuxnet virus). Iraq under the butcher Hussein had been a good ally in the 80s when Rumsfeld went to Bagdad to pay a friendly visit. Bush junior refused to allow Israel to bomb Iran in 2008. American foreign policy is far more stable than the commentariat acknowledges.

Alliances of convenience are the staple of foreign policy as any reader of Machiavelli knows. Obama wants a deal over Iranian nuclear capabilities for it would be a major success of US foreign policy: Iran would not be a threat to Israel (which it is not really today anyway) but mostly Iran could not enjoy the prestige that this bomb might give it and thus could not lord it over Saudi Arabia or Israel. The deal Obama wants is actually in Israel's interest but Netanyahu needs an enemy or scapegoat for his own domestic reasons and his own military-industrial complex.

In Ukraine, Obama probably knows how not to get too far and if Nuland or McCain called the shots war with Russia would be a distinct possibility. It is wrong to argue that Obama was so busy with the pivot to the Pacific that he did not want to intervene in Europe. The US pushed its luck and its bases (NATO bases) closer and closer to Russia from Clinton onward. Americans thought the bear was defanged and Russia could be treated like Iraq or Serbia or maybe Venezuela. The US cornered the bear and then was surprised by the bear's brutal reaction. Obama talked about a reset which Putin's initial post 9/11 offer of cooperation made a reasonable proposition but then the US pushed further. The bear-baiter was taken aback.

Some argue that Obama is a neo-realist, but then he is les incisive than real realists like Walt and Mearsheimer, or that he is a pragmatist or neo-pragmatist. Whatever the label Obama, (that is, in fact, the many agencies, advisers and foreign policy decision makers working for his administration) is pushing the same agenda as former presidents which means projecting power to achieve more presence and ...power in the world. He fully supports Israel whatever is said about it for there is nothing pushing him to get closer to the Palestinians. He pushed Putin but not as far as fighting him in Crimea for he knows the stakes would be too high. He encircles China while the US and China have formed a kind of duopoly.

Lord Palmerston famously said in 1848: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow". This is the golden rule of foreign policy. So Obama's twists and turns, apparent weaknesses and reversals, his seeming contradictions can be understood in this frame. The interests of the US or of its dominant class are that Iran should neither have a bomb nor get too big for its boots in Iraq and the Middle East, that Israel should remain a close ally and client state in the Middle East without launching dangerous military attacks that could upset the fragile system of quasi-alliances in the region, that Russia should be kept down though not prompted into a serious military attack, that China should be a viable economic partner but kept to its sphere of influence and not threaten Japan, that Europe should be a close economic ally but not a major competitor nor a united force in the world.

There are shifts, twists and turns in the official rhetoric a few blunders like the Libya invasion in 2011 and probably a miscalculation about Russia which Clinton & Bush II also made but, overall, Obama has not strayed from the objective of US hegemony and global dominance. He resorts to other means than his predecessors, global surveillance for instance, but he has remained within the mainstream of US dealings with the world. On the left, people argue he is defending the empire, on the right people are reluctant to admit he has fought as hard an any former president to maintain American leadership, that is hegemony. There are curves and obstacles on the road but Obama navigates in the usual American way. The right is wrong to criticize him: he is doing what they would have done, only in a more subtle way.

Trail To The Chief: 2016 Perks Of Being A Wallflower Edition

Lauren Weber   |   March 30, 2015    5:52 AM ET

2016 Perks Of Being A Wallflower Edition

Here at Trail to the Chief, we are not cynics. Far from it. We actually think that politics and government can be positive forces. Why else would we report on their shortcomings? We can’t help but admire those who have the guts to immerse themselves in the miserable, and at times humiliating, process of running for president. Nor do we dismiss the possibility that the candidates are motivated, at least in part, by idealism, by desire to do good, and by the conviction that they have the talent, vision and patience to lead this all-but-unleadable country.

But surely there is more -- or rather less -- to it than that. Most of the people running have only the dimmest chance of winning. The Republican field alone has at least 14 candidates, which makes for forbidding odds; on the Democratic side, the chances of knocking off Hillary Clinton are steep, too.

So why are these legions of men and women running, or toying with running or talking about running in 2016? Well, there are, shall we say, Lesser Reasons. It doesn’t take a cynic to find them. It only takes a short while of hanging around in the Augean Stables of Campaign World, where the reeking stalls are full of vanity, blind ambition, narcissism, business networking and the plain old need to make a buck.

So here is our Trail to the Chief list of the potential perks of being a wallflower in 2016:

One good behind-the-curtain debate anecdote can double your fee.
Gary Bauer
Follow the Newt Gingrich guide to a multimedia industry -- books, DVD, lecture series, alternate history. You name it; he's got it.
Newt Gingrich
It's so much easier to be a TV commentator than an author.
Mike Huckabee
Not charismatic enough to win the big prize, but you walked and talked enough to make it to the No. 2 spot or Cabinet position.
Lindsey Graham
All about the Benjamins -- Chris Dodd added presidential campaign to his resume and ended up as head of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Chris Dodd
Mission from God means you never truly lose, and you boost your show's profile in the meantime.
Pat Robertson
Arguably can have a better impact elsewhere within the party than as a candidate.
Howard Dean
Your hedge fund Rolodex will be set for life.
The Clintons
Only Iowa and New Hampshire, but it's fine. And people have to listen to you play guitar.
Martin O'Malley
Ego-boosting phalanx of bodyguards that turns into the Secret Service. You can really impress the geeks at CPAC.
Bobby Jindal
Armchair quarterback with nothing to lose.
Mitt Romney
You can quit politics altogether and move on to another life.
Al Gore

Candidate Photos: Getty, Associated Press

  |   March 23, 2015   11:31 AM ET

WASHINGTON, March 23 (Reuters) - Private emails that Hillary Clinton turned over to a House committee investigating the 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, show her aides sometimes used their personal email accounts to communicate with her, the New York Times reported on Monday.

But the approximately 300 emails from Clinton, the presumptive presidential candidate, do not prove the former secretary of state ordered a "stand down," stopping U.S. forces from responding to the Benghazi attack or participated in any related cover-up, the newspaper reported, citing four senior government officials.

The Times report is the latest revelation in the saga over Clinton and her use of a personal email address to conduct government business, as well as a private computer server to store that correspondence.

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told the Times that Clinton's aides primarily used their work email to correspond with her about government matters, adding that "only the tiniest fraction of the more than 1 million emails they sent or received involved their personal accounts."

According to the Times, at least four Clinton aides occasionally used personal emails to contact her while she was at the State Department, including her foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan; chief of staff, Cheryl Mills; senior adviser, Philippe Reines; and her personal aide, Huma Abedin.

A spokesman for the Republican-controlled House Select Committee on Benghazi declined to comment, according to the newspaper.

Clinton has said she gave copies of all work-related emails to the State Department, but Republicans, who see her as their top target in the run-up to the 2016 election, continued to press for more records.

Last week Republicans asked the State Department to hand over numerous documents related to Clinton's use of private email while she was secretary of state and have called on her to hand over her email server to a third party.

Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the House committee investigating Benghazi, has said he does not think Clinton has given the committee all emails related to the attack and last week extended the deadline for her to turn them over. (Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott and Jeffrey Benkoe)