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Jason Linkins   |   October 6, 2015   10:18 AM ET

The New Hampshire primary is four months away, and as any political wag will tell you, it's a contest that tends to "break late." Back in 2008, in fact, the primary broke late very memorably, with Hillary Clinton prevailing just a day and a half after being all-but-completely written off in the state. Flash forward to today, and New Hampshire has, in the early days of the campaign, turned into the testing ground for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential viability.

So what should Clinton do? Well, according to "one small contingent of family allies," who are also idiots, she should panic and do something rash for no real good reason.

Politico's Gabriel Debenedetti has the story:

The group — veterans of the family’s old campaigns and people close to Clinton’s fundraising — see little reason to support a strategy that continues to pour resources into the state where Bernie Sanders’ already surprising lead shows no signs of shrinking.


Despite confidence emanating from the campaign’s paid leadership team that Clinton is well positioned with more than four months to go before the primary, this circle of informal advisers is whispering about more aggressively looking beyond New Hampshire after a summer that saw her polling advantage evaporate. These confidantes are not only granting the possibility that Sanders could win here: they see it as a near-certainty, and in some cases wonder about the usefulness of flooding the state with precious resources.

There are so many things to unpack here. "Veterans of the family's old campaigns" is basically code for "the people who in 2008 were mainly responsible for campaigning with the intelligence and elegance of downer cows." These people apparently believe that the Clinton team cannot campaign "aggressively ... beyond New Hampshire" without quitting the state, or that she's dealing with such a stringent limitation in campaign cash that continuing to compete in the state she won eight years ago represents a tremendous opportunity cost. Perhaps they've not heard that New Hampshire is not a winner-take-all state, but rather, awards delegates proportionally. (That was basically the sort of error that made "veterans of the family's old campaigns" such galactically famous cock-ups.)

But really, all that needs to be said is that these oh-so-savvy "veterans of the family's old campaigns" are of the mind that the best thing to do to respond to Bernie Sanders' hardy challenge in New Hampshire is to freak out, pull out of an early primary state and get every news organization in America a-twitter with headlines like "Clinton Panics in New Hampshire" and "Sanders Has Clinton On The Run" and "Clinton Campaign Now Just A Disheveled Bundle Of Sweaty Hair And Confusion."

Having the political media light up with stories about your fear and weakness four months ahead of the first nominating contests is definitely a good idea. Total veteran move. Obviously, these people know best, but if you want a differing point of view, Debenedetti helpfully brings in Clinton supporter and former New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan: "That's craziness."

But that's American politics, where even if a political campaign doesn't want to follow your bad advice because of the terrible way it will play in the press, you can still get the press to publish your terrible advice and basically achieve the same outcome. 

Jason Linkins   |   September 25, 2015   11:59 AM ET

In this broken future of ours, it makes me happy that we could be on the precipice of a golden age of reporters ferreting recordings out of political fundraisers and onto the web. Yes, please! There's almost nothing more valuable than documenting the weird people who'll spend thousands of dollars on our political figures and what our political figures promise these oddballs in return. We need more of this, across the board, to keep emphasizing the extent to which our political system is drowning in plutocratic boodle and, hopefully, to propel a popular movement to reform this corrupt system.

But here's the thing: Not every recording can be Barack Obama's "clinging to guns and religion" or Mitt Romney's "47 percent." You know, the hits! Those moments when a conversation between a politician begging for money and the people with deep pockets takes a sudden, crazy turn to points unknown and out of touch with the American people.

So what do you do with a piece of audio that's, well, more or less ho-hum? That's the position that the Washington Free Beacon's Alana Goodman and Lachlan Markay find themselves in today.

The two reporters obtained surreptitiously recorded audio from a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in New York City, which is all to the good. But what they've offered up from the effort is a 68-second clip in which Clinton ... professes support for a national infrastructure bank?

Wait. Seriously? That's it? I'm only asking because Clinton's been promising a national infrastructure bank for some time and with astonishing regularity. At this point, proposals for national infrastructure banks are so commonplace that they're all blurring together. So why is this noteworthy? It would seem that it's noteworthy because Clinton also mentioned the Clinton Global Initiative. From the audio:

"The Clinton Global Initiative that my husband started has a project with a lot of labor union pension funds. They have put $15 billion into a fund to train workers to be able to do energy efficiency and other clean energy work. ... Think of what we can do on a national scale. ... This is a win-win."

The Free Beacon calls the Clinton Global Initiative a "controversial non-profit," which, well, sure. I tend to think of CGI as a potentially potent campaign weapon and a cagey quid-pro-quo mechanism. You shouldn't underestimate how much favor will be showered on the leaders of an organization that can launder the karma of a corporate brand by helping it to perform a bit of high-visibility, celebrity-zazzled philanthropy.

The Beacon reporters' problem is that they aren't using this audio to further the idea that CGI is controversial. They trust that's self-evident. All the audio has proven is that Clinton will happily keep talking about CGI, regardless of anyone's free-floating opinions about the organization.

The odd thing is, the audio does suggest a way to bedevil Clinton, demonstrate a controversy and potentially get Clinton to stop talking about CGI as a personal asset. Why not find out whether the project Clinton mentions is actually doing anything constructive or worthwhile? Because imagine if you can demonstrate that it's a flop -- or worse, a boondoggle! Then you get to write about a conspicuous CGI failure (which puts a bit of meat on that bone of controversy) and discuss how Clinton is selling a failed project to donors on the campaign trail as an example of something she'd do as president. And if her campaign said no such salesmanship was occurring? Bang, you drop the audio.

Shouldn't have blown that wad, guys! Because what's left is sort of threadbare. There are, as Goodman and Markay cite, some people in the Clinton orbit that could benefit from a national infrastructure bank. Robert Wolf, CEO of consulting firm 32 Advisors, is a Clinton and CGI donor who has teamed up with CGI donor and noted infrastructure bank enthusiast Michael Likosky. They could potentially make some money if there's a national infrastructure bank. So could CGI donor Mary Scott Nabers, who runs her own consulting firm and who specializes in public-private ventures.

So they're out there, Clinton boosters who run consulting firms. Or at least two of them. Of course, a lot more than two people could benefit from an infrastructure bank, but it all depends on the details of how the bank is set up -- what it could finance, what its lending terms would be, how it was capitalized, et cetera. It could be an opportunity for good, constructive policy, or it could be a monument to cozenage and pillaging, or it could be both.

Also, unions would benefit! Per the Free Beacon:

Labor unions, which represent a major voting bloc and well of financial support for Clinton, would also benefit significantly from a national infrastructure bank.

Sure, and they'd also benefit significantly from repealing the Affordable Care Act's "Cadillac tax," which is another thing that Clinton has promised to do. But yeah, breaking news: Labor unions tend to find Democratic candidates to be less hostile to their political and economic interests.

Here's the thing, though. This is a discussion that doesn't require the "EXCLUSIVE! LEAKED! AUDIO!" cloak-and-dagger melodrama to be relevant. I keep looking for the way in which this 68 seconds pays off, above and beyond Clinton's already well-recorded public statements and long-known political connections, and it never reveals itself.

You know what also had some potential? As the Free Beacon reports, Clinton had this fundraiser at the home of John Zaccaro, son of one-time vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and a guy who was convicted of selling cocaine but didn't exactly do hard time for the crime. Maybe Zaccaro's super-lenient punishment is the inspiration for Clinton's campaign stance against mass incarceration? Maybe Zaccaro would say that it's crazy that people who hail from a less-privileged background receive a lot more jail time for the crime he committed? Or maybe he won't.

I'm just trying to think about what they talk about. Man, all I know is that it would have been pretty cool to get a recording of that conversation!

Anyway, this was a lot of effort to find out that Clinton was serious the first six times she said she supported a national infrastructure bank and that such a bank would probably financially benefit some people. Probably the worst thing about trying to costume this meager scoop as a major controversy is that it comes at a cost for the Free Beacon, which has now tipped its hand to the Clinton campaign -- "Hey, we'll be up in your fundraisers, with our recording devices."

So! If everyone in attendance at those events suddenly becomes a lot more circumspect from here on out, now you'll know why.

Jason Linkins   |   September 25, 2015   11:58 AM ET

Something is going on with Jeb Bush's campaign these days. Maybe something bad? But maybe something good -- the intel is fuzzy. Luckily, we have journalists to sort it all out. Journalists like Politico's Eli Stokols, who reported on Tuesday that the Bush campaign is working very hard these days to relieve the "angst" of its donors -- one of whom rates the level of "panic" at "six or seven" out of 10.

Or maybe the panic level is not that high? The reason I am wondering is because Politico's Ben White also reported Tuesday that "Bush donors" are "not panicked." As in, you know, zero on the scale of zero-to-10. The null set of panic.

I don't know. Maybe the person who should be panicking is Eli Stokols, now reporting live from beneath the bus his colleague threw him under? Let's get this sorted out.

According to Stokols' report, the Bush campaign has, in recent days, gone to great lengths to assure the candidate's notoriously fainthearted donors that despite all the talk about his faltering poll numbers, that "low energy" barb from Donald Trump that seems to be sticking, and the simultaneous elevation of his Florida rival Marco Rubio, the donors are still backing the right horse because of Bush's clear "lead in the political prediction markets." Only... well, there was a bit of hiccup. Per Stokols:

Just one problem: Beginning Sunday night, PredictIt, the biggest of the online sites and the one referenced last week by top Bush advisers and confidants, placed Marco Rubio ahead of Bush at the head of the GOP pack.

The sudden evaporation of yet another data point in his favor explains the tension in and around Bush's campaign this week on the eve of the third quarter FEC fundraising deadline.

That's basically been the consensus reporting from this weekend, after The Washington Post reported that Bush's "top donors" were "warning that the former Florida governor needs to demonstrate growth in the polls over the next month or face serious defections among supporters."

Compounding this problem is the perception that Scott Walker's exit from the race has primarily benefited Rubio. By the way, this is one of my favorite aspects of the primary process: the part where the staffers and donors who'd backed early-flameout candidates are then mysteriously reborn as vital assets to be ravenously coveted and courted by the candidates who remain.

Both the Rubio and Bush camps have tried to position themselves as the primary haven for Walker's exiles, and apparently there is no former Walker personage too obscure to qualify as a "get." Here, for example, is Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Jacobs tweeting about the Bush camp's success in landing the support of one of Walker's Iowa interns! But the media narrative is in, and Rubio is the winner, according to Politico and The Wall Street Journal.

So it's not surprising when Stokols reports that "the perception that Rubio is a stronger communicator has taken hold and is affecting fundraising at the quarter's end, according to sources in both camps." To counter the tidal force of these perceptions, Stokols says that the Bush camp is reminding its flighty donors about a couple of its own not-insignificant advantages: the Bush team has a lot of money, and it has a lot of organization.

Rather than view White's clashing report as a refutation of Stokols' newsgathering skills, perhaps we should simply see it as evidence that at least a few lucky Bush donors, having downed this particular batch of Kool-Aid, felt totally comfortable circling back to Politico with assurances that everything is going to work out. As one of "several" who talked to White put it:

“43 is a surrogate, Laura Bush is a surrogate, Barbara Bush is a surrogate, Columba Bush is a surrogate, so are Jeb Jr. and George P, plus others, each of whom can swing well north of $50K an event. This is a structural advantage that far outweighs the negative of the Bush name, especially given the reality that the Rs may be running against Clinton Inc, the most formidable money machine in history.”

Ehhh, you know, leaving aside the sliding scale value of each of those surrogates, the whole idea that Bush is the one candidate capable of raising money in the general election (at an oh-so-quaint $50K a pop, at that!) is frustratingly naive. Maybe it's just much easier to quell the panic of the frustratingly naive donors? Regardless, it appears the message from Bush's team is going down well enough that at least one donor was happy to parrot it right back to White: "Bottom line, Jeb is the only grownup with money, a message and organization. Time is, as the Stones say, on his side."

And that's fair: A large campaign war chest and a zealously constructed campaign infrastructure are the sorts of things that will pay much greater dividends in January than they're paying at the moment. Of course, perhaps the real story here is that beneath its confident veneer is a Bush campaign that's every bit as concerned about its current lackluster state as its donors are. As Stokols notes, the Bush campaign will be confronting its near-term problems by putting $25 million worth of ads on the airwaves beginning next month.

So hey, don't worry, Bush donors, everything is gonna be fine, like, so fine, it's probably not even a thing, man.


Also on HuffPost: 

Jason Linkins   |   September 24, 2015    4:56 PM ET

So, that happened. This week, Pope Francis came to Washington, seeking Congress' indulgence on a host of issues of great importance to the Holy See. Meanwhile, in the 2016 presidential race, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called it quits after 70 days on the campaign trail. Finally, rock musician Ted Leo stopped by to offer insight into the often fractious relationship between rockers and politicians.

"So That Happened" hosts Jason Linkins and Arthur Delaney are joined this week by Huffington Post reporters Elise Foley, Kate Sheppard and Lauren Weber.


This podcast was produced, edited, and engineered by Adriana Usero and Peter James Callahan, with assistance from Christine Conetta.

To listen to this podcast later, download our show on iTunes. While you're there, please subscribe, rate and review our show. You can check out other HuffPost podcasts here.

Have a story you'd like to hear discussed on "So, That Happened"? Email us at your convenience:

Also on HuffPost:

Jason Linkins   |   September 24, 2015    3:15 PM ET

It's a story that gets retold in every election cycle: a political candidate -- and let's face it, it's almost always a Republican candidate -- plays a rock song at a campaign event, and before the rally is over the artist identified as the soundtrack provider is issuing statements of condemnation. This year, this fate has befallen Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump. But all anyone wanted to do was rock out!

Is there any way to bridge this divide? On this week's "So That Happened," we're hoping to find out. We enlisted the help of musician and songwriter Ted Leo, who understands where many rock musicians are coming from and also understands the soul of a rock enthusiast well enough to have some forbearance for those politicos (like Rand Paul and Chris Christie) who can't give up their sincere rock fandom. (The segment with Leo starts at 15:16 in the clip below.)

Leo says that some obvious ideological divides play a role in the hostile reactions that the mainly conservative presidential candidates are evoking from the mainly liberal rock musicians on their campaign playlists. Indeed, the one example we could find of a musician asking a liberal politician to stop using their music was Sam and Dave's Sam Moore -- whose 2008 request to then-Senator Barack Obama was as polite as pie. But there is a deeper level to the musicians' desires, akin to not wanting to see their music in commercials, Leo notes. "In the same vein," he says, "you don't want this piece of your soul, this piece of your art that you've created, to become permanently attached to something in a kind of soundbite-y or soundtracked way."

"I've been asked to play rallies ... and I've done some, and not done others," Leo says, "There's always a little bit of conflict ... I cherish my ability to be a social critic through music, I don't necessarily want to be seen as cozying up too much to anybody in power."

Leo has gone a little out of his way to help one 2016er. Back in August, he and bandmate Aimee Mann teamed up with late night talk show host Conan O'Brien in an effort to get little-known Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee from 0% to 1% in the polls.

According to HuffPost Pollster, they are currently 40 percent of the way there.

This podcast was produced and edited by Adriana Usero and Peter James Callahan, engineered by Brad Shannon, with assistance from Christine Conetta.

To listen to this podcast later, download our show on iTunes. While you're there, please subscribe, rate and review our show. You can check out other HuffPost Podcasts here.

Have a story you'd like to hear discussed on "So, That Happened"? Email us at your convenience!

Jason Linkins   |   September 21, 2015   12:02 PM ET

We woke up to a pretty extraordinary email this morning from CNN's PR team. It contained the results of their latest poll, conducted by ORC International between Sept. 17 and 19. This poll offered some good news for Hillary Clinton, advertised right in the email's subject line: "CNN/ORC Poll: Clinton's lead over Sanders grows." Unfortunately for Clinton, there was also some bad news, right in the headline of the post: "Clinton's lead over Sanders shrinks."

Huh, what? Yes, this is a real thing sent to the inboxes of real reporters. Let's go to the Eat The Press Telestrator:

As you can see, we've been invited to participate in some cognitive dissonance, in which two diametrically opposed concepts of statistical trends are happening at the same time. 

But here's the thing: In a way, they actually are happening at the same time. What matters is your perspective. Once again, let's go to the Eat The Press telestrator.

As you can see, if we look at the race as a series of snapshots, then we observe that from the last time CNN/ORC conducted a poll, Clinton's lead over Sanders grew from 10 points to 18 points. However, if we use the June 26-28 poll as our starting point, then Clinton's lead has shrunk considerably from 43 points. 

Is this confusing? It shouldn't be. This is all about freedom, my friends. The freedom to write whatever story you want, regardless of what's actually happening in a race that's still way too in its infancy to actually assign any real salience to polling. If you want to write that the Democratic primary race is widening, you can. You can also write that the race is tightening. You can also use the Aug. 13-16 polls as your starting point, observe that Clinton has maintained an 18-point lead, and declare that the race is static.

(You wouldn't do that, though. Instead you'd write the "Joe Biden Narrows Gap With Clinton" story. In fact, what's wrong with you? Why haven't you written that story yet? That would be such a sexy, on-trend thing to write right now!)

At any rate, the most accurate way CNN could have described this poll in a headline would be to write "Area Numbers Collected, Placed In Spreadsheet."

Also on HuffPost:

Jason Linkins   |   September 18, 2015    1:08 PM ET

If you open the Bible and turn to the Book of Hebrews, you'll find this bit of good advice: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." This line might have been in the minds of Liberty University's students and administrators when the very conservative, very Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia, opened its doors to the very not-conservative, very not-Christian presidential aspirant Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

As it happens, that line is also the epigraph of Kevin Roose's 2010 book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, which documents Roose's experiences as a temporary student at Jerry Falwell's famous college. On this week's "So That Happened," we turned to Roose for some insight into this meeting between Sanders and Liberty's evangelical student body, and why this collision of "strangers" wasn't really that strange. (The segment on Sanders' trip to Liberty starts at 28:00 in the clip below.)

As Samantha Lachman reported earlier this week, Sanders came to Liberty seeking to make a targeted appeal to the Christian enclave on alleviating income inequality. "When we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice," Sanders said, "we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much, and so many have so little."

Roose urged us to remember that "places like Liberty are not monoliths," and that Sanders legitimately has common ground with the student body. "If you took [the income inequality] part of Bernie Sanders' message," Roose said, "and presented it to the students at Liberty as if from their own professors or their own pastors, it would be pretty uncontroversial."

And Roose was not surprised that Sanders received a respectful welcome: "In a lot of ways, Liberty students are more used to having their views tested than students at many schools."

Listen to the full interview with Kevin Roose by clicking the Soundcloud entry above.

This podcast was produced and edited by Adriana Usero and Peter James Callahan, engineered by Brad Shannon, with assistance from Christine Conetta.

To listen to this podcast later, download our show on iTunes. While you're there, please subscribe, rate and review our show. You can check out other HuffPost Podcasts here.

Have a story you'd like to hear discussed on "So, That Happened"? Email us at your convenience at

Jason Linkins   |   September 16, 2015    2:12 PM ET

What a difference an election cycle makes.

Back in the 2012 nominating contest, one couldn't help but be impressed with the way then-Texas Rep. Ron Paul and his campaign had undertaken a deep dive into the arcana of the nominating process, using an advanced study of the little-considered ins and outs of state conventions to give his campaign an outsider's shot at winning delegates.

The Paulites from 2012 were earning advanced degrees in politics on the fly -- they could talk your ear off about the process and you would learn something. Their counterparts who've followed Rand Paul, on the other hand, well ... they're getting their fill of stunts on the stump, anyway.

Hey, OK, it's good to have a little fun, but how many times is Rand going to go to this well?

It was back in late July that Paul first performed his vaudeville act with the tax code, in a video in which he gave people the choice of throwing the code in a woodchipper, shredding it with a chainsaw, or just burning it. He didn't offer to shoot it, though! I guess this schtick is evolving.

The problem for Paul is that it was around this time that reports began to surface concerning a deeper dysfunction within his campaign. Multiple sources told Politico's Alex Isenstadt that the Paul campaign was "badly hobbled" by an array of problems, staffed by people who'd been "beaten down by low morale." Per Isenstadt:

They described an operation that pitted a cerebral chief strategist against an intense campaign manager who once got into a physical altercation with the candidate’s bodyguard. And they portrayed an undisciplined politician who wasn’t willing to do what it took to win -- a man who obsessed over trivial matters like flight times, peppered aides with demands for more time off from campaigning and once chose to go on a spring-break jaunt rather than woo a powerful donor.

They sketched a portrait of a candidate who, as he fell further behind in polls, no longer seemed able to break through.

I guess I feel the worst for whatever staffer has to keep printing out and lugging around the tax code for Paul to destroy whenever the fever for a fresh stunt grips him. 

Paul goes into Wednesday's debate polling at about 2.5 percent and competing with Chris Christie to stay out of the relegation zone that would send one of the two to the next "kids' table" debate, should there even be another "kids' table" debate. (And there should not be another one.)

Hey, if Rand Paul is available to do some chores this weekend, could someone on what's left of his campaign tell him to DM me?

Jason Linkins   |   September 10, 2015    4:07 PM ET

Yesterday, I noted that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, after a long and troubled period in which he struggled to manage the day-to-day trials of being a presidential candidate (including such challenges as "taking a position on issues" and "answering questions from reporters"), had finally hit on a novel way of dealing with the stresses of the campaign trail. Instead of discussing what he would do as president in the face of various Oval Office crises, Walker declared all such inquiries to be unfair "hypothetical" questions, which he was not required to answer.

Walker basically stumbled upon this new technique after ABC News asked the governor if he thought the United States "should open its doors" to take in more refugees. "I'm not president today and I can't be president today," said Walker, before forswearing hypothetical questions entirely.

As New York Magazine's always-sharp Jaime Fuller put it, the Republican candidate had found himself a "secret cheat code that allows him to avoid all campaign questions." That really was something of an achievement for Walker, whose typical pattern has been to stake out a position on one day, only to reverse himself later

With that in mind, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that Walker is now reversing his previously stated position on not taking positions. As Wisconsin Public Radio reports:

Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday that the United States should not take in Syrian refugees. Instead, he said America should focus on taking out the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to solve the humanitarian crisis in that country.

Walker was criticized Tuesday for dodging a question on whether the U.S. should admit more Syrians fleeing extremist violence and a bloody civil war. Wednesday, while speaking with reporters at the Governor's Small Business Summit in Eau Claire, he clarified his answer: "No, we shouldn't be taking on any more Syrian refugees right now."

Even if we leave aside the perhaps not-very-well-thought-out premise that increasing military strikes in Syria will somehow stanch the flow of terrified refugees out of the country (unless Walker means to specifically target the refugees, a possibility I probably shouldn't discount), some big questions remain: Why not just provide this answer the first time? What was with all that tortured reasoning over the nature of hypotheticals when the actual answer to that hypothetical was a quick-and-dirty "No"? Is there some broken connection between his mouth and the urgings of his donors, or does Walker just need a few hours to think about his answers to questions?

It's genuinely weird that Walker can't seem to get a grip on this, but it's been a constant and noticeable problem. As one anonymous Iowa Republican told Politico last week, "He can't seem to find his way on any given issue with a handheld GPS. ... For the last two months [he] hasn't made a single policy pronouncement that he or his staff hasn't had to clarify or clear up within two hours."

I have an open question to any of the people who lost an election to this guy: How did you lose an election to this guy?

Jason Linkins   |   September 10, 2015   12:21 PM ET

The American political process is, as we all know, an interminable parade of shame and desperation. But the current election cycle has been made a little more bearable thanks to the (relatively) limited number of primary season debates. The Republican National Committee has kept that number somewhere within the realm of rational thought -- they'll have at most 12 debates, and perhaps as few as nine. Their counterparts at the Democratic National Committee have gone a similar route, scheduling six debates beginning in October. This is a substantial improvement over previous election seasons, in which it was common to have debates on a near-weekly basis.

Obviously, the decision not to murder the American people with constant debate-bludgeoning is a net benefit to society. But wherever there's a gathering of nonviable presidential candidates, there will also be a loud call for additional debates, since it's the core belief of every candidate polling at 1 percent that if they could just have a bunch of free media appearances -- say, five or 10 more debates, no big deal! -- they could execute their master plan and maybe end up polling at 5 percent. Or even 6!

So it's no big surprise that over on the Democratic side, where there is one viable candidate (Hillary Clinton) and one viable challenger (Bernie Sanders), we're seeing a demand from other folks in the field -- namely, those who are trying right now to outpoll perennial favorite "Margin of error" -- to have more debates, more opportunities, more, more, more. On Wednesday, a pair of Democratic National Committee vice-chairs, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, released a statement badgering DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz about this very issue. As Maggie Haberman reports for The New York Times:

The party committee’s “decision to limit Presidential candidates to 6 debates, with a threat of exclusion for any candidate who participates in any non-DNC sanctioned debate, is a mistake,” Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Rybak wrote in their statement.


“It limits the ability of the American people to benefit from a strong, transparent, vigorous debate between our Presidential candidates, as they make the important decision of who will be our Democratic Presidential nominee,” they wrote.

In an argument that "echoes a speech given at the party’s summer meeting in Minnesota by [former Maryland governor, Democratic primary also-ran and totally not the inspiration for anyone on 'The Wire' Martin] O’Malley," the two call for "several more debates than the six currently scheduled" and ask the DNC to relax the rules that currently ban Democratic candidates from the official debates if they participate in any non-sanctioned events.

But as The Hill's Jonathan Easley reported Thursday, Wasserman Schultz has declared the debate over debates to be over:

Speaking at a breakfast with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Wasserman Schultz, who has been under fire by Democratic presidential candidates and some within the DNC, said the debate schedule was final and there would be no changes.

“We’re not changing the process. We’re having six debates,” she said. “The candidates will be uninvited from subsequent debates if they accept an invitation to anything outside of the six sanctioned debates.”

Sanders also called for more debates earlier this summer, saying, "At a time when many Americans are demoralized about politics and have given up on the political process, I think it’s imperative that we have as many debates as possible." But as Time's Sam Frizell reported in August, the Vermont senator "has rebuffed at least one TV outlet's efforts" to draw him into an unsanctioned debate. It's not hard to guess why Sanders would do this: It doesn't really benefit him to sit in a room with a handful of candidates who are barely scraping by in the polls. Per Frizell:

“It is not in Sanders’ self-interest to give up the possibility of debating Hillary Clinton,” said Kathleen Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “His advantage is to be in the same stage as her, demonstrating that he can hold his own. He is doing well enough in the polls that forgoing that would be foolish.”

Never let it be said that Sanders isn't capable of cold-blooded political calculus! 

We should note an irony: Back in 2008, when she was the candidate in desperate need of oxygen, Clinton was the one calling for more debates -- and running attack ads against then-Sen. Barack Obama for ducking them.

Sanders, Gabbard and Rybak notwithstanding, it would appear that the door has been shut on additional debates, leaving O'Malley alone with his complaints about the process and his accusations about the system being "rigged" in Clinton's favor. Which, to be fair, is a reasonable suspicion! As Jim Newell noted at Salon in May, "it’s not unfair to describe the Democratic National Committee as an informal adjunct of the Hillary Clinton campaign. She is the establishment front-runner -- the most establishment-y front-runner there has been in the modern era in either party, really -- and the Democratic National Committee is quite literally the Democratic Party establishment."

So no, it's probably not a coincidence that the current, limited debate schedule works out in Clinton's favor. Of course, she's been doing pretty well at the whole "win the support of influential party elites" thing, plus the "claim an overwhelming advantage with party donors" thing -- and maybe once you dominate those competitions, you don't really need Debbie Wasserman Schultz to help you further by arranging a debate schedule that gives your competitors few opportunities to shine. Perhaps that's why Clinton's campaign has "in recent days... suggested that she would be open to having more debates if that’s what the party committee decides to do," according to Haberman.

Then again, there's the distinct possibility that maybe O'Malley is just not great at the whole "being an appealing presidential candidate" thing. O'Malley's current poll average is 1.1 percent. He's never been within 40 points of Clinton, and the last time he was within single digits of Sanders was June 14. For a guy who's only doing slightly better at running for president than I am, how many extra debates is it going to take to fix this? 

Jason Linkins   |   September 9, 2015   10:28 AM ET

To my genuine surprise, no one seems to be wilting under the bright lights of the 2016 campaign trail more thoroughly than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who hasn't seemed to be able to put a foot right since his presidential campaign began in earnest. Whether he's allowing himself to get pushed around on staffing decisions, steering headlong into an avoidable hypocrisy, or enunciating policy positions without getting permission from his billionaire backers first, Walker's proved to be easy to intimidate and inept at communicating.

So perhaps it's no surprise that Walker's latest trick is to fall back on what New York Magazine's Jaime Fuller calls the "Secret Cheat Code That Allows Him To Avoid All Campaign Questions." Per Fuller:

ABC News asked Walker how he would respond to the massive influx of refugees from Syria if he were president today. He explained that the query was flawed. As he is obviously not president, Walker argued, there is no way that he would be able to answer that question. “I'm not president today and I can't be president today,” he said. "Everybody wants to talk about hypotheticals; there is no such thing as a hypothetical" -- a sentence that probably would have moved Socrates to set Walker's pants on fire himself.


This is the dodge that Walker's long been seeking, as he's found -- much to his dismay -- that running for president requires one to take questions from reporters about what your positions on issues are and how you'd act once you made it to the White House. You can basically see the Walker campaign as one long attempt to workshop the perfect, Zen-like utterance that not only confers on Walker the ability to avoid questions but subtly impugns the questioner for having the gall to inquire in the first place.

From the beginning, Walker has been working hard at innovating in the question-dodge space. Back in February, when Walker was asked if he believed in evolution -- a junior-high-level science topic -- Walker didn't offer up the "Hey, I'm not a scientist" line that so many other science-averse candidates proffer in that moment. Instead, he just said, "I'm going to punt on that ... That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another."

"In some ways, this is an improvement for a politician," wrote Ars Technica's John Timmer, who continued, "But, much more realistically, Walker is punting not because he feels the question shouldn't be answered by politicians, but because he sees lots of political downsides to answering." And that's one thing that has evolved: Walker's ability to minimize the political downsides of his political opinions by keeping them under wraps.

It hasn't always worked out. When CNBC's John Harwood asked about Walker's position on birthright citizenship, Walker insisted he has no position on the matter, despite having clearly enunciated a position on the matter mere hours earlier. It would have been a pretty neat trick if no one had noticed that he'd done so, but unfortunately for Walker, people had.

Still, I guess it was worth a try? After all, now Walker has taken these lessons learned and made a tactical shift in his circumlocutions with reporters. Rather than take a position on a matter, only to have to later pretend to have not done so, Walker will now limit his position-taking by refraining from taking positions on anything that happened in the past, or that might happen in the future. That will leave every reporter with a very narrow range of questions they're allowed to ask, like, "You look handsome today. What is your secret?" This is probably all that Walker's frail heart can handle.

The Wisconsin governor has already begun field-testing his new technique. Earlier this week, he got a second chance to interview with Harwood, and during that time, Walker went on a rather lengthy disquisition about former President Ronald Reagan, his Reagany goodness and Walker's own aspirations to Reagan-ness. Things very nearly hit a snag when Harwoord brought up one of Reagan's own policy positions -- one that Walker could not afford to share. But Walker came up with a genius excuse to avoid the issue entirely:

Harwood: Ronald Reagan, as you know, strongly opposed the passage of Medicare, said it was an infringement of liberty, socialized medicine. Was he right about that?

Walker: Well, we're not going to take Medicare away. He gave that speech, as I remember, three years before I was born. So I can't judge what he meant at the time.

As Jonathan Chait points out, "It is actually very easy to judge what Reagan was saying about Medicare. He was calling it a socialist scheme that would lead to doctors being told where they could live, and would destroy freedom in America." But never mind that: If you go back and check out the Harwood interview, you'll see Walker shift seamlessly from confidently holding court on decisions Reagan made when Walker was a whelp to pretending to not be able to fathom Reagan's thinking.

Nifty trick. Niftier still is going from "Everybody wants to talk about hypotheticals; there is no such thing as a hypothetical" to "I'm talking about what I would do as president, that'll be a year and a half from now" in the same interview. By claiming exemption from doing the two things every presidential candidate has to do -- enunciate the origins of their political thought and describe the steps they'd take in governing the country -- Walker may have hit on a media technique that will keep his timorous candidacy alive. 

And, hey: If reporters respond to these dodges in the same pigeon-hearted fashion, Walker could yet go far.

Also on HuffPost:

Jason Linkins   |   August 26, 2015    5:46 PM ET

Is CNN about to screw up its upcoming GOP primary debate by screwing over one of the candidates? At least one aggrieved Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, is angry today about the criteria the venerable cable news network will use to choose its debate participants, and her campaign has taken to the medium of Medium to air its grievances. Well, guess what? Fiorina's right, and CNN is wrong.

But let's take a step back. During the midsummer run-up to the first GOP primary debate -- hosted by Fox News in Cleveland on Aug. 6 -- one big topic of conversation was the unwieldy size of the pool of contenders and how they could all be accommodated at one debate. And the novel solution that Fox hit upon was to not solve it at all: Instead of jamming 17 people on the stage, Fox -- using data from the five most recent polls -- would give those averaging in the top 10 the primetime debate slot. The unlucky seven that didn't make the cut would get a seat at a smaller table.

For those seven candidates -- which, along with Fiorina, included Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum -- sequestration at this minor debate meant they were really only going to get one shot at getting into the top tier. Realistically, there was only ever going to be one winner -- one candidate who'd ascend to the more rarefied air of the next mainstage debate, to be hosted by CNN on Sept. 16th in Simi Valley, California.

Here's the thing, though! I thought that we were all basically in agreement about who it was that won that first undercard debate. Let's take a look at the headlines from the day after:

Slate: "Carly Fiorina Won the Preliminary Debate. It Wasn’t Even Close."

Washington Post: "Carly Fiorina won the ‘Happy Hour’ debate. By a lot."

NBC News: "Carly Fiorina Wins Buzz After 'Happy Hour' Debate"

New York Post: "Carly Fiorina surging in polls after ‘winning’ GOP debate"

Vox: "Carly Fiorina was the clear winner of Fox News's first debate"

The Federalist: "Carly Fiorina Easily Wins Early GOP Debate"

Reuters, as rendered by Business Insider: "Everyone's saying Carly Fiorina won the early Republican debate today"

So -- from online to print, national to local, left-leaning to right-leaning, to "Everyone" -- we sort of had a clear consensus: the winner was Carly Fiorina. And more importantly, voters quantitatively agreed:


Here, via HuffPost Pollster, you can see how everyone stuck at the "happy hour" debate has fared since the lights went down that night. The only candidate whose fortunes are diverging in the right direction is Fiorina. This is how this was supposed to work! Seven candidates were going to have one opportunity to move up, and -- as with Highlanders -- there could be only one. Fiorina was that one, plain and simple.

Obviously, the Fiorina campaign agrees with this point of view, and over at their outpost on Medium, Deputy Campaign Manager Sarah Isgur Flores has compiled even more compelling data backing up their case:

In the three national polls that have been released since the debate, Carly is between 4th and 7th place. Her name ID and net favorability have risen by double digits. And she has continued to impress crowds during her most recent trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Nevada.


The state polling since the first debate is even more stark — and relevant, since that’s actually how we pick presidential nominees in this country. Here’s how Carly ranks in every state poll since the first debate: New Hampshire: 3rd; South Carolina: 4th; Wisconsin: 5th; Florida: 5th; Ohio: 6th; Pennsylvania: 4th; Nevada: 2nd; North Carolina: 6th; Arizona: 3rd; Iowa: 5th; Michigan: 2nd; Missouri: 7th; New Hampshire: 5th; Iowa: 5th; Iowa: 5th.

I mean, this all checks out. So what's the problem here? Well, in this post, Flores accuses "the political establishment" of "rigging the game to keep Carly off the main debate stage." I don't think the problem is that ornate. I just think CNN is using some perplexing standards to determine its top 10, by which I mean it's going to use poll data from polls dating back to July 16. Per Flores:

Carly would easily make this debate if there were a consistent number of polls from one week to the next, but that’s not the case. In the three weeks before the first debate, CNN will be counting nine polls. In the three weeks since the debate, they will only be counting two. By simply averaging these polls together, CNN will be weighting the three weeks of polling before the debate more than three times as heavily as the three weeks of polling after Carly won the first debate.

Yeah, that's stupid. At this point, polls from mid-July have no salience. The beginning of the debate season marked an escalation in voter engagement and truly opened the competitive period of the nominating contest. By giving such weight to polls from what is, for all intents and purposes, a bygone age, CNN is making it much harder for Fiorina to capitalize on the momentum she's earned -- a phenomenon that Philip Bump demonstrates in great detail at The Washington Post.

More importantly, CNN is making it harder for its readers and viewers to obtain an accurate picture of where the GOP race has gone in the past month and what the state of play is now -- and an accurate picture would place Fiorina squarely in contention and in the conversation.

I don't necessarily think that CNN is purposefully putting its thumb on the scale, here, because the network would really have nothing to gain by intentionally excluding Fiorina. But from the campaign's point of view, you may as well go out and make the accusation of a "rigged" system. Out here in the real world, where real voters have registered their newfound appreciation for Fiorina in appreciable ways, any decision to exclude her just doesn't square. Let's just look again at the current HuffPost Pollster polling average, with the entire field included:

We have Fiorina in a safe seventh place at the moment, which would comfortably get her into the mainstage debate. Besides, can it credibly be said that she belongs with her former competitors from August's smaller debate? Right now, if those six candidates and their polling numbers combined to form Loser GOP Presidential Candidate Voltron, they still couldn't overtake Fiorina.

This is dumb and CNN needs to fix this. Carly Fiorina earned promotion from the smaller table, and the next debate should reflect that. Putting her back in the also-ran division will send the message to voters that there's no point to tuning in to that lesser competition, and that overcoming that interesting and daunting challenge -- which Fiorina did! -- is meaningless. Fiorina is seventh. Let her debate, and don't worry about the other six contenders who couldn't get out of the lower division. You surely aren't going to see Rick Perry or Bobby Jindal writing a blog post on Medium about how they "won" that debate, anyway. Though it would be highly entertaining.


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Jason Linkins   |   August 24, 2015    4:20 PM ET

As we noted a few days ago, Scott Walker's been having a hard time doing this whole "running for president" thing, and people are starting to notice and wonder. What's a Wisconsin governor to do to "turn the page" and "change the conversation"? How about making an empty gesture of some sort?

Ehh, that'll do nicely, I guess! Monday afternoon, Walker  decided to call for President Barack Obama to cancel a state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the grounds that the stock market had a bad day today, or something. As the Wisconsin governor said in a statement:

Americans are struggling to cope with the fall in today's markets driven in part by China's slowing economy and the fact that they actively manipulate their economy. Rather than honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping with an official state visit next month, President Obama should focus on holding China accountable over its increasing attempts to undermine U.S. interests. Given China’s massive cyberattacks against America, its militarization of the South China Sea, continued state interference with its economy, and persistent persecution of Christians and human rights activists, President Obama needs to cancel the state visit. There's serious work to be done rather than pomp and circumstance. We need to see some backbone from President Obama on U.S.-China relations.

Yes, there's serious work to be done, so let's do it some other time, after you've had time to sit and think about what you've done, China. You can just see how all of the problems Walker enumerates are going to get solved by snubbing China's leadership.

Is this, perhaps, the "Trump effect" (or as the Germans call it, "der Trumpeffekt") messing with Walker's message? Maybe so. After all, it was just two years ago that Walker was making his own flamboyant journey to China, to break bread with that nation's business leaders on a trade mission he gladly self-promoted. Walker palled around with Chinese fans of Milwaukee's own Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and waxed enthusiastically about the fundamentals of the Chinese economy. Per Forbes' Russell Flannery:

China’s slowing economic growth weighed down stock markets in Asia last week but one influential first-time visitor to the country views it as still holding plenty of business promise.


“In a lot of states in America, we’d like to have that kind of slow growth they are projecting” even in some of China’s slower-expanding regions, said Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in an interview in Shanghai last week. “We’re still very big on doing business in Shanghai in particular, but throughout the country, “ said Walker, expressing confidence that commerce between China and his state would increase quickly in the future. “I just see it taking off,” he said.

Such backbone! Well, a lot has changed since then. For instance, Walker has fallen into the third tier of polling for the 2016 Republican primary! Also, he's said to be "struggling" in Iowa, a state whose governor, Terry Branstad, has worked hard to establish a good relationship with -- umm...China.

So perhaps this is about keeping up with the Trumpses, and using the reality-teevee mogul's trademarked anti-China rhetoric to do so. Or maybe this is just garden-variety desperation mixed with inexperience. Either way, it boils down to Walker demanding a president he's not running against do something that Walker himself wouldn't dare do if he became president himself -- a prospect that's lately dimming.


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Jason Linkins   |   August 24, 2015   11:41 AM ET

Over the past few months, the slate of GOP presidential candidates has gone from glowing reviews of the Republicans' "deep bench" compared to the scant participation of rival Democrats, to recognition of how big that bench actually is and the sight of Fox News struggling to accommodate all comers at the first important debate. One would imagine that what most party leaders and conservative pundits are hoping for now is some kind of winnowing of the field from the pretenders to the contenders.

But there is one obvious exception: Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who -- for some reason -- wants more candidates to enter the race. And by "more," I mean nine additional dudes.

What is it about the current field of 17 candidates that doesn't cut it for Kristol? Well, in this week's piece, "An October Surprise for the GOP" (in which the "October Surprise" comes one year sooner than a traditional "October Surprise"), Kristol doesn't actually get around to laying out any specific reasons. He can't say that "the GOP isn't on course to nominating their very own Dukakis," and he suspects Donald Trump has forced a "distorted view of the quality of the field," but that's about it. Kristol just ... isn't sure, man.

But there is one thing that he suspects to be true. "Well," writes Kristol, "it's not as if every well-qualified contender is already on the field."

O RLY? Per Kristol:

Mitch Daniels was probably the most successful Republican governor of recent times, with federal executive experience to boot. Paul Ryan is the intellectual leader of Republicans in the House of Representatives, with national campaign experience. The House also features young but tested leaders like Jim Jordan, Trey Gowdy and Mike Pompeo. There is the leading elected representative of the 9/11 generation who has also been a very impressive freshman senator, Tom Cotton. There could be a saner and sounder version of Trump -- another businessman who hasn't held electoral office. And there are distinguished conservative leaders from outside politics; Justice Samuel Alito and General (ret.) Jack Keane come to mind.

Won't some of these guys run for president? After all, if they don't get in the race and start competing, Bill Kristol might never get around to identifying the five or six people he really, REALLY wants to see run for president. Although maybe we're learning that Kristol's true dream ticket is "Diazepam/A Long Nap 2016."

(Sidebar: You have to feel a little bit bad for Carly Fiorina here, whom Kristol would pass over in favor of some "saner and sounder ... businessman who hasn't held electoral office." Gotta be one of those out there somewhere!) 

But look, this is old hat. Kristol's uncertainty about the quality of the GOP field is basically a return to the column-stuffing schtick he regularly deployed four years ago. As you may recall, Kristol spent most of the latter half of 2011 inside his Glass Case Of Emotion, constantly lamenting Mitt Romney's status as front-runner and constantly writing regular articles about how no one was inevitable, how better candidates were always available to join the race, and how there was always -- ALWAYS! -- enough time for a savior to make a late bid for the Republican nomination. 

On Sept. 23, 2011, Kristol reacted to that week's primary debate by saying, "Yikes ... maybe the GOP presidential boat needs rocking." In an Oct. 25 dispatch, he bragged that "81 percent of the GOP primary voters" were "in play" and that the "race seem[ed] to be more open and fluid than conventional wisdom has it." Kristol's post-Thanksgiving tryptophan hangover led to a brief screed denying that Romney was "inevitable" and insisting that "a late January entry by another candidate isn't out of the question." Come Dec. 8, Kristol was endorsing a Rhodes Cook piece about how it wasn't "too late for a candidate to enter the race" and suggesting there was a "window of opportunity" for such a candidate to get in around Valentine's Day. On Dec. 19, Kristol wrote a piece begging for some "non-Hughes, non-Dewey, non-Nixon, non-Dole Republican candidate to present himself" by Presidents' Day weekend to save the GOP from Romney. By December's end, Kristol was suggesting that the GOP's only hope was a brokered convention

During that time, Kristol never ran out of potential game-changing dark horse candidates, offering Rudy Giuliani, John Thune, Mitch Daniels, Mike PencePaul Ryan, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie as the certain rescuers of the GOP's White House ambitions. And throughout it all, Kristol was inspired by the illustrious voices of history's specters, like the "ghosts of Lincoln and FDR" or Harry Truman or Alexander Hamilton or Geoffrey Chaucer or William Butler Yeats.

In fact, this ground has been so well trod by Kristol that poor Yeats is being conscripted into his second "Please, please somebody else run for president" tour of duty. This week, Kristol draws on Yeats' "The Second Coming" to wonder, "But what if come October all we have is Bushies lacking all conviction, Trumpers full of passionate intensity, and a bunch of uninspiring also-rans?" Now, let's flash back to Sept. 23, 2011:

A third e-mailer Thursday evening, watching the debate, was reminded of Yeats's "The Second Coming:"

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

There's some truth to that. But I can't help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats didn't suggest the remedy:

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Sounds like Chris Christie.  

There's a special irony there. The New Jersey governor is one of a handful of 2016 candidates whom Kristol desperately wanted to run in 2012. Now, Kristol isn't sure that Christie -- along with Rubio, Bush and Huckabee -- is worthy of seeking the nomination at all. The man is like Prince's mom: never satisfied.

One can only wonder how Kristol is going to hold it together this time out. Here he is, standing at the threshold of his mid-autumn anxiety attack and it's only August. But maybe it's not too late for Kristol to find some way to chill, if only for a few months. After all, the way he ends his piece suggests that he's not chosen the path of panic just yet.

It may seem odd to suggest that the solution to an already unprecedentedly large field is to expand it further. But politics is full of oddities. And what would be truly odd would be to go into battle in 2016 with a candidate we settle on rather than a nominee the country can rally behind. The presidency would be a terrible thing to waste.

One thing's for sure: I believe Kristol when he says that the presidency would be a terrible thing to waste because he ended his Dec. 19, 2011, column the exact same way.

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