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This Senator Is Sick Of Europeans And Their Stupid Coins

Zach Carter   |   March 25, 2015    5:59 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The European continent has gifted some of history's greatest cultural icons to the world. The Louvre. The Colosseum. The Cologne Cathedral. Plato, Dante, Gibbon. The Clash.

But Europe has also committed great crimes. In particular, Europeans go around paying for things with coins valued in whole units of currency. Fussy Europeans use 1-euro coins and 2-euro coins, as if a paper note would not suffice. This abomination shall never be replicated in the United States, if Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has his way. Because Charlemagne was overrated, and you know what? Fuck Pericles.

This week, Vitter filed an amendment with the Senate Budget Committee that would "strike out a provision that makes it easier for Washington elites to force Americans to give up their dollar bills and use dollar coins, like Europeans." Go ahead, read the whole amendment. It's only a page long, and it actually says that.

Like any blue-blooded American, Vitter knows that God intended coins to be used only for fractions of a single unit of currency. This is why coins are known as "cents" or "change" in These United States. For whole units -- one dollar, five dollars, what have you -- paper notes have long been recognized as the chosen medium.

But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has blasphemed against the paper. His latest budget proposal includes a provision (see Section 414), that would require any proposal that contemplates shifting from a paper dollar bill to a dollar coin to note the budgetary impact of such a proposal.

Enzi is really into dollar coins. And according to the Government Accountability Office, moving from dollar bills to dollar coins would create about $5.5 billion in budgetary savings over the course of 30 years, making the bill-to-coin move a way for his committee to open up other avenues for spending.

The GAO has been recommending this switch for years, noting that many of those pesky European nations (and Canada, which, let’s face it, is sort of the same as Europe, conceptually speaking) managed to "obtain a financial benefit."

But the GAO also acknowledged that these gains were kind of fake. Yes, dollar coins last longer than paper money, but this extended durability doesn't actually outweigh the higher upfront costs. The GAO said the budget gains it projected were due solely to "seigniorage" profits: money the government makes by printing new money.

The difference between what a government pays to create its currency and what it can buy with the face value of that currency is seigniorage. If it costs 30 cents to make a $1 coin, the government can make 70 cents in seigniorage off of that coin.

Now, each $1 coin costs more to produce than each $1 bill. But if the U.S. were to replace a lot of its bills with coins, it would need to mint a lot of new coins. And production of this new currency would create the savings (in seigniorage for each coin) that Enzi lauds.

So it's kind of fake. But who cares? Money, after all, is pretty much fake. Even hard-money Ron Paul acolytes are just fetishizing shiny stuff. But it turns out that carrying around coins instead of bills can actually be a burden on the overall economy. It's more sluggish and more expensive, according to a December 2013 Federal Reserve analysis, which means increased costs for the private sector.

The trouble is, neither the Fed nor the GAO considered just how European this whole thing is, which is far more important. Byzantium, shmyzantium.

Important Fact-Check: 108,000,000,000 ÷ 12,000,000 = 9,000

Jason Linkins   |   March 25, 2015    2:03 PM ET

The Washington Post's resident fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, has a pretty important corrective to mete out to an unsuspecting congressman today. Specifically this: 108 billion divided by 12 million equals 9,000, and not -- as some believe -- 5 million. Can't stress this enough. All of which raises an important question: Where was Kessler when I desperately needed a trigonometry tutor?

The backstory on this stems from a statement made by Rep. Pete Session (R-Texas) on March 24 on the floor of the House. Sessions, who was at the time apparently sleepwalking his way through another rote attack on Obamacare, said the following:

If you just do simple multiplication, 12 million [insured individuals] into $108 billion, we are talking literally every single [Obamacare] recipient would be costing this government more than $5 million per person for their insurance. It's staggering ... $108 billion for 12 million people is immoral. It's unconscionable.

It certainly would be unconscionable if numbers worked like that -- and maybe they do in an upside-down world where you describe a plain act of long division as "simple multiplication." But as Kessler points out, Sessions' math gets weirder still:

None of Sessions' numbers make much sense, however. The Congressional Budget Office, in a March report, said that the cost of coverage in fiscal 2016 for Obamacare (in the exchanges and Medicaid expansion) would be $95 billion, after penalty payments and other revenue. But the reduction in the number of uninsured Americans would be 23 million people.

So if you do the math correctly, that's a cost of $4,130 per uninsured individual in 2016. So that's less than half the figure that would have resulted from properly dividing Sessions' numbers.

It's always nice to find a journalist who's not afraid to be servicey. But I'd take issue with one part of Kessler's work here -- where he places the blame for this incident. "Sometimes a lawmaker will wander on the floor of the House or Senate and begin speaking without any notes," Kessler writes, adding, "That's a big mistake."

Perhaps. But I don't think that the failure to bring notes to the floor of the House is at issue here. When Kessler contacted Sessions' office, he was told that the representative "had gotten his numbers mixed up" and what Sessions had wanted to convey was that the Affordable Care Act "had cost $1.2 trillion over the past three years, and yet had only covered 20 million people." Therefore, the "unconscionable" number at which Sessions had intended to arrive was $50,000. Mixing up 50,000 with 5 million is still a bit of a howler, but in a narrow sense, the "should have brought some notes" advice seems solid.

However, Kessler surmised that this contention had the faint aroma of a nonsensical story that originated in the Daily Mail, which had already been fatally perforated by fact-checkers for its amateurish level of innumeracy. Per Kessler: "The problem with the Daily Mail calculation is that the newspaper took a ten-year budget number and divided by the number of insured individuals in a single year. No serious budget or health expert would use that kind of calculation."

But what if you are Pete Sessions, wholly unmoored from any requirement to be "serious"? You just say whatever you like, without concern that the source you're citing is a newspaper that routinely plays fast and loose with the facts. So this is not a problem that any number of notecards would have solved. Maybe there was a brief, mad moment as Sessions began to form the words "5 million" when he thought, "Wait a minute, that doesn't sound right." But he went for it, and he's not sorry, and this Kessler column represents the totality of the political consequences that Sessions will have to face. Next time, 10 million? Sure, ok, this isn't rocket science.

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'Testing The Waters': The Unseen Significance Of A Candidate Cliche

Jason Linkins   |   March 24, 2015    2:12 PM ET

A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to write about the myriad steps that a human being takes along the way to becoming a presidential candidate -- from the period in which supporters "draft" a candidate to that person's "active explorations" to "laying the groundwork" for a run to the run for office itself. The process is humorous, in that we have this tortured and convoluted way of talking about people that are obviously running for office well in advance of their formal declaration. But there's a deadly serious side to it as well: Up until a person formally becomes a candidate, they are legally allowed to coordinate with super PACs. Hell, they can even found their own super PAC!

So much of this weird and serpentine path that would-be office-seekers take as they flower into full-fledged candidates blessed by the Federal Election Commission is an elaborate means to navigate, and in some cases circumvent, what remains of our campaign finance regulatory regime. For that reason, I regret not including an important step in every candidate's journey -- the moment they start "testing the waters." As it turns out, this silly little phrase -- a well-worn election cycle cliche -- is freighted with significance, especially if you are a fan of robust reforms to our broken campaign finance system

Now on the face of it, of course, this sounds silly. Just about everyone we consider to be a de facto contender for the nation's highest office has obviously had a toe in those briny waters for some time. But for the Campaign Legal Center's Paul S. Ryan, it's a critical distinction. So critical, in fact, that Ryan authored a whole report, "'Testing the Waters' and the Big Lie: How Prospective Presidential Candidates Evade Candidate Contribution Limits While the FEC Looks the Other Way."

With the 2014 midterm elections behind us, public attention has shifted to the 2016 presidential election. News stories appear daily about prospective 2016 presidential candidates' repeated trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, extensive fundraising and campaign machine building. Yet none of the early frontrunners -- former Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Scott Walker and more than a dozen other politicians -- will even admit that they are "testing the waters" of a presidential campaign. Why is this? And how can it be?

The "why" part is easy to explain. Federal law requires an individual who is "testing the waters" of a federal candidacy to pay for those activities with funds raised in compliance with the federal candidate contribution restrictions -- no individual contributions above $2,700, no corporate or labor union funds. "Testing the waters" means activity "undertaken to determine whether the individual should become a candidate," including, for example, travel to see if there is sufficient support for one's candidacy. Prospective presidential candidates deny that they are "testing the waters" in order to evade the candidate contribution limits.

Ryan goes on to explain that at the moment, "only Senator Lindsey Graham and former Senator Jim Webb appear to be complying with the federal campaign finance law requirement that 'testing the waters' activities be paid for with candidate-permissible funds." The rest, says Ryan, are playing fast and loose with their super PACs and PACs, raising money in amounts that far exceed $2,700 for any number of things that look a hell of a lot like wading in the metaphoric waters.

Ryan expands on his paper in Politico on Tuesday, arguing that the media is "ignoring a major story" and suggesting a way they can correct this:

Every reporter on the campaign trail should be sticking a microphone or a pocket recorder in the face of prospective candidates and asking them, point blank, whether they are "testing the waters" of a presidential run -- i.e., whether they are spending any money in the process of determining whether to run. If they deny that they are "testing the waters" of candidacy, that absurdity alone warrants reporting. And if they acknowledge that they are "testing the waters," they should be asked about their fundraising above the $2,700 candidate limit and whether they are complying with federal campaign finance laws.

This is a pretty good example of how rampant government corruption can manifest itself as a thousand, seemingly boring, "paper cut" offenses, where no single instance looks like it threatens to exsanguinate our democracy. But without some attention, this abuse will continue. And sadly, our media's attention to corruption is quite limited in its scope.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
'Testing the Waters' and the Big Lie: How Prospective Presidential Candidates Evade Candidate Contribution Limits While the FEC Looks the Other Way (PDF) Campaign Legal Center

How 2016ers Are Breaking the Law and Getting Away With It Politico

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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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New Hampshire Fourth-Graders Learn Vital Lesson In Cynicism From State Legislature

Jason Linkins   |   March 19, 2015    2:43 PM ET

Most people agree that it's vital for the youth of America to learn about civic participation and the ins and outs of our representative democracy. Some even believe that getting a civic education can be fun! Last week, a group of New Hampshire grade school students got to learn the most important lesson of all -- that sometimes, government is where hopes, dreams, kindness, charity, and good taste are brutally murdered right in front of you.

As NH1's Shari Smalls reported Thursday, a group of fourth-graders from Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, recently undertook a fun, hands-on exercise in how to turn a bill into a law. They had drafted legislation to make the red-tailed hawk the official "state raptor" of the Granite State. Unfortunately for these well-meaning, bright-eyed kids, standing in their way was the New Hampshire state House of Representatives, which is -- respectfully -- one of the most loop-de-doody legislative bodies in the world.

As I've had the privilege of explaining before, the New Hampshire state House has 400 members. Think about that for a second. The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 voting members. The population of New Hampshire is about 1.3 million, which means that every member of the New Hampshire House represents about 3,000 people. If the U.S. House represented the United States by the same proportion, it would be a 99,000-member body, and the resulting interplay between legislators would make most Thunderdomes look like a model of decorum.

Compounding this problem is the fact that most New Hampshire representatives are paid next to nothing, and so the chamber can be a haven for also-rans, never-weres, never-will-bes and nothing-better-to-dos, as well as cranky weirdos who believe in fun theories like how the Boston Marathon bombing was an inside job.

So while our heroic fourth-grade protagonists did manage to get their bill out of the House's Environment and Agriculture Committee, it's hardly surprising what happened next. As Smalls reports:

Rep. Warren Groen, a Republican from Rochester, said, "[The red-tailed hawk] grasps [its prey] with its talons then uses its razor sharp beak to basically tear it apart limb by limb, and I guess the shame about making this a state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood."

Ugh, Rep. Groen, can you not?

Another lawmaker, Rep. John Burt (R-Goffstown), complained that "bottom line, if we keep bringing more of these bills, and bills, and bills forward that really I think we shouldn't have in front of us, we'll be picking a state hot dog next." But there's no need to pick a state hot dog, since it's clear that New Hampshire's official state sausage is rendered from the House's own deliberations and wrapped in a casing of tactlessness.

The fourth-graders' bill went down 133-160, and I suppose the silver lining is that there were a hundred or so other legislators too busy doing God-knows-what to join in the destruction of these kids' modest ambitions.

For their next trick, the kids should make things slightly harder for these legislators by proposing the bald eagle as the state's raptor. This will lead to some vital lessons about pandering, posturing and cheap theatrics.

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It's Sad That The Best The Media Can Do To Fight Government Corruption Is Scalp Aaron Schock

Jason Linkins   |   March 18, 2015    4:50 PM ET

This week, noted ab-haver Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) announced that he will be resigning his seat March 31 under the weight of multiple examples of shady, scandalous behavior. "The constant questions over the last six weeks," said Schock in a statement, "have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself." Given the circumstances, Schock's reference to "high standards" itself managed to set a high standard for lack of self-awareness.

Schock's rapid and farcical fall from grace began with a chance encounter between Washington Post reporter Ben Terris and an interior designer named Annie Brahler, whom Schock hired to make over his Capitol Hill office in the ostentatious fashion of the show "Downton Abbey." Terris took a bunch of photos of Schock's chandeliers and feathers, and Schock's communication director attempted to deter Terris from publishing those photos, apparently not knowing or caring how the Streisand Effect works. The result was that more reporters started getting curious about how Schock had been spending his time and money.

Eventually, it became clear that Schock was a serial chiseler, a profligate spender of taxpayer money and apparently a veteran filer of fraudulent reimbursement claims. The coup de grace came in the form of Politico reporters asking after a discrepancy in a mileage reimbursement claim -- Schock had "billed the federal government and his campaign for logging roughly 170,000 miles on his personal car from January 2010 through July 2014," but it turned out that when Schock sold the car, the odometer told the story of a vehicle that had not been driven half as many miles.

Evidently, soon after receiving an inquiry from Politico's reporters, Schock decided that the jig was up, and announced that he was bailing. This was treated as a big deal in the media! But a day later, one unasked question seems to loom: So what?

I sort of hate to prick the balloon of hype and self-congratulation over the scalping of Aaron Schock, but the truth is that the guy's misdeeds really do not amount to a hill of beans, or even a lesser quantity of beans. Like the man himself, Schock's crimes are trivial, and the fact that he ended up getting snared really only underscores how much corruption goes on elsewhere without anyone ever being held accountable for it.

Let's take a brief spin around some recent news, shall we? First stop: the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which is set to be adjudicated by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This bill is often framed as the result of a collaboration between Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). But as Hearst's David McCumber reports, at least one lobbying organization for America's polluters -- the American Chemistry Council -- got a crack at the bill, clumsily leaving their digital fingerprints all over it. Jennifer Talhelm, Udall's communications director, responded to this revelation by saying that the bill was "shared with a number of stakeholders" for the purpose of "writing the best possible bill." In this case, that's sort of like asking the foxes for input on henhouse access points.

This week, The Huffington Post's Paul Blumenthal reported on the payday lending industry's massive effort to influence legislation that might regulate their predatory practices and protect consumers from financial harm. The effort was fueled by influence peddlers and dark money, a sector that's been weaponized by the "Supreme Court's 2010 ruling [that] led to the creation of super PACs and nonprofit groups so closely tied to congressional leaders that they regularly receive large contributions from those seeking a foot in the door." (In this particular case, a path was beaten straight to the top of House leadership.)

As Blumenthal reported in a separate article, the 2016 presidential race is essentially happening in an environment where no one is even pretending that campaign finance rules have any teeth at all:

More than a year and a half before Election Day, the 2016 campaign is already showcasing the complete breakdown of a federal campaign finance system rooted in strict limits on donations. Thus far, the unlimited money chase has made the invisible primary -- the period before the actual primary elections when candidates seek to consolidate support among influential party leaders and big-money donors -- rather visible...

At some point before the actual vote-counting starts, the non-candidates will have to reveal their true form and move on from pretending to not be a candidate to pretending to care about campaign finance rules. Then they will, in the eyes of the law, separate themselves from their super PACs and nonprofits.

(As a reminder, the official Eat The Press editorial position on candidates and super PACs is that we refuse to participate in the fiction that there is a separation of any kind between candidates, official campaigns and the super PACs that support them.)

Anyway! These are just this week's stories of institutional corruption for which no one is being shamed, scorched or hounded into resignation.

The fact is that because of the degradation of campaign finance laws, lobbying restrictions and the remnants of any firewall between influence peddlers and the legislators who spend most of their week on the phone with influence peddlers, we've now got a kind of idiot-proof system of corruption-enabling. So if you find yourself at the center of a career-killing media frenzy, it means you are actually dumber than an idiot. You have to be a showy, inept bum like Schock or former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), leaving a paper trail of penny-ante crimes in your wake. Or you have to be caught in some basic example of a quid-pro-quo bribe, where hard currency is left stuffed in a freezer, like former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).

Schock's real crime, honestly, was that he didn't play this system correctly and parlay several decades of favor-trading into a big cash-out at the end of his political career. By thinking short instead of thinking long, and feathering his nest with cheap gifts (as well as actual, literal feathers), he broke the unwritten rules of the game. So he's been bounced in disgrace, while, say, former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) -- one beneficiary of the aforementioned dark money payoffs from the payday lending industry -- gets to lay up in the cut, relaxing with his seven-figure investment bank salary, his reward for playing the game correctly.

The gradual deterioration of our bulwarks against institutional graft is something that former New York gubernatorial contender Zephyr Teachout laid out at length in her 2014 book Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United. In January of this year, after New York Assembly Speaker and fraudster-extraordinaire Sheldon Silver (D) was finally brought low, Teachout accurately observed that "one high-profile indictment does not represent the dawn of a new democracy." Those are words worth remembering as the rest of Schock's saga plays out. As are these, per Teachout:

Corruption exists when institutions and officials charged with serving the public serve their own ends. Under current law, campaign contributions are illegal if there is an explicit quid pro quo, and legal if there isn’t. But legal campaign contributions can be as bad as bribes in creating obligations. The corruption that hides in plain sight is the real threat to our democracy.

Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one...

The structure of private campaign finance has essentially pre-corrupted our politicians, so that they can’t even recognize explicit bribery because it feels the same as what they do every day.

It's an easy, breezy environment in which to operate. And the media doesn't do much to make it harder. You can find no better illustration of this than when The New York Times' editors were faced with the challenge of rendering their endorsement for the 2014 New York gubernatorial race between Teachout and the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Here are the two infamous paragraphs of the Times' long-winded declaration of cowardice:

Mr. Cuomo became governor on that platform and recorded several impressive achievements, but he failed to perform Job 1. The state government remains as subservient to big money as ever, and Mr. Cuomo resisted and even shut down opportunities to fix it. Because he broke his most important promise, we have decided not to make an endorsement for the Democratic primary on Sept. 9.

His opponent in the primary is Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham Law School who is a national expert on political corruption and an advocate of precisely the kind of transparency and political reform that Albany needs. Her description of Mr. Cuomo as part of a broken system “where public servants just end up serving the wealthy” is exactly on point, but we decline to endorse her because she has not shown the breadth of interests and experience needed to govern a big and diverse state.

The Times declined to endorse Cuomo because of his self-evident corruption, but could not support Teachout because of her lack of "breadth of interests and experience." Of course, the most pertinent kind of "experience" that Cuomo had, and that Teachout lacked, was experience in manipulating a corrupt system to one's own ends. As Gawker's Tom Scocca put it: "It is true that Teachout is not an experienced politician. The experienced politicians in New York State are hacks and criminals. That is the situation that the New York Times editorial board would like you to believe it cares about."

So what, in the end, did Schock do wrong? Simply put, he failed to be corrupt in a way that could supersede the media's default position, in which "good government" types are taken less seriously than the veteran government hacks and crooks who succeed within a broken system, forever spinning through well-greased revolving doors, selling out and falling upward. Schock got laid low because, ultimately, he lacked ambition -- he was scrabbling after nickel-and-dime benefits instead of setting his sights on a bigger payout. He was, compared to those who've mastered the art of institutional corruption, a joke. But -- ha, ha! -- really, the joke's on you.

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Nope.

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.

Clinton Email Controversy Gives 2016 Race Its First Dose Of High Anxiety

Jason Linkins   |   March 15, 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!

Since the beginning of March, the singular story of our long-running pseudo-event known as the "2016 presidential race" has been former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her emails. This week, it became a matter which Clinton herself finally got around to addressing at a press conference, in which she explained that her decision to commingle State Department and non-State Department emails on a single email domain of her choosing was a decision borne from desired convenience, which has ended in no small amount of regret.

As I noted earlier this week, one of the most interesting things about Clinton's sudden email problem is that it probably can't be solved to anyone's satisfaction. The underlying assumption is that there is some email, somewhere, that has managed to escape proper oversight. No matter how many emails Clinton discloses, if this imagined missive fails to materialize, it will always be thought of something that's being hidden, as opposed to something that does not exist. The only solution is for none of this to have happened in the first place -- and it's not as if this required some super-genius amount of foresight to prevent.

Rather than solve the problem, it must simply be endured -- and not just by Clinton herself. Whatever you think of this email micro-event -- be it the intimation of a larger disorder, or one more shiny object of diminishing value -- the fact is that it has altered the "invisible primary" in some measurable way for Clinton's allies, her opponents, and the media tasked with covering the story. Today, we'll put everyone under the microscope -- and on the couch -- to see where this story is going, how it might end, and how everyone copes along the way. As with anything in American politics, everyone is unhappy in their own way.

Democrats: Seller's anxiety, mixed with frustration

As with any super-popular public figure, Hillary Clinton enjoys the affections of devotees for whom the mere notion that this story constitutes something scandalous is preposterous, and who are quick to point out that other current political figures (most notably GOP Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) have email sins of their own. Naturally, this is something of a contradictory position to take, but the underlying emotional rationale is one in which Clinton-philes feel that their candidate is uniquely persecuted.

As Harry Enten reported this week over at FiveThirtyEight, Democrats in general hold the opinion that the media reserves its sharpest elbows for the former first lady:

While Clinton was Secretary of State, from 2009 to early 2013, the view that the press was out to get her subsided. But since she left that office -- and its nonpartisan glow -- behind, the percentage of Democrats who see the press as being too harsh in covering Clinton has risen from 23 percent in 2013 to 54 percent in June 2014. Just 9 percent thought the media was easier on Clinton than on the average politician, according to that June poll. This 45 percentage point gap between “harder” and “easier” is similar to how Republicans felt about the press and Republican politicians, according to YouGov polls during the first half of 2014.

But trends do not prove monoliths, and if you examine the way party elites and activists have responded to the email flap, you don't see a blind "blame the press" strategy. Instead, you see a growing demand for Clinton to just get on with her campaign already. That marks a big change from the halcyon days of late January, when everyone seemed more or less resigned to the fact that Clinton was going to afford herself "the luxury of time" because, as one anonymous source put it, "She's better off as a non-candidate. Why not wait?"

But if Clinton wanted some sort of well-manicured campaign rollout, it's looking more like that won't be in the cards. As Politico's Gabriel DeBenedetti reported this week:

Democrats around the country had a clear and stern message for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday after she wrapped up her much-anticipated -- if hastily scheduled -- news conference on her use of a private email account as secretary of state: She shouldn’t expect this issue to go away in the coming months, and she’d better hurry up and announce her presidential campaign soon.

“The whole situation underscores the need for her to announce her candidacy, as an actual campaign would be the best way to deal with issues like this if they come up,” said Kathy Winter, chairwoman of Iowa’s Osceola County Democrats.

The value of jumping into the race with both feet just as the heat from this email flap is at its height is pretty simple: You get to change the subject. You get to outline and defend policy positions and priorities, and give the teeming masses in the political media something more esoteric to chew on for a while. In short, you start playing your game. As one anonymous Democratic strategist told DeBenedetti, “When she announces that she’s running, that’s when this will fade away.”

Or, so that person hopes. Let's face it, if it were a sure thing that this problem was so easily dissolved, that source would be known by name, instead of by "a national Democratic strategist familiar with the emerging campaign structure and plans."

Of course, there's a world of Democrats outside of the Clinton fan base, including a fairly significant number of people who have dedicated their lives to convincing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to ruin her life and run for president, presumably to Clinton's left. From that camp, we've seen a trickle of reactions to this email controversy that all basically amount to, "Why always Hillary?"

As H.A. Goodman writes in these pages, "However, there's an alternative to constantly defending Hillary Clinton from real or fabricated accusations and controversies. Her name is Senator Elizabeth Warren." The interesting thing to note is the way Goodman characterizes the act of righteously defending Clinton from "fabricated accusations and controversies" as something that's not worth the effort.

The only problem, of course, is that Warren is not running, and Democrats do not have a particularly deep bench. That's why the "crap or get off the pot" faction is likely to get their way, pushing Clinton into proper campaign mode by April. At which point, she'll welcome the delicate knives of her rivals in the GOP.

Republicans: Guarded optimism, but worried they'll blow it

Obviously, all of this attendant controversy has been good news for the GOP, because this story weaves well with many pre-existing media narratives (the Clintons are, by nature, secretive) and oppositional talking points (the Clintons will do anything to win). And with Clinton looming large as a near-untouchable primary contender, Republicans will take no small amount of satisfaction in the fact that she won't get through the pre-primary season unbuffeted.

Nevertheless, it would appear that some sort of natural anxiety has seeped in on the Republican side, as the mouth of this irresistible gift horse clamors for gaze. As GOP strategist Ed Rogers writes in The Washington Post, "Meanwhile, Republicans have reacted in a somewhat bipolar fashion. They’ve sloshed from, 'Oh no, Hillary Clinton is invincible' to 'Oh no, Hillary Clinton might not be the Democratic nominee in 2016.'”

Is it possible that after all of this, Republicans would rather run against Hillary Clinton than someone else? That would evince far more confidence in the Democrats' second string than even the Democrats have mustered at this point. And yet, you can find people sharing these sentiments. Over at American Thinker, J. Robert Smith says that the question, "Would our party nominee be better off with Hillary or another Democrat?" is "more than an arm-chair debate":

RINO election strategies failed in 2008 and 2012. What critical constituencies do the McConnell-Boehner led GOP congressional majorities persuade or excite? Where are congressional Republicans advancing better approaches to the nation’s challenges? Boehner and McConnell capitulations on critical issues don’t exactly motive base conservatives or make Republicans standout.

An establishment Republican nominee has dim chances of winning the White House in 2016 unless Hillary manages to gain the Democratic nomination. Hillary won’t be the Democratic nominee; the left is making sure of it.

Obviously, most of that is predicated on a broad critique of "establishment Republicans" and some ostentatious assumptions about "the left" being engaged in a process to ensure Hillary doesn't run, but there is a danger, at least in theory, in the "candidate to be named later." And with current opinion polls telling our media that the people are hot for change, there's something reassuring about fighting Hillary Clinton in a general election when you presume she won't be able to embody something "new" in fitting enough fashion.

Elsewhere, there is the notion that somehow, the GOP will blow this. Clinton's "foes," writes Time magazine's David Von Drehle, "almost always overplay their hand":

Though members of Congress are calling for her to turn over the email server for forensic examination, they would be wise to proceed cautiously. A key page in the Clinton rule book is the one that reads: When in doubt, drive your enemies crazy -- then sit back and watch them implode.

The whole notion of the GOP always shooting themselves in the foot when they've got a clear sight at the target naturally comes in for some mockery in some circles. And yet, over in Politico Magazine, feisty GOP flack Rick Wilson makes it clear that this is one of his chief worries, urging Republicans to "stay out of the way of [Clinton's] email fiasco":

Let’s try something new: maintain message discipline, hold focus and keep an eye on a bigger objective than your daily press release, social media hits or email fundraising drops. This is about her, not us, so unless GOP elected and opinion leaders are smart and subtle, and execute with the right timing and tone, she wins. Try for once to play the long game and help Hillary Clinton take on water.

Of course, "never interrupt your opponent when they're making a mistake" is, in American politics, advice that is offered almost as often as it goes unheeded. But it goes to show that old GOP hands know this "overplay the hand" tendency well enough.

Of course, the main target of Wilson's piece may not be Republicans at all, but rather the media.

The Media: One nation under a backlash

"While the media’s passive 'attention span' excuse du jour is real," Wilson writes, "many in the press are possessed of a boundless ideological desire to change the subject right now."

There's scant evidence that this notion is true. The political press seems rather united on the notion that Clinton's press conference failed to end the story and continued to raise concerns. As of now, The Associated Press and Gawker have filed separate lawsuits against the State Department to gain access to Clinton's missing emails. Every indication is that this story shall persist for some time.

Still, it's a pretty nifty bit of "working the refs" from Wilson, and it neatly encapsulates the delicate position the press is in. If media outlets run at the story with the willy-nilly spirit of their typical foolishness, they could end up resembling the very creatures that Harry Enten's poll respondents imagine -- wild-eyed gaffe patrols eternally chasing after the shiny object. Give up on the story too soon, and they'll become another caricature: the in-the-tank liberal media. (And even though this story wouldn't exist without determined reporting, you can bet that if the flap ends up not hurting Clinton, the press will be accused of "burying the story.") Either way you turn, backlash looms.

Meanwhile, it's anybody's guess as to whether the people pursuing this story are doing so with any mind to what they should even be looking for, exactly. Time's Von Drehle pinpoints one area of interest, the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Per Von Drehle:

The risk that foreign governments and superrich foreign citizens might donate to the foundation as a way of currying favor with the Secretary of State worried both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Hillary Clinton was first named Obama’s top diplomat. And while the White House forced the foundation to sign a point-by-point agreement in 2008 about what it could and could not do while Hillary Clinton ran the State Department, there really is no separating the globe-trotting Clintons from the heady atmosphere of money and influence.

Still, it's not clear that everyone's wading into this story with a solid game plan. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza says that he's "stuck on" the number of emails deemed private, and indeed, he offers no indication as to whether he's considered the distinction between quality and quantity. CNN's Laura Koran made a game attempt to illustrate what a pending release of Clinton emails might "look like," but never really gets past what's likely to be excluded from such a release to reckon with what might be there.

And the answer, of course, is that there may be nothing extraordinary in those emails at all. Of course, there could also be any number of embarrassments -- intemperate remarks, unexpected criticism, blunt analysis -- that might be dredged from Clinton's emails, as might be dredged from our own. So the story could just as easily end up in "What about your gaffes?" territory as it might end up exposing some dodgy synergy between Clinton's State Department office and her family's foundation.

Of course, there's something to this whole story that does speak to the public interest. As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel opinion columnist Ernst-Ulrich Franzen notes, there's a wider, better debate to be had:

The fact of the matter is that operating in secret is the preferred method of operation for too many elected officials on both aides of the aisle. The Obama administration has become notorious for its foot-dragging and reluctance to operate under public scrutiny. And while Walker has been better than many when it comes to openness and in responding to the media, the secret email system and his unwillingness in recent weeks to directly answer some questions, still leaves a bad taste. Just as Clinton's practice does.

So, come 2016, I really would like to see a debate on openness in government between whoever wins the nominations. I'd like to hear about their commitment to the concept and what they would do to achieve more openness. And why secret email systems hurt democracy.

Cheers to Franzen for making the effort to elevate the conversation. Also, please accept these commiserations when this substantive conversation fails to materialize.

Hillary Clinton: Is it all really worth it?

And what of Clinton herself? The events of the last two weeks have raised a slew of old questions. Frank Rich took to his regular New York Magazine Q&A column to lament, "But the more important question is why the Clintons, who more than anyone in American politics understand the high risks of perceived improprieties, have left Hillary’s campaign so vulnerable even before it is officially out of the gate."

These concerns were echoed by The Guardian's Megan Carpentier:

But the stupidest person in all of this whole mess is Hillary Clinton, who –- when she set up her private email address in 2009, just after leaving the Senate and just before heading into her confirmation hearing as Secretary of State -– had already weathered approximately 20 years and infinite variations on this exact stupidity about her supposedly letter-but-not spirit-of-the-law behavior and public transparency and yet set up a private email address and used it for work email anyway.

Meanwhile, Rich's New York Magazine colleague Jonathan Chait says that the "larger problem for Clinton, though, is not the likelihood that her emails will turn up incriminating evidence." Rather it is "what this episode reveals about her political judgment and managerial acumen."

All of which may be overcomplicating the problem. A more fitting question might be: "Does Hillary Clinton actually want to do this for the next year and a half?" Based upon how little she enjoyed her first tilt with a skeptical press, you have to think that going on for hundreds of days more will require a stouter resolve than most masochists are prepared to offer.

The pundit class, at the moment, is hung up on the public's desire for novelty and change, because it looks like there's a better-than-even chance that both parties' nominees might end up being dynastic throwbacks. But all of that may be a mere placeholder for public opinion, until the sparring begins and the public gains a firmer foothold into what the big ideas of the 2016 race might end up being.

Nevertheless, even if a lack of dynamic newness isn't a barrier to competing for the White House, a lack of optimism almost certainly is. And that's what's missing from Hillary Clinton's outward-facing campaign, such as it is at the moment: any sign of brightness or buoyancy, or the notion that there is something hopeful, energizing the Clinton candidacy with purpose. Inevitability -- that quality that Clinton is said to have in abundance -- doesn't mean much when it seems as if what's inevitable isn't any fun.

Somehow, some way, Hillary Clinton is going to have to find some way of proceeding on this path with something that resembles cheerfulness, and which presents a Clinton candidacy as an exuberant, positive thing in which to play a part. It can't look like a constant slog of pessimism and recriminations, otherwise the feeling expressed by H.A. Goodman, in which defending Clinton is a drudge even when the cause is right, will become widespread.

Clinton's been at this for a long while now, and while during that time, she's come to be thought of as having presidential timber, she's also managed to acquire a few decades of resentments, which she seems to keep too close at hand for her own good. Now, she's got to find a way to legitimately enjoy running for president. That probably means that she's got to somehow put these ancient grievances out of her mind, lest she be consumed by them. If only she could delete them as easily as an email.

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Hillary Clinton's Email Problem Is Unsolvable

Jason Linkins   |   March 10, 2015    8:48 PM ET

Tuesday afternoon, the first act of "Hillary Clinton Email Dämmerung" concluded, with the former secretary of state providing an eager mass of reporters with a brief press conference, in which she "Addressed The Controversy For The First Time" and, as you might expect, "Raised More Questions Than She Answered."

Behind her lectern in the United Nations' Turtle Bay redoubt, Clinton insisted that she went above and beyond the call of duty in terms of releasing her email, complied with all rules, and availed herself of every precautionary step to safeguard government work from the clutches of nefarious parties. She restated an already well-trafficked assurance, that the emails that pertained to State Department business went to other State Department email addresses, and thus are recoverable, archivable, and transparent.

She explained her decision to use a personal email account for State Department business as a matter of convenience -- the desire to carry a single device instead of multiple ones, all of which served as a searing indictment of Blackberries, I guess, since most of the rest of the world has discovered that a single smartphone can contain multitudes of email accounts. As to whether the public should be assured that all of her email transactions were handled with the requisite responsibility, Clinton's response was to offer her own self-assessment that it was, and to point to pending releases of further email that, to her mind, would be sufficient to bear that out.

Of all the decisions that led to these events, Clinton said, "Obviously, it hasn't worked out." Yes, well, I suppose not.

If we decide not to overthink things, we can all admit that there is something that's beyond dispute. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, is supposed to be subject to a certain level of oversight. While just about anyone sensible would admit that there are instances in which the head of our international diplomatic mission has to discuss matters that require secrecy, and that any top government official deserves some private space for frank criticism, private advice, and the opportunity to entertain controversial ideas, we are nevertheless entitled to the baseline assurance that what business can be conducted in the light of day is conducted in that matter, and that the actions of our elite officials will not be placed beyond scrutiny.

But it's hard to not overthink this, because a certain amount of overthinking was there from the start. Obviously, the simplest thing for Clinton to have done would have been to open and maintain some sort of "state.gov" email account and conduct State Department business in that domain. Had she done so, there wouldn't be an issue. In fact, had she done so and simultaneously had a personal email account on the side, this still wouldn't be an issue, because most people would find the notion that Hillary Clinton is not allowed to have a private email account to be insane. But by commingling the two -- government and personal -- Clinton opened the door to this criticism, because we can't be sure by what rules Clinton follows to guide her decisions to archive or delete emails. Does she follow State Department guidelines, or her own whims?

It is a thing that can't be known, and so, Hillary's email flap has become a problem that she can't solve, to anybody's satisfaction. This is true in the literal sense, because a lot of emails that were once in her "possession" have been deleted. But it's also true in a figurative sense. What is the ur-email she can provide, that once it is read, will assure everyone that full transparency has been achieved?

At this point, it's worth wondering what sort of missives members of the teeming press corps believe that they can or should be entitled to find in Clinton's private stash. I promise you, nobody in the wide world is interested in reading emails pertaining to Clinton's rote, day-to-day State Department work, and the number of political reporters in Washington who are genuinely concerned with State Department transparency is too small to be of statistical significance.

What people want to find is evidence of some buzzy internecine feud or conflict with the White House, some career-crippling statement of policy or opinion, some private message in which Clinton says something intemperate about a political opponent, or some tawdry act of State Department-Clinton Global Initiative synergy. (Of these, the last is the most vital to the American interest, but it would unfortunately end up in the hands of a media that lacks all interest in a substantial critique of how money and power now mesh to society's detriment, and it would be covered as a problem unique to Clinton rather than a pervasive problem in our political system.)

Failing that, evidence of some embarrassing family problem, health issue, or lifestyle choice would be what the press would seek to uncover in a Clinton email cache. (Assuming, of course, that there aren't simply hundreds of extant emails with the subject line "RE: BENGHAZI LOL.") But the salient point is this: Clinton's actions broadly suggest that she wanted to manage her emails in a way that guarded against a public humiliation, therefore nothing short of an email that publicly humiliates her will be sufficient to put this story to bed.

Compounding the insolubility of the email flap itself is the fact that this is precisely the sort of story that Clinton can ill afford because it "feeds an existing narrative" about her, and her campaign. Actually, it feeds two existing narratives. As New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt explained on Morning Joe, days after he broke the story on Clinton's private email account, “There’ve been questions about the Clintons over the years, about their transparency and secrecy, and this feeds into narrative.” Secondarily, as Jonathan Chait notes, "This revives the question of whether Clinton is capable of managing a competent campaign (and thus, in turn, a competent administration)."

Normally, it's best to keep yourself far from any story in which someone is "feeding" or "confirming" some sort of "narrative," if only because what the media calls a "narrative" is often miles and miles from the way normal human Americans actually think about politics. But in the Clintons' case, they keep adding their own ink to the story. Shortly after the email story broke, longtime Clinton adviser and anthropomorphic antithesis to the concept of congeniality Philippe Reines responded to a simple question from a Washington Free Beacon reporter by starting some sort of insane chain email with that reporter, a reporter from Gawker, Clinton's main spokesperson, and two media critics, on which he dyspeptically answered questions with more questions and generally displayed an aversion to grace and tact.

Who does this? Why did this have to happen? It boggles the mind. The simple, uncluttered choice would have been to simply answer the original reporter's inquiry with a "no comment" and move on, instead of inviting some sort of numbskull public sideshow. Just as the simple, uncluttered choice would have been to have a State Department email, on which to conduct State Department business.

It is, of course, an open question as to whether this will, in the end, mean anything at all. As New York Times' ace political scientist Brendan Nyhan notes:

The actual public response to the controversy is likely to be a combination of apathy and partisanship. Few Americans are paying attention to any aspect of the campaign at this point. Those who do notice will most likely divide largely along partisan lines, with Democrats interpreting her actions more charitably, especially once they see Republicans attacking Mrs. Clinton on the issue.

Any significant political costs are also likely to be fleeting because the revelations came so early in the campaign cycle. It is hard to believe that a lack of transparency in Mrs. Clinton’s use of email will have a significant effect on a general election that will be held some 20 months from now.

"All of this could change," Nyhan writes, "if a true bombshell emerges from [Clinton's] famous Blackberry." Indeed, the irony here is that if Clinton self-produces that bombshell, everyone will go home satisfied that she is being transparent. That's basically the only thing she can do at this point: torpedo her presidential campaign to save her reputation.

That's why there is no universe in which opting out of using a State Department email was a smart thing to do, sorry.

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ICYMI: Here's Everything That Happened During The Netanyahu News Dump

Jason Linkins   |   March 3, 2015    2:31 PM ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday morning, an event that was -- for many Beltway swells -- the hot ticket for the social event of the season. But all the media attention focused on Netanyahu's remarks has made for the perfect opportunity to do a rare Tuesday Morning News Roundup. Here's what everyone missed.

1. House Republicans cave on DHS funding.

So ends that winsome melodrama. Days after Congress extended the final act of the "Will They Defund the Department of Homeland Security" saga by one week, House Speaker John Boehner is calling for an anti-climax. As Elise Foley reports:

Senate Democrats have already shown that they will not vote for a funding bill that passed the House in January. That bill would tie funding to ending President Barack Obama's immigration actions, which could allow as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants to temporarily stay in the country and work.

Now, the House is conceding defeat on getting immigration measures into the DHS bill. The vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

The center of this contretemps is a series of executive actions from Obama, implementing his policy preferences on immigration. At the moment, 26 states are suing the administration over those executive actions, a fact that Boehner cited in telling House Republicans there'd be a vote on a "clean" DHS funding bill. "The good news is that the president’s executive action has been stopped, for now," the speaker said. "This matter will continue to be litigated in the courts, where we have our best chance of winning this fight."

Shutting down Homeland Security is an option that Boehner on Tuesday deemed to be "untenable." Given his approval of the lawsuit lodged against the White House, it makes you wonder how a threatened shutdown made it even this far.

2. David Petraeus gets slapped on the wrist in a plea deal.

"The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal," said Netanyahu of the current negotiations over Iran's nuclear future, on which the Israeli prime minister would like to put the kibosh. As if to emphasize the secret existence of really great deals you had no right to expect, the U.S. Department of Justice reached an accord with wayward military guru and retired general David Petraeus, who scandalized himself after it came to light that he'd shared classified information with his inamorata and biographer, Paula Broadwell.

The New York Times' Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo have the story:

Mr. Petraeus will plead guilty to one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, which carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison. Mr. Petraeus has signed the agreement, said Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman.

What's the over/under on "number of days Petraeus will spend in jail"? I'd advise you to go low -- this is, after all, an American Thought Leader. I'd sort of like to see some people at least apologize to MoveOn over this thing, as it seems only fair at this point. Speaking of:

3. Edward Snowden may be returning to the United States.

Russia -- don't know if you've heard -- is a really hectic place right now, and apparently Edward Snowden wants out. According to Reuters' Gennady Novik and Gabriela Baczynska, a Russian lawyer told reporters there is some sort of ongoing trilateral legal wrangling that could ultimately return Snowden to America:

Anatoly Kucherena, who has links to the Kremlin, was speaking at a news conference to present a book he has written about his client. Moscow granted Snowden asylum in 2013, straining already tense ties with Washington.

"I won't keep it secret that he ... wants to return back home. And we are doing everything possible now to solve this issue. There is a group of U.S. lawyers, there is also a group of German lawyers and I'm dealing with it on the Russian side."

There are, of course, opportunities for content synergy.

4. Russ Feingold will do some stuff.

Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is heading for the door at the State Department, where he's been serving as the special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rumors are plentiful that his aim is to return to the Senate by defeating the man who defeated him (in a thoroughly ironic result), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). That is no easy task. As Roll Call's Nathan Gonzales points out, ousting the senator who ousted you is a political trick that "hasn't happened in nearly a century."

Feingold took to Facebook on Tuesday to offer the precise sort of vague intimations that make political reporters freak themselves:

After I leave the State Department this week, I will spend portions of 2015 teaching international relations and law at Stanford University. For most of the rest of this year, I will be living at my home in Middleton, Wisconsin, from where I will travel the state extensively. I will listen carefully to my fellow Wisconsinites talk about their concerns, especially those involving their economic well-being. I will also seek their counsel on how I can best further serve my country and the state I love.

Here's hoping he stuck to his government email account while at State.

Anyway, that's what you missed this morning if you were caught up in "Netanyahu speech" Twitter.

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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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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.

Obamacare Opponents Should Pick One Weird Conspiracy Theory And Stick To It

Jason Linkins   |   February 26, 2015    4:56 PM ET

As you may have heard, congressional Republicans have embarked once again on their six-year mission to eventually one day get around to coming up with their own plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, they're also keeping a hopeful eye on the Supreme Court, where a looming court case, King v. Burwell, could threaten the existence of critical health insurance subsidies.

But what if the Obama administration has a secret plan to thwart these efforts? A pair of Republican legislators have recently suggested that a conspiracy is afoot. Or rather, two conspiracies are both afoot, simultaneously, each of which seems to contradict the other. Maybe just pick one, guys?

Over at The Hill, Sarah Ferris reports on how a House subcommittee chairman is hot on the trail of a secret Department of Health and Human Services plan to rescue the law in the event that the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell:

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, says federal officials are hiding a roughly 100-page document on the looming court case. The case, King v. Burwell, could cut off ObamaCare subsidies in three-quarters of states and potentially collapse the national marketplace.

Pitts confronted the head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about the plan, which he says is being circulated among senior officials, for the first time on Wednesday.

"HHS secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said she does not know of a planning document," Ferris reported. But perhaps there is an explanation! According to HuffPost's Sam Stein, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) was discussing the Affordable Care Act at the Conservative Political Action Committee on Thursday when he pointed to an even more nefarious scheme:

So what are the people at the Department of Health and Human Services playing at here? Do they have a secret plan to save the Affordable Care Act, or are they rubbing their palms together, hoping that the Supreme Court kills the law so they can spring their single-payer trap?

Can this contradiction be squared? Perhaps. Maybe this was Obama's plan, all along:

1. Pass a law called the Affordable Care Act, after a long, grueling, and political-capital absorbing legislative battle.

2. Bury some ambiguous language in one section of the bill governing the subsidies to state exchanges set up by the federal government.

3. Sit back and wait for the law's opponents to find that instance of ambiguous language and bring a lawsuit alleging that members of Congress always intended the law to do something they never actually intended it to do.

4. Hope that the Supreme Court will ignore multiple past instances in which they've had to make similar interpretative calls and rule in favor of the opposition, effectively gutting the subsidies and stripping beneficiaries of the means to "afford" this "care act."

5. Then there is this whole middle part I haven't quite figured out yet. Maybe it's what's in the secret 100-page HHS document.

6. EVERYONE GETS SINGLE-PAYER, SOMEHOW!

It's the perfect plan. The conspiracy goes all the way to the bottom and then back to the top of the slide where it stops and turns and goes for a ride till it gets to the bottom and it does it again.

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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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