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Here Is Why You're Not Making It In America: Your Sunday Morning Conversation

Jason Linkins   |   April 13, 2014    8:59 AM ET

Is the United States a strong nation? There's a notion that it is, of course -- based mainly on the disruptive philosophical underpinnings upon which this country was established. But these are all really the fumes of nostalgia. What else is there? Well, we have the best fleet of aerial drone death-dealers in the world (for now). Certainly our fast-food accomplishments are second to none. And our Reality Teevee Industry remains one of the more successful and innovative welfare programs in the world, lifting individuals with no evident utility to the human race -- and who would quite likely be pushed into ditches to die in lesser nations -- into the warm embrace of the Fame Economy.

So we've got that stuff going for us, which is nice.

Less nice, perhaps, are our ongoing struggles with the post-crash economy. Yes, there has been some good news to cheer. In April, we added approximately 192,000 jobs to the economy, bringing America back to where we were at before everything went to hell in 2008. This was probably an immense achievement for our beleaguered economy, given that too many lawmakers have clutched up as hard as they can on the economic brakes, hoping for a political breakthrough that will lead them back to power. But it's by no means a reason to pop Cristal -- now comes the task of bringing our economy to where it would have been had the financial sector's galactic incompetence not sent the rest of us into ruination in the first place.

Besides, it would be a false comfort to say, "Well, at least we're back to where we were before." We are not back to where we were before. In terms of how shared our "economic recovery" has been, back in 2013, Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez determined that "the top 1 percent" had captured "121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery." That picture has brightened a little since then, if only because there was nowhere else to go from "unrelenting darkness" except to "brightened a little." As Annie Lowrey reported in September, the incomes of the bottom 99 percent had, in 2012, "started growing again -- if only by 1 percent." By contrast, "the total income of the top 1 percent surged nearly 20 percent that year," while the "incomes of the very richest, the 0.01 percent, shot up more than 32 percent."

Someone is making it in America, but it's probably not you. Hell, that top .01 percent has hit such stratospheric new heights that now the rest of the top 1 percent is set for a healthy dose of class envy. Still, those guys are headed for a new and covetable status -- they'll essentially be the New American Middle Class. Their future will likely involve simultaneously chafing under that down-market moniker, while thanking Baal that they are even that fortunate. This is already resulting in a fair amount of unsurmountable cognitive dissonance, where the most powerful and fortunate members of society increasingly look upon the poor and powerless, and somehow arrive at the conclusion that they are "Nazis."

But the people whom these uber-wealthy bimbos liken to the European fascists of the early 20th century sure don't appear to be anyone's idea of a master race at the moment. Here are some of the things we've learned about the bottom 99 percent of America in recent weeks:

-- According to research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the "difference between wealth held by the top 1 percent and the rest of us has climbed back up to levels not seen since the roaring 20s." In fact, their "work also suggests that the bottom 99 percent may be poorer in absolute terms than they were before the housing bust." Like I said, beyond the happy-sounding jobs numbers, we're not actually anywhere near to getting back to where we were in the pre-crash era.

-- As much as you've heard about the immiseration of the long-term unemployed, the short-term unemployed aren't having a better time of things. According to a paper authored by Princeton University economists Alan Krueger, Judd Cramer, and David Cho, while "about 50% of those who were short-term unemployed at any given time" since "the beginning of the downturn" are now "working a year" after losing their job, only 15 percent were back at "steady full time jobs."

-- And, it gets worse. The generation now entering adulthood and the job market is at a tremendous disadvantage. As Bloomberg reported at the end of March, "For households headed by someone 40 years old or younger, wealth adjusted for inflation remains 30 percent below 2007 levels on average, according to research by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis."

-- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are "260,000 Americans with bachelor's degrees earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or less in 2013" and "another 200,000 associate's degree holders" who are also stuck at that wage. (Opponents of raising the minimum wage often say that the low minimum wage serves a purpose -- it's a temporary condition for people just getting their feet wet in the job market. The reality is that it's now a permanent condition for hundreds of thousands of seasoned, accomplished adults.)

And these bitter morsels are merely the appetizers that come before the latest bad news entree, served up in one 700-page helping by French economist Thomas Piketty, titled Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In his book, Piketty describes the extent to which returns on financial assets -- the unproductive, synthetic sector of the economy -- is diverging from overall economic growth, by which we mean the productive parts of the economy.

How large is the divergence? It's potentially Brobdingnagian. Basically, imagine a future in which a small percentage of people live in a gated community and the rest of us live in a favela. That is, if you are lucky enough to have a favela. Already, out in Silicon Valley, we're seeing this sort of thing. As Bloomberg reported this week, those who perform all the service sector tasks for the prosperous disruptors of the tech industry are slowly but surely getting priced out of their meager accommodations. This week, the higher minds in Palo Alto decided to make having to live out of one's car a punishable offense, to go along with previous laws banning the homeless from sitting or lying down in public. That limits the options of a population slowly getting evicted from their homestead -- go to jail, or somehow attain some entirely new metaphysical means of continuing to exist.

Ahh, but We The People still have our political power to fall back upon, right? Well, funny thing about that, actually. One of the lessons from Piketty's book is very deftly captured by Vox's Ezra Klein as "the Doom Loop of Oligarchy." In this Doom Loop, this emerging upper-upper-we-are-talking-Elysium class of people obtain "so much economic power that they begin wielding tremendous political power" as well. "And then," Klein writes, "they use that political power to further increase their wealth, and then they use that wealth to further increase their political power, and so on."

As Klein goes on to point out, the Doom Loop recently got a big dose of creatine, courtesy of the Supreme Court, which in its McCutcheon decision, assured our wealthy uber-Menchen, cowering in their panic rooms under the threat of the ever-increasingly be-Nazied population of have-nots, that there would be no cap on the money they can donate to politicians. As Klein notes: "This comes just a couple of years after Citizens United and related decisions made it easy for rich Americans to spend unlimited sums on SuperPACs and other independent political organizations."

There are, of course, Panglossian dimwits and sociopaths who characterize these Supreme Court decisions as good for everybody's free speech. But in an era where your access to even a sympathetic lawmaker is entirely dependent on whether you can trick that lawmaker into thinking you are a bona fide campaign donor, what these decisions actually assure is a tremendous distance between what sort of power the money you lost in the cushions of your couch can purchase, versus those who can spend millions of dollars as wantonly as they can without breaking a sweat. Basically, it's getting very "e pluribus zilch" up in here.

This inequality could not have been better demonstrated than it was a few weeks ago, when a collection of GOP presidential nominee-wannabes trundled out to Sin City to lower their heads before America's preeminent post-modern DeMedici, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson -- a man who, in the infinite logic his money can obtain, vocally supports stem cell research, the Dream Act, reproductive rights for women, and "socialized-like health care" and then funnels his boodle exclusively to political figures who oppose every single one of those things.

The most illustrative moment of this year's Adelson Conclave came after beleaguered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made the terrible gaffe of referring to the part of the world "in which Palestinians live where Israel maintains a military presence" as "the occupied territories." This was a big no-no, and so Chris Christie went on bended knee before Adelson to do something that I don't think he has ever done before -- apologize. That was literally all it took to wrench a mea culpa from Gov. Christie -- a nearly incalculable pile of money. New Jersey's teachers' unions should feel a little bit better about themselves -- they never had a chance.

I pick on Christie (probably because I'm a stealth fascist!) but the truth is that this situation, in which our politicians are neatly nestled in the baby-soft, uncallused palms of dodgy billionaires, cuts across all ideological lines. The Democrats have their own assortment of influence pimps (hedge funder Tom Steyer has recently surpassed George Soros as the right's biggest bugaboo), and even those wonderfully pure libertarians have their benefactors. (In fact, the extent to which libertarians have required sugar-daddies of their own to win political battles is a fairly underreported phenomenon -- I'm guessing lots of people are of the mind that their recent successes as a movement have come from the merits of their arguments!)

Another critical thing we're learning about these dark-money wheeler-dealers is that they've got no real might or manhood. The shadow they cast is one of cowardice; they've no appetite for actually getting into the arena. This was put on display earlier this month when industrialist mega-donor Charles Koch ran to The Wall Street Journal op-ed page to pen a "Leave Britney Alone!" rant on his own behalf, then demanded that his underlings rise up to have his back. It was a seriously depressing thing to learn that the guy who desires to undergird our "free society" with his narrow vision was actually a whiny little baby. Until his op-ed, I would have at least given the man credit for having some sack. Sadly, that's no longer possible.

And that truly is an unfortunate set of circumstances. This new power arrangement is enough to make anyone who clings to nostalgia -- the notion that America derives its strength from foundational principles that empowered a gathered citizenry in a free society to work their will upon the world with boldness -- look like a right idiot. What the future seems to hold for us is an economically diminished populace led by political figures who stoop and scrape before spineless billionaires for the permission to wield power. We might be able to get by on that for a while still, but does that sound like America is a strong nation? Not by any standard I'd endorse.

Eat The Press is going on hiatus until May 12, 2014. Thank you for reading.

[You'll find more Sunday Reads and more on my Rebel Mouse page. What stories mattered to you this week? Drop me a line and let us know what you are reading.]

Brandeis University's Decision To Cancel Ayaan Hirsi Ali Appearance Has Done Liberals No Favors

Jason Linkins   |   April 10, 2014    4:02 PM ET

Yesterday, it suddenly became very important to focus our attention on the upcoming commencement ceremony at Brandeis University -- which is ordinarily something that most of the wide world outside the Brandeis community could frankly give two figs about. But here's what happened. Brandeis had intended to bring author and -- I guess -- "thought leader" Ayaan Hirsi Ali to their commencement festivities, bestow her with an honorary degree and let her speak to students and fellows at a diploma ceremony and a celebratory breakfast.

Well, as of yesterday, all of that is off. In a statement, the Brandeis said: "She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women's rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world ... That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."

So, what's all that about? Well, Hirsi Ali is a figure of some controversy, don't you know! She has been a strong voice against such barbaric practices as female genital mutilation, and the more totalitarian aspects of Islamic sharia law that oppress women, such as so-called "honor killings." Personally speaking, I am glad she has done such things. However, she is not of the mind that Islam is a legitimate religion that has been, in some instances, tragically co-opted in some benighted corners of the world by nihilistic death-cults. She does not believe it is possible for a moderate or Westernized form of Islam to exist. She has said so: "There is no moderate Islam." And so, she has called for the complete destruction of Islam existentially.

I do not hold to that view -- in fact, I find it both risible and farcically contrary to my own experiences -- and she will just have to jolly well accept that. But the reverse is also true, and herein lies the problem we have been presented with, thanks to Brandeis University. Whether they know it or not, the actions they have taken have done way more harm than good. To anyone with a liberal-minded attitude toward freedom of expression, Brandeis' decision has done you no favors. Let's break it down, shall we?

Let's first stipulate that things like honorary degrees and commencement-day speeches rank very high on the list of things not worth going to the mattresses over. The whole practice of giving people honorary degrees is mostly bullshit, and if we stopped doing it tomorrow it wouldn't cost us anything. And commencement-day addresses are usually forgettable at best, and hack nonsense at worst. In the history of valedictory addresses there has only ever been one that was actually any good, and that was the one that David Foster Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. (Interestingly enough, his message was that life was brutish and short, you're not the center of the universe, and while everyone can be a jerk sometimes, the highest thing you can do intellectually is learn to consider the other people around you and think of them benevolently whenever possible.)

That was the one and only good commencement speech, no one is ever going to top it, and David Foster Wallace is dead and he's never coming back. The entire field of graduation oration is now one in which a famous comedian might drop a memorable joke, but that's where this genre of oratory tops out. Most of you who graduate this year will be hard-pressed to remember your commencement speaker a year from now. Frankly, you will be hard-pressed to not just want the speeches at your graduation to end so you can just skip to the after-party. Show me a person who is legitimately excited about a commencement speaker and I will show you that commencement speaker's son or daughter (which, let's face it, is how most of these people get booked in the first place).

Given enough time to get outraged, it is possible to find just about anyone who delivers a college commencement speech to be objectionable. I've been to three commencement ceremonies at my alma mater -- at one I saw Virginia Gov. George Allen speak, at another I saw media superstar Katie Couric. Chances are that the people who liked the one would have had objections to the other. Whatever. They both spoke and the intellectual edifices of the University of Virginia remained standing.

I basically foresee the future of commencement speakers being fairly similar to the past history of commencement speakers. Colleges and universities will continue to solicit the presence of political figures, public intellectuals, elite opinion-havers, captains of industry, agents of social change, celebrities from lists A to Z and rich alumni with the means to donate huge sums of cash. Chances are, these people will have all said something that someone finds objectionable. Let's accept this, right now, as a fact of life. Let's further accept that your college or university never promised you anything at your commencement ceremonies other than the diploma you've earned.

Most importantly, however, let's understand that a consequence of shutting down any commencement honoree that you don't like immediately opens the door to the same thing being done to someone you admire. Brandeis University is officially saying that this is permissible.

Here's a thing that happened in the immediate wake of Brandeis' decision to put the kibosh on Hirsi Ali's planned appearance: The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol started typing stuff. Here's what he came up with:

As Lori Lowenthal Marcus notes, Brandeis University has in recent years bestowed an honorary degree on Tony Kushner, who called the creation of Israel as a Jewish state “a mistake” and who attacked Israel for ethnic cleansing and for causing “terrible peril in the world.” Brandeis has also honored Desmond Tutu, who compared Israel to Hitler, attacked the “Jewish lobby” as too “powerful” and “scary,” and complained of the “Jewish monopoly of the Holocaust.”

As it happens, Tony Kushner is one of my favorite playwrights. So you can only imagine how excited I am that one of the (logical and predictable) after-effects of this Brandeis flap is that Kushner now has got a target painted on his back. I am really looking forward to Kushner getting hounded by lackwits the next time someone extends a public speaking opportunity to him. Great work, everyone who hounded Brandeis in similar fashion! What are you going to say the next time someone does what you did to a speaker you like? You'll be able to say nothing credible, unfortunately.

So what should be done? It feels strange to have to point this out, but up until yesterday anyway, the best and most effective way we have societally coped with ideas and speech and expression that we find risible is to counter it with more ideas and speech and expression.

Yes, of course, everyone knows that the world of free expression is rife with structural inequities -- sometimes the worst ideas get the biggest microphone, and there are entire social structures which exist solely to ensure that people of certain classes, races, and genders get the first and best turn on the soapbox. But in leveling this playing field, we should not aspire to level everyone's opportunity downward. Our reaction to our own perceived disadvantage should not be to equalize disadvantage across the board. Rather, we should seek to level up. Sometimes that means teaming up and working hard. And sometimes, the need to do so can feel, in and of itself, unjust.

But as long as we're talking about that, you should know that the continued existence of the justice that underpins your right to speak your mind depends on you extending the same right to the people with whom you disagree. If you weaken that, justice collapses in a heap, and you'll find that you've undermined your own rights.

There are plenty of things that I don't like seeing in the public square -- those anti-gay Phelps nutters, KKK rallies, people who push the Blueprint Cleanse -- but insofar as these people are putting forth a public argument, my attitude is, "Let them say what they have to say. I can take these guys." In a world where more and more of the forces that govern our lives are going under cover of darkness (thank you, Supreme Court!), it's worth remembering that it's a blessing to have the things we find objectionable be right out in the open, for all to see.

If there was a higher ideal that could have governed Brandeis' decision-making, I think that the alleged "core values" that the university cited in its statement might have been a useful thing upon which everyone could have reflected. "Core values" are supposed to steel us, arm us with courage and provide us with a foundation to argue our point of view. If "core values" truly exist, then so too should the desire to engage with people who don't share those values. Otherwise, "core values" is just marketing. So if this student body is truly infused with these values, and ready to take on the world, then why run from a challenge this late in the game?

But here I am, suggesting that Brandeis' graduation ceremonies are a thing that should be treated as something of national importance. The simple fact of the matter is that there was nothing at stake until the University decided that they simply couldn't bear to have Hirsi Ali on hand. Now, the ripple effect of that decision will have its unintended impact, and the people who are satisfied today that she won't be speaking at Brandeis will get to enjoy the tables being turned on them at some point down the road. And who knows how many of us non-agitants will get caught up in this turf war? And for what? If I'm missing the larger good that's going to come from Brandeis' decision, then someone is going to have to explain it to me.

Alex Pareene once wrote something that's stuck with me: "You gotta let shit slide sometimes." Even when you feel, deep in your bones, that you are right. That is a tough thing to learn -- how to pick your battles. I've found that the hardest lesson in battle-picking comes when you stumble headlong into a larger war you didn't want.

So, good luck to whoever gets tapped to speak or receive an honorary degree at Brandeis University's commencement next year, because I promise you, it'll be knives out from here on in.

[CORRECTION: This piece originally stated that Hirsi Ali would be the speaker at Brandeis' graduation ceremony itself. She was actually originally slated to receive an honorary degree, and address students on two other occasions during graduation weekend -- a diploma ceremony and a celebratory breakfast. We regret the error and any concomitant confusion it caused. This piece has been corrected throughout.]

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Dear America, 'Meet The Press' Wants To Meet You: Your Sunday Morning Conversation

Jason Linkins   |   April 6, 2014    9:44 AM ET

For years and years, anyone who tuned in to America's Sunday morning political chat shows was invited into a world of cloistered elites whose understanding of the impacts of public policy ended at the bank of the Potomac River. It was a realm in which a massive unemployment crisis that swept across post-crash America was only perceived to affect a group of affluent political celebrities and their electoral hopes. "Will the terrible Senator What's-His-Nuts lose his ability to go on naming post offices after his cronies' children, or will he be forced to accept six-figure salaries on K Street or through meaningless board positions at useless foundations?"

There is, let's say, a disconnect between these shows and normal human Americans. So it's not surprising that normal human Americans have all but tuned out these shows, leaving them with a teensy audience of viewers who are either close to Capitol Hill or close to death (sort of the same concept, in some ways). But now, all of the sudden and quite unexpectedly, one of these shows has discovered that there is, like, this whole country called "America," and has decided to go and try to talk to it. From a press release I received Friday morning from NBC News:

"Meet the Press" is taking to the streets of hometowns across the country to uncover the real consequences of political decision-making in Washington, DC, and how it affects the day-to-day lives of Americans. In each Sunday's "Meeting America" feature, NBC News Correspondent Kevin Tibbles takes the political conversation outside of the Beltway and into cities and communities where the issues debated by politicians and pundits on "Meet the Press" are hitting home.

This feature actually launched last week. Still, glory be, y'all. After six years of watching these shows and making this very criticism, one of them -- the worst one of them, no less! -- has decided to give this "let's dispel our ignorance" thing a try. I will naturally take credit for this. I fought "Meet The Press," and I won -- a little.

So now, "Meet The Press" will be endeavoring to "meet America." That will be an interesting collision for these hidebound weirdos who have heretofore remained bunkered in their Beltway redoubt. They'll be meeting people who've gone unassisted in what amounts to our post-crash "recovery." People who cannot comprehend why Washington is so focused on adjusting 20-year fiscal curves as opposed to getting America back to work. People who don't actually think that gutting earned benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security constitute political "bravery." If "Meet The Press" doesn't experience some sense of intense culture shock, meeting the actual people of actual America for the first time, then "Meet The Press" isn't paying attention.

So what does "Meet The Press" hope to achieve? Here's the relevant part of the press release (which I am scrutinizing, I think, a lot more closely than its author ever suspected was possible):

"Our goal is to translate what's going on in Washington, DC, and show the real impact on constituents across the country," said Rob Yarin, "Meet the Press" executive producer. "Politics isn't just about politicians -- it's about real people and real life outside the halls of the West Wing or Capitol Hill, and 'Meeting America' allows us to give a national platform to voices we don't normally hear from on these issues."

I am down with the "show the real impact" of public policy decisions on "constituents across the country" part. Hallelujah to finally acknowledging that there are "real people" that exist "outside the halls of the West Wing or Capitol Hill." And yay to giving these people a "national platform."

But here's some free advice, "Meet The Press." Your job actually isn't "translating" what's happening in Washington to the people in the hinterlands. Your job is afflicting Beltway elites with the perspective of people beyond the bubble in which those elites reside. Best to remember that the world needs more Beltwaysplaining like it needs pancreatic cancer. You guys have the opportunity to try to be Patrick McGoohan's character from "The Prisoner." Don't waste it!

Then we come to the part of the press release that shakes my confidence a little bit:

Employing creative photography techniques, "Meeting America" is produced to give the viewer a literal birds-eye view into these communities and paint an intimate portrait of how real Americans are addressing the issues.

Here's an idea: How about you spare us "creative photography techniques" entirely. Don't turn this into "Meet The Press Instagrams the eroding hopes of middle class America." Just go get actual news stories, for the first time in over a decade.

Also, I should point out that you probably don't want to "give the viewer a literal birds-eye view" of anything. Check the most common definition of the word "literal" before you guys hit the road. And do not give us a figurative birds-eye view "into these communities," either. You may not realize this, but this is what you've already been doing, and it has sucked.

According to today's press release, here's is where "Meet The Press" is going to "Meet America" next:

This Sunday, April 6, Tibbles will visit Steele City, Nebraska -- a town unfamiliar to most, but a vital piece of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Home to the transfer station where the Keystone XL pipeline and Cushing Extension would connect, Steele City hopes for a boost in the local economy and jobs, but at what cost?

Sounds neat! Hey, apropos of nothing in particular, I'll point out another bubble that surrounds "Meet The Press." Last week, "Meet The Press" was sponsored by Siemens, General Electric, and Morgan Stanley, among others. Siemens currently has a $200 million contract with TransCanada "to supply the Keystone Pipeline project with electrical equipment." General Electric has played a role in the Keystone Pipeline's safety inspections. And the China Investment Corp., which along with partners "control 29 percent of Sunshine Oilsands Ltd" (which in turn controls "7 percent of the total amount of leases in the Athabasca tar sands region") also own "151 million shares of Morgan Stanley (or 7.8 percent of the company)."

Hope this coverage of Steel City is okay with these sponsors! (But not too okay, obviously.)

[You'll find more Sunday Reads and more on my Rebel Mouse page. What stories mattered to you this week? Drop me a line and let us know what you are reading.]

CNN Reports News That Disappeared Malaysian Airplane Was, At Some Point Before Disappearance, Not Disappeared

Jason Linkins   |   April 4, 2014    2:46 PM ET

Breaking news from CNN, the most trusted name in obsessing over what might have happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Rose Marie Arce brings us a new and exciting report, with the headline, "Plane buffs captured Flight 370 in images before disappearance."

Sweet fancy Moses, the what you say, CNN? Is this the breakthrough we've been waiting for in the search for this missing airliner? Did a bunch of amateurs capture images of the plane before it went missing, images which might be used to refine the search? It all depends on whether this report delivers on the headline's promise. Let's see how this goes:

A few months before Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, an enthusiastic plane spotter named Gunnar Kullenberg heard Malaysia Airlines was about to stop flying to the United States. He wanted a photograph of its majestic Boeing 777-200 and planted himself at the Los Angeles airport at dawn. That's where he snapped a photo of the airplane dancing in the glowing sky.

And let's just stop right there. Yes, "plane buffs" managed to get images of the aircraft that went on to be known as "Malaysian Air Flight 370" before it disappeared. And CNN has got a bunch of those images for you to view. Everything, critically, hangs on the work that the word "before" is doing in the phrase "before the disappearance." In this case, "before the disappearance" means:

--June 27, 2010: The plane was on a runway in Rome.
--August 2010: The plane was in the sky over Perth.
--January 30, 2011: The plane was "flying into cloudy skies above Rome."
--June 28, 2011: The plane was on the tarmac in Johannesburg.
--January 23, 2012: The plane departed Istanbul.
--May 5, 2013: The plane was on the tarmac in Amsterdam.

Great work, plane buffs! And fantastic job, CNN, for proving unequivocally that prior to its disappearance, the aircraft that became "missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370," definitely, definitely existed.

Plane buffs captured Flight 370 in images before disappearance [CNN]
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Please Spare A Thought For The Real Victims Of The McCutcheon Decision

Jason Linkins   |   April 3, 2014    4:07 PM ET

The Supreme Court's latest decision in McCutcheon v. FEC continues the long process of deforming our once-thought-to-be-timeless experiment in "We the people"-style representation into a new system where twitchy billionaires and corporo sapiens essentially dominate the political discourse. Free speech is still free, of course, but the political sphere is moving, more and more rapidly, to a Premium Speech model in which the barrier to entry is the possession of stacks and stacks of hundred-dollar bills. Non-oligarchic, human Americans are still encouraged to "take it to the streets," where I hear "free speech" pairs quite nicely with pepper spray.

Of course, this picture I've painted actually leaves out the people who are, in fact, the True Victims of the McCutcheon decision. Fortunately for everyone, Politico has found these sorrowful creatures, so let us hear their lamentations and allow ourselves to be moved to pity:

The biggest Washington donors used to have a great excuse to keep their wallets closed when fundraisers came knocking: Sorry, I’m maxed out.

But a Supreme Court ruling swiped that line from them Wednesday when the justices tossed a rule that limited how much an individual can give to candidates, party committees and PACs.

Oh, you sneering wretches! When the McCutcheon decision came down, did you even spend a minute contemplating the awful fate of the wealthy donors who can no longer use, "Shucks, I've spent all I'm allowed to spend, sorry," as an excuse to not spend more money? Now, they run the risk of not being thought as serious as other, more deep-pocketed donors. And what is the point of being in the top one percent if the vagaries of our laissez-faire campaign finance laws ultimately do nothing but expose the fact that many of these people are part of the lesser nine-tenths of this one percent?

Their voices need to be heard:

“I’m horrified, planning to de-list my phone number and destroy my email address,” said [lobbyist] Ken Kies, who, along with his wife, has bumped up against the federal political contribution limits. “What I was really hoping for is a ban on lobbyists making contributions entirely.”

Too late does Ken Kies learn that perhaps "a ban on lobbyists making contributions entirely" should have been the "quo" upon which he "pro"-ed his "quid"! Now it is too late. He must delete his email account, like a common peasant.

Oh, let's hear from lobbyist Tony Podesta:

Podesta said for those donors, the new rule “eliminates an excuse that people have to say I’m done for the cycle and I can’t do anymore, which means that people who do max out will end up giving more money than they used to to candidates.”

If you detect a note of passivity -- the idea being that none of these people actually has a choice in all of this -- well, it's pretty consistent. Another big-money donor-type human, David DesJardins, shows up in the piece saying that the McCutcheon decision will "significantly increase my giving to candidates," while simultaneously stating that the decision will be "bad for democracy."

You know, if only there were some elegant solution to this conundrum! But there isn't:

“At this time in the cycle many lobbyists have hit or are quickly approaching the federal max,” said David Thomas of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. “This decision is like getting to the end of the Marine Corps Marathon and being told you have to run it again.”

You know what most people would say if, at the end of the Marine Corps Marathon, they were asked to run it again? "No." They would say, "No."

We reached out to a few lobbyists ourselves, and we must travel in lower-class circles, because most we talked to said they were more worried about the individual limits -- one Congresscritter getting to ask for $50,000 or some such -- because they don't get near the current $100,000-plus aggregate contribution cap themselves. But one extra-partisan GOP lobbyist we talked to had found the silver lining in the Supreme Court cloud.

"In '06 and '08, I would have dreaded spending more money on losing campaigns. But this year, it will be money well spent. I'm excited," he said.

So there's that. Nevertheless, I guess what we've learned -- and what all you commoners perhaps can't appreciate -- is that there is no greater disadvantage in life than having all the advantages. Thanks for opening my eyes to this, Politico.

Big donors fear shakedown after decision [Politico]

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Rep. Dave Camp Gave This 'Congress' Thing His Best Shot, But He's Done

Jason Linkins   |   April 1, 2014   12:16 AM ET

Is there even much of a point to being a member of Congress anymore, if you're nominally committed to public service? Probably not, and now Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) has decided to consciously uncouple himself from his 23-year career in the House of Representatives.

According to reports broken nearly simultaneously by The Washington Post and Politico, Camp has elected to not seek reelection in 2014, becoming the fourth high-profile Michigan lawmaker (along with Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) as well as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)) to opt-out of continuing their careers in Washington. The Post reports that "Camp’s retirement was expected by many inside the Capitol" -- expectations that became salient Monday morning after Politico noted that Camp had not yet filed for reelection. Camp, the chair of the House Ways And Means Committee, was not eligible to return to that post in the next Congress, owing to House Republican Caucus term limits for committee chairs.

As Politico now reports:

Camp said he will spend the remainder of this 113th Congress on efforts to “grow our economy and expand opportunity for every American by fixing our broken tax code, permanently solving physician payments for seniors, strengthening the social safety net and finding new markets for U.S. goods and services.”

Well, good luck with that. In 2010, Camp vowed to take up tax reform as his life's work, proclaiming in a speech before the Tax Council, "I aim to launch and fight the tax reform battle once again. And I am well aware that this might ruffle those who have used the tax code to benefit particular industries or activities at the expense of economic efficiency, simplicity, and fairness."

It wasn't cheap talk. Back when Elyse Siegel and I profiled the incoming House Republican chairs, we identified Camp as a policy hound with a yen for bipartisan brokerage amid a sea of ideologues and ironic choices. The Wall Street Journal, describing him as a "dealmaker," noted that his background as a legislator from a "beleaguered and traditional Democratic state" made him ideal to lead the way on across-the-aisle compromises. Slate's Dave Weigel profiled Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), already lining up to break bread with the Michigander, optimistic that they might accomplish a breakthrough on tax reform.

Camp completed his life's work in late-February, presenting a tax reform proposal that revived faded memories of a more functional period of American policycraft. Bloomberg Businessweek called it "a serious proposal for the first significant reform of the tax code since 1986, with ideas drawn from both Republican and Democrats." Salon's Alex Pareene termed it "shockingly non-awful." Jonathan Chait was full of compliments both for the ambition of Camp's proposal and Camp's own hard work:

The tax-reform proposal unveiled yesterday by Dave Camp, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, does something remarkable: It actually reforms the tax code. It doesn’t use the pretense of reform to shift the tax burden off the rich, as Republican “tax reform” plans usually do, and it does not use hand-waving to gesture in the direction of reform without following through. Camp has actually plunged his hands into the guts of the tax code and pulled out item after item. It may be the most impressive and ambitious domestic policy proposal crafted by a major Republican in a generation.

Camp had made good on his vow. Politico reported that Camp told reporters, "I'm not satisfied with waiting ... I'm not going to settle for two percent growth and median incomes declining and more kids living with their parents. I want to see growth, I want to see jobs, I want to see higher incomes -- tax reform can raise that."

Problem is, tax reform, in the eyes of both his Republican colleagues and Democratic opponents, raised problems. As Joshua Green reported at Bloomberg Businessweek:

As Politico notes, most Republicans are aghast that one of their own would introduce legislation that wasn’t simply a messaging gimmick for the midterm election. Most Democrats cynically regard Camp’s proposal as attack-ad fodder. “Frankly, I don’t understand the politics of it,” Democratic Representative Jim McDermott of Washington told Politico. “He knows it’s not going anywhere, but it will be used” against Republicans. “The question will be: Do you support Dave Camp’s bill?”

Opposition to Camp's proposal had all the makings of a Beltway cynicism sundae, and then -- as Politico reported -- came the cherry:

Rep. Dave Camp’s tax proposal — which jacked up taxes on banks and threatens the bottom line of some major private equity players in New York — has infuriated donors in high finance.

Private equity and investment firms in New York are telling key Republican players in D.C. that commitments for big-dollar fundraising have been “canceled for the foreseeable future,” according to one GOP lobbyist with knowledge of the conversations.

Lobbyists for Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan and others are meeting privately with lawmakers to explain what the bank tax would cost and how it would function.

Big banks want to turn Republicans against the bank tax. The situation puts the party at risk of seeing a reliable source of campaign cash dry up right in the middle of a critical election year.

With his fellow congresscritters declaring Camp's bill dead on arrival and Wall Street's donors holding firm against any misrule that might trouble their near-hegemonic hold on policymaking, Camp's decision to peace out with his dignity intact makes a lot more sense than signing up for another two-year slog.

Camp will join a slew of other retiring lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, some of whom had actually voiced frustrations. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) opted to leave Congress because of frustrations with the slow pace of promised change and insufficient filibuster reform. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), is choosing to bail rather than spend more time in the mire of Congress' "perpetual stalemate." The retiring Rep. Dingell perhaps put it best during a floor speech denouncing the most recent government shutdown: “The American people could get better government out of monkey island in the local zoo." While true, it raises serious questions as to why Dingell would sit back and let his wife attempt to join this not-so-August body.

Dave Camp will basically leave behind a House of Representatives that's good at naming post offices, repeatedly defunding a non-existent anti-poverty organization, and pouting. He will probably be replaced by someone who can barely handle these tasks.

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Stay Calm Or Go Crazy: Everyone's Got Some Free Advice On The Ukraine Crisis

Jason Linkins   |   March 26, 2014    5:21 PM ET

Vladimir Putin's recent incursion into the Crimean peninsula may be bad news for anyone who likes things like "democratic norms," but it's been a heyday for anyone who wants to do a little consequence-free foreign policy back-seat driving -- a field as fertile as any burgeoning bubble of American Thought Leadership. President Barack Obama finds himself with many people seeking to provide him with advice, and that advice is basically all over the map -- from the vague to the exacting, from the sensible to the lunatic. And a lot of it has seemed drawn up so as to be obvious -- thanks, everyone who suggested we kick Putin out of the G-8, you guys have been terrific!

But let's break it down anyway, shall we?


As you might expect, there's a healthy measure of "leadership surrealism" in the mix, from the sorts of people who use their perch over the media landscape to bravely bleat, "Quick, somebody do something!" Kevin Drum catches Fareed Zakaria going full Green Lantern and saying that the "crisis in Ukraine is the most significant geopolitical problem since the Cold War." Which, to my mind, is a mean thing to say about a lot of other geopolitical problems that have happened since the 1990s! Anyway, Zakaria's advice is wonderfully nebulous:

Obama must rally the world, push the Europeans and negotiate with the Russians.

Everything sounds easy when it's vague, after all! That's why I'm going to give senator and perennial talk show guest John McCain (R-Ariz.) some plaudits for at least offering a few specifics:

On the military front, McCain believes Putin needs to face a show of U.S. strength. Putin is "convinced that the United States is weak and there'll be no significant retaliation of his occupation of the Crimea and possibly eastern Ukraine," he says. He wants to see Obama revive the Bush-era missile defense plan, which would have placed U.S. missiles in the Czech Republic. He also believes that speeding up Georgia accession to NATO would send a strong message to Putin.

For what it's worth, the strong message you send to Putin by bringing Georgia into NATO is "We are now obligated to provide a military response to anything you do militarily to Georgia," a nation for which a war-weary America probably isn't too keen on going to the mattresses.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that if he were in charge, "I would fly the NATO flag as strongly as I could around Putin." It's hard to know what that means, exactly. Would you wave that flag really fast, back and forth? Or would you stand with that flag, resolutely, in one place? Also, it seems to be to be a strategy that's highly dependent on the vagaries of wind velocity. Besides, if you really want to impress the Russians, who dominate the world in the field of rhythmic gymnastics, you have to be good with the ball and the hoop as well as the flag.

Because Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is still thinking about running for president in 2016, he dashed off a listicle of stuff to do about Russia and sent it to Politico earlier this month. Some of what Rubio advised had the familiar aroma of barrel-bound fish, gunned down in their prime -- he wanted Secretary of State John Kerry to "show U.S. support" for the interim government in Kiev, he called for sanctions on Russian officials and he urged the White House to throw down some righteous G-8 punishment. Done and done and done!

Also done is the "condemnatory resolution in the United Nations Security Council" that Rubio called for, because a "Russian or Chinese veto would make clear to to the world the hypocrisy of these governments, since they say they oppose foreign intervention into the affairs of sovereign countries -- unless of course they are the ones invading." Yes, Rubio actually wrote that without a trace of irony or self-reflection, folks! Anyway, the Russians were so terrified of being thought of as hypocrites by another bunch of hypocrites that they immediately and without hesitation vetoed that U.N. resolution. (The Chinese, meanwhile, abstained from the vote, totally foiling Rubio's amazing plan.)


There's a whole pack of advisers who beseech the President to take the sort of calm and measured approach that never fails to anger the 'Do Whatever, Just Do It Now' set. One such adviser is Obama's former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. And where Rubio calls for the immediate cessation of all "discussions and negotiations with Moscow on any issue unrelated to this crisis," Gates points out that this is just not practical:

"From Putin's standpoint, he's in the catbird seat. He's put himself in a position where we need him in terms of the Syrian chemical (weapons) deal. We need him in terms of the Iranian nuclear program," Gates, who served as defense secretary from 2006 to 2011, said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

"We need the Russians in terms of getting our (military) equipment out of Afghanistan."

Gates urges Obama to be "mindful of his rhetoric," noting that "the stronger the rhetoric, the greater [the] expectation of strong action." And if America's European allies aren't prepared to follow along, strong reactions and high expectations could threaten to leave Obama alone on the limb.

"The challenge is to look two or three moves out and see: If you do this, what will they do? ... And will you have any allies or supporters when you do this?" [Gates] said.

Gates is not alone in calling for this sort of approach. Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan has explicitly criticized Obama for offering up even the vague notion that Putin would face "consequences" for his shenanigans in Crimea. Kaplan's advice is to hurt Putin by "ignoring" him:

Obama's policy of "resetting" relations with Russia rested on two premises. First, the United States and Russia had a lot of common interests, so it would be good to solve problems and meet challenges together. Second, Putin's predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, seemed to be a more willing partner. They did accomplish a fair amount for a while. But now it's not working much at all. Russia plays a limited role, at best, in the various hot spots the United States is facing. Yes, it's helping to rid Syria of chemical weapons, but that's very much in Russia's interest; Putin would be doing that regardless of broader relations. Russia also helped carve the initial P5+1 talks to limit Iran's nuclear program, but Iran's main motive in continuing the talks is access to American and European economies, not Russia's.

So, given that Russia isn't helping out much in the world anyway, the best way to impose "costs" and "consequences" on Putin's behavior is to ignore him.

Kaplan might be winning the "Obama is listening to my advice" sweepstakes, by the way. In that same Slate piece, Kaplan describes Russia as "not as great a power as Putin himself likes to project." Remember how the other day, Obama described Russia as "a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors -- not out of strength but out of weakness"? Well, that seems to have been cribbed from Kaplan, who writes that Russia is "at best a regional power, with no global reach. Even [Putin's] incursion into Crimea is hardly an imperial gesture. Leonid Brezhnev sent five tank divisions into Czechoslovakia. (Now that was aggression!)"

"It's dangerous when leaders who spark armed crises start turning a little crazy," Kaplan writes. Sensible advice. Or is it?


Nixon wanted to impress upon the Soviets that the president of the United States was, in a word, mad: unstable, erratic in his decision-making, and capable of anything. The American commander-in-chief wanted the Kremlin to know that he was willing to escalate even localized conventional military conflicts to the nuclear level. Kissinger understood: "I'll tell [the Soviets] tomorrow night," he vowed. The national security advisor even rehearsed for the president specific lines from the good cop/bad cop routine he intended to put on. "The more we do now," [Kissinger] would tell his Soviet interlocutor, "the better." He was akin to saying: On the shoulders of reasonable men, like you and me, rests the responsibility of preventing a madman, like Nixon, from taking things too far.

That's from a piece over at Foreign Policy by James Rosen and Luke A. Nichter, arguing that "looking crazy can be an asset when you're staring down the Russians," based on Nixon-era reminiscences that supposedly speak to the "strategic potential of madness." The authors argue that by removing the possibility that Obama might have a psychotic break over Crimea, the White House is no longer "projecting unpredictability." Furthermore, by calling for a reasonable, "calibrated" approach to the conflict, the Obama administration is "enabling" Putin to "acclimate to ... marginal increases in pain, which in each instance will not feel markedly different from the last set of imposed 'costs.'"

Lest you think all of this can be readily dismissed because... you know, Nixon -- I'll point out that the same sort of advice has been offered up by no less than former President Jimmy Carter:

In comments Monday on "Morning Joe," Carter compared Obama's response to his own decisions at the White House in 1979, when he decided to boycott Moscow's Summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

The United States and its European allies, Carter said, should take the same stand today as they did back then.

"I withdrew our ambassador; I put in place a grain embargo. I began to help the freedom fighters push out the Soviet troops, and I warned Russia -- the Soviet Union then -- that, if they went into a different country, we would respond militarily with all of the weapons we had at our disposal," he said.

"All of the weapons we had at our disposal" is a not-too-subtle allusion to nukes, in case you missed that.

So that's a range of advice on offer, from classic "Realism" in the foreign policy sense to "realism" in the "when things stop being polite and start getting real" sense. I'm not sure, actually, that I have any better advice than what you've just read. But now you have a better idea of where to send the invoice if and when the White House chooses a course of action and everything goes nuts-up.

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Alabama GOP Has A Plan To Win Back Black Voters

Jason Linkins   |   March 26, 2014    1:15 PM ET

Back when the Republican National Committee put together its “Growth and Opportunity Project” -- the 100-page document with the better-traveled nickname “RNC autopsy” -- one of its bigger aspirations was to “earn more supporters and voters” in a number of different demographic communities, including the African-American community. “Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem," the report read, "we will lose future elections; the data demonstrates this. In both 2008 and 2012, President Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority voters, including not only African Americans but also Hispanics, Asians, and others.”

One thing that was proposed was for the RNC to “create a program that is focused on recruiting and supporting African American Republican candidates for office.” While the RNC's progress on this cannot be accurately pinned down one year later, Republicans in the state of Alabama have apparently acted on their own initiative and recruited an unprecedented number of African-American candidates to run for office statewide. As Mike Cason of reports, the Alabama Republican Party will have 11 African-American candidates on their primary ballot this year:

There are five black Republican candidates for the state House of Representatives, one for the Public Service Commission, two for sheriff, two for seats on county commissions and one for a county school board seat, according to Troy Towns, minority outreach director for the state GOP. Another black Republican is running in a special election to fill a vacant House seat in Birmingham to complete a current term.

Towns said there was only one black Republican in the 2010 primary and one in 2012. He thinks this year’s number is not a fluke, but a sign of things to come.

Republicans effectively dominate Alabama politics, but the GOP’s minority recruitment successes push what would ordinarily be an uninteresting primary into “one to watch” territory, if only to see whose theories win out. One of those new African-American recruits, the 65-year-old Bill McCollum (presumably no relation to the former Florida Republican congressman of the same name), who is running for Fayette County sheriff, said that black voters would “love to see their money stay in their pockets as opposed to being wasted on taxes and social welfare programs.” A countering take was offered by Alabama Democratic Conference leader Joe Reed: that African-Americans won’t vote Republican in significant numbers, as Cason wrote, "because of GOP opposition to programs such as Obamacare, raising the minimum wage, extending long-term unemployment benefits and other 'bread and butter' issues that Reed said help working families.”

Perhaps the most cynical take -- and thus, the more realistic one -- was offered by Athens State University government affairs professor Jess Brown: “If they're going to go to Montgomery and be an insider, they're going to have to have an R next to their name."

If you are a lover of irony, there’s an interesting side note. Not long after the Supreme Court ruled to gut the Voting Rights Act, Alabama’s lawmakers pushed ahead with their plans to institute a stringent voter ID law in the state. As state Rep. Alvin Holmes (D-Montgomery) observed: “It’s going to discourage a lot of people from voting. A lot of older people don’t have [photo ID], in particular older blacks.”

So this bold move to try to win back a share of the African-American vote for the Alabama GOP may have a headlong collision with an even bolder move from the Alabama GOP to suppress the African-American vote.

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America Is Well On Its Way To Tuning Out The Sunday Shows

Jason Linkins   |   March 24, 2014    4:30 PM ET

Last week, Jonathan Bernstein, writing in Bloomberg View, issued a plea to America: stop watching the Sunday morning political blatherskite shows. I've already complied with this request, and I can report, anecdotally, that my life is much improved. (Did you know that instead of watching "Meet The Press," you can have a bunch of friends over and cook them breakfast? This is the wonderful thing I learned about the world this past Sunday!) The good news, I'm pleased to report, is that America -- save for one demographic -- is largely doing the same, tuning out these shows in favor of having a robust and fulfilling life.

Bernstein makes these urgings in response to a piece that Paul Waldman wrote for The Plum Line in which Waldman offered suggestions for how the Sunday shows could be improved. This sort of piece is becoming something of a Sisyphean genre unto itself -- well-meaning media critics seeking to inject the moribund "public affairs" shows with a new life. Preeminent among Waldman's suggestions is to simply book a better class of guest:

First, ban all party chairs, White House communication staff, party "strategists," and anyone else whose primary objective is to spin from ever, ever, ever appearing on the show. Ever. To ask a question I've raised elsewhere: Has anyone anywhere in the United States turned off their TV and said, "Wow, that interview with Reince Priebus was really interesting"? Of course not, and the same applies to his Democratic counterpart, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. That's because their job is to deliver talking points, and they do so with a discipline worthy of the Marine Honor Guard, no matter what questions they're asked. And they get plenty of time on cable, so why waste valuable minutes on a Sunday show by letting them repeat the same talking points they've recited 100 times that that week?

I understand Waldman's objections. Most of the people -- and "most" is perhaps an understatement! -- who get booked on Sunday shows fall into one category of public figure: "People Who We Already Know What They Are Going To Say And Will Fail To Surprise Us." In 2012, we learned that the people who worked on President Barack Obama's campaign thought that Obama was the best candidate and that he was going to win. We similarly learned that the people who worked on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's campaign thought that Romney was the best candidate and that he was going to win. And we learned this, week after week, for months. Believe me, I was sitting there, waiting for, say, Stephanie Cutter to slip up and say something different, but it never happened.

It gets even sillier every time a news story breaks that forces some Beltway politico to arise on Sunday and attempt "the Full Ginsburg" -- that thing where someone proceeds from show to show in an inhuman attempt to submit to an interview with every Sunday morning gatekeeper. Those were the mornings where recapping the Sunday shows in liveblog form were the easiest: I knew that as soon as one Sunday morning interlocutor had finished their interrogation, I was mostly going to hear the same questions and the same answers repeated three more times. It's very clear that the producers of these shows don't stop to consider the sort of questions their competitors will inevitably ask, for the purpose of asking something different. Sunday morning journalism is often nothing more than checking off boxes and notching bedposts.

Bernstein notes that in their heyday, these shows offered politicians something rare: a forum to engage in "send[ing] up trial balloons, or [engaging] in public, high-profile bargaining." In short, the subtle work of partisan dealmaking was served. But those days are over. Now, the Sunday shows simply serve as a venue for prestige arbitrage, where having regular access to deemed-to-be-important people is an end in itself. And so these shows have slowly morphed into salons for the powerful, where one can only get so adversarial before a plum booking is put at risk.

Waldman is not the first person I've seen suggesting that the Sunday shows just book different people. And he's not the first to call upon bookers to quit endlessly inviting Senator John McCain to appear, like the proverbial bad penny. Waldman writes: "So how about, as a first rule, 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?"

This sounds pretty good in theory, but there's a reason those sorts of people don't get booked. Knowledgeable, substantive people tend to want to use their time on camera to explain complexities. They speak in paragraphs, not sentences. They tend to be capable of real argument. They don't necessarily come to the set governed by Beltway politesse. So, from the perspective of Sunday show producers, they're all loose cannons. What the producers of these shows are looking for are polite, concise talking heads who know where their light is, can hit their mark, and offer answers brief enough so that there's plenty of time to pass the ball to whoever else happens to be in the room. Sunday hosts don't know what to do with long, complicated explanations, and they aren't listening to them anyway.

There's just no place for the sorts of guests that Waldman prefers on the traditional Sunday morning chat show, and I don't see that changing any time soon. What is changing, however, is that Americans, by and large, are finding better things to do with their lives. Take a look at the ratings for the Sunday chat shows from the first three weeks of March, via TVNewser:

sunday shows ratings

With the slight exception of Univision, this has become something of an inescapable trend for these programs -- Americans between the age of 25 and 54 just couldn't care less about them anymore. The single biggest problem the Sunday shows face is that no one has yet figured out how to make their core audience immortal.

Bernstein urges people to take aim at the Sunday shows by simply ignoring them:

The only solution is to stop paying attention. Don’t get involved in critiquing the mix of guests, or the topics, or anything. And if one of the shows actually makes some news, there are plenty of opportunities to catch up later, just as there is with any other program.

I stop short of not getting involved in critiques of these shows -- you would be doing yourself a disservice by missing out on Charlie Pierce's weekly dispatch, for one thing. My recommendation is to spend your Sunday morning making a phone call to members of the Sunday show audience. They are, after all, your parents and grandparents, and as the Sunday show producers well know, your time on this earth with them is limited. And if you love them at all, you'll probably agree that they deserve much, much better than David Gregory and George Stephanopoulos.

Stop Watching the Sunday Talk Shows [Bloomberg View]
Can the Sunday shows get better? [The Plum Line]

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Mark Halperin Has A Sudden Flash Of Insight, Takes To Twitter

Jason Linkins   |   March 21, 2014    9:54 AM ET

It was in the wan light of a morning still sleepily breaking into the day to come that the idea occurred to him. It was a thought, a notion, that first seemed to be slowly ambling into his consciousness, and then was suddenly there, all at once, like a flood of unfamiliar beliefs.

He struggled to understand this new concept welling up in his imagination. A full approximation of its significance was not something he was constitutionally able to achieve in the split-second that was afforded him by this new insight before its insistent demands for concrete realization compelled him -- with the same instinctual needfulness that a worn-out body would seek to put down a heavy load in order to obtain a sweet, spare moment of relaxation -- to get this flash of perception out of his mind and into the world.

So he quickly turned to Twitter:

He clicked "send" on the tweet. A minute passed. Two minutes. Turning his mind's eye inward once again, he found no evidence of the brainstorm that had so quickly and so unexpectedly shot across his mind. In its place, the familiar images of bridges collapsing and old-timey trains crashing in slow motion had once again returned, along with the dull, glazed sensation to which he'd long become accustomed.

"Biggest @BilldeBlasio problem: He doesn't know what he doesn't know," he typed, relieved that self-awareness had once again been kept at bay for another day.

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James Carville's Midterm Advice To Dems: Basically, Hope For The Best

Jason Linkins   |   March 19, 2014    6:45 PM ET

The last time I recall famed Democratic strategist James Carville reacting to some special elections and responding with advice, it was September 2011, and Carville was advocating that everyone hit the panic stations, and that President Barack Obama to fire a bunch of people in a melodramatic show of "doing something." Now that the special election in Florida's 13th Congressional District is in the books, Carville is back with another round of react-and-advise, and a lot has changed -- perhaps most notably, his prescriptive. Instead of advising a flailing kind of panic, we find him advocating for a sort of Zen fatalism:

The fundamental consideration is this: If the election were held in the current climate, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the Democrats might have a bad, perhaps even awful, election ahead of them. However, the one thing we know is that it is not going to be held now -- it is going to be held in November. This is a case where we don’t know if there is going to be a political climate change or not. Suffice to say, I am pulling for some political climate change.

To examine the fundamentals of the 2014 elections -- in which Democrats have a lot more turf to defend, with an electorate in which their own partisans are clustered in too few districts to make much of an impact, even if Democrats beat turnout expectations -- and say that it's not "hard to argue" that Democrats "might have a bad ... even awful election ahead of them" is to possess an optimism so intense that it might birth unicorns out of thin air. But hey, if you can imagine that, it's not so hard to further dream that some favorable change in the political climate is possible.

Carville reckons that recent slight upticks in Obamacare's favorability ratings may portend a change in fortunes. He also surmises that economic conditions might be "better" come November. Both of these things reside within the realm of possibilities -- though I can't honestly sit here and tell you that either will improve to such a degree that it sets the aforementioned fundamentals a-wobble. What I can tell you is that this is a remarkable change in attitude from Carville, regarding this whole, "run on an improving economy" strategy. Back in 2010, he was singing an entirely different tune:

"The hardest thing to do in all of political communications is how do you deal with a bad but somewhat improving economy," said Carville. "And the skill, or the way to thread the needle in saying things are getting better when people don't feel like they are getting better. ... We fought with it and didn't do that great a job in the early years of the Clinton administration. It is not like someone has the holy grail of how to do this."

To be honest, Carville's new advice isn't bad, even though it comes couched in a sports metaphor:

One of my favorite aspects of basketball is good passing. When one of these athletes grabs a rebound, he doesn’t pass the ball to where his teammates are at the time, but rather to where they going to be down the floor. Well, the same is true for political strategy. Democratic strategists and operatives should not design a strategy based off today’s conditions. They should be setting a strategy for where the trajectory of polling is headed. You have to lead your teammate.

If that guard trips and falls, the lead pass doesn’t matter, and if the political conditions don’t improve we will be doomed anyways.

This is not a bad way of coping with the electoral realities that rather clearly portend a miserable year at the polls for Democrats. Everything's set to go wrong? May as well allow yourself to be liberated by it. At the very least, Democrats would be well-served to robustly defend the Affordable Care Act -- and more importantly, the principles of getting affordable health care into the hands of those who need it most. Especially if they've already signed their name to the bill.

Kevin Drum, noting the reluctance of Democrats to counter attacks on Obamacare for fear of being "tainted" by it, put it pretty well earlier this week:

Democrats are going to be in a world of hurt this year if they keep this up. There's no running from Obamacare. There just isn't. If they want to win, they'd better emerge from their fetal crouch and start fighting back. Nobody likes candidates who won't stand up and defend their own party's achievements.

Like I said before, no one should be under any illusions that the fundamentals don't favor the GOP in this election cycle. But to quote one inspirational American, "I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part."

It sure beats the "please GOP don't hurt me" strategy.

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RNC Looking To 'Hand-Pick' Moderators For 2016 Primary Debates

Jason Linkins   |   March 19, 2014    3:27 PM ET

Despite my arch take on the RNC's "one year after the autopsy" video yesterday, you can color me impressed with the way Reince Priebus and his fellows have moved to address one of things about the 2012 election season that was clearly sapping Americans' collective will to live: the long and inane season of primary debates that filled up the calendar from May of 2011 to February of 2012. During that period of time, there were 21 debates, not including things like the "Huckabee Forums" and Newt Gingrich's "Lincoln-Douglas" stunts.

This was a grim period for America. And with both parties potentially competing in open primaries, it opened the door for the 2016 primary season to feature anywhere between 30 and 40 debates. So credit to Priebus for doing something to reverse this trend before it got completely out of hand. Of course, Priebus is of the mind that it wasn't just the insane number of debates in 2012 that affected the GOP's fortunes in negative ways -- the people who moderated those debates were also not to his liking. So he's vowed to change the game.

As Politico's Katie Glueck reports, the RNC is seeking "its own 'hand-picked moderators' for the 2016 GOP presidential primary debates":

The party has sought to take more control over who moderates primary debates after last cycle, when a wide range of hosts lined up to run a slew of debates. Last cycle, the Commission on Presidential Debates tapped the moderators for the general election.

"I don’t know who it is," [Priebus] said, noting that he doesn't have a particular "list." "I think what I'm looking for, really, are people who actually do care about the party, the process, the candidates, but ... basically my biggest issue, quite frankly, is 23 debates. It's too many debates to have."

One might read that and come to the conclusion that Priebus is basically shrinking from a fight with a skeptical moderator. Well, it's not like the GOP primary candidates have had a rich recent history of sitting before Rachel Maddow and debating their differences. And they'll only be following the path blazed by Democrats: In 2007, the Democratic slate of primary contenders bailed on the chance to debate on Fox News.

Besides, the whole point of a primary debate is to reveal the distinctions between an array of conservative candidates for the GOP base. There's a good argument to be made that such distinctions get revealed in a more substantive way when the GOP field is pressed from the right, by partisans, than they otherwise would whilst playing patty-cake with the polite centrist posturings of CNN. (Speaking of, wouldn't it be nice if candidates like Gingrich weren't afforded the opportunity to yelp about media bias every time they got a question that displeased them? It would be a hard thing to do if the moderators were all conservative pundits and reporters.)

The plan to have debates with "hand-picked moderators" -- a goal that Politico directly attributes to the Republican National Committee -- may be concerning to some. If I'm one of those outside groups that haven't often seen eye-to-eye with the RNC over the past couple of years (I'm thinking Heritage, or Americans For Prosperity), I'd wonder if there's not a coming clash with the GOP establishment in the offing, and whether or not I'm going to get a seat at the moderators' desk. A year ago, Priebus suggested they might, offering, "I haven't figured out all the concepts ... I've certainly talked about non-news figures involved in the debates, even having, potentially, grassroots-type debates, having Lincoln-Douglas type debates, even having traditional news as well."

This new concept of "hand-picked moderators," at the very least, seems to be a shift in position.

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Would-Be Hillary Clinton Campaign Insiders Have One Non-Negotiable Demand For 2016

Jason Linkins   |   March 19, 2014   12:34 PM ET

Back in April of 2013, Salon's Alex Pareene offered up a simple gauge by which you could determine whether or not a 2016 campaign for president by Hillary Clinton would outpace Clinton's 2008 campaign for president. "The Mark Penn Test," wrote Pareene, "determines whether or not a person should be trusted with the presidency, based solely on one criterion: Whether or not they pay Mark Penn to do anything for their campaign. Paying Mark Penn means you’ve failed the Mark Penn Test."

Now, according to Mother Jones' David Corn, there are a lot of people -- "Hillary insiders," even -- who are prepared to decline to work on a future Clinton campaign if she doesn't pass the Mark Penn Test. These are some smart people. Per Corn:

In recent weeks, I've talked to several Washington politicos close to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and when I've asked if they will be joining Hillary's presidential machine, should she run, I've received a variant of this (understandably) not-for-citation reply: If Mark Penn is involved, no f-ing way.

Frankly, "Hillary insiders" should know -- along with just about anyone else who was paying attention to the 2008 Democratic primary -- that a failure of any among this cohort to similarly pass the Mark Penn Test would be nigh upon inexplicable. Back in 2008, he was perhaps best known for completely failing to understand how the Democratic primary process worked -- and I mean basic things, like which primaries were winner-take-all and which divided up their delegates proportionally to the winners. Long before the notions of Barack Obama's "otherness" took firm root in the swamps of the conservative fringe, Penn was advocating a strategy centered on stoking paranoia over what Penn termed Obama's "lack of American roots." A great deal of his strategic advice seemed more geared toward proving the thesis of his book, Microtrends, than it did about getting Clinton elected. (The 2010 elections in the United Kingdom gave Penn a second opportunity to misapply Microtrends to electoral outcomes on two continents.)

The people who have talked with Corn -- all anonymously, it should be noted -- alleged that Penn just created a toxic environment in which it was too difficult to work:

"There are a ton of people who say they won't get involved if Mark is around," another Democratic operative says. "And there are other people who don't want to get involved anyway because the 2008 campaign was so unpleasant. There were so many centers of gravity. People were constantly playing inside politics to have influence." Hillary Clinton's Penn problem extends beyond Penn. The campaign that Penn came to symbolize was, as this strategist recalls, "full of people from the first Clinton administration who were watching out for their own interests. This led to a leakier environment and a more difficult workplace. It was a pretty miserable place."

I mean, it maybe wouldn't have been as miserable a place if Clinton had won the primary, but Penn bundled apparent "venal office politics" with "not realizing until it was too late how the California primary worked," so, really, the shoe fits either foot.

The good news, for those who would avoid a Clinton campaign like a tire fire if it included Mark Penn, is that it's looking very likely that Hillary Clinton will, indeed, pass the Mark Penn Test. A May 2013 Washington Post article from Jason Horowitz finds Penn, now working on building ad campaigns for Microsoft, not contemplating a return to politics. As Penn told Horowitz, “I’m doing something completely different ... My passion for technology actually predates my passion for politics.” (Penn did play a role in crafting Bill Clinton's speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, however.)

That Horowitz article includes some bonus good news for former "Hillary insiders": "Howard Wolfson, the 2008 communications director for Hillary Rodham Clinton, has said he will not return for a 2016 presidential campaign." So a future Clinton campaign will pass the Howard Wolfson test as well.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

RNC Touts Past Year's Progress From Grim 'Autopsy' In 2012

Jason Linkins   |   March 18, 2014    1:11 PM ET

Back in March of 2013, the Republican National Committee undertook an organization-wide wound-licking from its subpar 2012 campaign efforts, coming up with a report called the "Growth And Opportunity Project." Colloquially known as the "RNC autopsy," the report was billed as the "most comprehensive post-election review" ever attempted. And it lived up to the claim, at least on paper: the RNC examined every aspect of its campaign enterprise, from minority outreach to campaign technology upgrades to systemic reform of the nominating process to a call for greater communication between the RNC and outside groups.

Toward the end of the year, I undertook a review of this review, and found that while the RNC had made some "not insubstantial progress" toward the goals laid out in their report, it didn't really seem that too many people either read the report or took it very seriously. Nevertheless, the RNC is out with a new video, reminding everyone of their grand undertaking, and touting their progress on the way to growth and opportunity. Not surprisingly, it takes less than two minutes to breeze through the talking points:

Highlights include:

  • A reminder that they did this thing called "the Growth and Opportunity Project," and promised to "set a new standard."
  • The RNC has made an effort to "build a permanent ground campaign." A news clip highlights a $10 million commitment to put "staff in urban communities."
  • The RNC has made an effort to "close the digital divide," with the launch of "Para Bellum Labs." (It's an odd name.)
  • Reince Priebus says that they are "listening to voters" to whom they've not previously listened and "competing in regions" in which they've not previously competed.
  • The RNC gave a bunch of African-American Republicans some awards at an award ceremony.
  • "Big reforms are coming to their presidential nominating process." This is perhaps the most significant and sweeping progress the Committee has made over the past year. (The media is blamed for ruining the old nominating process, what with their bush league "pointing cameras at it" and "writing down what people said during it" tactics.)
  • For some reason, the video makes brief mention of how the RNC went out of their way to help Hillary Clinton, by opposing and eventually preventing a pair of televised projects focused on Hillary Clinton from happening, including a CNN documentary that was being created by a Clinton critic.
  • There is also some whooshing music and stock footage.

Several major planks of the Growth And Opportunity Project go without specific or explicit mention, including outreach to women, restoring peace between the RNC and any number of satellite groups that have become ideological competitors for the GOP base, or the forceful calls for economic populism. (Quoth the autopsy: "We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.")

Of course, one significant component of the Growth And Opportunity Project is comprehensive immigration reform, an issue that the RNC, one year ago, urgently championed. Here's the RNC's report on that matter:

As stated above, we are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.

And here's what this new video has to say about the matter:


Yeah, despite the RNC's urgings, we're not close to passing the immigration reform bill that's long been championed by the GOP establishment. Credit Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for creating some significant cross-currents against the initiative: back in December, Cruz appeared on Houston talk-radio host Michael Berry's show to specifically criticize the reform effort, saying that the GOP had an “incredible opportunity to retake the Senate in 2014” and that passing immigration reform was the “number one thing Republicans could do to mess that up.”

Really, the 2014 elections are perhaps the most solid reason why much of the Growth And Opportunity Project is failing to find traction. The GOP is heading toward a very successful midterm showing in 2014, just based on electoral fundamentals, so where's the incentive to change? Well, as our own Jon Ward reported, at least one "veteran Republican digital consultant," Michael Beach of Targeted Victory, foresees a scenario in which 2014 successes could only end up serving to "reinforce more bad habits."

As Beach told Ward, "For us, I think it's going to be a rude awakening in '16."

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