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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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Worrying About Ebola Coming Over The Border Is The Hot New Thing In Paranoid U.S. Politics

Jason Linkins   |   August 21, 2014    6:02 PM ET

What's hot for August 2014? Basically, August has been terrible, so I'll say that for me, it's been "sheltering in place with a bottle of Xanax and an HBO Go account while hugging loved ones tightly." But elsewhere in these United States, the hot new thing has been "worrying that the Ebola virus is coming over the border."

Now for most people, this would seem a little daft. After all, while the Ebola virus has recently returned as a heightened menace in West Africa, justifiably drawing the concern of the world, the "border" between the United States and the current outbreak is actually this big ol' ocean known as "the Atlantic." And there has never been a case of Ebola in humans that was contracted in the United States. For everyone who read the back cover of The Hot Zone without reading the actual book, you should know that the strain of Ebola documented therein was ultimately proven to be only fatal to monkeys. (The Hot Zone actually took place in my hometown -- Reston, Virginia -- and it was possibly the most exciting thing to ever happen there, unless you count Grant Hill's high school basketball career.)

People who live anywhere other than West Africa should really not worry about contracting Ebola. Seriously. Calm down about that. You have other things to worry about. And people really should not stoke fears that the U.S. is under some imminent threat of an Ebola outbreak.

Unfortunately, it seems to be becoming a go-to source of cheap dread-baiting for politicians, who are taking the very-worthy-of-concern border crisis, and attaching other nightmares to it.

The Typhoid Mary of "Ebola-comin'-o'er-the-borduh syndrome" appears to be Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) -- a physician! -- who wrote a letter to to the director of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, and then told the news about it:

“Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning. Many of the children who are coming across the border also lack basic vaccinations such as those to prevent chicken pox or measles. This makes those Americans that are not vaccinated -– and especially young children and the elderly –- particularly susceptible,” Gingrey, a longtime physician, wrote in the letter.

Gingrey defended his letter Tuesday.

“The border patrol gave us a list of the diseases that they’re concerned about, and Ebola was one of those,” he told NBC News’ Luke Russert. ”I can’t tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don’t think there were, but of course tuberculosis, Chagas disease, many –- smallpox, some of the infectious diseases of children, all of these are concerns.”

The condition subsequently spread to Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.):

Appearing on WIBC's The Garrison Show, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) said he and other members of Indiana's congressional delegation, including heart surgeon Rep. Larry Buschon (R), sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for more information about the 245 migrant children who had been released to Indiana sponsors this year.

"We sent a letter to the president saying look, first of all, we've have got to know, not from the press, we've got to know ahead of time so we can plan for this," Rokita said. "We did that, Dr. Buschon was helpful... He said, look, we need to know just from a public-health standpoint, with Ebola circulating and everything else -- no, that's my addition to it, not necessarily his -- but he said we need to know the condition of these kids as well."

And now, this malady has spread to the GOP Primary in Arizona's 1st Congressional District, where state Rep. Andy Tobin is facing fellow state Rep. Adam Kwasman and businessman Gary Kiehne. Per the Tucson Weekly:

In the meantime, though, Tobin says he's hearing about worries from constituents that the recent wave of undocumented youth from Central America could cause an Ebola outbreak in the United States.

"Anything's now possible," Tobin said last week. "So if you were to say the Ebola virus has now entered (the country), I don't think anyone would be surprised."

No, no. You absolutely should be super surprised if this happens, as it is so unlikely.

The folks at Politifact did their best to put these fears to rest back when Gingrey first invented these concerns. They talked to experts:

Experts we asked issued a resounding "No."

Why are these scientists so confident, though? Someone should, after all, check to see whether it was plausible for a child or adult entering the U.S. from Central America via Mexico to be infected with the Ebola virus. Oh, wait, what's that Politifact?

We also checked whether it was plausible for a child or adult entering the United States from Central America via Mexico to be infected with the Ebola virus. CDC scientists call it "extremely unlikely," DeNoon said.

Independent experts agreed. "It’s very, very, highly unlikely if you are talking about someone from Central America who has not traveled to Africa," Thomas W. Geisbert, a microbiologist and immunologist specializing in Ebola at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

This isn't to say that it's impossible for people ridden with exotic ailments to find their way into the U.S. The people Politifact spoke with cited a case of "imported" Marburg fever in Colorado and an instance in which a traveler from West Africa brought Lassa fever to Minnesota. But with the Ebola virus, the problem becomes one of a tight, exclusionary Venn diagram:

"The incubation period is two to 21 days, so theoretically, an African could fly from an infected area, land in a Mexican airport, take a bus toward the border, hire a coyote to take him across and then ‘present’ with Ebola," said Thomas Fekete, section chief for infectious diseases at the Temple University School of Medicine. "But this presupposes a suicidal person who also has the resources for this kind of travel."

Indeed, the prior, scattered examples of exotic and deadly diseases reaching the U.S. suggest that "the likelihood of an illegal migrant getting infected and introducing the disease to the U.S. is probably less than that of a ‘legal’ traveler," said Daniel G. Bausch, head of the virology and emerging infections department at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No.6 in Lima, Peru.

From there, this affluent, suicidal, Ebola carrying prankster would have to pull off the feat of convincing people to splash around in his or her body fluids as they succumb to the disease. Or, it could spread to someone who volunteers to bury the body of this rich-guy-with-a-death-wish and then cuts a lot of corners when doing so. Basically, consult Kelly Hills' essential Ebola flowchart:

The communities trying to contain the West African Ebola outbreak are working very hard in some very challenging conditions, so at a minimum, those of us who reside outside those affected areas should adhere to a strict "it's not all about you" policy. Just keep calm, carry on, et cetera. Okay? Great. Good talk, guys.

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The Future Of Attack Ads Is An Endless Loop Of Loony Billionaires Yelling At Each Other

Jason Linkins   |   August 21, 2014    2:09 PM ET

Terrible political attack ads used to be so simple. Time was you could forget to press forward on your TiVo and accidentally catch some dire-sounding voice-over narrator telling you that "Candidate X says he's for improving education for everyone in Wilkes-Barre, but what he won't tell you is that he smells like fish, because he is a fish. A gross fish. Does Wilkes-Barre really want a gross gill-haver in charge of our public schools? Tell Candidate X to get out of the lake and start breathing oxygen with actual lungs."

But now that changes to campaign finance laws have let slip total anarchy on the world, obscure super PACs funded by anonymous, super-wealthy crypto-weirdos are the new order of the day. In Iowa -- where Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) is running against Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R-12th District) to replace outgoing U.S. senator and famed steak-fry host Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- matters have devolved into a purely metaphysical state, where differing sets of billionaires are yelling at each other in attack ads, for daring to fund attack ads, in a billion-dollar, privately funded ouroboros.

Here is the latest entry in this battle of shouted, self-referential esoterica: an ad yelling at some out-of-state billionaires for yelling about out-of-state billionaires. This ad lasts a full minute barely getting out of its windup, because everything being discussed here is complicated and barely related to even a single real-world concern of an ordinary person. It's literally just one set of plutocrats upset at another set of plutocrats because the second set of plutocrats dared to do the same thing as another set of plutocrats.

TRANSCRIPT: You've probably seen this ad showing fictional out-of-state billionaires spending millions in Iowa politics. Not only is this ad false; it's actually funded by two real out-of-state billionaires spending millions to support Bruce Braley. Billionaire Tom Steyer made his fortune running hedge funds overseas to avoid U.S. taxes, but backs Braley raising taxes on hard-working Iowans. Steyer got rich off cheap foreign coal, but supports Braley shutting down access to affordable American energy. The other funder is billionaire Herb Sandler, whose toxic subprime mortgages were called the Typhoid Mary of the housing crisis. Now Sandler and Steyer are pouring millions from their overseas hedge funds and toxic mortgages into Iowa. Tell Bruce Braley to stand up to the real out-of-state billionaire hypocrites and reject their job-crushing, tax-hiking agenda.

This new ad was created and funded by an organization called American Commitment, an obscure 501(c)(4) group. The Washington Post's Rachel Weiner reported on its origins back in 2012:

American Commitment was founded by Phil Kerpen, who previously spent five years working at Americans for Prosperity. Before that, he worked for the Club for Growth, a Club offshoot called the Free Enterprise Fund and the libertarian Cato Institute.

AFP was co-founded by oil industry billionaire David Koch, but Kerpen would not say whether Koch and his brother Charles were helping fund his new group. "We take very seriously the privacy of protecting all of our contributors," he told the Fix. He did not attend the Koch brothers' recent fundraising summit in San Diego, although he has attended such confabs in the past.

So to translate: The people who are mad at out-of-state billionaires for criticizing out-of-state billionaires are also out-of-state billionaires.

Theoretically, the production of these advertisements could never, ever end. We might be witnessing the birth of a new, perpetually self-sustaining outrage organism. The bad news, of course, is that we could be entering a period in which political attack ads descend deeper and deeper into an increasingly abstruse rabbit hole of recursive nonsense. But the good news is that if all these weirdos weren't spending their money on this babble, they'd probably be using it to destroy the world. So let's call it a wash.

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Finally, A Senator In A Tough Re-Election Fight Bets On Obamacare

Jason Linkins   |   August 20, 2014    4:52 PM ET

The Affordable Care Act, in its brief time on this earth, has endured its share of storm and stress. The bungled rollout of the federal online interface cost proponents lots of political capital. There have been high-wire legal challenges to surmount. While public approval of the law's ends remains steadily high, the popularity of the law itself is often recorded as lacking. There have been uneasy periods for Obamacare's chief proponents as they've waited for enrollment milestones to be reached and rate-hike hysteria to be put to bed. (There's recent news on that front, actually.) And as the law promises so much, over such a long time frame, there will be more uneasy periods to endure for the lawmakers who put their stamp on the reform.

But the simple fact is that some lawmakers voted for Obamacare and some voted against it, and there's only so far any of them can run from their decision. That's why I've had the occasion to talk about "the Obamacare bet." The bill's opponents have largely settled on a claim: The law is going to fail and their admonitions against it will be proven wise and correct. The bill's supporters should go ahead and stake the opposite claim. Many of those who supported the bill, however, have been reluctant to go "all in" on the decision they made. Especially among those who voted for the law and have since found themselves in a tough electoral race.

Today, however, comes a change. As Greg Sargent reports over at The Plum Line, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) -- currently in a tough re-election race against his Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton -- is up with a new ad in which he heralds his yes vote on the Affordable Care Act. You can watch the spot and read the transcript below. While Pryor doesn't exactly go "all in," he lays more of his chips on the felt.

DAVID: When Mark was diagnosed with cancer, we thought we might lose him.

MARK: My family and my faith helped me through the rough times.

DAVID: But you know what? Mark's insurance company didn't want to pay for the treatment that ultimately saved his life.

MARK: No one should be fighting an insurance company while you're fighting for your life. That's why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick or denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

(David, by the way, is Mark's dad as well as a former senator from and governor of Arkansas.)

Now Mark Pryor's ad could have been a bit bolder. You'll note that nowhere does he say the words "Obamacare" or "Affordable Care Act," just that he "pass[ed] a law." Of course, he does make mention of the law's most popular features -- it prevents people from getting kicked off plans when the time comes to avail themselves of their coverage, and it ends the practice of denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. It's hard to imagine voters tolerating a return to the status quo ante, which is one of the reasons that it's been so devilish for the law's opponents to craft an alternative.

Pryor may have buried the lead in this ad, in fact. As Gallup reported earlier this month, Arkansas leads "all other states in the sharpest reductions in their uninsured rate among adult residents since the healthcare law's requirement to have insurance took effect at the beginning of the year."

Per Sargent:

Republicans will undoubtedly cast this as an acknowledgment that their attacks on Pryor over the law are working and could no longer be ignored. They’ll argue Pryor is, in desperation, using his faith and personal experience as a shield against those attacks. But this misses what's really going on here. This ad is actually coming at a point where there are signs the anti-Obamacare fires are cooling somewhat. GOP advertising against the law has fallen off sharply, and is surprisingly low in Arkansas.

This is correct. As Bloomberg News' Heidi Pryzbyla reported earlier this week, Republicans have cut way back on on ads that attack Obamacare, in "a sign that the party's favorite attack against Democrats is losing its punch." Pryzbyla continues:

The shift -- also taking place in competitive states such as Arkansas and Louisiana -- shows Republicans are easing off their strategy of criticizing Democrats over the Affordable Care Act now that many Americans are benefiting from the law and the measure is unlikely to be repealed.

"The Republican Party is realizing you can't really hang your hat on it," said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. "It just isn't the kind of issue it was."

There is a good reason for this shift. As Matt Yglesias pointed out back in June, the "phony Obamacare debate" -- the one that broadly alleged that death panels existed, that the fubar launch of the federal website was the law's death knell, that enrollment numbers would be way off target -- has run its course, leaving only the most fundamental debate of all:

[Obamacare] is a large-scale effort to improve living standards for people in the bottom half of the income distribution by giving them additional economic resources. One of America's political parties doesn't like that idea in any non-health context and they don't like it for health care either. They think the money it costs to provide those subsidies should be taken away, and it should be given to high-income households in the form of tax cuts.

This is an excellent and important policy debate to have. One of the great ideological issues not just of our time and place, but of democratic politics across eras and countries. Should economic resources be distributed more equally or less equally?

Since Yglesias wrote that piece, we've seen a brief return to the "phony" debate, thanks to a pair of judges on the D.C. Circuit appeals court, who issued a ruling in the Halbig v. Burwell case contending that (to quote Simon Maloy in Salon) "a single poorly worded snippet of the Affordable Care Act invalidates subsidies for people who purchased health coverage through the federal exchanges." As Maloy inventively points out, this is a hilariously bad-faith argument to make, akin to George Costanza's "Moops" argument in "Seinfeld":

Beyond that, however, we are ultimately left with the discussion that Yglesias mentions as the real underlying debate: whether it is right and proper to redistribute money from the top to the bottom so that those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder can live and work longer without going into catastrophic debt.

This argument's signature virtue is that -- unlike all the "death panels" and doom-saying -- it is, legitimately, a good-faith argument. Which may cause one to wonder: Why has it taken so long to burn off all the bad-faith arguments and get down to the real bone of contention? I'd posit that arguing that poor people aren't morally fit enough to deserve health insurance lacks a certain salability outside the Ayn Rand set.

With that in mind, you might think it's strange that so many of Obamacare's proponents have seemed reluctant to take "the Obamacare bet." I agree! It's strange. From my perspective, the die has long been cast, so lawmakers who affirmed the bill with their vote may as well own it. Pryor's ad suggests that perhaps those lawmakers long deemed to be vulnerable due to their votes on the Affordable Care Act may be coming around to this position.

None of this should cause you to expect some sort of sea change in the overall fundamentals of the 2014 election. The GOP is still in great shape for the midterms, and they may even discover that they don't need an anti-Obamacare blitz to win in November. But that's really just an even better reason for vulnerable lawmakers who supported the Affordable Care Act to put some sustained ballyhoo behind their decision to vote for the law. Win or lose, may as well remind people where you stood. Pryor's effort is a lot bolder than most.

From a vulnerable red state Democrat, a strong pro-Obamacare ad [The Plum Line]
The phony Obamacare debate is over. Time for the real one. [Vox]

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White House And Congressional Democrats Spin Through Another Cycle Of Psychodrama

Jason Linkins   |   August 19, 2014    6:12 PM ET

How to solve a problem like the White House relationship with Congress? And why should I be involved -- aren't these people supposedly adults? These are two questions I am asking myself today, because despite the fact that a few months ago, congressional Democrats were loudly signaling, "Stay away from us, Mr. President! Please remain aloof," congressional Democrats are now really super-emotional about the extent to which President Barack Obama has remained aloof, per their previous instructions.

Let's try to explore how to help all of these emotional basket cases to get a grip on things.

A June meeting in the Oval Office between the president and "the four top lawmakers in Congress" to discuss Iraq provides the anecdotal basis for stories by The Associated Press and The New York Times. Per the Times:

With Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, sitting a few feet away, Mr. Reid complained that Senate Republicans were spitefully blocking the confirmation of dozens of Mr. Obama’s nominees to serve as ambassadors. He expected that the president would back him up and urge Mr. McConnell to relent.

Mr. Obama quickly dismissed the matter.

“You and Mitch work it out,” Mr. Obama said coolly, cutting off any discussion.

Reid, apparently upset that Obama did not opt for the Real Housewives Of New Jersey table-flip he was offering, "seethed quietly." And after Reid spent some time with a tiny cartoon storm cloud over his head, his office apparently decided to talk to reporters about it. According to the White House, Obama later made a call to McConnell to talk about the ambassadorial logjam. Personally, I think, "You and Mitch work it out," is a pretty explicit instruction, but maybe I need to check my emotional stability privilege to really understand how Congress works.

Much of what Congress wants doesn't seem, at first blush, to be serious. Its members would like to be invited to more social gatherings, and be more "gregarious." The Times reports that those lawmakers who are invited to such things don't always show up ("Twelve [Democratic Senators] were invited to a St. Patrick’s Day reception this year ... but only one showed up"), so it would appear that Obama has to invite them much harder, on hand-printed stationery, or something.

Also, Obama is not giving members of Congress enough opportunity to bask in glory:

Members of Congress are usually invited to Mr. Obama’s speeches, but they sit in the audience. The result is that Democratic members are robbed of a triumphant picture with the president that they can show their family members, while the White House sacrifices the loyalty of a once grateful lawmaker.

There are those on Capitol Hill who offer a certain refreshingly mature take on this matter, like Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who tells The Hill:

“[With] some of my colleagues, I feel like I'm back in high school, right? It's, 'Oh, he didn't smile at me. He didn't do a photo with me. He didn't invite me to the Super Bowl party,’” Quigley said. “Who cares? What are you, 12? … We've got important stuff to do.”

Quigley should probably mention the existence of "important stuff to do" to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who shows up in The New York Times' piece, clucking like so:

Asked to characterize his relationship with the president, Mr. Manchin, a centrist Democrat who has often been a bridge builder in the Senate, said: “It’s fairly nonexistent. There’s not much of a relationship.”

Manchin probably hasn't come round to the understanding that he cemented a nonexistent relationship with the White House when he turned tail and abandoned his post during the 2010 lame duck session at a time when the White House was working hard to pass the Dream Act and end "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Manchin opted instead to attend a Christmas party. But it was probably an important Christmas party. Maybe Christmas almost didn't even happen. Good thing Joe Manchin was there, in West Virginia, to save Christmas. Why doesn't the White House get that?

But, apparently, not all of this tension is founded on trivial concerns. Both The Associated Press and The Hill contend that this strained relationship flared most seriously in recent weeks, as Congress struggled to solve the crisis of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant minors on the border. Per The Hill:

More recently, the administration's message on the southern border crisis emerged bearing mixed signals about what new powers Obama was seeking to expedite the deportation of unaccompanied migrant kids. Amid the confusion, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats were prepared to swallow changes to a 2008 human trafficking law in return for the border funding, a position she quickly reversed following an outcry from immigrant rights advocates wary of eroding the legal protections for those kids.

Pelosi has long defended the White House's communications efforts. Still, even the ever-loyal Democratic leader recently urged the administration to bolster its congressional outreach in the face of widespread criticism from allies.

“While I disagree with the characterization [that Obama is too aloof], if that is the impression people have, then communication has to be stepped up,” she said during a July 22 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe” program.

To be honest with you, I'm not sure that what happened in Congress related to the border crisis deserves to be shoehorned into a narrative about the White House relationship with Capitol Hill Democrats. A better example of a legitimate beef between Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration is the bungled launch of the Affordable Care Act's online apparatus -- which blindsided Democratic members and cost them political capital. But the recent immigration wranglings didn't really hinge on an inadequate number of social occasions. Let's recall what actually happened, shall we?

July 2, 2014: The administration quietly floats the idea that it wants to "change a 2008 law that dictates how the federal government handles those immigrant children in order to speed up their deportations." The change would involve empowering Border Patrol agents to expedite deportations, instead of bringing in the Department of Health and Human Services.

July 14, 2014: Congressional Democrats aren't happy about it. The White House and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) have a big fight about it.

July 28, 2014: The White House says, "Sure, Congressional Democrats, whatever you want, we are behind you." What Congressional Democrats want to do is pass "an emergency spending measure that would provide an additional $2.7 billion in funding for the crisis on the Texas border." The White House still wants to change the 2008 law, but is willing to hold off for the time being.

Meanwhile ...: Republicans take up their position on the matter. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) have a bill in the Senate that would address the 2008 bill, said Cornyn. House Republicans, meanwhile, made it clear that they'd refuse to support any immigration bill that did not change the 2008 law. The GOP's version wouldn't fund this solution at the level Obama originally sought, but as Cornyn put it, "A solution beats no solution every day." Boehner reckons he can get his caucus behind the bill, which by now is known as the traditional prelude to disappointment. Sure enough ...

July 31, 2014: Boehner pulls the bill after it becomes obvious that his members won't support it. As per usual, the Ted Cruz Rebel Alliance is involved. "With almost no Democratic support, Boehner needed to corral votes virtually entirely from within his own Republican caucus, and he faced a group of House conservatives who worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in plotting their strategy to bring down the legislation in pursuit of a more purely conservative approach." But things get worse from the point of view of the White House, because ...

Aug. 1, 2014: Everyone in the GOP insists on passing something, and the thing they pass is a measure that repeals the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

So that is what happened with that. And guess what we've learned? No amount of schmoozery between the White House and Democratic congresspersons could have altered this dynamic. Obama could have wooed and cajoled, convinced the entire Democratic caucus to back his plan to change the 2008 law, or come together completely to work on their alternative. Steaks could have been had. Golf could have been played. Love could have been made. Really romantic love, with attentive foreplay and post-coital cuddles.

All of that may, indeed, be critically important for the sake of governing. On this widely cited occasion, however, it would not have changed a blessed thing. In the end, House Republicans still would not have done much of anything, unless it included repealing the administration's signature immigration policy achievement -- DACA. Sorry! Maybe next time.

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Paul Ryan Took A Long Time To Get Grossed Out By 'House Of Cards' Frank Underwood

Jason Linkins   |   August 15, 2014    6:19 PM ET

In an interview with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the former vice presidential candidate, Andy Abrahams of Parade magazine inquires about Ryan's teevee viewing habits, asking, "Do you watch political shows like House of Cards?" Ryan responds like so:

I watched the first couple of episodes until he cheated on his wife with that reporter. It turned my stomach so much that I just couldn’t watch it anymore. His behavior was so reprehensible, and it hit too close to home because he was a House member, that it just bothered me too much. And what I thought is, it makes us all look like we’re like that.

Wait. It took Ryan that long into the show before his stomach turned with sickness over the way the show suggested that everyone in the House looked like that? Because there are a lot of signs, well before Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood sleeps with Kate Mara's Zoe Barnes, that this is not going to be a tremendously flattering depiction.

Let's just take the first episode, shall we? I'm going to try my best to not spoil the plot too much for anyone who hasn't seen the show, but there are a lot of red flags that should have tipped off a queasy Ryan well in advance. Here are the reddest.

hoc dog dies

In the show's very first scene, Underwood kills a dog. Now, this was ostensibly to put it out of its misery, but before he does this, he subjects the dog to a monologue about pain and power, none of which the dog can understand, because it is a dog. (Underwood also sort of enjoys killing the dog, it seems?)

hoc party speech

Minutes later, Underwood breaks the fourth wall to assure the audience that he is a thoroughgoing, soulless bastard.

hoc broken promise

A healthy dose of creatine is added to Underwood's soulless bastardy minutes later, when the newly elected president reneges on a promise to make him secretary of state, at which point he decides to sever all allegiances and toss the rules out the window.

house of cards title sheet

I mean, this is what Netflix tells you is going to happen.

hoc broken glass

Frank's wife, Claire, castigates Frank for not being angry enough, so he breaks some stuff to impress her. The Underwoods read nothing but Ron Fournier columns, apparently.

hoc smoking

Underwood spends the entire night standing by a window, smoking and seething. At this point, even Tom DeLay would say, "Geez, the way this guy stews in his anger makes me worry the he's kind of unstable."

hoc cafeteria

Underwood tells the audience that he intends to "carve up" the newly appointed secretary of state and "toss him to the dogs." Which is good news for the dogs, I guess, because now he needs the dogs and won't be killing any more dogs with his bare hands after performing soliloquies at them.

hoc church

God basically begs Underwood to chill, for His sake. He does not chill.

hoc police chief

Underwood sends his chief of staff to meet with he Washington police chief to enter into a corrupt deal to cover up the drunk driving arrest of a junior member of Congress from Pennsylvania, so that he can enter into further corrupt arrangements with that junior member of Congress. (Who, by the way, was cheating on his girlfriend with a prostitute at the time he was pulled over for drunk driving.)

hoc not subtle

Underwood is not too terribly subtle about making this corrupt arrangement. But then, this is a show with an upside-down American flag in the title credits.

hoc meeting barnes

Before Underwood "cheats on his wife with that reporter," he enters into a corrupt arrangement with her as well.

hoc boat

"We're in the same boat, Zoe," says Underwood. (Surely, if Ryan is capable of an eye-roll, he did it here.)

hoc ultimate frisbee

Finally, I would have liked to have thought that the first time it was suggested that any member of Congress played Ultimate Frisbee, Ryan would have gone red with anger, the word "Slander!" choked in his throat. This was the first time during this show that I was truly, deeply, offended at the aspersions cast at Congress.

A few episodes later, Underwood and Barnes sleep together, and I guess during the time between the pilot episode and that moment, Ryan was thinking, "This looks bad, but I bet he'll start representing members of the House in a more favorable light any minute now." Alas.

[Hat tip: Chris Moody]

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Mike Allen Has Some Fact-Free Smarm-Thoughts For Wesley Lowery

Jason Linkins   |   August 15, 2014    1:01 PM ET

In today's Politico Playbook -- presented by Chevron, Chevron is awesome, please let us know, Chevron, if there's any pending legislation we can help you with, we are always here to help -- Mike Allen takes a gratuitous pot-shot at Wesley Lowery. Lowery is a reporter who has been actively covering the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, on the front lines, as opposed to waiting to hear what Chevron thinks about them and then typing it up, for Chevron.

YA CAN'T MAKE IT UP - Wesley Lowrey, 23-year-old Congress/politics reporter for the WashPost, responding on CNN to suggestions that he should have obeyed police amid a riot: "[L]et me be clear about this: I have LITTLE PATIENCE for talking heads."

Here are a few things that Mike Allen has had two days to get right, but probably struggled with, given the fact that he and Chevron were probably doing some over-the-shirt stuff for the past forty-eight hours.

1. Wesley Lowery's last name is spelled L-O-W-E-R-Y. Like Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery. Or "flowery" with the "f, for failure" removed. It is not spelled L-O-W-R-E-Y, like New York Magazine's Annie Lowrey. You can just check Wesley Lowery's Twitter account, where his name is spelled correctly. Or anywhere else his name is mentioned.

2. Wesley Lowery is 24 years old. Not 23. More on this in a moment.

3. Wesley Lowery was not "amid a riot" at the time he was arrested. He was "amid" a McDonald's. For some, McDonald's is a "riot of flavor," or a "riot of savings," or a "riot of coming gastrointestinal distress." But there was no other "riot" occurring. Lowery was charging his phone at a McDonald's. There wasn't a riot inside the McDonald's nor was there one outside it. This is not in dispute. Had there been a nearby riot, Lowery would have said, "Hey, I'd better go cover this riot, for the Washington Post."

4. Wesley Lowery did not fail to "obey" the police. Neither did our own Ryan Reilly (spelled R-E-I-L-L-Y), who was also arrested, for that matter. As Post Executive Editor Marty Baron notes, Lowery was "illegally instructed to stop taking video of officers." As that instruction was illegal, Lowery didn't follow it. He did, however, comply with the police's instructions to vacate the McDonalds. He was given "contradictory instructions on how to exit," Baron said, and while attempting to make sense of said instructions, he "was slammed against a soda machine and then handcuffed."

So those are four things Mike Allen got 100 percent wrong. YA CAN'T GET IT RIGHT, apparently.

Why make note of Lowery's age? This is a thing that Mike Allen likes to do to good reporters when he's got no real factual claim to back up the notion that they have truly demonstrated they are incompetent and inexperienced. The implication is that had Lowery been older, he would have known better and ... sucked up to the police officers? Been a more terrible journalist? Many journalists mature into even more-seasoned questioners of authority. Not Mike Allen, though. Chevron thanks him.

This is the same thing Allen did to then-Boston Globe reporter Donovan Slack back in 2011 -- he criticized her work under a heading that read, "MEMO TO YOUNG REPORTERS." At the time, Slack had worked for the Globe for eight years, during which time she'd received three promotions. Politico would actually go on to hire Slack. I have fun imagining the meeting between her and Allen. Most of the words that I imagine were exchanged are hilarious, but, alas, unprintable.

Slack and Lowery basically committed the same sin, in Allen's eyes, which was questioning entrenched power. Slack put a quote from a watchdog agency in the lede of a story that went on to demonstrate that the watchdog agency was correct. Lowery questioned the police's justification for rousting him from a McDonald's. These are big no-no's in Allen's world, because if you do that enough, you won't have sponsors to underwrite your tip-sheet of yesterday's stories.

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Oklahoma Governor Gives Free Publicity To Area Satanists For Some Reason

Jason Linkins   |   August 13, 2014    2:28 PM ET

It's not every day that an American politician has to do battle with Minions Of Darkness, but this week, that responsibility seems to have fallen to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R). There apparently is some sort of Satanic "Black Mass" planned in Oklahoma City this September, and Fallin -- despite the fact that she's thought of as a dark horse presidential contender and thus has every incentive to remain a serious person -- has come out against it, in a statement. You know, as one does when one's state is threatened by cartoon people.

"This 'Black Mass' is a disgusting mockery of the Catholic faith, and it should be equally repellent to Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” said Fallin. “It may be protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn't mean we can't condemn it in the strongest terms possible for the moral outrage which it is. It is shocking and disgusting that a group of New York City ‘satanists’ would travel all the way to Oklahoma to peddle their filth here. I pray they realize how hurtful their actions are and cancel this event."

Fallin has apparently never heard of "The Streisand Effect," in which publicly condemning something nobody otherwise would have noticed just brings it more publicity. Or, as I like to say, "If a tree has a Black Mass in the forest and no one's going to be around to hear it, just call the governor of Oklahoma."

You have to be a seasoned watcher of Satanism to spot it, but apparently Fallin made a "gaffe" (as the kids call them) in that statement. As Jason Vaughn reports at Gawker, this "Black Mass" is not being planned by a "group of New York City satanists," but rather by a local group of Lucifer's servants. Per Vaughn:

On Tuesday the Satanic Temple of New York City demanded that Fallin apologize for her statement, saying that they have nothing to do with the planned Oklahoma City Black Mass.

In fact, they say they aren't endorsing the event at all because the event's actual organizers aren't "acting responsibly."

"We have nothing to do with this event whatsoever," Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves told Oklahoma City's KFOR-TV.

So there you have it: even Satanists have coastal elites (named Lucien). The confusion is perhaps understandable, because the New York City Satanists were the ones behind an effort to get a monument to Satanism displayed at the Oklahoma State Capitol's grounds -- something they've claimed the right to do after a state representative named Mike Ritze donated a Ten Commandments monument to the Capitol.

"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven," says Lucifer in "Paradise Lost." Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is "trolling the state of Oklahoma."

Oklahoma Governor Under Fire for Attacking Wrong Satanic Group [The West, via Gawker]

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Human Charlie Crist Attacked By Robo-Charlie Crist In Clever Bit Of Political Chicanery

Jason Linkins   |   August 12, 2014    6:18 PM ET

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist -- now running for governor again, because time is a flat circle -- was, for a long time, a Republican. Then, for a brief period of time, during his 2010 Senate run, he was something else. An independent, I guess? Now he is a Democrat, hoping to be nominated to run against the Republican incumbent, Gov. Rick Scott. At some point, with all that switching around, you might wonder, "How does that work, exactly?"

Well, as it happens, Crist wrote a book called "The Party's Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat." But if you're like me, you didn't read it, because you only have so much time on this earth. So now, an anti-Crist political action committee is forcing the question in a clever way. According to Adam C. Smith of the Miami Herald, Democrats residing in Florida have been receiving robocalls that sound like this:

“Hi, this is Charlie Crist calling to set the record straight. I’m pro-life. I oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants, I support traditional marriage, and I have never supported a new tax or big spending program. It’s sad that in his fourth try for governor my opponent has resorted to distortions and untruths. … Floridians need a consistent, conservative governor that they can trust. I would appreciate your vote on Election Day.”

What is this? Witchcraft? No, apparently it's actually Charlie Crist's voice and Charlie Crist's robocall -- only it's the 2006 vintage of Crist, back when he was a Republican in good standing and his future nemesis Marco Rubio was about to become speaker of Florida's state House of Representatives.

Who is behind these calls? Per Smith:

Anyone hearing the robocalls over the weekend would be hard-pressed to know their source. A woman at the end of the recording says it was paid for by “conservatives,” and includes a phone number that when reached gives callers the option of being removed from a call list. Conservatives is the name of a political committee run by Stafford Jones, a Republican operative and Alachua County party chairman, who has a history of trying to damage Democrats in primary elections.

Naming your PAC simply "Conservatives" is a pretty clever idea, if only for the potential "Who's On First?" scenarios that arise.

The Crist camp isn't taking kindly to the calls, as you might expect, with a campaign spokesman referring to them as a "voter suppression" tactic. Which, strictly speaking, I guess they are -- they seem to be intended to sow skepticism of Crist's beliefs among the voters he needs to court. But the beliefs espoused in the robocalls were -- at one time, anyway -- Crist's own views, and in this instance they're being articulated by the lips and teeth and palate and vocal cords of the man himself.

Chances are, Crist's campaign staffers had to have been prepared for this sort of stuff to come up. They probably weren't prepared, however, for it to happen in this sly fashion, with Crist's disembodied voice from eight years ago coming back to haunt him.

And that's the truly devilish bit of strategy here. Robocalls are terrible. So while there are probably some people who will be turned off by this reminder of the fungibility of Crist's convictions, the number of people who will get angry because they think Charlie Crist just robocalled them at home is much larger. The medium, in this case, is worse than the message.

Who is that on anti-Charlie Crist robocall? Charlie Crist [Miami Herald]

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A New Host On 'Meet The Press' Isn't Going To Solve Its Problems

Jason Linkins   |   August 11, 2014    5:38 PM ET

As noted earlier this morning, the David Gregory rumor mill has spun round to the news, courtesy of Politico's Playbook, that Chuck Todd is reportedly now the "likely successor to David Gregory" as the show's master of ceremonies.

"Meet The Press" has been a somewhat troubled institution lately, but this isn't the move I would have made to fix it. Of course, I would have simply canceled the show in favor of broadcasting more soccer games. Or tennis! The best iterations of "Meet The Press" in the past few years have been when "Meet The Press" was actually The French Open. I've learned a lot more about the state of contemporary politics from watching clay-court specialists than I have from watching David Gregory.

But I reckon that if you'd read this far (why did you do that?), then you'd probably like a "more productive" answer than "cancel 'Meet The Press.'" Well, here we go.

"Meet The Press" has been experiencing a prolonged period of debacle-licious ratings woes this year, with Gregory himself frequently being presented as the origin of said woe. But while it is true that Gregory's chief qualification as a host of "Meet The Press" is his ability to reflect waves of light, the show's ratings problems really cannot be blamed solely on Gregory.

As I've previously explained, none of these Sunday shows get impressive ratings as a general rule. And that's because their audience is basically limited to three groups of people: Beltway insiders, really old people, and people who have become immobilized on a semi-permanent basis and are thus unable to reach their remote controls and change the channel.

Ratings for "Meet The Press" for Aug. 3 were, according to TV Newser, 2.113 million total viewers, with a scant 584,000 coming from the demographic of 25-year-olds to 54-year-olds. However, Aug. 3's big winner, "This Week," only notched 2.587 million viewers, with a mere 746,000 coming from the 25-54 demo. So it's wrong to say "Meet The Press'" ratings are bad. "This Week's" ratings are bad! "Meet The Press'" ratings are just worse. This is one big "tallest hobbit" contest.

The question then becomes, "How do we build a new audience for this show?" And I'm afraid there are no easy answers. (I mean, besides the super-easy "cancel the show" answer.) But you can comfortably disabuse yourself of the notion that simply replacing David Gregory will somehow fix the problem. This part of Playbook's reporting says it all:

The move is an effort by NBC News President Deborah Turness to restore passion and insider cred to a network treasure that has been adrift since the death in 2008 of the irreplaceable Tim Russert. Although Todd is not a classic television performer guaranteed to wow focus groups, his NBC bosses have been impressed by his love of the game, which brings with it authenticity, sources, and a loyal following among newsmakers and political junkies.

Chuck Todd is an intelligent, reasonably informed journalist who seems to be a genuinely decent person. That's an improvement over Gregory. Is he passionate? He loves politics and process. Beyond that, his sense of passion seems to have limits. Passionate people, for instance, can't wait to explain stuff to ordinary human Americans. That's not a job Todd wants. Todd is the guy who once lamented that a poll indicated that a majority of Americans didn't understand what the debt ceiling was, and then shrugged and said that "the president has to use political capital and time to flip these numbers," as if there wasn't a teevee camera pointed at him at that moment with the ability to broadcast information to people. Chuck Todd exists somewhere on the spectrum between "disinterested" and "uninterested."

More to the point, however: If there's one thing that "Meet The Press" does not need right now, it's a greater emphasis on the following: "insider cred," "love of the game," "authenticity," "sources" (unless we are talking about some other, different group of "sources" -- and we aren't) and more "newsmakers and political junkies" in the audience. What the people behind "Meet The Press" don't seem to understand is that they are currently maxed out on these things. They have gone just as far as they possibly can with those ingredients. There needs to be some tough coming-to-grips.

The big problem is that "Meet The Press" isn't participating in the modern, 21st-century news environment. If the show was participating in the same world as the rest of us, they'd recognize that the audience they want is well-versed in the stories of the week, and that they've already absorbed the talking points of the major players, availed themselves of a wealth of insight and expertise, and have even participated in their own discussions on current events. So when Sunday rolls around and "Meet The Press" indulges itself in its childlike devotion to starting over at the beginning, people think, "Really, what's the use?"

Imagine slogging your way through a long novel, taking the time to document and ruminate upon the experience, supplementing your own discoveries by seeking out relevant insights and criticism, and then at the end of the week some 10th-grader jumps in your face, recites the Cliffs Notes to the novel out loud while asking you to consider buying an erectile dysfunction treatment. That's basically how most normal human Americans view "Meet The Press."

One doesn't get the sense that the producers of "Meet The Press" have in any way accounted for the sophistication of the show's potential audience. Instead, they are operating at the lowest level of news-gathering -- the perfect level for their guests to dispense the talking points they've been whittling into a fine point over the course of the week. The host's only purpose, it seems, is to move the guests off their talking points. It's a hollow enterprise with rare impact in the real world. Rather than enjoin a high-level dissection, the Sunday shows present a remedial form of news that simply cannot appeal to any significant section of the population.

So, how to solve a problem like this? Previously, Jonathan Bernstein and Paul Waldman have made a lot of great suggestions. Waldman's First Rule should be gospel: "The people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you're going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning." Many people have suggested that "Meet The Press" return to the format of its heyday, in which officials were subjected to a no-frills grilling by a panel of reporters.

I also tend to think that shows like "Meet The Press" suffer from an access problem -- that is to say, they are so concerned with maintaining their access to political elites that the shows are now effectively a no-accountability salon. Somehow, somewhere a wire has gotten crossed and "Meet The Press" has become party to a set of perverse incentives.

I've previously highlighted how Las Vegas-based political reporter Jon Ralston has managed to keep his journalistic enterprise running according to the correct polarity. Ralston benefits from the fact that the people who avoid his tough questions are quickly and easily branded as cowards. Somehow, the Sunday shows have got to figure out a way back to that. If they're to have guests, those guests should be made to feel uncomfortable. If they refuse to come on the show, they should be further brutalized. Let's face it: If the prevailing idea is, "We need to keep Beltway toffs happy or our ratings will suffer," then that idea isn't working anyway, so it's well past time to get the knives out.

Beyond that, "Meet The Press" should of course never have anyone who carries the title "campaign consultant" or "political strategist" anywhere near its studio. And it should dispense with all panel discussions altogether, because they are entirely without value. There are Funyun crumbs on the floor of the PATH train that have fewer empty calories than the average "Meet The Press" panel-wank.

But all of these suggestions ... they are just as hoary and overplayed as John McCain. And they don't really get to that whole "adapting to the modern news environment" and its sophisticated, curious and purpose-driven audience that's long avoided tuning in on Sunday. So here's a radical idea that can set "Meet The Press" on an entirely new path -- one that might worry its competitors.

Go longform. One of the most surprising things about the Sunday shows in general is that they are producing the same disposable content as the average cable news show, and expecting their vaunted time slot and more elite guests to take them to the summit of broadcast news. But shows like "Meet The Press" have a six-day lead in which to craft their broadcast. There's no reason that it should look like it was slapped together in the parking lot on Saturday afternoon. The obvious adaptation is to make use of the resource of time, and go deeper and longer into the stories.

I mean, why not? As social media increasingly becomes the new front page, the whole notion of broadcast television as the pre-eminent source of both "breaking news" and disposable content is going to become more and more passe. The future of television news belongs to people who can take their cameras places other people can't, use the medium creatively, and deliver "slow" news. The future of CNN's content, for example, isn't "Crossfire," it's "Blackfish." Why not make "Meet The Press" the first to join the future?

Right now, NBC News can deploy all sorts of reporters across the country, finding out how normal human Americans are struggling or succeeding and explaining how and why that is. Great opportunities lie in wait beyond the Beltway, to do things like Frontline's "Two American Families." But even if the world beyond the Potomac River is scary to "Meet The Press'" producers, a lot of work can still be done on Capitol Hill: Reporters can take us inside the legislative wranglings, explain the interests the drive the debate, and expose the identities of the people who pay members of Congress to think a certain way.

One of the best things that has happened to broadcast news this year is the advent of HBO's new show, "Last Week Tonight." "Last Week Tonight" was advertised in a shaggy-dog sort of way, with its host -- former Daily Show correspondent and fill-in host Jon Oliver -- explaining what a poor job the show was going to do at keeping up with the newscycle and reporting the news. Then it debuted, and instantly demonstrated that what they'd always intended was to do a better job then everyone else. (The fact that it is, technically, a "Sunday show" is not a coincidence.)

The speed with which "Last Week Tonight" has surpassed nearly all comers in terms of quality should really alarm people. As a representative example, here is "Last Week Tonight's" segment on the legislative wranglings and regulations surrounding the nutritional supplement industry, a topic that at first blush seems like it would be more dull than a test pattern designed by Samuel Beckett:

This content beats "Meet The Press" coming and going. The show literally wandered right onto "Meet The Press'" Beltway turf and delivered a report with a sophistication that no Sunday show has pulled off in years. It explains without being condescending. It gets "inside" the story without fronting like an "insider." It treats the audience as people who are capable of handling the material, while remaining concerned enough about the matter to show its audience things they don't already know. And then they really report the facts that have remained occluded. This is one of those enterprises where the secret, hidden information is actual information and not some pundit's exercise in counter-intuition.

This 16-minute segment attracted 3,889,379 views in its YouTube shell alone. If "Meet The Press" could pull off numbers like that, it would be time to throw a parade down Constitution Avenue. At this point, you would hang a "Meet The Press" segment with that large an audience in the Newseum. (As it happens, NBC News doesn't do a good job tending to its brand on YouTube. There's no dedicated "Meet The Press" channel. Still, for a representative demonstration of the level of interest in its content, here's David Gregory's interview with John Kerry, attempting to defend President Barack Obama's foreign policy record. It's taken home a scintillating 497 views.)

Of course, it helps that "Last Week Tonight" is also screamingly funny. This is something that "Meet The Press" would definitely be better off never, ever attempting, ever. But it's not jokes that that are getting people to stick around and watch 16 minutes on nutrition supplements. It's the purpose. It's the fact that the show wanted to have a point. It's the fact that the producers and writers and host visibly put in the work. And it's the fact that they convincingly demonstrate real respect and genuine concern for their audience, instead of trying to get over by posing as an "insider" operating under a veil of savviness.

The dirty little secret of "Meet The Press" and its Sunday show ilk is that you can very easily distill them down to their essence: "Bomb or don't bomb, have a debt ceiling default or don't have a debt ceiling default, fix the problem or don't fix the problem -- we get paid either way." The ethos of "What, me worry?" is a turn-off for most rational people, all of whom have someone that they have to take responsibility for -- spouses, siblings, parents, children, friends -- while Sunday show hosts promise softballs for access and brand-management opportunities for wealthy thought-havers. The most compelling and honest thing one can say about "Meet The Press" is that a radical change will do it a lot of good.

But I guess it's Chuck Todd and a new deck chair configuration instead. That's OK. People clearly have better options.

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Let's Do It! Let's Bring Back Earmarks!

Jason Linkins   |   August 6, 2014    7:03 PM ET

For the past several years, Congress has been operating under a formal ban of earmarks -- tiny bits of spending that members previously enjoyed inserting into legislation to benefit projects and constituents in their home states. Earmarks have always had a checkered history. On their best days, they get referred to as "pork-barrel spending," as if having a barrel of delicious pork is somehow a bad thing. On their worst days, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was riding herd over the process and using it as his own personal means of meting out rewards and punishments.

"This is corrupt!" said a bunch of people repeatedly, and so round about 2010, Congress began "reforming" earmarks. Spurred on by well-meaning good-government types and hacky deficit hysterics -- along with political partisans who enjoyed characterizing their opponents' earmarks as an abuse of the process -- the whole notion of getting rid of earmarks started to sound like a good idea. But it actually was a terrible and stupid idea, and we need to un-reform earmark reform just as hard as we can. We should not stop until earmark reform is sorry for ever having existed.

Over at The New York Times, columnist Thomas Edsall notes that while earmark reform (along with various, equally demented deregulations of campaign finance law) has been sold as something that would inevitably lead to people becoming less cynical about American politics, it hasn't lived up to the hype. Instead, it has only "intensified the public's hostility to both politicians and the political process."

Edsall cites a Gallup poll finding that between 2006 and 2013, "the percentage of Americans convinced that corruption was 'widespread throughout the government in this country' grew from 59 to 79 percent." A similar study from American National Election Studies found that over the past half-decade, the share of voters who said that government is "run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" soared from 29 percent to 79 percent, while the number who said that government is "run for the benefit of the people" shrank from 64 percent to 19 percent.

These numbers are perhaps more significant than Congress' approval ratings -- which, by the way, are lower than the approval ratings of Sharknadoes that mate with dung heaps and then show up together drunk at your cousin's bar mitzvah.

And for what, exactly? As Edsall notes, a hot load of nothing:

The ban on earmarks, adopted after the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, has tied the hands of congressional leaders. Still, earmarks, despised by reformers on the left and right, served an essential political purpose. The House and Senate leadership and ranking committee members used earmarks to persuade their reluctant colleagues to vote for or against key bills; they used them as a tool to forge compromise and as a carrot to produce majorities.

The prohibition on earmarks has done nothing to restore respect for Congress. Just the opposite: It has contributed to legislative gridlock and increased the difficulty of winning enactment of tax and immigration reform.

So, basically, this "reform" was undertaken to make Congress better, and it's made it intractably worse across every conceivable dimension, up to and including the fact that nobody thinks that Congress is getting any less corrupt.

Erikka Knuti, a former congressional staffer who now serves as a Democratic strategist for the communications firm Purple Strategies, is Eat the Press' favorite American to talk with about how stupid earmark reform is. So we talked! She told me that while she never thought to measure public attitudes on perceptions of government corruption in relation to the banning of earmarks, the poll numbers reinforce her position that earmark reform has been bad for the country. "I love [Tom Edsall's] article," she says.

It's not that the move to get rid of earmarks wasn't well-intentioned, Knuti says. "I don't think we had any idea what we were doing. I think we thought it would just be the difference between 'bringing home the bacon' to 'bringing home the turkey bacon.' I think we thought we'd just end up with 'Earmark Lite.' I don't think we knew that we were going to remove all of the grease to the legislative wheels whatsoever. Now there's no incentive to compromise."

So are earmarks simply a form of "good corruption"? Knuti says that even this is the wrong way to think about them:

EAT THE PRESS: Edsall, in his column, says that earmarks are, essentially, "honest graft."

KNUTI: I don't know if I'd call it "graft" because it's not like it goes into the pocket of the member. It goes into their district. An earmark for a highway off-ramp -- the congressman doesn't put that in his backyard. That's the taxpayers who get that back.

EAT THE PRESS: It seems to me that if you're a member of Congress, you have to accept that you're going to lose some legislative battles, but you used to be able to still create some tangible public good. "We fought hard to defeat Obamacare, but we couldn't get it done. But I got you this bridge." Now we're left with members going back to their district saying, "Sorry our infrastructure is crumbling, but the good news is that I voted to defund the non-existent organization once known as ACORN four more times. That's the bedpost they notch."

KNUTI: You used to be able to look at and ask, "What did my congressman do for me? Well, he got me that bridge. I know we still have Obamacare and I wanted him to end it and he hasn't been able to do that yet, but at least we have that bridge." When you look back and you read, constitutionally, what the purpose of Congress is, it's to tax and spend. Their purpose isn't necessarily pure policy. It is fundamentally to spend money, the people's money. And earmarks were a way of dividing up the pie, so when you came home, you used to have to say, "This is what I did for you."

But when you can't point to anything, all you can say is, "Well, I took this symbolic vote, or I tried to follow this ideological philosophy." So it puts more emphasis on ideology because you can't point to anything else. The only thing you can come back with is a purity scorecard, not an overpass.

The average person is going to drive over that overpass more times than they can directly feel the impact of the Export-Import Bank.

EAT THE PRESS: How are voters back home even supposed to evaluate their congressperson if they expect more than this id-driven ideological warfare? What's the measure?

KNUTI: At this point, it's impossible to tell who is a good congressperson or a bad congressperson any more. I went on a Senate Press Secretaries Association trip up to New York, and we met with [Daily Show host] Jon Stewart, who has always had this thing for [the late Sen.] Ted Stevens and how much pork Ted Stevens brought home to his district. And he asked, "Is it fair that he gets to bring more home to Alaska?" to this room of 70 press secretaries. And so I thought, "Well, I got this," and I told him, "Yes, because everyone else gets to elect a senator as well. Turns out Alaska just has a better one. In any sport, in any game, there are some players that are better than others."

And so right now, as long as a congressman doesn't take a picture of himself naked, you look like a pretty good congressman because there is no measurement.

And if people start to think, "Well, Congress isn't doing anything for me. Who are they doing stuff for?" the answer is "the other guy." Which gets back to this sense of corruption. When your congressman comes back to their district with nothing tangible but the promise to fight for this or that, with no results, what's the difference between that and a snake oil salesman?

EAT THE PRESS: I think in the popular consciousness, though, when people think of government corruption, they do think about things like the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."

KNUTI: But the Bridge to Nowhere was never built! The earmark abuse was caught. The system worked! It came out; people said, "Oh, that sounds completely unreasonable"; and it was pulled out of the bill. It never happened. And that's the problem of people pointing to that as earmark abuse. That was an example of transparency correcting a potential abuse.

I mean, to be honest, I think a Bridge to Nowhere sounds like a bargain at this point, after four years of complete incompetence and the inability to do anything. We've seen the government shut down; we almost defaulted on our credit. What's a Bridge to Nowhere these days? Would that really have been as bad compared to what we have now? Nobody benefits from a government shutdown; at least 50 people would have benefited from that Bridge to Nowhere. At least somebody would have gotten something out of that.

Earmarks are cheap. ... They are very cheap compared to the cost of downgrading our credit rating or shutting down the government.

If you're keeping score at home, the Bridge to Nowhere would have cost taxpayers $398 million. Two years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center reported that the nonsensical debt ceiling debates that nearly drove the country into default "will cost taxpayers $18.9 billion over 10 years." The Office of Management and Budget said that the 2013 government shutdown "cost taxpayers about $2 billion in lost productivity." Congress, arguably, found a way to get to Nowhere without that bridge.

As HuffPost's Sam Stein and Ryan Grim reported in June, "Congress may be warming up" to calling backsies on its decision to eliminate earmarks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid characterized the reform as a "mistake" and said that "top House Republicans have told him that they support earmarks and would like to see the practice return."

Knuti thinks this needs to happen with all deliberate haste.

"There should obviously be some safeguards," she says. "Members should have to put their names next to their earmarks and say why they are important. But we should bring them back. And Democrats, who skewered Republicans for years on this and put the pressure on [House Speaker John] Boehner to end them -- we have to give him the [political] cover to bring them back."

Doing so, Knuti says, may mean the difference between Congress re-embarking on civilized dealmaking and remaining permanently entrenched in the miasma of tribal political nonsense: "In compromise, both sides need to get up from the table having won something. When you don't have earmarks, half the people go home losers. So half the people have no incentive to play ball. One side of the table loses, so why would that side come back to the table again?"

"Everybody's got to be a winner," she says. "Everybody has to go home a winner."

The Value of Political Corruption [New York Times]

The interview with Erikka Knuti has been edited for length and clarity.

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This Is What Happens When A Politician Really Doesn't Want To Answer A Reporter's Question

Jason Linkins   |   August 6, 2014    7:36 AM ET

What's a politician to do when he or she takes a tough question from a reporter? Well, in general, they do this thing called "dodging the question," dispensing a publicist-massaged talking point, or changing the subject, or spinning like a dervish, or just lying. (I suppose in some instances, there are those who answer questions as forthrightly as possible, too. It's a theory, anyway.)

But then there are those special moments when wits and words fail the poor fool, and the politician -- suddenly gripped by animal panic -- attempts a clunkier contrivance. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, offered up a classic of the genre when he responded to a tough question from MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell by suddenly experiencing the inability to hear the question and responding, "Abba-babba ndrea, I cannot hear you, I’m sorry," and then doing some more-convincing stammering to filibuster what remained of the segment.

But as eyebrow-raising as it was, it was actually a defter bit of maneuvering than many politicians, stuck in the middle of a fatal brain error, are able to manage. In the video above, you'll see several examples of Not-So-Great Escapes, ranging from "The Blank Stare" to the "Run For Your Life" to the "Hey, I'll Be Right Back I Promise" to the "I'm Going To Stand Here Vibrating My Head In The Hopes That I Might Have A Convenient Stroke."

[Video created and edited by Natasha Bach]

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Who Is America's Next Nativist Crank? The Answer Is Not That Surprising, Really

Jason Linkins   |   August 5, 2014    4:47 PM ET

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is set to retire from Congress in January of next year, so you've probably been wondering: Who is going to replace her in the House of Representatives' Nativist Crank Caucus, alongside Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louis Gohmert (R-Texas). Well, after this week, it seems that the answer is much clearer. It's going to be Rep. Morris "Mo" Brooks, Republican from Alabama's 5th District. Welcome, Mo!

Brooks very firmly cemented his nativist crankery bona fides this week with this gorgeous rhetorical fillip:

"This is a part of the war on whites that's being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they're launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else," he said during an interview Monday with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. "It's part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things. Well, that's not true."

As Jonathan Chait notes, this whole "war on whites" thing is, at first blush, conceptually incoherent:

On the surface, you might find it silly to imagine that the Democrats would antagonize the majority segment of the American public. Democrats definitely need white people (whites supplied 56 percent of Barack Obama's vote in 2012; nonwhites supplied just 11 percent of Mitt Romney's votes). White people have other uses for Democrats, like providing campaign donations, filling cabinet roles and Congressional seats, and so on. From a pure strategic standpoint, launching a war on white people would seem like a bad idea.

"A little out there" is how Ingraham herself characterized the notion. But perhaps we need a deeper-level explanation of how this "war on whites" actually works. As a white person, perhaps I can offer some insight.

See, the fundamental issue at the heart of a perceived "war on whites" has little to do with voting blocs or any particular behavior. The "war on whites" begins, conceptually, by imagining the benefits of a political system as finite in quantity, meted out as part of a zero-sum game. That is to say, no hypothetical benefit flowing outward to one political constituency does not simultaneously deprive another constituency of a similar benefit. In this worldview, the extension of, say, access to health insurance to citizens who did not previously have it does not result in positive outcomes for society as a whole. Rather, it is theft. (And then probably "The Road To Serfdom," because this worldview is steeped in college sophomore arcana.)

Let me further whitesplain the "War On Whites" with a metaphor. Imagine, if you will, there is all this cake. Just mountains of never-ending cake! And there's all these white people, cold chowing down on the cake. "Yum, yum," say the white people, as they shovel cake into their gullets, "this is some bomb-ass cake, yes sir." And then suddenly they see, across the street, some black guy, or maybe he is Asian, or a woman or something, and that person makes a friendly wave to the white people and says, "You guys, this cake is totally delicious!" And the Mo Brookses of the world go white (ha-ha) with rage! Sure, there is a lot of cake left, and the white people are full and can't possibly eat any more, but that one slice of cake that the black guy ate (or maybe he or she is Hispanic, it really doesn't matter in this metaphor) could have been eaten by a white person. That's the "War On Whites."

(And yes, a lot of working-class white people have been so badly conned by grifters or politicians or corporations or interest groups that they don't have the same access to said cake, but that is not a "War On Whites." That describes the "class war," which working-class people of all races and creeds have lost, permanently and decisively.)

By articulating this vision, Brooks has probably sealed his spot in the "America's Next Top Nativist Crank" finals. But Brooks has been doing enough to impress the judges in the preliminary rounds. To wit:

-- Back in July of 2011, Brooks told WHNT-TV in Alabama that he would "do anything short of shooting" undocumented immigrants. (Which technically makes Brooks a "RINO.")

-- A day later, Brooks said that he was "not going to back off" his whole, "anything short of shooting" people stance "because these folks want to resort to name-calling." (He was referring to remarks made by Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), who had suggested that "referencing acts of violence has no place in the discussion for realistic solutions to our country's immigration problems," and that Brooks was "irresponsible," "hateful" and "dehumanizing" for having done so.)

-- In November of 2011, Brooks was ecstatic about how Alabama's newly enacted immigration laws had led Latino parents to pull their kids from school: "Illegal aliens are continuing to leave Alabama -- not as fast as we would want, not as many as we would want -- but still they’re leaving and it makes us happy." Decidedly not happy were Alabama farmers, whose businesses were negatively impacted after Brooks' "now Americans will take these jobs" theory didn't pan out.

-- In July of 2014, Brooks offered up some back-of-the-envelope math on the cost of deporting "illegal alien children." "For example, there are reportedly roughly 50,000 illegal alien children who have recently entered the United States. At $500 per ticket per illegal alien child, they could all be flown commercial air back to their parents at a total taxpayer cost of $25 million, even less if military air transport is used." (According to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the true cost of deporting an undocumented immigrant is approximately $12,500.)

-- On Aug. 1, Brooks told MSNBC's Chris Hayes that "all 500,000 Dreamers" and the 8 million undocumented immigrants currently holding jobs should be deported immediately. (Brooks apparently did not make note of the fact that his own optimistic back-of-the-envelope estimates were now approaching a total of $4.25 billion.)

-- And via Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski, today we have Brooks offering his opinion on why the ENLIST Act, which would offer undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship by joining the U.S. Armed Services and putting their lives on the line for the United States, is a bad idea: "These individuals have to be absolutely 100 percent loyal and trustworthy, as best as we can make them, 'cause they're gonna have access to all sorts of military weaponry -- even to the point of having access to weapons of mass destruction like our nuclear arsenal. And I'm gonna have much greater faith in the loyalty of an American citizen than someone who is a citizen of a foreign nation."

I don't think that one gets the keys to our ICBMs as soon as one gets out of basic training, but I'm a lover, not a fighter, and Brooks is ostensibly the guy who knows how the government works, so I guess we should take his word for it.

So Brooks is pretty uniquely positioned to fill Bachmann's spot more than adequately in the Nativist Crank Caucus. Why, if Brooks had some nutty anti-gay stuff in his portfolio, I doubt you'd miss Bachmann at all. (Oh, hey, here you go.)

Dick Morris Still Making Typical Dumb Dick Morris Pronouncements

Jason Linkins   |   August 1, 2014    1:06 PM ET

On Thursday, Dick Morris -- Hurricane Sandy victim and wrongest man in America (even when he's attempting to admit that he's wrong) -- brought forth to America new prognostication, courtesy of Newsmax:

"If I open the newspaper tomorrow and I learn that Obama resigned, I wouldn't be surprised," Morris added.

I guess Dick Morris is going to read about 800 or so more newspapers and experience a shock each and every time. Which is weird, because if Morris can stick it out in this punditry game this long without suffering a sudden burst of self-awareness that causes him to leave his home and go live naked in the woods somewhere, then anyone should feel OK about keeping their jobs.

Meanwhile I read that for reasons well beyond the ability of mere humans to fathom, Morris is attempting to reinvent himself as some sort of financial guru who will be offering retirees his "market predictions":

Phil Cannella, Retirement Phase Expert, has joined forces with internationally known political insider, Dick Morris to educate investors across the tri-state area on how to protect their nest eggs in preparation for the retirement phase of life.

Eric Hananoki of Media Matters runs down some of Morris' track record with penny stocks:

  • Morris sent an April 9 sponsored email from Champlain Media that touted American Heritage International (AHII) and advised readers to "buy now while the stock is still selling in the 1-2 range" so you could "potentially double or triple your money." The stock is now trading at $0.20.
  • Morris sent a January 6 sponsored email from The Myers Letter that touted Centor Energy (CNTO), claiming that "CNTO is set to jump from 1 to8. And that's my short-term outlook. Longer term could see the stock climb to 25 and from there onwards to 100." The stock is now trading at $0.04.
  • Morris sent a November 27, 2013 sponsored email from Tobin Smith (who was fired from Fox News for ethics reasons), who claimed North American Oil & Gas (NAMG) is expected "to quickly soar off today's 1.00 share price to 30 or more." The stock is now trading at $0.08.

Dear God, people, please, do not let Dick Morris happen to your money. What did your money ever do to deserve that? Your money was only trying to be nice.

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