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The Harkin Steak Fry: A Meta-Critical Media Pseudo-Adventure!

Jason Linkins   |   September 18, 2014    3:45 PM ET

A man stands in a field in Iowa. His name is Peter. Peter is standing in a field because there are "200 other reporters" standing in that field. Those "200 other reporters" are observing an event. The event is called the "Harkin Steak Fry." Peter is observing those "200 other reporters" observing the "Harkin Steak Fry." For Peter, these meta-observations are the event.

The intrinsic nature of the Harkin steak fry changes because it is being observed by 200 other reporters. Otherwise, it would just be a bunch of people, cooking steaks in a field. By dint of the fact that 200 other reporters are witnessing the steak fry, the value of the steak fry increases. It becomes the Harkin Steak Fry, with capital letters and such.

The people staging the Steak Fry and the reporters observing the Steak Fry have entered into a tacit agreement, in which their presence turns the act of cooking steaks in a field into a significant, politically charged event. The steaks being fried are, therefore, not steaks in the conventional sense. Rather, the steaks are a distribution mechanism for political content. The reporters observing the event will ingest this content. They will not, however, ingest any steaks. This is one of the many central ironies of this event.

Another irony: the steaks are not being fried, they are being grilled. But everyone has agreed to the fiction that this steak fry, which is not a steak fry, is a Steak Fry.

Peter observes the reporters observing the Steak Fry. By observing the reporters, he changes the nature of the reporters. The reporters become a "madcap media mob." They might not have become a "madcap media mob" had Peter not been on hand to observe them and assign this value to them.

To wit: Peter observes one reporter getting "whacked in the head with the butt of a big television camera." He sees that a "photographer dramatically toppled off his ladder while straining to get a shot." Peter deems this to be "a little absurd." This is, in a Platonic sense, absurd, because neither of these accidents would have happened had the 200 reporters assembled in the field not been there, assembled, in that field. However, the nature of these accidents might never have been deemed absurd, despite their intrinsic absurdity, had Peter not been there to observe them, and deem them as such.

The reporters, however, are assembled in that field because there is a candidate, also in that field, participating in the Steak Fry. Her name is Hillary. Hillary is running for president. Hillary is also not yet running for president. Hillary currently exists in a constant state of simultaneously running, and not running, for president.

Hillary is observed cooking a steak at the Steak Fry. However, according to those observing the event, the steak that Hillary is observed cooking is actually already cooked. That steak lives forever, in a constant state of being cooked, and simultaneously not being cooked, by Hillary. The person who actually cooked the steak, having not been observed cooking the steak, is erased in favor of a person who did not cook the steak.

Peter ponders whether or not the event he is observing 200 reporters observe is being observed by other people. In so doing, Peter questions whether or not the event he is observing 200 reporters observe has the intrinsic value he'd previous assigned to it by participating in the observation of the observers. Peter says, "I joined more than 200 other reporters who swarmed the scene and tweeted away, even though most Americans on social media that day probably cared more about Robert Griffin's ankle."

Robert Griffin, also known as "RG3," is a football player in the National Football League. While Peter is observing the people observing the Steak Fry, other people are observing Robert Griffin's body slowly breaking down. The slow dissolution of Robert Griffin's body is in most ways not distinct from the slow dissolution of anyone's body. However, as thousands of people are observing Robert Griffin's frail flesh give way to the depredations of time, wear and mortality, the nature of Robert Griffin's slow disintegration is changed. Indeed, the destruction of Robert Griffin's body will prove to be far more lucrative for Robert Griffin than will the destruction of many other people's bodies.

Peter becomes aware that other people are observing the reporters observing the Steak Fry, from an even further vantage point than Peter. Peter describes these other people as "politicos and press critics," who "[point] to the event as another example of lazy 'pack journalism' with little journalistic upside." These observers have changed the value of the event being observed once again, by diminishing it. Peter describes these observations like so:

The sniping had some credibility. What was the competitive advantage of being there, just one more reporter among the herd, all of us racing around to get the same quotes and the same pictures?

This was especially true for the many journalists in attendance who rarely travel outside of Washington or New York to cover politics but decided to open up their travel budget for this one trip.

Couldn't their time have been better spent reporting on an undercovered Senate or governor's race in some other part of the country, far away from the rest of the media scrum? Of course, the academics would say. But the incentive structure of today's click-driven news economy begs to differ. Hillary gets eyeballs. Arkansas' Tom Cotton does not. This is the world we live in.

Peter now finds himself in an existential crisis. Previously, his observations of the people observing the Steak Fry had value, because his observations were unique. However, Peter now understands that his observations, having been simultaneously made by many other people, are actually rather quotidian. As the presumed sui generis nature of his observations were the precipitating event in recording them in the first place, he now finds himself in a quandary of his own design, having allowed himself to acknowledge and observe the similar observations of other observers.

He begins to question whether his previous observations, which aligned themselves with these "politicos and press critics," are as valid as he once thought they were. He concludes that they are not, and switches his alignment to the "200 other reporters," previously deemed to be "a little absurd":

As much as I believe in straying far, far away from the rest of the media pack -- this was a lynchpin argument in "Did Twitter Kill The Boys on the Bus?," the Harvard Kennedy School study I wrote last year about the hyperactive political news media -- I did find value in covering the Steak Fry.

The central irony is that Peter had previously found value in covering the Steak Fry by observing that there was no value in covering the Steak Fry. Of course, that's an inescapable contradiction. The logic cannot hold. Thus, Peter erases himself.

I observe all of this and present all of these ideas using a coy parody of post-structuralist literary meta-fiction. By using this cheap device, I present the contradictory nature of this exercise -- in which I mock something for lacking value while assigning it value by spending all of this time writing about it -- while simultaneously dodging responsibility for it. I then disclose the nature of this trick to the people reading it. I erase myself.

You probably feel that none of this has been worth your time. You probably feel cheated.

Here is a story about a woman named Jen. Like many women, she has a butt. Unlike many women, her butt is observed by thousands of people. Their observations change the nature and value of her butt. Perhaps you'll like this story more. There is a butt in it, after all.

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Lanny Davis Seems To Believe That Roger Goodell Has Been A Really Good Crisis Manager

Jason Linkins   |   September 17, 2014    7:45 PM ET

So there is someone willing to defend beleaguered NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and it turns out it's the guy who's willing to defend almost anyone -- Lanny Davis, crisis manager and author with a book to sell you, about crisis management. His defense of Goodell has been duly recorded and published at CNN, which is willing to publish anything.

At issue here is that whole Ray Rice business, wherein the National Football League, being aware that the Baltimore Ravens running back had clocked his then-fiancee Janay Palmer into a deep unconsciousness in a hotel elevator, punished Rice with a more lenient punishment than it metes out if you smoke a little weed now and again. To Davis' mind, the people who have really behaved irresponsibly are those demanding accountability.

"When everyone is piling on," says Davis, "it's time to take a breath and say: We need more facts, less reliance on media reports based on anonymous sources and over-heated pundits who are too ready to rush to judgment."

Left unsaid here is that the main reason we've been largely kept in the dark as to the facts, up until TMZ released the full video of Rice's violent interaction with his fiancee, is that Goodell and his organization have endeavored mightily to keep those facts from coming to light. When the public was armed merely with the evidence that Rice had dragged his fiancee from the elevator, the NFL defended its decision to suspend him for a mere two games by sheltering in what had been unknown, essentially suggesting that Palmer had acted in such a way that mitigated the circumstances.

The Baltimore Ravens organization cheerfully sheltered in the same existential void, sending a May 23 tweet that read, "Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident." The implication being that she had done something to bring Rice's fist upon herself.

As craven as that now looks, given the fact that we all know now that the "role she played" was nothing more than being the punching bag of a violent abuser, that's only the start of Goodell's merry litany of falsehoods. As Deadspin's Tom Ley has reported, these are legion.

And that's probably why Davis' "defense" of Goodell doesn't really go on to ... you know ... defend him. What Davis wants you to know is that Goodell, for all his many faults, should be lauded for doing really good crisis management. But as you'll see, Davis is also wrong about that.

Here's Davis:

But then [Goodell] turned in the right direction, following the three basic rules of crisis management, whether in business, politics, or life.

First, he acknowledged that he made a mistake and took personal responsibility. He showed that he understood, albeit belatedly, how serious male violence against women is. In his August 28 letter to all NFL owners, Goodell wrote: "I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better."

In an accompanying memorandum that would be distributed to all personnel in the NFL, he wrote, in bold-faced dark letters, the following:

"Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances."

Suffice it to say, the process of "taking responsibility" is actually more complicated than simply saying, "My bad," and then putting a bunch of universally true things in super-serious boldfaced type. An organization that needs its leader to remind it that domestic violence and sexual assault are "wrong," and by the way "illegal," is an organization that needs a remedial level of accountability imposed upon it. Goodell shows no real sign of wanting to do this -- I'll point you again to Ley's list of deceits that have come straight from Goodell.

What's next?

Second, he laid out a detailed forward-looking mandatory education and training program to implement this policy. Most important, he announced far more severe penalties than before, effective immediately for violations of this bold-faced policy: 1) at least six game suspensions for the first violation, with heavier penalties if facts show more serious offenses, such as violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child; and 2) a second offense will result in "banishment" from the NFL. That's right, banishment -- with no assumption that a petition for reinstatement will ever be accepted.

Davis maybe doesn't realize this (or perhaps it's a feature in the "crisis management" biz), but the first two sentences contradict one another. You can't have a "forward-looking" domestic violence program if the program you're implementing is only being implemented because you got caught out by TMZ's release of the full video of Rice's abuse. Goodell's "forward-looking" policy was the two-game suspension standard, forged during what amounted to a cover-up of the facts. You don't get to say, "Now that we've been pantsed by TMZ, we have a domestic violence punishment program that really lowers the boom," and call that "forward-looking."

Finally, we have this:

The third rule is to authorize an independent investigation to answer all the questions and verify the facts. And that is exactly what happened. Of course the emphasis is on the word "independent."

Yes, this "independent investigation" was set up by New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, and it involves parachuting former FBI Director Robert Mueller III into NFL HQ to give the league the full True Detective treatment.

Now, perhaps at this point you're wondering how "independent" this investigation can be, given the fact that it's all been put in place by a pair of owner-stakeholders. Lanny Davis wants you to shut your ignorant mouth:

I have read about doubts about Mueller's objectivity because he comes from a large law firm that has ties to the NFL. My response: Nonsense. Robert Mueller is a former United States attorney, senior U.S. Justice Department official, and one of the most respected FBI directors in history.

Nonsense! By gum, Robert Mueller did some stuff, and you will respect that. Well, here's some of the stuff that Davis is very quickly glossing over:

ESPN: "Mueller, based in Washington, D.C., is a partner in the law firm of WilmerHale, which helped negotiate the NFL's Sunday Ticket package with DirecTV. The firm also has represented Washington R*****ns owner Dan Snyder, and several former members of the firm have taken positions with NFL teams."

Mike Florio, NBC Sports: "One such former WilmerHale employee is, coincidentally, Ravens president Dick Cass, who joined the club after thirty-plus years at the firm."

So the "doubts" that Davis has "read about" are actually the accurately reported accounts that document the obvious conflicts of interest with this "independent" investigation.

This is not good crisis management, when your BFF in the crisis management business puts easily penetrated obfuscations on CNN's website in order to paper over all of the previous obfuscations reported everywhere else.

If you want to assess the potential that the NFL is prepared to be accountable for all of this, here are some things you should remember. Goodell made accountability your responsibility. He declined to take on the task himself. When the public was outraged about Rice's meager suspension, Goodell told the public to trust him -- because if you knew what was on the tape of the incident, you'd see it his way. When the public was outraged at the fact that the content of said tape put paid to those notions, Goodell adjusted the suspension policy but insisted that he hadn't seen the full video.

It was only after the Associated Press had the NFL caught in that lie that Goodell did a modicum of facing the music. And now Lanny Davis is here to tell you that you don't actually possess any facts -- that everything you think you know about this incident actually has emerged from a wilderness of "innuendo and anonymous sources" and that you should wait for a conflict-laden investigator to spin you a tale of the real facts.

There's a reason you don't trust these guys. You should go with that instinct.

(By the way, here's what good crisis management looks like, from Kristine Belisle, former adviser to federal inspectors general: "We might be embarrassed at times and disclose things that we could -- and others would -- easily hide, but we'll shock the press with our honesty. No one else does this, and before long, we'll have a built-in defense when we're attacked. No matter what they hear, the press will come to us first and believe us, because we'll prove to them that we tell the truth.")

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Here's A Close Look At John McCain's Long-Running War Powers Act

Jason Linkins   |   September 15, 2014   12:45 PM ET

As you may have noticed if you've been unfortunate enough to have tuned in to any TV coverage of American politics in the past decade, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is always there. So much McCain being there! He is constant, like death and taxes and gravity.

Why is that, exactly? Well, if you're CNN's Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, you insist that he is always there because he's "articulate, he knows what he’s talking about and he has strong positions." That's an argument that can be -- and has been -- thoughtfully rebutted at length.

But by applying thought to this question, you lose the point. McCain is always there because he knows which camera to speak into and is well-prepared for television-ready, bite-sized maxims for easy digestion. Our own Ben Craw has distilled the McCain worldview down to its essence in the video mashup above, and it reveals a schtick that is almost vaudevillian. In performances staged on many an evening -- with plenty of Sunday matinees for the bluehairs and the Beltway high-society types -- John McCain hits his mark, finds his light and calls for war.

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Obama Finds An ISIS Strategy While Congress... Privatizes Asteroids? Really?

Jason Linkins   |   September 12, 2014    2:15 PM ET

So, that happened: Fresh off polls indicating that a majority of Americans now believe that the Islamic State (or, if you prefer, ISIS or ISIL) poses a threat to the United States, the Obama administration has embarked on the third chapter of the Iraq War trilogy -- with the president himself delivering a prime-time address to the nation, laying out his strategy to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the militant group in Iraq and Syria.

Obama's brief address left a lot of things unclear, not the least of which are questions such as: "Hey, does he have the actual legal authority to do all of this?" and "Doesn't Congress have to provide the authority to begin this latest round semi-permanent war?" As the Monkey Cage's Andrew Rudalevige explains at length, there are a number of important constitutional points that need to be resolved. But the same Congress that's dramatically opposed the Obama administration's feints of autonomy on numerous domestic policy matters is taking a hands-off approach this time.

But while members of Congress doesn't seem to want to get too involved in this fun new war they're about to start, they have been busy. The Huffington Post's own Zach Carter, Arthur Delaney and Jason Linkins discuss the thorny nature of our pending Islamic State engagement and what Congress has been up to in the meantime in this week's podcast, which you can enjoy by clicking the player above. In addition to the recent developments in Iraq and Syria, they discuss how it came to pass that Congress took up the matter of asteroid ownership, as well as a radical suggestion that may affect one of America's largest hedge funds, named "Harvard University."

(This podcast was produced and edited by Ibrahim Balkhy, with assistance from Christine Conetta, Chris Gentilviso, and Brad Shannon.)

Have a story you'd like to hear discussed on the weekend podcast? Email us at your convenience!

Coming Soon: Panic-Induced Election Year War With ISIS!

Jason Linkins   |   September 10, 2014    5:35 PM ET

Seemingly before the question, "Do I, as an American, have any reason to panic over the emergence of this group, ISIS?" has even been asked, it's been answered: "YES, YES, YES, EVERYONE HEAD TOWARD YOUR ANXIETY STATIONS!" And so on Wednesday night, President Barack Obama will lay out some sort of strategy for dealing with ISIS -- a strategy that may boil down to, "Hey, let's have another open-ended, crazy war!" But maybe that will make you feel better. You are, after all, panicking, right?

Whence came all of this panic? Just for funsies, how about we all take a deep breath and try to figure that out. At the risk of spoiling the ending, I'll tell you right upfront: The call is coming from inside the country.

Let's start with the understatement of the year: To know ISIS is to loathe ISIS. It's a vicious, completely unrestrained death cult that has sunk to depths of depravity and cruelty so profound that it has even turned the stomachs of other death cults. The Islamist militants who make up ISIS (or ISIL or the Islamic State -- take your pick!) operate in the hopes of achieving utterly hallucinatory ambitions, which they seek free from the hindrances of what normal people might call a "moral compass." They seem to be playing a game of cruelty one-upsmanship with themselves. They terrorize and they rape. They behead journalists on YouTube. They have scary black flags and guns and, perhaps worst of all, social media consultants. And, no, they cannot be left alone; they must be confronted.

Here is a thing that ISIS is not, however: an existential threat to the "homeland" of the United States. Or even a credible threat. But don't take my word for it. Per the Associated Press:

The FBI and Homeland Security Department say there are no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland from the Islamic State militant group.

An intelligence bulletin, issued to state and local law enforcement, says while there's no credible threat to the U.S. as a result of recent American airstrikes in Iraq, officials remain concerned that Islamic State supporters could attack overseas targets with little warning.

Leaving aside the uncertain fortunes of lone wolves and dumb luck, that seems about right to me. Remember the Ebola Panic Flow Chart we shared on these pages a few weeks ago? It can easily be modified to suit the needs of everyone worrying about ISIS. Are you currently located at an "overseas target," adjacent to ISIS' base of operations in Syria and Iraq? Do you have any plans to visit one? If the answers are no, then there's no reason for your concern about ISIS to blossom into panic about ISIS.

Sadly, this helpful advice arrives too late for many of you, judging from some of the polling numbers rolling around in the news transom:

cnn isis poll

What happened to make 90 percent of any poll's respondents come to believe that ISIS poses a threat to the United States? ISIS had some help from American politicians who want to win and retain seats in Congress and the fearmongering thought-leaders who want to aid and abet those ambitions. Speaking of, here's former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, in the Sept. 8 Wall Street Journal, encouraging you to be terrified:

A name can say a great deal about the intentions of our enemy today. The group on the march in the Middle East began calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Then it chose the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the latter term including Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as Syria. Now it's simply the Islamic State, geography unspecified. They already are a state, in that they carry out government functions in occupied territory. You can bet that their aspirations include Saudi Arabia and its holy cities of Mecca and Medina. With their gains in Iraq, nothing but sand separates them from the Saudi border.

It is hard to overstate the threat that this organization poses. I call it al Qaeda Version 6.0. The Islamic State is far better organized, equipped and funded than the original. They are more experienced and more numerous. Several thousand carry Western passports, including American ones. All the terrorists have to do is get on a plane and head west. But perhaps the most important asset they possess is territory. For the first time since 9/11, a determined and capable enemy has the space and security to plan complex, longer-range operations. If we don't think we are on that list, we are deluding ourselves.

ISIS keeps changing its name! It's on the march to Mecca and Medina! From there, the world, including these shores! Given the fact that there's never been a terrorist organization that's come within an ocean of pulling off this feat, I'm really skeptical.

If we take a realistic look at ISIS, here's what its fighters have accomplished. First, they've managed to find shelter in Syria -- arguably the most cracked-up and chaotic nation in the world right now -- where they benefit from the fact that there is an ongoing civil conflict between the Bashar Assad regime and multiple rebel groups (of which ISIS is one). Additionally, they've also exploited the disordered Iraqi government, which up until recently was run by Nouri al-Maliki and his patented ability to sow sectarian conflict and distrust among his own constituents.

ISIS has not claimed any sort of enviable territory in this world, and it's not poised to do so anytime soon. It thrives only within states that are overrun with dysfunction. Within this limited sphere of influence, ISIS has declared that it has established a caliphate. But with the exception of those who currently have ISIS' guns pointed at their heads, this is not a declaration that anyone has any obligation to go along with. In fact, as Human Rights First's Michael Quigley points out in The Hill, the fact that ISIS has obligated itself to maintain its pretend caliphate actually limits its ability to threaten much of anyone:

ISIS is a regionally focused insurgent group that is committed to establishing an Islamic State. While ISIS is a very sophisticated and highly disciplined group that has gained control of considerable resources, this doesn’t change their strategic objective -- to secure the fragile caliphate they proclaimed on June 29th. Despite having nearly 100 Americans and even more European fighters with Western passports, ISIS's recruitment efforts suggest that it cannot yet afford to have these fighters depart the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, for to do so jeopardizes their most important objective -- their raison d'être -- the Islamic State itself. ISIS is a very capable and extremely dangerous group, but their strategy is less like al-Qaeda's and perhaps more akin to the Taliban when they sought to gain control of Afghanistan.

And ISIS doesn't even demonstrate that it has the capabilities of the Taliban. ISIS' chief military victories in Iraq have come against forces that met ISIS' advances by turning tail and running away. As we saw in August, when ISIS was run off from the Mosul Dam, it would seem that any time ISIS fighters face a military force with a modicum of competence, they become quite ordinary. It was in response to this strategic defeat at the Mosul Dam that ISIS elected to release the video of journalist James Foley's execution. And that's the one thing that ISIS actually has demonstrated that it can do well, even in defeat -- theatrics.

Unfortunately, our elected officials, in turn, have amplified ISIS' message with theatrics of their own, transforming the normal emotions you should feel at the sight of an innocent man's execution -- anger and disgust and calm resolve -- into panic. Here's Wednesday's Politico:

In campaigns across the country, Republicans are seizing on what they call the Obama administration's feckless response to Islamic State militants as part of a broader case to voters to turn against Democrats in November. Their argument: Barack Obama is a disengaged figure whose power needs to be checked.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a new TV commercial that opens with a brief clip of an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant firing a weapon, with the narrator intoning that "these are serious times." In New Hampshire, Senate candidate Scott Brown is out with a Web ad that plays President Barack Obama's ill-spoken "We don't have a strategy yet" line and brands the president a foreign policy "failure." And last weekend, Iowa Senate hopeful Joni Ernst, in a speech to fellow veterans, bemoaned "the president’s inability or unwillingness to present a strategy aimed at eradicating the growing threat" of ISIL.

Ironically, it's not the Obama administration's disengagement that's fueled the rise of this latest round of hysteria. Rather, it's been their fumbling willingness to join in and countenance the idea that ISIS truly is a dire threat to the homeland.

That's Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey telling reporters that they agree with the notion that ISIS is a "9/11-level threat" and more -- literally "beyond anything we have seen," a group that could, if it achieves its ambitions, "fundamentally alter the Middle East and create a security environment that could threaten us." Hagel and Dempsey, in so direly warning, close the door on the Obama administration's ability to do anything other than proceed with frenzy and alarm. There's no opportunity now to be realistic about ISIS. Any response that falls short of whatever is deemed popular and appropriate for an imminent sequel to the Sept. 11 attacks will now be greeted with a line that begins, "But even your own secretary of defense believes that ISIS is 'beyond anything we have seen.'"

Nice work, guys.

That our two warring political factions have turned ISIS into an unending fountain of dread and anxiety is bad enough, but it's further exacerbated by the fact that we are not actually having a legitimate strategic debate about what should be done about ISIS. As The Huffington Post's Sam Stein reported, just about everyone from Dick Cheney to your Aunt Lorraine agrees on the same strategy:

Though it's hard to notice under the barrage of back-and-forth sniping, politicians have rallied around the same basic set of prescriptions. Under the formula, the United States would:

1. Seek to put together a coalition of like-minded nations willing to confront the Islamic State

2. Encourage political reconciliation in Iraq and government restructuring in Syria

3. Ramp up military involvement in both those regions

4. Bolster Sunni moderates in the Middle East

5. Resist sending American troops into combat while still bolstering U.S. personnel in the region

Legitimate disagreements remain over how to achieve these broadly shared objectives, and there are obvious disputes over how to define specific missions. (What is "troops on the ground"?) But the general schisms tend to be more about tone and timing than substance.

When it comes to explicating the substantive differences between each side's prescriptives, there is no there there. The only distinguishing characteristic in the inter-party "debate" is the level of histrionics. It's a battle of who wants it more -- who can do the thing everyone agrees should be done the hardest and loudest. It's a battle where being "strong and wrong" and embarking on a potentially idiotic path is incentivized. And these histrionics are entirely driven by the cold, amoral calculations of election-year politics.

Again, don't take my word for it. Here's Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who apparently became briefly bound by Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth whilst standing in front of reporters:

It's an election year. A lot of Democrats don't know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don't want to change anything. We like the path we're on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.

So that's the midterm election in a nutshell at this moment: One party might be lured into doing something potentially stupid to defeat ISIS, in response to the frenzied rhetoric of another party whose members will openly admit they aren't even sincere in their desire to see the Obama administration bring about this defeat.

This is very unfortunate for anyone who wants Wednesday night's ISIS strategy explainer from President Obama to be coming from a place of calm common sense, steered by the guide star of "Don't Do Stupid Stuff." I'm looking to hear about how the United States is going to erode ISIS' support, how we'll use international law enforcement and diplomacy to combat their network, and how we'll disrupt their ability to gain recruits. I'd prefer that Obama described, at length, his plan to re-engage with the Iraqi government and reinvigorate that institution's ability to govern its multi-sectarian citizenry justly and equitably, because it's the atrophy of this engagement -- not the troop withdrawal -- that has been this administration's larger post-Iraq War failure and greatest contribution to ISIS' rise.

In contrast to another declaration of an open-ended, mission-creepy, exit strategy-bereft, constitutionally suspect war, these are the ingredients of a sensible response to the threat posed by ISIS. Sadly for all of us, while a strategy of calm resolve may help defeat ISIS, it's not going to help affluent politicos achieve their personal electoral ambitions. So panic on.

PREVIOUSLY, on THE HUFFINGTON POST:
Americans Panicked Over ISIS Threat That Experts Say Isn't Imminent
The Debate Over What To Do About ISIS Isn't Much Of A Debate

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Canadian Homophobe Joins The Train Wreck Interview Hall Of Fame

Jason Linkins   |   September 9, 2014    5:23 PM ET

What if you took one part Labour Party leader and hapless talking point repeater Edward Miliband ...

... and added one part Australia Prime Minister and angry dimwit Tony Abbott?

Well, then you'd get Toronto School Board member and smug homophobe Sam Sotiropoulos, who during an interview with the Global News to discuss some of his disturbing tweets about the Toronto LGBT community, suffered a multi-car derailment of his cognitive choo-choo. ThinkProgress' Zack Ford sets the scene:

Since 2012, Toronto schools have followed a policy of inclusion for transgender students, recognizing their gender identities without requiring them to somehow prove or justify them. Two weeks ago, Sotiropoulos tweeted, “Until I see scientific proof that transgenderism exists and is not simply a mental illness, I reserve the right not to believe in it. #TDSB” TDSB stands for Toronto District School Board and Sotiropoulos identifies himself on Twitter as @TrusteeSam, referring to his title with the district.

[...]

Sotiropoulos agreed to discuss his tweet with Global News, but then refused to actually provide his own views on transgender people. Indeed, as he similarly attempted to explain in a separate radio interview, what he meant is that he simply “reserved the right” to make a decision about whether being transgender is a mental illness, but that he hadn’t yet made such a decision. He seemed to deny the implication that in the mean time, he does believe that it is a mental illness. But when the reporter then brought up other anti-LGBT tweets he has posted in the past, he became truly flummoxed.

Here's Sotiropoulos, in all his smarmy glory:

Oh, Canada.

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Scott Brown Gives Confused Lady A 'Hero Award,' For Some Reason

Jason Linkins   |   September 8, 2014    1:52 PM ET

[Updated, below.]

Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R-Bqhatevwr) is running for the Senate in New Hampshire now, where polls indicate he is the favorite to win the GOP nomination in Tuesday's primary. On the eve of this historic vote, I find myself wondering, "Who is advising Brown on his campaign strategy?" I don't mean, "What GOP officials are handling the nuts and bolts of his campaign?" I mean, "Who or what is giving Brown all of his big ideas?"

Reading this story, from Time's Jay Newton-Small, has left me bewildered about where Brown came up with this plan. In fact, I am just going to make up an explanation: He got this award idea from Jingles The Dragon, an imaginary friend that Brown made up when he was just a 6-year-old boy. That sounds plausible to me because this is one of the strangest things I've ever seen a politician do.

Janice Leahy, a small businesswoman in New Hampshire, still doesn’t understand why Republican senate candidate Scott Brown gave her a “hero” award when they met in May. “I’m an ordinary person,” Leahy tells TIME. “I’m no hero. I don’t look at myself as person of stature or significance or anything else.”

Armed with spreadsheets, Leahy had met with Brown at a diner in Windham to talk about the burden of Obamacare on her small software and professional services businesses. That’s when he presented her with a polished black plaque, emblazoned with the words, “Women for Scott Brown.” A press release followed. “I’m pleased to award Janice with a Hero Award to celebrate her determination to maintain a business despite government red tape and burdensome regulations that make for a very tough environment not only for women-oriented businesses, but for everyone,” Brown said in the statement. “That’s why I support full repeal of Obamacare.”

Newton-Small reports that Leahy has been "left confused and embarrassed by the whole episode."

I'm sort of confused and embarrassed, too! I mean, this was not a mean thing that Brown did, and it's not even a desperate thing -- he's probably going to win the nomination tomorrow, and polls indicate that he'll be competitive in the general election against incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D). It's just odd and awkward.

But the fact remains that somehow, Brown got it into his head that giving this women a "Hero Award" -- and actually going out and getting a plaque made -- was a good idea. ("Slam dunk. Thanks again, Jingles!" is what I imagine Brown said aloud to a room of people who were wondering why he appeared to be talking to a tiny, invisible creature in his suit pocket.)

Here's a true story. I had a friend from high school who graduated a year ahead of me. While he was living in his college dorm freshman year, one of his hall-mates -- a seemingly nice, dim-bulb of a guy -- decided to run for Hall Council, or one of those meaningless college political offices that maybe 4 percent of the student body cares about. This would-be Hall Council candidate's last name was Day, and he told his fellow dorm-mates that he was thinking about making his campaign slogan, "Make my Day."

And one of my friend's friends, trolling Candidate Day, said, "No, no. That's a good slogan, but an even better one would be 'Make my bed.'" And this guy who wanted to be on the Hall Council chewed it over for a minute, and said, "You know what, I like the ring of that," and he went and made all these posters that read "Vote for Day: Make my Bed," and put them up all over the place, leaving the student body confused but relatively unharmed.

That is my only frame of reference for the type of thinking that goes into handing some random lady a "Hero Award." Other than that, I'm genuinely flummoxed.

UPDATE, 9/9/14, 3:41pm: Leahy disputes Newton-Small's characterization that she was "left confused and embarrassed by the whole episode," telling Breitbart's Dan Riehl that Newton-Small engaged in "tabloid journalism," and that her words were "twisted" and "misconstrued."

I remain bewildered by why Brown thought this was a good idea, but hey, congratulations to the "Hero Award" winner.

Read the full Time story here.

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Alison Lundergan Grimes' Parents Looking At Some Christmas Ornaments Is Somehow News

Jason Linkins   |   September 8, 2014   12:33 PM ET

It's been awhile since I've come face to face with one of those "how on Earth did this become a news story" stories, but Monday morning, The Hill spewed one all over the Internet. The story concerns the Kentucky Senate race. Its headline -- "Grimes’s parents visited White House while Dems recruited her for Senate" -- suggests menace.

What shady bang-bang took place behind closed doors between the White House and the parents of Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes? Did Grimes' parents lobby the administration on Environmental Protection Agency executive orders? Did they convince President Barack Obama to punt on immigration reform until after the midterms? Maybe Grimes' mom and dad personally gave the Benghazi "stand down" order? My God, into what conspiracy have we tumbled, bruising our knees and mussing our hair?

Turns out, Grimes' parents looked at some Christmas decorations.

“We had a White House tour. I didn’t meet with the president,” [Jerry Lundergan] said. “Me and my wife were at the White House to have a tour of the Christmas decorations like anybody else would. I had no meeting with the president.

“My wife wanted to see the Christmas decorations,” he added. “There were thousands of people there. It was moving room only. It wasn’t a special tour."

Oh, but it was a special tour, you see! As The Hill notes: "Grimes’s ties to President Obama have become a central point of the campaign as McConnell has tried repeatedly to portray her as closely aligned with the president." You see, Grimes has been making a sort of melodramatic effort to play up her differences with the Obama administration. And now, here are her parents, caught in flagrante delicto, being Yuletide tourists at the White House. These are the same tours that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus would caterwaul about being canceled just three months later.

Don't get me wrong: Given that the Grimes campaign has worked to distance itself from the Obama administration, it would be great to find evidence of a tidier relationship. Maybe there's a memo from the White House advising the Grimes camp to tee off on Obama once in a while, or internal emails from Grimes advisers recommending a temporarily convenient "frenemy" period to spur Grimes' electoral hopes. That's the kind of thing worth publishing. Writing about Grimes' parents looking at some Christmas ornaments at the White House just doesn't cut the mustard, I'm afraid. Or it shouldn't, but as the famous GIF says:

grimes mcconnell

How did Grimes' parents going to see the White House Christmas decorations even become a thing? I'm guessing that some opposition researcher put this story in front of The Hill, and everyone at The Hill was rolling on molly at the time, or something. I can't fathom publishing this. If this theoretical opposition researcher had come to me with this "story," I would have been insulted on behalf of the actual good opposition researchers I know. I would have asked this opposition researcher, "Is there anything else you are good at? Like, do you know how to cook or fix cars or teach geometry? Because this profession you've chosen just isn't your bag, dude."

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Bob McDonnell's Trial Comes To Merciful End, But The Weirdness And The Shame Remain

Jason Linkins   |   September 6, 2014   11:47 AM ET

So, that happened: Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's (R) career as a professional defendant has finished its first big story arc, with he and wife Maureen being convicted of 20 counts of corruption between them. The convictions were, perhaps, the result that close observers could have seen coming a mile away. What no one could have predicted at the beginning of this trial was the desperate and shameful gambit that McDonnell would embark on to clear his name -- effectively slut-shaming his wife and throwing what remained of a disintegrating marriage on the trash heap.

The McDonnell trial was a thing that we couldn't believe existed -- something that started with basic political corruption and then entered a demented universe of emotional wreckage.



Huffington Post hooligans Zach Carter, Arthur Delaney and Jason Linkins discuss just how unusual the McDonnell trial was in this Saturday's podcast, which you can enjoy by clicking the player above. In addition to the McDonnell trial, they discuss this week's disappointing jobs report, as well as a terrifying thing that might come to Washington, D.C., if no one stops it -- the 2024 Olympic Games.

(This podcast was produced and edited by Ibrahim Balkhy, with assistance from Chris Gentilviso, Brad Shannon and Adriana Usero.)

Have a story you'd like to hear discussed on the weekend podcast? Email us at your convenience!

Everybody Calm Down About The Kansas Senate Race

Jason Linkins   |   September 4, 2014    6:16 PM ET

If you spent any time Wednesday scanning headlines and tweets about the Kansas Senate race, you wouldn't be thought a fool to have come away with the notion that something -- sigh ... "game-changing" -- had occurred. The news was that Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, the Democratic nominee in the race against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, had pulled out of the race, leaving Roberts to compete with a Libertarian Party nominee and an independent candidate.

The ensuing focus fell on the independent, Greg Orman, a businessman and founder of private equity firm Denali Partners LLC. There was good reason to have done so: Orman's campaign had long insisted that he was the real rival to Roberts, pointing to the fact that he was much more successful at fundraising than Taylor was. That argument has been effectively won by Orman at this point: The fact that Taylor's campaign was largely skint was the prevailing reason he dropped out of the race. Beyond that, Orman has cast himself as a genuine independent. His profile is that of a moderate Democrat, he voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, and he has made it known that if he's elected, he'll caucus with whatever party is in the majority.

One last thing: an Aug. 19 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that when Orman was slotted against Roberts in a head-to-head matchup, Orman won, 43 percent to 33 percent, over Roberts. (Less talked about was the fact that in the same matchup, the number of undecided voters rose to 24 percent, from the 17 percent undecided in both the Taylor-Roberts head-to-head and the four-way scrum among the three aforementioned candidates and Libertarian candidate Randall Batson.)

Hype ensued. "The Senate Race In Kansas Just Got Crazy," said FiveThirtyEight. The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan penned, "Meet Greg Orman, the man who could decide the Senate majority." People seemed to be reaching for their favored drape-measurement implements. And the Roberts campaign reacted with melodramatic suspicion in a statement furnished by campaign manager Leroy Towns:

Chad Taylor's withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race reveals a corrupt bargain between Greg Orman and national Democrats including Senator Harry Reid that disenfranchises Kansas Democrats. It makes clear what has been obvious from the start: Orman is the choice of liberal Democrats and he can no longer hide behind an independent smokescreen.

(For what it's worth, I'll point out that The New Yorker's Sam Wang reports that Orman "has promised to vote out Democrat Harry Reid as majority leader if he gets the chance.")

With all that in mind, let's calm down, shall we? There are a lot of reasons to distrust the notion that something epochal has happened in Kansas. It begins with this little remarked-upon part of Wednesday's story: "Staff in Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office indicated Wednesday night that Taylor's name would be retained on the candidate list until legal issues related to his withdrawal could be studied. Apparently, there is uncertainty that Taylor’s affidavit met requirements of state law to renounce a nomination. Another question centers on whether the Kansas Democratic Party must select a replacement or leave the ballot blank."

See, Chad Taylor may be done with the Kansas Senate race, but that does not necessarily mean that the Kansas Senate race is done with Chad Taylor. As The Hill's Alexandra Jaffe reports, there are "two election law statutes" that may impede Taylor's flight from the race:

One statute declares that, except under specific circumstances, "no person who has been nominated by any means for any national, state, county or township office may" withdraw their name from the ballot after Primary Day.

Those circumstances include death and if a nominee "declares that they are incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected ... by a request in writing."

While Taylor did submit a request in writing to the secretary of State's office withdrawing his nomination and asking to be withdrawn from the ballot pursuant to that same statute, the letter makes no claim that the candidate would be unable to fulfill his duties if elected.

According to Jaffe, a second statute indicates that if the Kansas secretary of state takes Taylor's name off the ballot, the Democratic Party may be obligated to replace him with somebody else.

For the moment, however, Taylor's efforts to quit the race have gotten hung up on the former statute. According to TPM's Dylan Scott, Kris Kobach -- a Republican who you might remember as the higher mind behind many of Arizona's draconian immigration laws -- is not in any rush to do Orman or the Democrats any favors. Per Scott:

During a televised press conference Thursday afternoon, Kobach read from the relevant Kansas law, specifically the provision that states a candidate must declare their incapacity to serve if elected. He said that Taylor had not made such a declaration.

"We now have no choice to keep his name on the ballot," Kobach said.

Of course, none of this may prove to matter, depending on how well Taylor's "Don't actually vote for me" campaign and Orman's "Don't forget that Taylor dropped out of the race" campaign combine to inform Kansas voters. But there are other factors to consider, such as, "Maybe Orman's threat to Roberts is a wee bit overhyped, seeing as it's almost entirely based on a single PPP poll." Here's The Monkey Cage's John Sides, considering that possibility:

Orman may not be a good fit for Kansas. He ran as a Democrat in 2008. Based on these data from Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica, he seems to be left-of-center. It’s entirely possible that he won’t poll that well against Roberts if he becomes the focus of attacks by Roberts and others. In other words, the PPP poll may not indicate where the race stands now or will stand soon.

Now, there's no guarantee that making Orman "the focus of attacks" will work. If you want to find out more about the potential dangers of running a massively funded, "Let me tell you all about this guy who's running against me, of whom you may not have heard," I'll direct you to discuss the matter with former House Minority Leader Eric Cantor. (At the same time, I think there's a good chance that Roberts' campaign may have noticed what happened to Cantor.)

And if you are thinking of Orman as the guy who may end up helping the Democrats maintain their Senate majority ... well, there are two schools of thought. Here's Sam Wang:

To be fair, Orman is not just a Democrat in disguise -- he has promised to vote out Democrat Harry Reid as Majority Leader if he gets the chance. But Orman says that he wants to break the current gridlock in the Senate, and Senate Republicans have been gumming up the works on legislation and judicial appointments. So while Orman would be far from a shoo-in to vote for every Democratic position, he would certainly not be involved in any alliances with the Republicans.

On the other hand, there's John Sides again:

His election would matter most if the GOP won 50 seats and the Democrats won 49 -- allowing Orman to decide who would have the majority (since the Democrats could control the Senate with 50 votes, given Biden’s role as tie-breaker). But even in that scenario, it may be unlikely that Orman would caucus with Democrats. He will have to be reelected in a fairly red state, so it could make sense to caucus with Republicans.

Yes, crazily enough, despite the fact that Orman has some significant ideological differences with the current Senate Republican caucus, there's a pretty good chance that if he manages to pull off this unlikely tight-rope walk to a Senate seat, he may actually want to keep it.

So, if only for the moment, let's calm down about Kansas.

READ MORE:
There was a major shake-up in the Kansas Senate race. Or was there? [The Monkey Cage]
Legal questions complicate Dem's exit from Kansas Senate race [The Hill]
GOP's Kobach Declares Democrat Must Stay On Kansas Senate Ballot [TPM]

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Politico Columnist Pretty Sure Glenn Greenwald Has 'Peaked'

Jason Linkins   |   September 4, 2014    2:31 PM ET

Over at Politico, Michael Hirsh is wondering if Glenn Greenwald -- one of the select few journalists to whom former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden entrusted his cache of purloined NSA documents -- has already "peaked." I suppose that if Greenwald has peaked, it would be bad news, since the former Guardian reporter has taken his game to Pierre Omidyar's startup journalism enterprise, First Look Media. This is a point to which Hirsh alludes right away:

For about a year, the global enterprise you might call Glenn Greenwald, Inc. has been taking off like a red-hot app. The question now is whether the sudden rise of Greenwald -- a 47-year-old lawyer-cum-activist from Queens by way of George Washington University -- will soon follow the course of most Information Age startups: Boom. Bust. Bye.

Whence comes this notion that Greenwald has peaked? Industry observers have made note that Omidyar's company has had something of a halting start. Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman wrote a good piece on its "growing pains" in August, suggesting that First Look Media has, perhaps, more challenges to face than it envisioned at the outset. Greenwald, who left a legacy newspaper to become the de facto "face" of the First Look brand, is inevitably knit up in all of that.

But none of this is central to Hirsh's thesis as to why Greenwald, and First Look, has "peaked." Rather it's this:

Will there be many more Snowdens to come, based on Greenwald’s "model"? Perhaps. But it’s more likely that Greenwald Inc. has already peaked.

Ahh, look out, we got a Hot Take, coming in fast: There is only one Edward Snowden. This is obviously a pretty keen insight. Now that Snowden is a well-known NSA whistle-blower, what are the odds that he one day returns to the NSA to do more whistle-blowing? Chances are, none, but I'm just speculating here. The salient point -- or so it seems, anyway! -- is that to avoid "peaking," Greenwald will have to come up with discourse-shattering scoops on a regular basis. I can't really name another journalist who's been asked to adhere to that standard. Perhaps the point of journalism is to never peak at all? This system is arguably working for Michael Hirsh. Greenwald and First Look Media, I guess, will have to resort to hiring "reporters" and cultivating "sources" in order to "break stories." Crazy, I know.

Hirsh's contentions only get weirder from there:

The NSA, duly chastened by Snowden’s leaks, is changing under presidential directives that will rein in its mass collection of telephone "metadata" -- its most controversial program -- while most of the rest of us have moved on.

I don't know who Hirsh's source is for the claim that "the rest of us have moved on." That strikes me more as a funny feeling that Hirsh had after a particularly vigorous pocket hockey session. But the most remarkable part of Hirsh's argument here is that he takes the recognition that Greenwald's journalism has had a remarkable impact on policy and the public discourse, and asserts that as evidence that this form of journalism is like, totally donesville, man. He continues in a similar vein here:

Another issue that tends to deflate the prospects for Greenwald, Inc., perhaps, is that no one (least of all Greenwald) can point to any serious violation of civil liberties or prosecution based on the Snowden disclosures -- except, arguably, that which threatens Snowden himself. No person has been charged; there are no Kafkaesque Joseph Ks being mysteriously placed on trial as a result of NSA surveillance; no one else has come forward complaining that family members or neighbors are being "disappeared."

I don't think this is an entirely unfair assessment, but I'll point out that when you produce a lot of journalism about what the NSA is capable of potentially doing if left unchecked, it really helps to prevent abuses from happening.

Hirsh, doing the Journalism That Really Matters, reaches out to former NSA Director Michael Hayden to assess whether First Look's journalism model is strong or not, and he asks Greenwald if he's "bothered" by the fact that he "damaged America's brand." Here's a pro tip: The question that was put to Greenwald in this instance is the one that you actually want to ask Hayden.

This isn't the first time that Politico has oddly asserted that Greenwald et al. have "peaked." Here's Dylan Byers, from July of 2013:

Despite how troubling the NSA's surveillance practices are, the American people seem content to live with them. [Editor's Note: Sorry, Dylan, but nope!] Moreover, the news cycle has moved on, dominated now by the Zimmerman trial, Egypt, et al.

Oh, so the "news cycle" is always "moving on" to a bunch of other stories that First Look can cover? Whatever will they do?

At any rate, if the people running the country decide overnight to become paragons of virtue, leading to a golden age in which no one abuses power, makes terrible decisions or otherwise acts like one of a bunch of well-heeled reprobates who benefit from a corrupt meritocracy, lots of people in journalism could end up "peaking." But I'll lay you odds that this is not going to happen.

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Here Are The 55 People That Pollsters Have Included In 2016 Polls (So Far)

Jason Linkins   |   September 3, 2014    5:34 PM ET

We've gone back over all of the 2016 presidential polls that have been conducted so far and discovered that as of this moment, pollsters have already included 55 people in various and sundry polls, for some reason.

Who are these people?

People Who Can Reasonably Be Said To Be 2016 Presidential Contenders:
1. Joe Biden
2. Jeb Bush
3. Chris Christie
4. Hillary Clinton
5. Bobby Jindal
6. John Kasich
7. Martin O'Malley
8. Rand Paul
9. Marco Rubio
10. Paul Ryan
11. Scott Walker

People Who Are Maybe A Tiny Bit Of A Stretch To Think Of As Running In 2016, But Who Knows?:
12. Ted Cruz
13. Andrew Cuomo
14. Peter King
15. Rob Portman
16. Bernie Sanders
17. Rick Santorum
18. Brian Schweitzer

Time Is A Flat Circle Where These People Are Always Running For President:
19. Michele Bachmann
20. Herman Cain
21. Howard Dean
22. Mike Huckabee
23. Jon Huntsman
24. John Kerry
25. Tim Pawlenty
26. Rick Perry
27. Mitt Romney

These People Are Not Running For President, But We'll Show Them By Putting Them In Polls, Anyway:
28. Cory Booker
29. Julian Castro
30. Kirsten Gillibrand
31. Deval Patrick
32. Elizabeth Warren

Pollsters Remember These People's Names Because They Did A Thing That One Time, Remember That Thing They Did?:
33. Kelly Ayotte
34. Tammy Baldwin
35. Evan Bayh
36. John Bolton
37. Jan Brewer
38. Ben Carson
39. Mitch Daniels
40. Rahm Emanuel
41. Nikki Haley
42. John Hickenlooper
43. Amy Klobuchar
44. Susana Martinez
45. Condoleezza Rice
46. Michael Steele
47. John Thune
48. Antonio Villaraigosa
49. Mark Warner
50. Jim Webb

LOL, Pollsters Are Straight Up Trolling You:
51. Scott Brown
52. Bob McDonnell
53. Sarah Palin
54. Joe Scarborough
55. Donald Trump

Most of these people, if history and common sense are any guide, will not come remotely close to running for president, let alone being elected. By our count, in 2008 -- the last presidential election without an incumbent -- 55 politicians were also mentioned in at least one poll. Of those, just under half ended up even briefly becoming candidates, while fewer than a third made it to the Iowa caucuses.

That list includes some less-than-serious options, from Bill Clinton (who was term-limited) to Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was born in Austria) and Stephen Colbert (who already had a better job). This serves as a reminder of the futility of trying to predict the winners of a contest before knowing who the contestants actually are.

FUN FACT: If you stacked all of these people end to end, the middle class would still have no future in America.

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Barack Obama And The Misery Of His Augusts, Ranked

Jason Linkins   |   August 31, 2014    7:30 AM ET

There was definitely a time in President Barack Obama's life in which he looked forward to August. He was, after all, born on Aug. 4. And Hawaii seems like it's maybe the best part of America in which to spend an August. And on Aug. 3, 2004, he was one day away from celebrating his 43rd birthday and basking in his first week of officially becoming what Vice President Joe Biden might refer to as a "big f--king deal," having delivered a historic stemwinder of a keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "August! Man, this is all right," Obama probably thought at the time.

Flash-forward to Aug. 28, 2014, however, and Obama is found speaking at a very grim press conference, telling the assembled reporters that "we don't have a strategy yet" for ending the violence and terror that's been meted out by ISIS across Iraq and Syria.

The thing is, it may be possible to develop a strategy for ISIS, but there truly is no strategy for August, the Gregorian calendar's most inglorious month. August is, first and foremost, the supposed "slow news month" that almost never, ever ends up being slow. But it's distinct in other ways beyond that. It's not necessarily the most dangerous month or the saddest month or the most tragic month. Rather, it's a cruel month, where boredom and anomie seem to combine in a way that breeds sociopathy.

Many -- perhaps most -- of the most terrible things in human history happened in other months. But August, even when it's lying low, somehow leers at you like a lycanthrope. It's not the month you start that stupid war in Iraq, but it's the month you found the White House Iraq Group to plan the stupid war in Iraq. ("From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," said Andrew Card, of that stupid war in Iraq.) August isn't the Death Star blowing up Alderaan; it's Jack Torrance typing, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over again.

That's what August is: the dull boy. The child who "just ain't right." The distant early warning of coming mischief that somehow is missed. Sometimes, there is a tragic convulsion. More often than not, the ones that occur in August are of the "surely this didn't have to happen" variety.

Whoever came up with "idle hands are the devil's playground" came up with it in August, I assure you.

At any rate, chances are Obama no longer looks forward to August at all because of the six Augusts he's had in the White House, at least three were out-and-out horror shows. Here is the definitive ranking of the president's Augusts, from best to worst.

1. AUGUST 2012

This was maybe Obama's only truly pleasant August. Dick Morris predicted a Mitt Romney landslide, which all but cemented an Obama victory in November. Meanwhile, Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul, responding to a rather egregiously deceptive ad from a pro-Obama super PAC, noted that Romney was responsible for enacting a health care reform law in Massachusetts. Saul was deemed to have sinned by pointing this out, and conservatives called for her to be fired.

Also redounding to Obama's benefit was Senate candidate Todd Akin, who gave the world his insights on "legitimate rape" and his theory that women have a magic ability to "shut down" pregnancies that arise from rape. Clint Eastwood sucked whatever seriousness had been generated by the Republican National Convention by speaking incoherently to an empty chair from the convention stage.

Wasn't all ponies and rainbows, though. On Aug. 5, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page went on a killing spree at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, slaughtering six people. In mid-August, the economic recovery was evaluated as "the feeblest economic recovery since the Great Depression."

2. AUGUST 2009

August 2009 started off optimistically enough. The stimulus had been passed, and a bill addressing health care reform seemed to be slowly cooking. (Too slowly, maybe? More on that in a moment.) In Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in for a second term, but the nascent protest movement that spurred to life during his controversial re-election remained unbowed. Obama reappointed Ben Bernanke to a second term at the Federal Reserve. And for a brief, mad moment, it appeared that the president was making some headway in closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, with new sites on the mainland being considered as alternative detention facilities and a slew of deals with other countries to take detainees off America's hands coming together.

But the unemployment rate, then at 9.6 percent, was the highest of Obama's presidency.

And August 2009 would be the month that jeopardized the slowly-coming-together plan to reform health care, as Congresspersons, loosed from their requirements to remain in Washington, returned to their districts to endure a month-long hell of angry, anti-reform activists at town hall meetings. Sen. Max Baucus during this time expressed a fear of people in the crowd, armed "with YouTubes," who wanted to "intimidate, disrupt and not let any meaningful conversation go on." "Death panel" lunacy enjoyed an August heyday, with famed liar Betsy McCaughey returning to prominence and the Bush-era director of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives penning an op-ed warning that the Department of Veterans Affairs already had "death panels."

On top of all that, Ted Kennedy, who fought hardest of all during his lifetime to secure a health care reform bill, passed away.

3. AUGUST 2011

August 2011, at times, had the makings of a rare good August for Obama. This was the month that GOP primary battle commenced, and just about every single day of it was something of a boon to Obama. (The post-election "autopsy" report from the RNC spends a lot of time dwelling on this.) Romney got it started by saying, "Corporations are people, my friends."

This was also an August in which things that eventually went really terribly looked like they were going very well. Libya's civil war had entered its seventh month. (By August's end, the United States intervention in Libya would begin its sixth month.) This was the month in which rebel forces would finally enter Tripoli and, by all indications, turned the tide finally, firmly against Gaddafi. For the Obama administration, this would be something of a high-water mark of its involvement in the Libyan conflict. Just over a year later, the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi would reverse the administration's foreign policy standing and plunge the White House into a political miasma.

Similarly, August was the month that Obama signed the Budget Control Act, a moment that looked like progress was finally being made in reaching a bipartisan deficit deal. The idea behind this bill was to create a "Super Committee" of Congresspersons who would come to terms with a budget and deficit agreement by a November deadline, lest this thing called "the sequester" kick in. There was optimism to be had because "the sequester" was a set of budget cuts that were designed to be so severe -- so brain-searingly psychotic, in fact -- that the sheer terror and potential danger of imagining them happening would spur the factionalized Congress to cease all mischief and finally come to terms. Well, guess what happened! Just guess!

Outside the world of politics, things were pretty bad. Hurricane Irene -- whose destruction and costliness is deceptively obscured by 2012's Hurricane Sandy -- hit the United States, causing floods in the Northeast and claiming over 40 lives. Standard & Poor's reacted to the ongoing congressional conflict over raising the debt ceiling by downgrading the United States' credit rating.

Meanwhile, 30 American troops were killed on Aug. 6 when the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan's Wardak province. It was the deadliest day of the war in Afghanistan, leading to that August being the "deadliest month" of the war for U.S. forces, who lost 66 service members during that span.

4. AUGUST 2013

Egypt convulsed again, as a disaffected populace sought to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood regime that had won the elections that were held the last time Egypt convulsed. Hundreds died. Sectarian violence erupted in Iraq; 69 people were killed in a single day during a spate of coordinated car bombings.

Former Obama adviser Jim Messina switched sides in the war over austerity economics, signing on to help U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people amid the ongoing civil war in Syria. For the better half of a month, war drums beat from the West. Secretary of State John Kerry called Assad's actions a "moral obscenity." Obama mulled retaliating against Assad using airstrikes. The idea was not warmly embraced by many Americans or by many lawmakers in America or by many people in general. Lawmakers in the United Kingdom dampened the enthusiasm for further involvement in Syria by declining to allow David Cameron to get involved. Obama sought similar approval for airstrikes from Congress, which Congress declined to give.

5. AUGUST 2010

Remember Recovery Summer? It was June of 2010, and the White House decided, ahead of the midterm elections, to count to three and close its eyes and gamble that everything that had been done to spur the economy back to health was going to finally start going gangbusters. Obama and Biden were going to crisscross the nation and stand in front of bridges and plants and whoop it up for the recovery. Come on, recovery! Do some recovery things!

Things didn't go as planned. August's unemployment rate was 9.5 percent, just a touch lower than the worst rate of Obama's presidency, notched in 2009.

That was just the start of Obama's storm and stress. Politically speaking, August was when the GOP's midterm wave hit its heights. Gallup recorded a 10-point lead for the Republicans on its "generic ballot" survey, the largest such lead in the survey's history. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill reached its fourth month, and with it came accusations that the White House had spun "a government scientific report into the amount of oil left in the Gulf of Mexico" with a far too rosy estimate.

August 2010 was also the month in which the grotesque argument over the "Ground Zero mosque" (which was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero) became unavoidable nonsense. During this time, the media decided to turn obscure crackpot Terry Jones -- who had spent all summer threatening to burn some Qurans on the anniversary of 9/11 -- into an important public figure, worthy of lots and lots of attention.

And this is where I'll mention that on Aug. 31, Obama, in an address to the nation, announced that combat operations in Iraq had ended. Let's just say that there were some surprises in store!

6. AUGUST 2014

Surprise! ISIS, the terrorist offshoot of al Qaeda deemed by that death cult to be way too death-culty for them, set up shop in Iraq and Syria, and they had a great August. The success ISIS enjoyed in Iraq led to the scuppering of the Iraqi government and the return of American airstrikes. This didn't exactly rattle ISIS, who went on to expand their reign of nihilism, capturing an airbase in Syria and executing journalist James Foley. ISIS also borrowed a page from Cheney-era America and began doing what the Cheney-era American media referred to as "enhanced interrogation techniques." Obama, in a tan suit that got panned by all the serious people, acknowledged that he had "no strategy" at hand for dealing with ISIS. (Somehow, one gets the funny feeling that when one arises, it will involve a prolonged conflict in Syria.)

The U.N. Climate Report was released, and it was not good. Vladimir Putin slowly invaded Ukraine with the help of the world's most idiotic "rebels." The Israel-Palestine conflict continued apace. There was an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which freaked out Americans for the wrong reasons.

Republicans from the House of Representatives ended any chance at passing comprehensive immigration reform by voting to strip deportation relief from those who benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And, of course, Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown was shot in the street by a cop, touching off a period in which id-drenched, militarized police forces terrorized demonstrators, while the relevant officials in charge of the situation flopped around haplessly.

Hope, if not lost, hasn't alerted anyone to its whereabouts on Twitter for a long while, basically.

And Obama (probably!) still has two more of these Augusts to endure. That's rough. The only comfort that he, or any other American president, can take is that it is exceedingly difficult for a president to have a worse August in America than the August that an American president had in 1974. (Rhymes with "Blixon blesigns." Look it up.)

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Media People: Polls Say It's Throwback Thursday To That Time Romney Ran For President

Jason Linkins   |   August 28, 2014    3:37 PM ET

A few days ago, former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential aspirant Mitt Romney told Hugh Hewitt that he was not going to run for president in 2016. What everyone seems to have heard, however, is that he might run for president in 2016. And so, Mitt Romney 2016 is now a thing. It's August. This is what happens in August.

The words that everyone is citing to suggest that Romney is "leaving the door open," as they say, to a run, are "circumstances can change." Go ahead and Google "Mitt Romney circumstances can change" and you'll see what I mean. (The Huffington Post is quoting those words, too, though we are at least really clear about Romney's stated intentions.) It's worth taking a look at the relevant transcript (emphasis mine):

HEWITT: Now I'm pressing, and I'm pressing an advantage of long acquaintance, and so forgive me for this, but that's subject to change, right? People's candidacies implode, circumstances change. People who organized campaigns approach you. And so I'm not asking you to -- I wouldn't presume to ask you to say, "Yeah, I'm in the race." But circumstances change. And if you thought that in fact it were not that way, that you thought you were the only one who could do this, you'd change your mind, wouldn't you?

ROMNEY: I'm not going there, Hugh. I know you're going to press, but you know, this is something we gave a lot of thought to when, early on, I decided we're not going to be running this time. And again, we said, "Look, I had the chance of running. I didn't win. Someone else has a better chance than I do." And that's what we believe, and that's why I'm not running. And you know, circumstances can change, but I'm just not going to let my head go there. I remember that great line from "Dumb and Dumber," where the...

HEWITT: "So you're telling me I have a chance?"

ROMNEY: There you go, you remember. You're telling me I have a chance? That's one of a million.

So all those headline writers probably should have attributed the "circumstances change" language to Hugh Hewitt, with whom Romney was politely playing along.

Or they could have gone with, "Romney: 'If Everyone Else's Candidacies Implode And A Well-Organized Campaign Comes To Me, Maybe I'll Run,'" as an alternative. Because those are the conditions to which Romney is agreeing here: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, and whoever else suffers an "implosion," and then a bunch of people who are well-positioned to support a campaign -- financially and infrastructurally -- but who have not joined a campaign in the meantime suddenly decide to approach Romney.

I mean, it could happen. Giraffes from space could cure leukemia. The Detroit Lions could go to the Superbowl. Tupac could be alive. The world is full of possibilities. But likelihoods are more scant, by comparison. This is really just Romney funnin' around with Hewitt, who -- back when it was chic in establishment conservative circles to beg any Republican with a pulse to jump into the 2012 GOP primary and prevent Romney from winning it -- stuck by Romney. (He is, after all, Romney's biographer.)

But, remember, it's August! And someone -- specifically, USA Today/Suffolk University -- polled Iowans, and this is what they found:

According to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Wednesday, 35 percent of likely GOP caucus voters would vote for the 2012 GOP nominee in 2016. When Romney's name was added to the pool, no other candidate received double-digit votes.

The survey comes as rumors have begun to swirl about a potential Romney bid for president in 2016. After months of insisting that he will not run again, the former Massachusetts governor on Tuesday acknowledged that "circumstances can change."

(In the second paragraph, a copyeditor should have changed "The survey comes as rumors have begun to swirl about a potential Romney bid for president in 2016" to "The survey comes at a time when we're desperate to find something to write about, got any ideas?")

Back in January, Ariel Edwards-Levy and I came up with a system of shorthand symbols that could be deployed for polls conducted well before anyone has any business conducting polls. In our system, this USA Today/Suffolk University poll would get the "ℑ" for "It's way too early to write about 2016, but here we are doing it anyway, like idiots" and the "Ñ" for "No, [name of candidate] is not running/cannot run/will not run, but what if [name of candidate] did/could/would run? Huh?! What then!?” We created a symbol for polls in which Public Policy Polling is just trolling people, as is their wont, but since PPP isn't implicated here we wouldn't do that. Same spirit, though!

Ariel and I failed to come up with a symbol for "absurdly teensy sample size," because we didn't think a poll with an absurdly teensy sample size would touch off a cuckoo-bird media frenzy. We forgot about what happens in August, and we apologize. More to the point, though, this poll has an absurdly teensy sample size! "How many Iowans actually support Romney for 2016?" asks Dave Weigel, "One hundred seventy Republicans were polled, and 60 chose Romney."

Why would 60 people do this? Well, if you recall, a bunch of Republican voters in Iowa voted for Mitt Romney not so long ago. That was a discrete, concrete decision that they made. If Romney had said to Hugh Hewitt, "YOLO, cuz, I am gonna go for it one more time in '16," it's very possible that Romney would bring many of them along again. In the meantime, however, we have Republican voters who, when presented with a hypothetical question about an imagined set of circumstances that won't take place for another year, retreat to the least abstract position: a decision they already made before about which they are probably still quite happy.

This would be a good time to point out that one thing Mitt Romney has never actually done, technically speaking, is win an Iowa Caucus.

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