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Jason Linkins   |   May 5, 2016    5:56 PM ET

So, that happened. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted by a federal jury in September 2014, after he was caught participating in one of the most cut-and-dry examples of cash-for-favors found in the political corruption textbook. Now, however, McDonnell’s appeals have taken his case to the Supreme Court, where -- believe it or not -- a majority of justices seem predisposed to overturning his conviction, and decimating anti-corruption laws. Joining the podcast this week to discuss this case is Zephyr Teachout, candidate for Congress in New York's 19th District and author of "Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United." 

About a year and a half ago, McDonnell and his wife were found guilty of corruption charges stemming from their involvement with Jonnie Williams, the former CEO of Star Scientific, a dietary supplement company. A lengthy investigation proved that McDonnell and Williams essentially engaged in a straight-up exchange of money for potentially lucrative political favors.

Dana Liebelson and Timothy Murphy explain over at Mother Jones that, among other things, the McDonnells, using Williams' largesse, took home a $6,500 Rolex watch, a $15,000 shopping jaunt at Bergdorf Goodman, a $10,000 engagement gift for one of their daughters, and $15,000 to cover the catering charges for another daughter's wedding.

In return, Williams got the McDonnells to become dedicated shills for Star Scientific. Over the course of this relationship, McDonnell hosted events for Star Scientific at the governor’s mansion, helped ensure that Williams would have access to influential policymakers, and used his office to pressure state health officials to meet with Williams -- all in the support of earning Star Scientific's diet products credibility and sales. Recognizing that McDonnell had the juice to make all of this happen, Williams reckoned that it was cheaper for him to simply buy the governor off than it would be to take the more costly and arduous route of bringing his products to market.

In short: Jonnie had the quid, McDonnell was the pro, and lo, there was quo, to and fro.

As The Huffington Post’s Cristian Farias reported, McDonnell may well be on his way to a great escape, thanks to a majority of Supreme Court justices who seem, alternatively, amenable to McDonnell’s point of view, and troubled that too many prosecutors might start taking up corruption cases:

“My problem is the criminal law as the weapon to cure” dishonest behavior, [Justice Stephen] Breyer said. He warned that stretching the law’s reach will mean that “political figures will not know what they’re supposed to do and what they’re not supposed to do.”

The Constitution, in principle, guards against laws that are too vague. But Breyer also worried about another fundamental constitutional problem: an unbound Department of Justice as “the ultimate arbiter of how public officials are behaving in the United States — state, local, and national.”

“Now, suddenly, to give that kind of power to a criminal prosecutor, who is virtually uncontrollable, is dangerous in the separation of powers,” he said.

But as Teachout writes in her book, the Supreme Court has already spent several decades unwinding centuries of case law governing political corruption -- to the point that right now, it’s been essentially reduced, conceptually, to little more than quid pro quo bribery of the sort in which McDonnell engaged. So, if the justices draw an even narrower standard in this case, they may permanently cripple any effort to curb pay-to-play.

“After 200 years of a fair amount of consistency,” Teachout explains, “where courts understood that corruption was a central threat to democracy -- perhaps the central threat to democracy ... the Supreme Court started questioning what corruption was and whether something counted as corruption unless there was an explicit exchange -- especially in the campaign finance context.”

This resulted in what she described as a sort of legal carve-out, for the benefit of political donors and their beneficiaries, so that they weren’t repeatedly taken to court for making political donations.

But Teachout said this isn't what the McDonnell case is about. “This ... is not a campaign finance case. Jonnie Williams was not giving a donation to a campaign. He was giving a Rolex to put on McDonnell’s arm. He was giving a shopping spree for McDonnell’s family. This is old-school, classic corruption. Classic bribery.

“What is really dangerous about this McDonnell case,” Teachout continued, “is that the court looks poised to do something similar in the bribery realm, and narrow the definition there. ... That’s the direction we are moving in.”

And a majority of Supreme Court justices seem happy to nudge things along. For example, as Roll Call’s Todd Ruger reported, Chief Justice John Roberts made explicit mention of an amicus brief filed on McDonnell’s behalf from an array of former White House lawyers:

Roberts brought up what he called “an extraordinary document” in the case, an amicus brief from former White House counsels to Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

“And they say, quoting their brief, that ‘if this decision is upheld, it will cripple the ability of elected officials to fulfill their role in our representative democracy,'” Roberts said. “Now, I think it’s extraordinary that those people agree on anything. But to agree on something as sensitive as this and to be willing to put their names on something that says this cannot be prosecuted conduct, I think is extraordinary.”

Think about to what they are agreeing, though: That the ordinary business of Washington can’t get done without rich dudes handing out Rolex watches in exchange for access, favors and connections.

“I thought the justices were kind of confused during the oral argument,” Teachout said. “They were on the hunt for something that could provide a clear limiting principle.”

Indeed, as NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported, the justices -- with the notable exceptions of Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- seemed perplexed by this, and aggressively questioned Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, assigned to argue this case for the government.

Totenberg reported one exchange during oral argument that is a fairly good example of the justices’ overall bewilderment. As she relates, after Chief Justice Roberts suggested that the existing anti-corruption laws are too broad, and unconstitutional, Dreeben was apoplectic: "It would be absolutely stunning if this court said that bribery and corruption laws, which have been on the books since the beginning of this nation, have been consistently enacted by Congress --"

It was there that Justice Anthony Kennedy interrupted: "Absolutely stunning to say that the government has given us no workable standard?"

Dreeben responded: "We've given you a workable standard, based on this court's decisions dating back to 1914."

Dreeben is correct, Teachout said, noting that there has always been a serious limiting principle to guide courts in this regard: A jury must find that there was intent to have a quid pro quo exchange.

What’s more, according to Teachout, is that “All of our history of bribery and extortion law has said official acts can include things like setting up meetings ... doing things within your sphere of public duty.” There doesn’t have to be a bill signed into law at the end of the deal for it to be an “official act.”

“This is overturning 700 years of law, basically,” she said.

Elsewhere on this week’s podcast: This week, New York magazine's Andrew Sullivan penned an alarming missive to America, contending that our presumed-to-be stable democracy is ripe for an authoritarian takeover. Sullivan joins us to talk about it. Additionally, we continue our coverage of the Flint, Michigan, lead water crisis by talking to Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) about how Flint could figure in future policy and political discussions.

“So, That Happened” is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. Joining them this week are New York magazine's Andrew Sullivan, author and U.S. House candidate Zephyr Teachout, and Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, as well as Huffington Post reporters Zach Carter, Arthur Delaney, and Christine Conetta.

This podcast was produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.

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

Jason Linkins   |   May 4, 2016    3:13 PM ET

Last night, after the Indiana primary results were called, almost immediately, for reality television star and R'lyehian love-pillow Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz -- thought to be the last hope of the "#NeverTrump" movement if we weren't counting John Kasich (and we weren't) -- bowed out of the race, elbowing his wife in the face in the process.

Cruz vacates the race after winning a handful of states and demonstrating some degree of savviness when it comes to meticulously working the delegate selection process. This probably will give him hope to believe he might give this whole running-for-president thing another try in 2020. There is one thing he might consider doing differently, however: Maybe don't be a huge prick to everybody. Maybe just cut back on the whole being-a-prick thing by, like, 50 percent. Give that a try.

Think about it: At a time when Cruz needed everything possible to break his way in Indiana to forestall Trump running the tables and making it certain he'd get the number of delegates he needed to claim the GOP nomination outright, you got former Speaker of the House John Boehner describing Cruz as "Lucifer in the flesh." Boehner went on to say, "I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life."

This is not good! And one has to wonder, could it have been avoided? What if Ted Cruz had not been, at all times, a maximal jackass? What if he'd been a little bit friendlier? What's happening in the parallel universe where Ted Cruz had actual friends, or at the very least, colleagues who aren't personally repelled by the very thought of him?

Here are some of the things that the people who should like Ted Cruz, because he pretty much shares their baseline conservative values, have said about him, because he is such a huge dick:

Now, here are the sorts of things that Cruz might have preferred to hear people saying about him:

  • "If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, it would be truly sad, because we love that guy. We'd definitely seek justice."
  • "He does such a terrific job in the Senate. I'm always striving to be more like him."
  • "He totally learned all the right lessons from kindergarten."
  • "He's going to be such a success with Congress. Everyone really likes him, because he's so respectful and good-hearted."
  • "The choice between Trump and Cruz is like being shot or having the best day of your life, filled with cake and balloons, surrounded by all the people you love, feeling for one perfect moment as if everything is right in the world and being thankful that you're alive."
  • "You remind me of fish because you're delicious and packed with nutrients."

You see how there are some subtle but important differences? That's the sort of thing people say about you when you don't treat your colleagues like dirt, and cause unnecessary government shutdowns in an attempt to grandstand on the backs of your nominal allies.

Of course, it's anybody's guess whether Cruz might have gone further as a presidential candidate, had he won the affection of his peers. This GOP primary has been about as far from "The Party Decides" as anyone can remember. Given Trump's success, it's possible it would have done Cruz no good at all to have the backing of the barons and baronesses of the Beltway's gilded community.

Still, would it have killed him to be nicer? Maybe!

Jason Linkins   |   May 4, 2016    2:00 PM ET

Public health officials are growing more and more concerned about the Zika virus as its true impact in South and Central America becomes clear. In January, the World Health Organization said Zika could be on the verge of spreading throughout the Americas. Health organizations in the U.S. are upping their efforts to develop a vaccine and eradicate the virus, and the White House has asked that money be appropriated to help make this happen.

But as certain as death and taxes, Republicans in the House of Representatives have emerged to slow this process to a crawl. GOP lawmakers have met these calls to action with indifference masquerading as fiscal responsibility. Congressional action on the issue has stalled, and the only alternative for those who want to fight a Zika outbreak is to subtract funding from other pressing priorities.

In one sense, this isn't surprising. For years, House Republicans have made a habit of bumbling from one crisis to the next without a plan (unless you count "shut down the government" as a plan, and you shouldn't). But the response to the Zika virus seems deeply strange when you think about the Ebola outbreak of 2014, when Washington lawmakers fell all over themselves to take action.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s good that Zika hasn’t touched off the kind of wild-eyed fearmongering that we saw with Ebola. But some officials have gone way too far to the other extreme, with House Republicans essentially shrugging off an issue they really ought to take seriously.

A tale of two viruses

Ebola is a horrifying sickness that's brought real devastation to West Africa, but Americans' panic over the virus never quite matched up with the facts. Yes, Ebola has proven hard to eradicate. We don't have a vaccine yet. And once a person contracts the virus, treatment is difficult, sometimes impossible. People with Ebola often die brutal, harrowing deaths.

At the same time, the virus is quite cloddish, epidemiologically speaking. It spreads primarily through body fluids -- and while it can travel via saliva in certain circumstances, it's much more commonly transmitted through blood, feces and vomit. The disease is at its most beastly in environments that lack basic sanitation and hygiene. It’s likeliest to spread among people who live in such conditions, and among the medical professionals who treat them. The front lines of the war on Ebola are in West Africa.

When the disease came to the U.S. two years ago, things unfolded in a textbook manner. A Liberian national named Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas, and two of the nurses who treated Duncan contracted the disease as well. (A physician with Médecins Sans Frontières, returned to New York City after assisting with the concurrent Ebola outbreak in Guinea, also contracted the disease during this time.) In the end, Duncan succumbed to the disease while the rest of the afflicted survived.

Zika isn't as deadly as Ebola, but it could pose a far worse problem than Ebola ever did. It's primarily a mosquito-borne virus (though it can also be transmitted sexually), which means it can spread much faster than Ebola, and it's often asymptomatic. The most dangerous thing about Zika is that it can lead to severe birth defects, such as microcephaly, in the fetuses of pregnant women who contract the virus. It can also cause an auto-immune disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome. These are serious conditions that alter people's lives and put long-term strain on the health care system.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Ed McCabe, medical director of the March of Dimes, have given lawmakers some specific warnings with regard to Zika:

“Without additional resources we won’t be able to get the resources we need to get to the state and local levels to provide Americans with the protection they deserve,” Frieden said.

Congress has said the CDC should use any remaining Ebola funds to fight Zika, but Frieden and others said that would not be sufficient.

“Shifting money from crisis to crisis will have us chasing our tails,” said Dr. Ed McCabe... “We have a few short months to stop Zika from gaining a foothold in the U.S. If we don’t the consequences will be dire.”

But a lot of people on Capitol Hill don't seem to care.

Rifts open as Congress struggles to respond

The Senate has been more active than the House in helping public health officials confront Zika’s potential onslaught. As The Hill reported last week, Republicans in the Senate are working with their Democratic counterparts to direct money toward anti-Zika efforts. Democrats in both chambers are backing President Barack Obama’s request for funding. And many lawmakers in the South -- the region that might first bear the brunt of a Zika outbreak -- seem to understand the need to be proactive on this issue. (Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been a key ally in the effort to secure the $1.9 billion requested by Obama.)

The Senate is closer to passing a $1.1 billion bill -- a move that House Democrats are threatening to oppose for being half a loaf. But Democrats in the House still seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation better than Republicans, who appear more or less content to kick the Zika can down the road to October, when the request for funding might be considered as part of the normal appropriations process.

The views of the House GOP caucus can be summed up by the remarks of Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). Per CBS News:

Cole chairs an appropriations subcommittee considering the administration's request.

"We do believe the NIH, and we do believe the CDC," Cole told CBS News. "But have to use the resources that we have wisely."

Cole added he wasn't "going to put a date on it," but expected more funds to be available "before the end of the fiscal year," which is October 1.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), though, has pointed out that waiting until October to move on Zika funding would actually mean waiting a lot longer than that:

"We need the money now," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told CBS News. "The budget process takes a long time -- it will be practically nine months before we could get any other money, and there's no guarantee that you have the money at the end of the year."

Robbing Ebola to pay for Zika

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), though, has endorsed the idea of waiting. “The money's in the pipeline," he told CBS last month. "Our appropriators are going to address this issue -- if the need ever arises, our appropriators will address it in the appropriations process."

When Ryan mentions “money in the pipeline,” he’s talking about funds that have already been allocated to fight the Ebola crisis. Obama has, in fact, diverted some of this money to fight Zika as a short-term stopgap. But administration officials have warned that this won’t be enough to combat a Zika outbreak. And public health officials say that depriving the Ebola eradication effort is going to “set back work in West Africa” and delay the development of a vaccine.

The interesting thing about this Ebola funding -- the money that House Republicans say could be easily diverted to mount an attack against Zika -- is where it came from in the first place. Its roots lie in an earlier era, when a more motivated House GOP aimed to demonstrate its responsiveness in the face of an emerging crisis. Back then, congressional Republicans didn’t delay or dither, as they are doing now. In fact, they crowed about how active and involved they were, and frequently accused the White House of being unprepared and slow to respond.

Back in October 2014, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) seemed to grasp what needed to be done to fight the Ebola virus. “We’ve got to go to the core of the problem, solve it there and invest in a vaccine and a treatment to cure it once and for all,” he said during an appearance on "Face the Nation." McCarthy pointed out that his caucus was working with the Obama administration to secure timely allocations of money to spur the fight. As he put it, the “safety of the troops” was one of the paramount concerns.

And McCarthy was eager to brag about how House Republicans were responding. On Oct. 16, 2014, he approvingly retweeted a “list of actions House committees have taken in response to the Ebola outbreak" from then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), lest anyone think House Republicans weren’t taking the matter seriously.

Those actions included a short-term continuing resolution with provisions for Ebola containment, a $50 million appropriation to “support Operation United Assistance, the Department of Defense-led mission to combat the Ebola outbreak,” a $700 million appropriation to the same effort two weeks later, and numerous hearings and statements pertaining to the U.S. public health response and global efforts. There was no foot-dragging, no talk of delay. 

Now, however, McCarthy’s sense of urgency is nowhere in evidence. As The Hill reported last week:

Leaders of appropriators in the House and Senate have said publicly that they want to provide funding to fight Zika, but they are increasingly divided over how it is structured and whether it can wait until later this year.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he would prefer to handle the funding through the regular appropriations process, pushing the debate over emergency dollars until the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

It was bad enough that McCarthy was ruling out emergency measures, but as Politico further noted, pushing the question of Zika funding to October only creates further uncertainties:

It’s unclear what legislative vehicle a Zika deal would hitch a ride on. Republicans typically prefer to make such allocations in the annual spending bills, per McCarthy’s Tuesday statement. But it is unclear that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will be able to pass appropriations bills on the House floor given steadfast conservative opposition to spending levels.

There’s also a question of whether the money will be pinned as “emergency” spending, which allows appropriators to ignore budget caps that constrain other types of spending. McCarthy deferred on that question Monday. And he wouldn’t say whether the new spending would be offset, as conservative groups have demanded.

And what of Ryan? In 2014, he was quick to urge officials to “stay ahead of the Ebola outbreak.” He was equally quick to criticize the White House’s efforts, calling the appointment of Ron Klain as “Ebola czar” an “inside, crony type of selection.” (Klain actually ended up doing an admirable job.) At the time, it was reported that Ryan was mainly concerned about the government’s competence.

Now, Ryan's endorsed the view that the money appropriated to fight Ebola would be better spent on Zika -- an approach that essentially transforms the response on both fronts into sad half-measures that have public health experts worried. “The administration has a bit of a track record of over-requesting,” Ryan has said, failing to mention how his own colleagues, during the Ebola crisis, made sure such requests got fulfilled and were happy to take credit once they were.

Gambling with House money

Although his current plan basically comes down to "rob Ebola to pay Zika, and fall short in both cases," Ryan is casting his approach as evidence of shrewd leadership. But the speaker actually has a record of helping to deny public health professionals the tools they need.

Sequestration cuts came as a bitter blow to public health agencies in 2013. Those cuts forced the National Institutes of Health to slash its budget by $1.55 billion, and subtracted $13 million from the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, which has been leading the U.S. effort to eradicate Ebola in West Africa. The CDC ended up recovering some of those funds a year later. But as The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein reported, Ryan’s budgeting has injured the CDC in ways that go beyond just sequestration:

If you move back the timeline a bit, you see that investment in the CDC has still fallen dramatically. The agency’s current budget, in fact, is nearly $600 million lower than it was in 2010.

  • 2010: $6.467 billion
  • 2011: $5.737 billion
  • 2012: $5.732 billion
  • 2013: $5.721 billion
  • 2013 (after sequestration took effect): $5.432 billion
  • 2014: $5.882 billion

While some of the funding was restored after the budget agreement between the House and Senate in early 2014, “there is still a gap between FY14 and FY10,” the Senate aide noted.

House Republicans may not understand this, but they're taking a huge chance on at least one public health crisis right now -- possibly two. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) declared last week that “the Ebola battle is now completed” -- a claim for which there is no real basis. And as Politico’s Dan Diamond reported, when Obama was forced to to divert funding from the Ebola fight to help prop up the Zika response, House Republicans took a “victory lap”:

"We are pleased to hear today that federal agencies are heeding our call," House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Kent.) said in a statement. "These resources -- which the agencies already have on hand -- will help stop the growth of this devastating disease around the world, and prepare for and protect against outbreaks within our borders."

Rogers is signing his name to a number of promises while simultaneously starving the efforts to deliver on them. He’ll be among those with much to answer for if Zika gains a foothold in the U.S. or if Ebola re-emerges as a potent threat.

'Scarier than we initially thought'

As medical experts learn more about the Zika outbreak, their anxiety has only escalated. As USA Today reported last month, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, says that Zika has “been linked to a broader array of birth defects” and has a greater “potential geographic range” than previously believed.

"Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” Schuchat said. She was seconded by Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said, "I'm not an alarmist and most of you who know me know that I am not, but the more we learn about the neurological aspects [of Zika], the more we look around and say this is very serious."

According to a report recently published by the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crises, “the high risk of major health crises is widely underestimated, and the world’s preparedness and capacity to respond is woefully insufficient.” It's precisely for this reason that Frieden, the CDC director, wants to act against Zika now. To that end -- and with the support of the White House -- he’s asked Congress to “approve a $1.9 billion request from the White House, $828 million of which would go to the CDC’s Zika effort.”

It really is amazing to compare the current situation to 2014. Then, lawmakers were ready to establish travel bans and quarantine medical professionals in the name of stopping Ebola. They demanded a czar and then lambasted the one they got. Most importantly, in less than a three-month span between Sept. 30 and Dec. 10, Congress managed to pony up $5.4 billion for the medical community to fight the disease.

Now, House Republican leaders are dilly-dallying, taking an incredible gamble with public health and courting a potential crisis that their colleagues in the Senate, their Democratic counterparts, the White House and the public health community all believe can and should be thwarted by acting now, before it’s too late.

How, exactly, will we know when it's too late? Amy Pope, the White House’s deputy homeland security adviser, said earlier this year that “if we wait until the public is panicking, until we see babies being born with birth defects, we have waited too long.” Should things get to that point, one imagines the finger-pointing and the excuses, at least, will come as quickly as anyone could want.

Jason Linkins   |   April 26, 2016    3:44 PM ET

For all we argue which American presidents were successful and which were failures, one has to be impressed with the glowing achievements of American vice presidents. Whenever a president is dead, or being driven from office, the vice president must rise to the occasion, and be not-dead, and not-being-driven-from-office. In this regard, our vice presidents have assembled a glowing track record of sustained excellence.

Who will be the next man or woman to add their name to this legend? This is a matter that the media has suddenly begun to take up in earnest, perhaps sensing that this year's primary elections are now more or less decided, and it's time to now move to the next chapter of the story of this election -- the one in which the media ponders what's at stake in the choosing of a running mate in a race to find out which pundit can overthink it the most.

Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the Clinton campaign had "begun extensive discussions" about her running mate. The paper's headline notes that the campaign is "cautious but confident," probably because some spokesperson said, "We are cautious but confident." I don't know how you are supposed to fact-check this, but there you go: They are neither reckless nor terrified.

Many names found themselves to be afloat in the Times' reporting. Because Clinton has envisioned her presidential mission as one of "barrier-breaking," in which the nation's economic ends are met by encouraging a continuing diversification of elite aeries, some of those names are Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Massachusetts Gov.r Deval Patrick, and Obama administration Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who worked for the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

As the media will make much of Clinton's need to appeal to working-class white men (and people with more limited connections to Massachusetts), many of the people named are also white guys: Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

In case you were wondering, yes, Clinton would be open to running with another woman on the ticket. One can easily imagine that this might be the sort of thing that the media could get a little overexcited about, and not necessarily to good purposes. A distant early warning of how that might be received came over the weekend, when former Obama communications director Anita Dunn was asked if Hillary Clinton really could pick another woman as her vice president, as if there was some legal obstacle preventing this arrangement. Dunn replied, "There is some precedent for having a running mate of the same gender." Bu-bu-bu-but, penises?

According to The Washington Post's Robert Costa and Philip Rucker, the veep-game is afoot in GOP circles as well. The campaigns of John Kasich and Ted Cruz have apparently already begun their vetting processes, which seems pretty premature, when you consider the delegate count in that race. They report that the man atop the delegate count, Donald Trump, has given the matter some "serious thought," but has not made it a focus of his campaign, which seems pretty tardy, when you consider the delegate -- you get the idea.

The results of Trump's vice-presidential ministrations are going to be of enormous interest, given the fact that he has a) cast himself as an outsider-basher of the establishment and yet b) desperately needs some insider-establishment type to explain to him basic things, like what a president does, and how Congress works. At the moment, Trump is still getting up to speed on what a "delegate" is, so it's understandable that he's lagging in the Veepstakes. 

Trump's vice-presidential pick will also be a person of interest, in that once Trump discovers that the presidency is a low-prestige job that involves constant criticism, unending demands, and the congenital inability to get Congress to agree to the executive branch vision, there's a good chance he'll just quit, leaving his running mate with the bag.

But I have to give Trump some credit: I've never heard a president talk about what's at stake in the choosing of a vice president with greater realism. As The Washington Post reports:

Trump, who said he wants to pick an experienced political leader, may calculate that he needs a bridge to mainstream Republicans who see his candidacy as radioactive.

“There are two advantages: They can help you with the system, and the politicians have been vetted,” Trump said in the interview. “That’s the biggest advantage to a politician -- their whole life they’ve been vetted and you know everything, whereas if I pick some guy out of a great corporation who has done a job, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Besides demonstrating that they can draw breath and circulate blood, that's literally all a vice president brings a ticket -- a surfeit of institutional knowledge and, hopefully, a past free of scandal. There are literally no further advantages a vice-presidential prospect can bring to the ticket.

Unfortunately for all of us, the Veepstakes is essentially a long-winded exercise in determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If we are at the beginning stage of the Running Of The Running Mates, that means we have a staggering number of hours to endure, in which prospective candidates are hefted for demographic advantages and probed for home-state benefits.

Can the right candidate deliver a larger share of voters from a swing state? Could a certain candidate help maximize turnout from some voting bloc? We are at the precipice of these possibilities being picked to death by pundits eager to battle their colleagues in their traditional game of Sunday morning panel one-upsmanship.

So let's head all of that off at the pass. The home state of the vice-presidential pick? Their ethnicity? Their gender? Their religion? None of that matters. That needle won't jump. You can stop fretting about it.

Over at The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko break out all the relevant research on the matter of vice-presidential prestidigitation, and their overarching conclusion is that it more or less fails to amount to a hill of beans, provided that the presidential candidate remembers to literally not choose an actual hill of beans as their partner-in-crime. (Which, to be honest, is too bad. I for one would vastly prefer to hear what Hill Of Beans has to say about the state of contemporary politics and its preferred policy platform than I would, say ... Carly Fiorina.)

Does the right vice-presidential candidate offer the ticket a home-state advantage? According to Devine and Kopko, in some limited instances, when the vice-presidential pick "comes from a relatively less populous state and has served that state for many years as an elected official," it can. This benefit is then immediately offset by the fact that "less-populous states have very few electoral votes, thus making them unlikely to flip the outcome in the Electoral College."

Other than that, the home-state benefit is straight-up tugging at ghosts: "No matter the empirical method," they write, "we consistently find that the vice- presidential home state advantage is, statistically speaking, zero."

What about the idea that diversity on the ticket might bring a greater share of some demographic subgroup's favor on Election Day? There, the science is incomplete, as there are no real-world examples of a major party selecting a Latino (or an African-American, or an Asian-American) as their vice-presidential candidate. But in analyzing "the performance of some other would-be breakthrough candidates" -- such as Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, and Joe Lieberman -- the relevant political science indicates that these choices result in some positive feelings toward these picks from voters who share their demographic identity.

But that's as far as it goes. Per Devine and Kopko:

But again, more positive feelings toward the running mate do not necessarily translate into more votes. Controlling for a range of relevant covariates (such as age, income, party identification), gender is not a statistically significant predictor of vote choice in 1984 or 2008. Nor is Catholic identification in 1972, 1984, 2008 or 2012. The one exception is in 2000, when Jewish voters were significantly more likely to vote for the Gore/Lieberman ticket. But in a subsequent pooled analysis of presidential vote choice, Jewish respondents to the ANES proved to be significantly more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate in each presidential election since 1960. Further analysis shows that Jews didn’t feel more warmly toward Lieberman than toward the average Democratic running mate. So it’s not clear that Lieberman’s candidacy actually brought more Jewish votes to the 2000 Democratic ticket.

So, that's a dead end as well.

Recently, the U.S. News and World Report's Susan Milligan reported on the work of a "bipartisan team of veteran campaign managers and political historians," who took up the task of evaluating how to pick the perfect vice president for the Bipartisan Policy Center. The way Milligan distills these experts' ideal process into a series of steps basically boils down to this:

  1. Take a deep breath, and come up with some names.

  2. Vet their public records.

  3. Narrow the choices and vet them again, this time taking an "'intrusive' look at the contenders' personal lives, including medical and financial matters that could be embarrassing to the ticket."

  4. Tell your prospects to their faces what you found out and browbeat them into revealing if there's anything that was not "unearthed but which could come out in the media."

  5. Make a choice and then pray you did your due diligence and that you didn't pick a liar.

Based upon Milligan's reporting, the impaneled experts didn't have anything to say about whether it's necessary to find the right guy to help you swing Wisconsin, or the pick that's got the magic touch to bringing out, say, more Asian-Pacific islanders to the polls. The process of picking a vice president is nothing more than a brutal, medieval endoscopy into the personal and political lives of people with whom you might spend the most important years of your political career. Hopefully, you find someone who survives that process, after which, you can simply just be hopeful that you, too, survive.

Still, this idea that the right vice-presidential pick might confer some sort of hidden electoral advantage -- like they're some walking political cheat-code -- is a compelling story. And it's understandable why a campaign would like to indulge in this sort of stagecraft. After all, what the selection is really all about is finding someone to fill a rather macabre political role who doesn't load down the ticket with a bunch of dreadful liabilities. At the end of that process, you don't want to have to talk about the intensity or the intrusiveness of the vetting process. So, hey, instead, come up with a fun story about how your running mate is someone who has hidden, ineffable strengths. 

Maybe such spin is silly. Still, like I said from the outset, this system has worked beautifully: All of our vice presidents have successfully performed the task of remaining a living, breathing vessel of human consciousness, and none have revealed themselves to be the Zodiac Killer, not even Spiro Agnew, although it was pretty touch-and-go there for a while.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 26, 2016    9:34 AM ET

Every four years, someone comes along to write a terrible piece advocating for a third party, usually basing their argument on their own idiosyncratic ideas about what's missing from U.S. politics. The only thing this ever accomplishes is to reveal how wildly out of touch with reality the writer is. This year, Jim VandeHei is out at Politico and looking for some gullible sugar daddy to underwrite his next media venture, so he’s taken a stab at this sad genre with a column called “Bring On A Third Party Candidate” at The Wall Street Journal.

VandeHei's ideas are dumb and bad, and he uses a lot of virtually meaning-free terms like “disruption” and “innovation,” all in the service of a bizarre and rather grim vision. If what you think is missing from the American political scene is a movement to further the electoral ambitions of some buzzword-spouting fascist, then this is the column for you, and also please do not come to my next birthday party.

Poor, dim Jim. He actually thinks that just because he's spent time in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Maine (both of which are white enough to sweep the Oscars), he’s somehow an authority on the needs and wants of “real America.” According to VandeHei, what Real Americans actually need is some kind of chimera stitched together from multiple strands of meritocracy, an elite Frankenstein's monster who spouts tech jargon and guzzles foreign blood.

Here is how VandeHei imagines our third-party savior:

1. The candidate has to “come from outside the political system,” but he can’t be Bernie Sanders, because Sanders might actually do something to upset the established order. Here VandeHei acknowledges that, as Sanders is fond of saying, the “system is rigged” against normal Americans. However, it’s clear that VandeHei wouldn't want his outsider to level the playing field too much. His hilarious feint at creating a more equitable society is his suggestion that this third-party candidate “take it a step further” by “[forcing] the wealthy to forfeit their entitlement benefits.” Oh, no! Not their entitlement benefits! Not a tiny portion of income they don’t notice! This is a “step further” in a world where Thomas Piketty is a best-seller?

2. He also thinks this third-party candidate should “sock it to Congress” by making lawmakers “go home after serving instead of profiting off their service.” How any president of any party would achieve this, given the separation of powers, is beyond me.

3. President Thirdy McPartyson should also force Congress to hold “months-long sessions in different sections of Normal America,” says VandeHei. You know, the same Normal America that VandeHei was just saying is so great! Except now, I guess, it's an unpleasant place where you send lawmakers in order to “sock it to them.” (Also, why should taxpayers pick up the cost of schlepping Congress all over the country?)

4. The third-party candidate has to be good at social media, for some reason. “He or she would engage voters daily on social media, with fun and flare,” writes VandeHei, evidently meaning to use “flair,” a quality never found in his writing.

5. According to VandeHei, “You draw in the 40% of people who don’t vote or big blocks of dissatisfied independents with a call to a higher purpose. In this case, the purpose is cleaning up the mess the leaders of the two parties created.” You’ll get 40 percent of the people who can vote but don’t, you say? My God, man! Dream a little bigger! Why not say your idea is so amazing that it will inspire 90 percent of the people who can vote but don’t? What’s the point of padding out your brief with uncheckable numbers pretending to be data if you’re just going to lowball yourself!

6. VandeHei makes sure to include a paragraph that can be boiled down to “do some Internet stuff”:

Use the Internet revolution for the greater good. Social media allows us to tweet our every thought, snap our every mood and Facebook our every fantasy, but it hasn’t done much to create shared purpose. We have breathtaking technology to find a ride or a date with the swipe of a screen. Those same innovators could help create a “National App” to match every kid who needs a mentor with a mentor, every person who wants to volunteer with someone or some group in need; every veteran with people and companies who want to reward his or her service with thanks, help or a job. Also, call on Silicon Valley technologist to do tours of service to bring data solutions and efficiencies to our aging governmental systems.

Right around here, I started to wonder if VandeHei maybe just forgot that this piece was about establishing a third political party.

7. VandeHei asks, “Why not recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg to head a third-party movement?” Well, J.V., I thought you wanted someone who understands the way “real America” works. Mark Zuckerberg has bought the four homes that surround his own Palo Alto domicile in the hopes of keeping himself at a distance from “real America.” Sheryl Sandberg runs a corporate brandwashing scheme dressed up as feminist agitprop that, as Susan Faludi notes, seems to exist to help absolve big corporations of discriminatory workplace practices against women.

Also, who is doing the “recruiting” here? Shouldn’t we interrogate their politics?

8. Silly me! It is, of course, Michael Bloomberg who's doing the recruiting, because if one writes the words "third party" in an American newspaper then one is legally obligated to work in Michael Bloomberg somehow. VandeHei's method of doing this is particularly hilarious:

Maybe we can convince Michael Bloomberg to help fund the movement with the billions he planned to spend on his own campaign -- and then recruit him to run Treasury and advise the president.

Oh, sweet fancy Moses. So, this great third party that would help “real America” overcome a “rigged system” involves using a billionaire’s money and then putting him in charge of the Treasury?

9. But I’ve left out the best part of this third-party candidate: He (or she) is going to be super-duper fascist!

Exploit the fear factor. The candidate should be from the military or immediately announce someone with modern-warfare expertise or experience as running mate. People are scared. Terrorism is today’s World War and Americans want a theory for dealing with it. President Obama has established an intriguing precedent of using drone technology and intelligence to assassinate terrorists before they strike. A third-party candidate could build on death-by-drones by outlining the type of modern weapons, troops and war powers needed to keep America safe. And make plain when he or she will use said power. Do it with very muscular language -- there is no market for nuance in the terror debate.

So basically, VandeHei’s vision of a third-party candidate is a Vladimir Putin type who's fun on Twitter and can hold court at the Aspen Ideas Festival (specifically with Ideas about how to maximize the efficiency of drone killings).

If you're going to think about third parties, the logical thing to do is find some underserved point on the political spectrum and build out from there. Right now, America lacks a conservative leaning party that eschews nativism and imagines some sort of economic platform beyond cutting taxes on the wealthy. America also lacks an authentic left-leaning party that disdains entrenched corporate power and hones its economic policies to the benefit of working-class Americans.

VandeHei, though, would build out his third party on the “thinkfluencer” class, who are currently the most overserved and privileged people on the planet, and he’d give this party the permission to toss out the Constitution wherever it saw fit. This would indeed “disrupt” the “establishment,” if by “establishment” we mean democratic norms.

Jim VandeHei is one of those people who, when he publishes his thoughts, causes the world to convulse in an audible groan. He’s riding a hot streak right now -- he recently had another vapid piece of futurecasting published at The Information, in which he decried the media’s digital “crap trap,” a thing that as CEO of Politico he did not have the smallest hand in encouraging. (Good Lord, in that piece -- ostensibly about the future of digital media -- he is still talking about “awesome desktop presentation[s]” in 2016.)

There is a German word, fremdschaemen, that means “the feeling of being ashamed on someone else’s behalf." Jim VandeHei fills me with fremdschaemen. I'm embarrassed for him, I pity him and I sincerely hope he finds some billionaire to give him money -- so long as that money is given to him with one string attached: He can never write again.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 22, 2016   11:20 AM ET

Over the course of the Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton's principal argument against Bernie Sanders has been that his agenda -- universal health care, free college tuition, et al. -- is impractical, too utopian, too "pie in the sky." This is especially true, she says, given the structural obstacles in the way. Sanders is promising to do the impossible; she, on the other hand, is the candidate who can Get Things Done.

In other news, the Clinton campaign is planning to spend a lot of money in an effort to finally "correct" the internet. OK, then!

As The Daily Beast's Ben Collins reports, Correct The Record -- the pro-Clinton PAC run by Media Matters founder David Brock -- is "pledging to spend $1 million to 'push back against' users on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram."

In a press release, Correct The Record outlined its strategy to use time and money in an incredibly savvy and not-at-all-bewildering way:

Correct The Record will invest more than $1 million into Barrier Breakers 2016 activities, including the more than tripling of its digital operation to engage in online messaging both for Secretary Clinton and to push back against attackers on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram[...]

Lessons learned from online engagement with “Bernie Bros” during the Democratic Primary will be applied to the rest of the primary season and general election -- responding quickly and forcefully to negative attacks and false narratives. Additionally, as the general election approaches, the task force will begin to push out information to Sanders supporters online, encouraging them to support Hillary Clinton.

It has been said about many of Sanders' initiatives that the money doesn't add up. The Clinton campaign, though, will spend donor cash to "push back" on your Instagram feed, an airtight model of sensible and sustainable campaign spending that absolutely constitutes the best use of a million dollars.

It is reasonable to attribute this to "the Clinton campaign," by the way. As Sunlight Foundation campaign-finance sorceress extraordinaire Libby Watson explains to Collins, loopholes in Federal Election Commission regulations allow Correct The Record to "openly coordinate with Clinton’s campaign, despite rules that typically disallow political campaigns from working directly with PACs." (Although to be honest, we would have attributed any activity of Clinton-affiliated PACs and super PACs to the Clinton campaign, because Eat The Press' official editorial position is that candidates are always coordinating with these entities.)

This initiative will also attempt to combat online harassment, a genuinely noble goal that more social media platforms should undertake on their users' behalf. The goal gets a little less noble, however, when your working definition of "harassment" is simply being at variance from a specific politician's electoral endeavors.

Still, have you ever tried to win an argument on social media? If so, you probably know that enacting a Canadian-style single-payer universal health care plan is a thing that is a million times easier to do. Hell, it would be easier for me to tame a wild Pegasus this afternoon and fly him to the Costa Brava for the weekend.

But hey -- if you want to personally hear from the Clinton campaign, just send a few uncivil tweets about superdelegates or Goldman Sachs speech transcripts or something. I'm guessing that calls are answered in the order they are received.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 21, 2016    4:46 PM ET

So, that happened. The Democratic presidential primary is not yet done and dusted, but it's getting there, and if trends hold, it is likely that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee of her party. It's not a possibility that the ardent supporters of Bernie Sanders prefer to face -- but as far as backers of losing candidates go, they are still rich with possibilities. MTV News' Ana Marie Cox joins the podcast this week to take part in an ongoing debate over the future of Sanders' movement.  

And for many reasons, it remains a future to believe in, if only for Sanders' astonishing achievements in voter demographics. At this point, it's become almost passé to note the way Sanders has dominated among younger Americans. By and large, they share a perspective about the world into which they've come of age that the Clinton camp would be loath to admit: Important institutions have failed, the path to economic security is darker and more filled with terrors and the world they've joined is a little bit more broken than it was before. 

But it's an open question as to whether they can build upon this busted edifice. As Jamelle Bouie notes, Sanders' effectiveness with younger voters has only earned him a bigger helping of a small portion of voters:

For starters, while Sanders wins a huge share of the youth vote, young voters (18 to 29) are still a modest share of the primary electorate. In the 2008 New Hampshire primary, they were 18 percent of all voters. This year, they were 19 percent. In South Carolina in 2008, young people were 14 percent of all voters. This year, they were 15 percent. And in Ohio in 2008, they were 16 percent of all voters. This year, they were just 15 percent. If the Sanders revolution is supposed to drive greater turnout, it hasn’t happened—Democratic turnout overall is far below its 2008 high, and on par with turnout in the 2004 nomination race.

To put it bluntly, Sanders' movement isn't really a threat to the established order. But they can be yet, if his supporters have the stomach to set their sights a little lower. Sanders' appeal has had a rough time getting over in the hullabaloo of the presidential primary -- which, let's face it, is still pretty much the playground of political elites. 

However, as Zach Carter points out, Sanders' support has nevertheless proven robust enough to add a considerable dose of creatine to the liberal scene. And there's fertile political turf to be taken in any number of venues that lack the sexiness of a presidential campaign -- county boards, state legislatures and the like. Committed Sanders supporters need to have designs on these seats, win them, and add something beyond pure passion to their portfolio: demonstrable records of responsible governing. 

Not every revolution has to begin at the Oval Office. And when you succeed at these lower levels in politics, then you get to be the elites. Fancy that.

Elsewhere on this week’s podcast: This week, President Barack Obama traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with our best frenemies in the war on terror. Our diplomatic relationship with the kingdom, which is awkward on its best days, has been considerably strained of late, and adding to the tension is a bipartisan bill in the Senate -- supported by both Democratic presidential candidates -- that would allow victims of terrorist attacks to sue states that sponsor terrorism. It's a bill Obama has threatened to veto, and its very existence has him in a bind.

Finally, public safety advocates are warning that the U.S. Senate is about to make our lives more dangerous by passing legislation that will loosen what are already pretty loose regulations on truckers and the length of their workweek. We'll explain the impact these rules have on public safety and how Congress manages to slide this sort of nonsense into law.

“So, That Happened” is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. Joining them this week is MTV News' Ana Marie Cox, as well as The Huffington Post’s Mike McAuliff and Jessica Schulberg.

This podcast was produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.

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

Jason Linkins   |   April 20, 2016    1:08 PM ET

The night was still young on Tuesday when it became clear that the New York primary election was headed for a major anticlimax, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each picking up massive and unsurprising victories. But with media types crawling all over each other in the most notoriously over-served news market in the United States, a boring, business-as-usual, dog-bites-man-and-then-votes-for-a-racist narrative wasn't going to cut it. There had to be some extra spice to it, some turn in the story to ensure there was really a Point To It All.

So what was the big takeaway? Eventually, a consensus emerged: "Hey, Donald Trump won New York and yet he wasn't a complete bell-end about it! He is becoming 'more presidential.'"

Ha, all right. Consider Amber Phillips of The Washington Post:

Here's a look at the new Trump: After the race was called, Trump high-fived a supporter, thanked his family, took a shot at the press and then put both hands on the podium and proceeded to give a much more traditional politician-y speech.

Jobs in America. A strong military. Get rid of Obamacare. Make America great again. He used a lot of verbs and all but dropped his usual flourish of adjectives.

Yeah, that was it. Trump wasn't using the right parts of speech. Presidents don't say adjectives, they say verbs. That's just science. (Also, I'm pretty sure that he "put both hands" on a lectern.) It's a good thing Trump didn't come out swinging with a bunch of prepositions, or Chief Justice Roberts might have sworn him in right then and there.

There were other ostensible clues that we were dealing with a New Trump. Evidently, he's "presidential" now because he didn't allow his "voice" to raise "above his usual hoarse yell." Also, he referred to Senator Ted Cruz as "Senator Ted Cruz," and not as "lyin' Ted" or "a pussy" or "Ted Cruz who might not be eligible to be president, check his birth certificate, we may have to sue." And hey, he only basked in the approval of one white supremacist on Twitter that night. There truly never was a more apt model of restraint.

This mashup by Media Matters really gives you an idea of how enamored the media is of this whole conceit. Trump, you see, was "less combative" on Tuesday. He was "fundamentally different." There wasn't "as much of the name-calling." Most of all he was "disciplined" -- you know, on this one particular occasion. No need to wait for a second instance of Trump acting this way; let's just go ahead and attribute it to a fundamental change in his character!

My favorite: Trump "really came out and tried his hardest to talk about the issues." Oh, well, the issues. He talked about the issues, guys! The... bare minimum of what we expect presidential candidates to do! Clearly he's playing in a higher league now.

Others in MediaLand pointed out that the Trump campaign itself is in a period of transition, of which "presidentialness" is almost certainly a follow-on effect. 

Is it premature to credit GOP operative Paul Manafort, who recently took the reins of the Trump campaign from Corey Lewandowski, for a wholesale transformation of "Donald Trump, eldritch clementine" into "Donald Trump, guy who is presidential?" Probably just a teensy bit, yes. If Georgia's GOP conventions are any guide, it's premature to credit Manafort for even doing the job he was hired to do -- namely, "keep Ted Cruz from poaching delegates" -- with any degree of competence. But such is the Great Man Theory of Political Consultants, in which a candidate's "game" is "changed" by virtue of finding someone, at last, who understands what a "Republican presidential primary" is.

Over at Slate, Isaac Chotiner notes how "this election has given us a good measure of just how far we've defined down [the term] presidential":

Trump may indeed have been restrained on Tuesday night in celebrating his predictable but impressive win in the New York Republican primary, but he was certainly not presidential. He did his usual shtick (albeit at shorter length), mentioned the great businessmen in the room with him, told a story about a developer friend (undermining him at the same time), and inflated the night’s actual primary results. His speech focused on, yes, our lost greatness. “We are going to be, legitimately, so great again, and I just can’t wait,” he said. Trump was Trump, give or take.

But it was clear Tuesday night that, with Bernie all but cooked and Hillary in need of a new foil, the narrative now demanded that Trump be a candidate transformed. There was nothing Trump could’ve done to change the story. He could’ve swallowed his tie on stage, and Chris Matthews would still have acted as if he’d seen the ghost of John Lindsay sitting in his green room.

A fun thing to ponder is: How long can Trump keep this going? His main response thus far to the prospect of a contested convention has been to hint about a violent uprising, and he's essentially signaled that in a one-on-one race against Hillary Clinton, his electoral strategy would consist of coughing the word "loser" into his fist a lot. So how long can he maintain this patina of maturity, of civility, of statesmanship?

Oh, whoops! Well, that was fun.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that OK, yes, Trump was comparatively subdued and brief in his post-primary remarks on Tuesday. What could this mean? Well, typically, the simplest explanation is the best one: Trump was relatively chill after the New York primary because he won it by a wide margin. It wasn't, in the end, difficult or challenging. He faced no real distress. And so there was nothing to rage against. 

What Trump is selling to the American public, at its core, is the idea that hardship does not attach itself to him. He's uniquely immune to it, somehow. Setbacks are something that happens to other people. So when he finds himself facing pressure, it's always someone else's chicanery at work. That's when it's time for another lawsuit, or an elaborate revenge fantasy, or a litany of boorish remarks. But if he's winning the New York primary in a walk, what's to get upset about? That's just the world humming along the way it's supposed to. Nothing to get exercised over.

The whole reason Trump is running for president is that he thinks it's an easy job. I don't know this because of rigorous analysis of subtle clues; I know it because Trump himself keeps saying it, explicitly, over and over again. He doesn't imagine that it will be at all challenging to actually run the country. That's a note he's struck throughout this entire primary season, regardless of whether he's behaving in a "presidential" manner at any given moment.

Here's the key lesson: Trump is always going to be at his most "presidential" when he's not facing adversity. Fortunately for everyone, being president always involves everything working out exactly the way you want it to.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.



Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 19, 2016    3:30 PM ET

On Monday, journalists in newsrooms around the country gathered awkwardly together to celebrate the announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, which honored Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical "Hamilton," as well as a number of excellent works of journalism, but especially the musical "Hamilton." At last, "Hamilton" is getting some attention.

This year’s honorees in the journalism category included a terrific investigation from the Associated Press that explored the role of slavery in our seafood supply chain; a massive Washington Post venture that documented police shootings nationwide; and the Los Angeles Times' coverage of the San Bernardino shootings. The New Yorker became the first magazine ever to win a Pulitzer for journalism with its study of the Cascadia fault line. The New York Times, which had traveled to Afghanistan to gather the stories of Afghan women, took the award for international reporting. The Tampa Bay Times stuck close to home to pick up a pair of accolades for investigative and local reporting. (Over here at The Huffington Post, we were bridesmaids for our investigation, by Jason Cherkis, into the heroin treatment industry. It was an honor to be at the wedding.)

It was, in short, a pretty great snapshot of the journalism world. First-time wins for The New Yorker and The Marshall Project reflect the Pulitzer board's commitment to expanding the franchise and recognizing the excellent work of the present moment. But in some cases, it takes time to fully appreciate the importance of a work of journalism. Sometimes the true significance of things is only visible in hindsight. With that in mind, I submit that it’s time for the Pulitzers to take on the challenge of getting retrospective.

There’s one example of unrecognized work that immediately comes to mind -- work so prescient that even those who created it didn’t fully recognize what they’d done at the time. In 2002, a group of reporters at Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy Newspapers) wrote a series of articles on the run-up to the disastrous Iraq War. These articles were, as The Huffington Post noted in 2008, “virtually alone in their questioning of the Bush Administration’s allegations of links between Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.”

And to give you an idea of how difficult it was to be a dissenting voice back then, consider that the work in question often didn't earn the respect of many of the newspapers owned by Knight-Ridder, as reporter Jonathan Landay told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2013

"Lone holdout" is a good word because even some of our newspapers -- we work for a chain of 30 newspapers. Even some of our own newspapers wouldn’t print our own stories. Why? Because they say it wasn’t in The Washington Post. They hadn’t seen it in The New York Times, so how could we, as Knight-Ridder journalists, have gotten the same thing? So it was very lonely. 

As The Washington Post’s media reporter Erik Wemple rightly states, “Every five years or so, around mid- to late March, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel should be media stars.”

Alternatively, this could be the sort of journalism that becomes famous in mid- to late April. So let’s do it: Let’s add a category to the Pulitzer Prizes, one that involves looking back at previous years and re-evaluating the past in light of what's happened since then.

What I’m suggesting here is that the Pulitzer board undertake a simple elongation of its window of perspective. The board should, on a yearly basis, take a look back at the journalism landscape and rediscover the work whose excellence it took time to reveal. Whether it’s a five-year window, a 10-year window or some other time frame, the exercise would be useful in recapturing the work that either missed the cut, or wasn’t on the radar, at the time the awards were distributed. It would be a great way of recognizing writers prescient enough to spot crises before they happened, writers who bucked trends when it was harrowing to do so, and writers who provided a foundation on which subsequent work could be built.

Taking on this challenge would be of enormous, widespread benefit, especially to the journalists whose work was left behind by the arbitrariness of time.

Interestingly enough, the Knight-Ridder reporters experienced no small amount of self-doubt as a result of having their work dismissed for so long. As Gilbert Cranberg, arguing in 2006 for a retroactive Pulitzer for the Knight-Ridder team at Nieman Watchdog, noted, Knight-Ridder bureau chief John Walcott didn’t submit his team’s work for Pulitzer consideration during the window in which it was actually produced:

As Bureau Chief Walcott recalls it, "I think we may not have submitted the '02 work because its merit wasn't clear until Bush attacked Iraq in March '03 and then the WMD never materialized. In other words, we may have lost out because we were so far ahead of the curve..."

A year later, therefore, Knight Ridder used its bid for an '04 Pulitzer to declare, in effect, "We told you so." Nevertheless, Knight Ridder's Washington Bureau's frequent, fearless, ground-breaking, skeptical and authoritative reporting was no secret to hard-to-impress journalists.

Cranberg went on to note that even if the Knight-Ridder team had submitted its work for consideration in 2002, it would have been “questionable how it would have been regarded” by those adjudicating the awards at the time, all of whom would have been influenced by the fashion of the moment. “Recall that this was a time when much of the press uncritically lauded Colin Powell's deeply flawed pro-war presentation to the U.N. Security Council," Cranberg wrote. "The press, whether consciously or otherwise, reflected public opinion, which then strongly favored a war to oust Saddam.”

It shouldn't count against a media organization to be ahead of its peers on an important story. By expanding its prize circle to include retroactive recognition, the Pulitzer board could encourage this sort of trend-bucking courage in coverage.

And it could help to remap the media landscape in important, beneficial ways. As former Knight-Ridder reporter Warren Strobel told Amanpour in that same interview, the lack of recognition their work received had long-term effects on the media landscape: “I have to say, 10 years later, as it stands, we’re not exactly getting -- except for your kind invitation, you know, other people are talking about this, and they’re not necessarily the people who got it right.”

Had the Pulitzers shed a little light on the efforts of these reporters, even years after the fact, it might have been an important and edifying corrective. It could have ensured that the right people got to keep telling the right story. (Consider this as well: After all these years, during which Knight-Ridder was absorbed by McClatchy, it has become much more difficult to find the Knight-Ridder team’s work online. It takes some dogged internet sleuthing if you want to actually read this coverage -- coverage that should shine above and beyond nearly all the other Iraq reporting from that time period.)

This is not an attack on the Pulitzers' existing track record. And it’s not about issuing some sort of make-up call after the fact, as sometimes happens in the entertainment industry with “lifetime achievement awards" and the like. The Pulitzers already have a mechanism for doing this, in the form of their Special Citations and Special Awards (which, as Cranberg notes, are as likely to go to authors and composers as to journalists). Prizes and plaudits like that are often mainly about letting the people handing out the accolades feel good about themselves.

What I’m suggesting is that looking back on the media landscape of a bygone year become a task that the board undertakes as a matter of serious research -- really getting elbow-deep in it. It would be an experiment born of intellectual curiosity and a desire to do a public good -- the same impulses that lead people to create the work that the Pulitzers already recognize every year. And if people knew the Pulitzer board was looking for old work to make new, there'd be no shortage of amateur and professional critics offering up suggestions.

The effort could lead anywhere -- including back to some of the original honorees. But it could also help recover greatness that gets lost in the shuffle of the everyday. It would shed light on work that may have previously looked slight by comparison, but which provided a strong foundation for further reporting or social change. And it would help reinforce the idea that journalism is practiced on a continuum, where the past informs the present to reveal salient facts about our lives. It’s the sort of thing that maybe only the Pulitzers could do.

In the end, it’s all about asking a perennial question for reporters: What’d we miss? By leading an effort to look back on the ground already covered, the Pulitzers can help deepen our perspective, reward those who were ahead of their time and shine a light on the ways in which journalism can be vital and lasting. After all, if Lin-Manuel Miranda can get a Pulitzer for doing precisely this, maybe the Pulitzer board itself ought to give it a try.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 15, 2016    4:26 PM ET

Bernie Sanders is certainly an unconventional presidential candidate. But did he ever really intend to be a big-time presidential contender in the first place? Or was his effort always supposed to be a sort of protest candidacy, originally intended to lend light to key economic issues, that now has become a larger thing than he imagined? His recently released tax returns contain evidence that maybe this was the case.

And, no, I'm not talking about some of the newsier highlights, such as the fact that his reported income for the previous tax year was around $200,000, or the fact that he's still facing pressure to release more tax returns. The Sanders campaign has promised to furnish additional returns, and Sanders said during Thursday's debate he's pretty confident they'll be pretty dull. As The Washington Post reports, the campaign is "cautioning not to expect many new revelations."

Well, they're almost right. Because look at this:

On his Vermont tax return, Sanders made a total of $150 in voluntary contributions to support four causes: at-risk children, endangered wildlife, military veterans and the environment.

What? Only $150? Man, Bernie, do you even know how to run for office? When those tax returns come out, one of the things that is supposed to be revealed is your magnanimity. We're supposed to swoon about what your taxes reveal about your heart. Real candidates know this is one of those dumb standards the press applies to them, and they plan accordingly. If Sanders had any intention of being a serious presidential candidate a year ago, he would have padded this out. Throw a couple grand at the at-risk kids. That sort of thing.

Look, we all know that Sanders is a nice guy who does a lot more than most trying to help people who have been left behind in this economy. And he's given a lot more than I have to charity, unless we consider America's whiskey distilleries to be a "charity." For all his words and deeds, nobody in their right mind would ding him for not giving more from his wallet.

But welcome to American politics, where nobody is in their right mind. 

Let's recall the last time a politician's tax returns revealed that they'd only given $150 to charity. It was April 2008, and David Paterson was one month into his tenure as New York governor, an office he hadn't anticipated holding, because he hadn't anticipated that Eliot Spitzer was going to incinerate his career in a prostitution scandal. It came to light that he'd only made $150 in voluntary contributions, and the media was beating him about the head with the news. 

Had Paterson known that he was going to be holding the office of governor, he would have absolutely made certain that his taxes revealed a more substantial level of charitable giving. How do I know that? Because once he decided that he was going to run for election to win another term in the office to which he'd been appointed, he fixed his voluntary contributions problem, lickity-split. As The New York Times reported in April 2009:

After being pummeled in the press for his slim charitable contributions in 2007, Gov. David A. Paterson made more than $11,000 in donations to an array of organizations last year, according to tax returns made available for review on Tuesday.

Mr. Paterson and his wife, Michelle Paige Paterson, made $1,000 contributions to 10 organizations, including the Hispanic Federation, 100 Black Men, Hadassah, and the American Foundation for the Blind. They also donated $1,413 worth of clothing.

See, that's the way it's done. Now you're backstopped against charges that you're uncaring.

This is all stuff that Sanders' campaign manager, Tad Devine, should know. His job is properly apprise his candidate of every nonsensical hurdle that he'll have to jump over to win. He's supposed to know that American politics is the sort of cynical landfill in which your mere lifetime of activism and promotion of economic fairness is going to be put on trial with all of the grace and good will of -- well, the Clinton campaign! It really does make you wonder if Sanders' campaign for president was ever supposed to be a real thing.

Still: Releasing your tax returns on a Friday? They got that part right.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 15, 2016    3:48 PM ET

Last weekend, The Boston Globe went Full Onion, distributing a paper with a fake front page that imagined what the world would look like on April 9, 2017, with one Donald J. Trump in the White House. The short version: It would be doubleplusungood, man!

It was a strange idea, but a noble one. In an editorial published concurrently with the fake front page, the Globe's editors argued that the GOP needs to "stop Trump" because his "vision for the future of our nation is as deeply disturbing as it is profoundly un-American." It was their clear hope that this front-page fake-out might render the dangers posed by Trump less abstract, more immediate and alarming. The paper called it "the front page we hope we never have to print."

The thing is, though, I'm not sure the Globe got it right. In fact, I'm actually pretty sure that a Trump presidency could be worse than they even imagine.

The important thing to remember is that Trump, by all the evidence, imagines governing to be easy. He seems to think it would be easy to implement his plans, and easy to manifest swift results. His basic premise is that America has been taking on water because everyone who is not Donald Trump is an idiot and a loser, and that once he's ensconced in the Oval Office, the "winning" is just going to come naturally.

It would be bad enough if he were correct, and it really were that easy for an American president to just will any old passing whim into law. But should Trump win the White House, the real danger will come when he finds out the job is a lot harder than that -- that the federal government is not, in fact, designed to provide a glide path to his ambitions.

It's this point that I'd argue the editors of the Globe didn't account for, with their whole "Days of Future Past" looming-dystopia thing. Let's examine the contents of that fake front page a bit more closely to see how.

"Deportations To Begin." Obviously, the flagship aspect of Trump's campaign has been his whooping nativism on immigration, especially when it comes to the "tremendous" wall he intends to build on the U.S.-Mexico border. Buuuut... "Deportations To Begin?" Really? The Boston Globe knows as well as anyone that President Barack Obama has already set the modern standard as far as the D-word is concerned. "Deportation push seems at odds with Obama's promise," Boston Globe staff writer Maria Sacchetti wrote back in August. "Local deportation underscores wider immigration debate," she wrote in a follow-up in January.

Of course, the Globe's fake article finds President Trump turning deportation rates up to 11, "calling on Congress to fund a 'massive deportation force'" and tripling the number of Immigration and Custom Enforcement Agents, all to the tune of $400 billion. And that, right there, is the problem with this hypothetical story: Congress. In the real world, this wouldn't be the moment when deportations begin. This would be the moment when Congress starts the long process of watering this proposal down, gouging its funding and probably filibustering it. There's a reason the fake article doesn't include any fake quotes from Congressional leaders: It's impossible to imagine they would cotton to this idea.

"New libel law targets 'absolute scum" in press." Trump has talked about how he'd like to "open up" libel laws so as to prevent reporters from accurately pointing out what an unhinged hairball he is. It's not hard to fathom why the paper lionized (rightly!) in the movie "Spotlight" might have a problem with that. In this hypothetical, the Globe actually put the legislative branch into the story, imagining that a "Republican-controlled Congress... passed sweeping changes to libel law" through a vehicle called the "L.A.M.E. (Limiting American Media Entitlement) Act."

This is a really remarkable Republican Congress! In the Globe's scenario, the party of small government has sought to supplant perfectly suitable state-level statutes and erect a brand-new federal law enforcement mechanism, presumably either funded by diverting money from some other Justice Department priority, or by increasing taxes. And they’ll do all of this in the service of one guy, a thin-skinned baby-man whom very few of them actually like.

Oh, and somehow, the Senate Democrats plumb forgot to filibuster this thing. Also, everyone involved decided to go ahead with this measure even though it would be quickly killed by the judiciary for being howlingly unconstitutional. Yeah, that dog won't hunt, friends. It's no surprise that this article, again, lacks quotes from any of the hypothetical Congresscritters who'd need to aid and abet this monstrosity. Points for that acronym, though; that's actually pretty funny.

"Markets sink as trade war looms." When Trump's not talking about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, he's talking about America getting screwed by China. So it makes sense that the Globe would want to extrapolate on that a bit. The editors imagine a massive market downturn based on "speculation that China is dumping some of its U.S. Treasury holdings" as retaliation for Trump imposing "tariffs as high as 45% for all Chinese imports."

The Globe is basically correct that this would adversely affect global supply chains, at least for a while. And it would certainly touch off a nominal trade war. But the horrific consequences they predict for the Dow Jones Industrial Average -- China would dump its U.S. debt holdings! -- would not be anywhere near as severe as they suggest. In fact, the whole thing might actually benefit the American economy.

See, when Trump (and liberal Democrats) bemoan "currency manipulation," they're talking about the Chinese government's habit of buying up tons of U.S. debt. That's how they manipulate their currency: buying Treasury securities. So if they dump their holdings, Trump (and liberal Democrats) would be happy. By increasing the value of its own currency, China would be effectively sending boatloads of manufacturing jobs to the U.S. It's hard to see why the Chinese government would do this in response to tariffs -- why, exactly, would they respond to our aggressive attempts to recapture our manufacturing base by aggressively decimating their own? -- or why the U.S. economy would suffer as a result.

Also, China only owns 8 percent of U.S. debt. Even if you're worried about the effect on global markets of such a mass dumping, it's really not that much. If American mutual funds decided to dump all of their holdings collectively, it would have roughly the same effect.

And of course, the United States has been in the midst of a cold trade war with China for over a decade, most recently fighting China on steel in a host of international forums.

Whatever convulsions the stock market would endure based on Trump's trade policy would come during the period when a newly elected Trump was just beating his chest and sowing uncertainty. Once we get to the point where this imagined trade war with China is on like Donkey Kong, the thing to worry about wouldn't be the stock market -- it would be the teensy fact that China makes just about every product sold in America. A better Globe headline would have been, "Thanks To Trump, We're All Gonna Be Out Of Light Bulbs For A While." In short, while trade wars can do real damage and Trump could probably come up with 19 different ways to ignite a stock market meltdown, this specific scenario the Globe imagines doesn’t really cohere.

Of course, the fun part of hypothesizing is that I could be wrong about all of this, too! Let’s face it -- Congress is weird, money is bullshit and all economic assets derive their value from ephemera. Worst of all, Trump has proven that fascist demagoguery can take a person pretty far in America. But -- but! -- he's also demonstrated that fascist demagoguery in America tends to provoke fierce resistance. And that will probably still be the case even in the unlikely event that Trump becomes president.

The Globe’s editors think Trump would be at his most dangerous when all the institutional bulwarks against his grand plans fail. I offer a counterpoint: Trump is going to be dangerous when those bulwarks -- whether we're talking about structural checks against executive power, or just the implacable nature of reality itself -- attempt to stand firm.

What have we learned about Trump in the past year? Aside from the fact that he resides in a wack-a-doodle wonderland of his own making, in which his sheer willpower is the magic ingredient necessary to solve each and every problem the nation faces, we’ve learned that he’s seen as toxic by most Americans. He doesn’t like being questioned, or countered. He has no sense of propriety or diplomacy or discipline. He expects to be catered to at every turn.

Donald Trump is now contending that the primary process itself is a rigged system. To some extent, this is true: The primary process is incredibly byzantine, and winning a primary or a caucus, as it turns out, doesn’t necessarily guarantee you the delegates as advertised. It’s a weird system in which “winning” isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. That said, there is a process to it. The whole thing has been codified. There are rules and procedures, written down even, that a person can refer to and follow. Trump’s getting outworked by Ted Cruz in numerous venues right now because Cruz did the work and Trump didn’t, and it turns out that the skilled operators tend to accrue the advantages.

Trump, of course, makes himself out to be the operator with the most skills. The primary is demonstrating that this is not the case. But here's the point: If Trump perceives the GOP primary as a rigged system, just wait until he has to work with Congress -- packed stem to stern with people who have their own interests to guard and the expertise to do so. Trump’s going to have a pretty rude awakening when he discovers how the process of governing really works. Imagine the look on his face when he finds out that plans get killed by committee, watered down by special-interest shills and filibustered by the opposition. There’s nobody less prepared to learn that “the president proposes, but Congress disposes” than Donald Trump. It’s going to make his hair, or whatever connective tissue loosely swaddles his head, stand on end.

Trump’s going to find out pretty quickly that he can't command legislators the way he does the army of yes men who typically surround him. And how does Trump respond to that sort of adversity? What do we know about how he responds? He goes aggro, he gets litigious, he shifts right to revenge mode. Here’s where “Trump passes a libel law” falls well short of the mark. Left to his own devices, he would still get to direct a slew of regulatory agencies and government departments. He could use them to harangue, investigate, persecute, prosecute. He could order up any number of witch hunts.

He could also order those agencies to stand down. Would the next "Trump University" scam face any heat from the federal government? Would Trump's pals worry about bank regulators? Would the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau help anyone? The opportunities for Trump to sow corruption would be vast.

Trump is also a habitual breaker of deals, and any forecasts about a DJT presidency should account for this. How would he rattle important alliances? What rifts between the White House and important foreign leaders would open up within days of Trump taking the oath of office? What would happen at NATO headquarters the morning after an avowed fan of Vladimir Putin assumes the role of commander-in-chief? At the very least, they’re changing the locks.

The Globe’s front page does feature one fake article where Trump faces some resistance: “US soldiers refuse orders to kill ISIS families.” The story describes the tension between the White House and officials from the Pentagon and the CIA after “two Army Special Forces soldiers disobeyed direct orders to kill everyone in an ISIS compound.” In other words, they didn’t commit a war crime. Here, the Globe is imagining what would happen if President Trump met a bulwark that didn’t fail.

But if you think it through a little bit more, you can see where real danger lies. Which general is getting cashiered? How many soldiers are being drummed out of the service? How much expertise and institutional knowledge do we lose? And who's taking their place? Madmen, most likely. And the follow-on effects would be what? Something bleaker than even the Globe imagines.

The real problem with the future as foretold by the Globe -- an all-is-lost doomscape wherein America descends into something out of The Man In The High Castle in, like, 11 weeks' time -- is that it's not really the story of a lunatic tyrant’s success. It’s the story of everyone else’s failure. It assumes that everyone who keeps a duty, harbors a bit of patriotism or serves to preserve a norm will either happily go along with Trump’s designs or knuckle under with marvelous efficiency.

It’s a highly cynical way of envisioning America, one that I doubt The Boston Globe really intended. It's good to keep in mind, though, that as bad as Trump’s proposals are, the way he responds to people challenging his authority is what really makes him dangerous. The more authority he's given, the more dangerous he'll become.

If he’s elected, Trump is going to find out pretty quickly that the job isn’t as easy as he thinks it is. He’s going to learn that it brings endless scrutiny, criticism and demands. However he imagines the prestige of the office, when he discovers that he’s actually just a public servant who’s penned in, in many ways, by institutions, he’ll react badly. He’ll lash out, he’ll hide, he’ll sulk. And he’ll do it because Congress won’t fund his deportation scheme or pass his libel laws, and because China and Mexico won’t just willingly step up to become beggars to their own demise.

Alternatively, he could just bail on the job. Here's a really fun headline for April 9, 2017, five months after Trump wins the presidential election: “Vice President Ben Carson Sworn In Between Naps.”

So, one way or the other, God help us all.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.



Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 14, 2016   11:18 AM ET

One of the biggest debates in American politics involves the ideal size and role of government. Conservatives tend to favor a small federal government. Liberals more often contend that government should play a major part in our lives. Technocrats on all sides talk about the need for government to be, if nothing else, efficient. Everyone has their own opinion about when, exactly, the government crosses the line from being involved to being intrusive.

But one thing on which we should all be able to agree is this: Government ought to be small enough that Ted Cruz, if he one day becomes president, can never, ever use it to determine how we, as a people, masturbate.

Recent news has forced us all to consider how a President Cruz might use his executive authority to appoint himself the chaperone of our fun solo sexytimes. As Mother Jones' David Corn reports, in 2007, during Cruz's tenure as the Texas state solicitor general, his office defended a law that banned the sale of "obscene devices," like dildos, after purveyors of same challenged that law on constitutional grounds.

You can read the whole blow-by-blow here, but the salient part is this: In a 76-page brief filed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, Cruz's legal team asserted that the state had "police-power interests" that could -- and should! -- be brought to bear on "discouraging prurient interests in sexual gratification, combating the commercial sale of sex, and protecting minors."

Moreover, Cruz's office contended that "there is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one's genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship." Or, as Corn summarizes, that "the pursuit of such happiness had no constitutional standing."

This is, in and of itself, very troublesome to learn. But on Wednesday, a tweet from Craig Mazin, Cruz's former college roommate, took the unpleasantness to an entirely different level -- framing for all of us, with laser precision, the way in which Cruz could have a chilling effect on everyone's sexual arousal:

Obviously, Mazin is painting Cruz as a hypocrite, but that's not the most important takeaway here. What Mazin has done, with one tweet, is create an image powerful enough to turn our imaginations into a Superfund site from which no sexual arousal can be produced, and force us all to come to terms with Cruz's intrinsic ability to induce global genophobia.

I'm typically skeptical of the power of the president's bully pulpit, but in Cruz's case, I fear he may possess the sheer boner-killing force of a supermassive black hole. (I'm referring here to both lady boners and original recipe boners, to use the precise anatomical terms.) And if he genuinely believes that the state has constitutional authority to crack down on our lust for flesh, I fear for us all.

Look, is masturbation somehow underhanded? For many people, it is. But we're not here to quibble about technique. The point is that Ted Cruz is uniquely able to quell sexual desire in most mammals, as anyone who has ever mistakenly Googled "Ted Cruz smile," or endured his endless quoting of "The Princess Bride," can attest. That ability, married to Cruz's beliefs about the role of government, and further magnified by the power of the Oval Office, could doom us all to a life of enforced monasticism, and do irreversible damage to our nation's entrepreneurial spirit.

You may not agree with the idea that government should be small enough to drown in a bathtub. But if it must be, we should still be allowed to enjoy ourselves once the drowning is done. So let's all take the moment to simply ask Ted Cruz: "Bruh, can u not?"

Cool, cool. And now I think it's best that we burn this after reading it.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 13, 2016    3:49 PM ET

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will face off at the Duggal Greenhouse in Brooklyn, New York, for their latest debate on Thursday night. The head-to-head between the two was a contentious enough affair just to set up: Sanders, who is not winning the delegate battle, wanted a debate ahead of the New York primary badly. The Clinton camp, not so much. But they bungled the debate over the debate after Clinton strategist Joel Benenson suggested that the independent Vermont senator needed to change his "tone" to deserve another chance to debate.

That outburst landed like a lead balloon, and so here we are. 

The Democratic Party has reserved the right to stage one last debate in May, but there's nevertheless a pretty good chance that this week's session-behind-the-lecterns will be the final outing of the liberal debate season. So it's a fitting time to reflect upon the most important thing we learned through the Democrats' series of debates. That thing? Former Maryland governor and 2016 also-ran Martin O'Malley is right when he says the whole process was a steaming crock of manure.

In fact, O'Malley, who recently spoke on the matter for The Huffington Post's "Candidate Confessional" podcast, believes that more than anything else, the Democratic Party consigned themselves to second-rate status by staging the debates in such a way that guaranteed nobody would watch.

I think it was a great disservice to the republic, actually, that we let that immigrant bashing, carnival barker, fascist demagogue, Donald Trump have full run of the airwaves. And he grew into a phenomenon over those summer months while we heard nothing from the Democratic Party. And even when we did start debating, we didn't debate in prime time. We debated in a cynical way on Saturday nights or Sunday nights or opposite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman the week before Christmas. 

And the early Democratic debates were an astonishing contrast to what was happening on the dais at the GOP's affairs. While the Republican candidates were coming to terms with the psychotic, insult-laden fugue state that Trump brought with him to these prime time events, the Democrats were debating policy ideas and party philosophy in collegial fashion.

Any side-by-side comparison might have revealed to viewers that there was one party capable of having high-level discussions and substantive argument. There was never a time on the Democrats' debate stages that someone's appearance was insulted, or genitals hefted for girth. Sanders and Clinton were eager to demonstrate their differences, and heatedly spar, but no one's American-ness was impugned. No one complained on Twitter about their fights with the moderators. There was a general sense that there was one political party of adults, and one that was an insane, schoolboy row-worthy of a William Golding book.

The problem, of course, is that the way the Democrats constructed their own debate schedule made that side-by-side comparison quite one-sided. The Democratic Party's debate season was designed to be easy to avoid, and it was magnificently successful. As Byron Tau reported in February, the GOP has been winning the ratings war in a rout: 

According to an analysis of data from the television analytics firm Nielsen, the Democratic debates have drawn on average about 9.2 million viewers, while the Republican debates have brought in roughly 16.2 million per forum.

That set the stage for the only Democratic debate of the season that was at all noteworthy -- the debate in Flint, Michigan. This was the event that was supposed to demonstrate that the Democratic Party was the party willing to shine a light on one of the year's most pressing concerns -- the Flint lead water crisis -- and demonstrate that they had the finger on the pulse of the concerns of real people, and that they were willing to share the spotlight with citizens who had lost faith in their government.

It was a bust. As CNN's Brian Stelter reported:

The Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders face-off was the second lowest result for any debate so far this season.

The debate faced stiff prime time competition plus a political reality: The Republican race is much more interesting to viewers right now.

Having a debate in Flint, Michigan, and sharing the stage with actual residents of the contaminated-water plagued city, is precisely the sort of opportunity the Democrats could have used to highlight contrasts with the in-fighting Republicans. But when you put no effort behind ensuring that people watch your debates -- when you train viewers to view them as missable events -- it's an opportunity lost.

O'Malley puts the blame precisely where it belongs -- on Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. "It was a unilateral decision by the chair and only the chair," he said. "And when people started to ask questions in that meeting about who made the decision, they were ruled out of order, and sit down, and it's time for the benediction and there was no discussion of it."

Of course, there was some discussion in the form of an intra-party insurrection that ended up blowing out into the news as debate season began. Wasserman-Schultz was accused of engineering a debate process specifically designed to benefit Clinton. Wasserman-Schultz made several inane attempts to sting back. Politifact examined her insistence that the debate schedule was designed to "maximize" the potential audience, and found the claim to be "dubious." 

And on Twitter, Wasserman-Schultz demonstrated that she wasn't living in the same reality as the rest of us. As Politico's Hadas Gold reported:

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz tried to mock Republicans on Saturday for holding a debate on SuperBowl weekend only to see her own weekend-stacked debate schedule thrown back in her face.

"Hmmm, wondering why @GOP trying to hide their #GOPdebate on the Saturday of #SuperBowl weekend no less?!" Wasserman Schultz tweeted before the GOP forum on ABC.

"They're taking a page from your playbook?" tweeted Lis Smith, who was deputy campaign manager to Martin O'Malley.

"Is she trolling herself?" asked "The Daily Show" Digital Production Manager Anthony De Rosa.

O'Malley's motives aren't entirely selfless -- he also attributes the Democratic Party's decisions on debates as being uniquely harmful to his outsider bid: "One of my trusted advisors said, 'On that day, when they came out with the schedule and said there would be only four debates, and that most of them were going to be on Saturday and Sunday nights, hidden by NFL playoff games and the like, that's when I knew our goose was cooked."

But his point about offering some sort of counter-programming to Trump is still valid, because while the businessman's rise was enabled more by the other GOP candidates' failure to deal with him, it surely didn't help that the Democratic Party essentially quit the stage at the very moment he emerged as a threat. It made them look timid and out-of-touch with the moment. More importantly, it enforced the idea that the Democratic primary process was a second-class affair.

Ultimately, however, the Democrats' ridiculous debate season has less to do with enabling Trump's rise or blunting O'Malley's ambitions. At a moment when Americans were tuning in to find out how the future might shape up, and who would arrive to assuage their fears and offer them hope, the Democrats were the absent party. As O'Malley puts it, "At a critical time, our party remained silent."


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

Jason Linkins   |   April 8, 2016   10:25 AM ET

On July 31, 2012, in a far-off land called Poland, someone posed what was, at the time, a defining question in American politics: “What about your gaffes?”

That inquiry, hurled at then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney by Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker during the former Massachusetts governor's trip abroad, contained multitudes. Salon’s Alex Pareene suggested that the question should be “translated into Latin and made America’s new motto,” as it was “a perfect beautiful little 2012 campaign zen koan that should be buried in a time capsule and never dug up.”

“Quid gaffes tua?” would, indeed look good on the $20 bill. But maybe it would serve best as an epitaph for an era that could very well be over. Because, while the recent flap over Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders’ interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News certainly has a retro feel to it -- harkening back to a campaign season in which members of the political media were quick to allege error and slow to undertake even the briefest amount of study and self-reflection necessary to avoid unnecessary inflammations -- it seems like the Age Of Gaffes is over, sent to its dirt nap by former reality-TV star and Arkham Asylum escapee Donald Trump.

This is actually not a good thing. But this is where we are: lost in one man’s labyrinth of nonsense, and looking back at a terrible bygone era with unlikely fondness.

The Origin Of Gaffes

It may be hard to remember now, but when the whole notion of a “gaffe” was first introduced into the political lexicon, it arrived as a high-minded concept, intended to describe politicians' not-infrequent tendency to damage themselves when they accidentally told the truth about something.

This idea that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” was famously put forth by founding Slate editor Michael Kinsley, whose name has since become associated with the concept. Kinsley had workshopped this truism as early as 1984, but it really took off after he described it in a 2007 article in Time magazine:

It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood. Now, there is spin and there are gaffes. Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile a gaffe, it's been said, is when a politician tells the truth — or, more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.

One of the pseudo-events that animated Kinsley’s writing at the time was a statement made to the New York Observer by then-Sen. Joe Biden, who commenced his campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination by saying of then-Sen. Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy ... I mean, that's a storybook, man."

I’m not going to lead you through an unpacking of everything that went wrong there. Suffice it to say it was an inauspicious beginning to what eventually became a failed campaign (but which also led to a really deep friendship, so, silver linings).

Biden -- and it would just have to be Biden, wouldn’t it? -- primed the pump for eight years of news coverage to come, during which the concept of “news cycle” and “gaffe cycle” would be almost interchangeable. For the better part of a decade, members of the media -- primarily driven by cable news’ insatiable need to shoehorn anything that might serve as content onto its airwaves and the Internet’s equally insatiable need to comment on it -- went in search of low-hanging fruit to swing their sticks at, eventually finding it everywhere they looked.

To be sure, politicians inevitably helped this cause, because they are, by and large, idiots.

A Gaffe Taxonomy

But soon enough, the concept of what came to be known as a “gaffe” migrated far, far away from Kinsley’s original observation about politicians' inadvertent truth-telling to include any statement from any politician that could be weaponized to extract a penny’s worth of pain, like a shillelagh of unintended consequences.

And what a heydey it was, spawning a considerable number of gaffe varietals:

The Blunt Force Kinsley Gaffe: A gaffe that, while inadvertently revealing the truth about something a politician believes, really just reveals that said politician is a titanic idiot.

Example: former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s famous claim that women, in cases of “legitimate rape,” possessed the physiological means to prevent a pregnancy.

The Angry Concurrence Gaffe: This is a gaffe that angers people despite the fact that everyone sees eye-to-eye on the matter.

Example: Obama’s famous observation about Americans left behind in the Clinton/Bush years, made at a San Francisco fundraiser:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

This statement, which Obama offered in an effort to literally teach a bunch of West Coast elites to have some forbearance toward poorer Americans, angered many people who agreed wholeheartedly that they were, in fact, bitter about being brushed aside by elites, and for whom guns and religion were a succor for that bitterness. (Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has a canned line in which she angrily agrees with Obama in this regard.)

The "With Friends Like These" Gaffe: This is a gaffe that arises because your nominal ally makes sure the world finds out about it.

Example: In the run-up to the 2014 off-year election, former Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), gunning for retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat, wanted to make the case that he’d be a better man to have on the Senate Judiciary Committee than Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

He came up with this: “If you help me win this race, you may have ... someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way on the Senate Judiciary [Committee] ... or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary.”

Problem: Iowa is home to tons of farmers! But all of this might have been avoided if a Braley ally hadn’t thought this was a really great zinger and posted it on the Internet.

The "The Person Who Made This Gaffe Isn’t Even Associated With A Candidate Or A Campaign, But By God, Some Candidate Or Campaign Is Going To Have To Answer For It Anyway" Gaffe: Google “Hilary Rosen-gate” if you feel like your life is too long.

The "Not Actually A Gaffe" Gaffe: Self-explanatory: somehow, a thing that is not a gaffe is treated by the media as a terrible, embarrassing mistake.

Example: During a May 2012 appearance on “Meet The Press,” Biden explained that he was “absolutely comfortable” with marriage equality. Somehow, this was a gaffe despite the fact that there was no actual problem with the vice president's position. Indeed, it would have been very strange if he’d somehow spun and B.S.-ed his way through that question to deliver a non-answer.

Ostensibly, the error here was that Biden was announcing his public support for gay marriage before Obama was ready to do so himself. If anything, this just exposed how silly the whole “Obama is continually evolving on the issue” line really was. In the end, the Obama administration came out in support of marriage equality as well.

But let’s never forget that brief, stupid time when the media thought that Biden's revelation that he was siding with the majority of Americans on an issue was a fantastically mistaken thing for him to do.

The "No One Can Explain Why This Was Ever A Gaffe" Gaffe: This is a gaffe that wouldn’t even be considered a gaffe if anyone actually stopped to interrogate the premise of the statement itself. Apply logic for thirty seconds, and it goes away. But if you don’t apply logic, and instead pretend that it’s a really big deal, you can lead a day of cable news segments on a non-story.

Example: On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama criticized the policies of Republican hopeful John McCain as newly-shined bad ideas to which the country should not return. To underscore this, he used an idiom commonly deployed to convey this concept: “You can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.”

Somehow, he got in trouble for this. The basic rationale for calling this “gaffe” -- insofar as the word “rationale” can be tortured into accommodation -- was that McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, had famously used a campaign zinger that included the word “lipstick,” and so lipstick was thus conceptually branded to Palin’s person, making any derogatory statement including the word “lipstick” a de facto sexist attack on her. Honestly, everyone just lost their damn minds on this one. Even political analyst Mark Halperin criticized the people who turned this into a gaffe.

The Opposition Research Gaffe: Any gaffe that would have gone wholly unremarked upon, were it not for the fact that political campaigns employ teams of desperate people tasked with the job of creating gaffes out of whole cloth.

Example: Mitt Romney’s famous “I like to fire people” remark. As Politifact noted, Romney was discussing how important it is for health care customers to be able to shop around for different providers when a provider proved to be unsatisfactory. His inartful “I like to fire people who provide services to me” was, out of context, manna for the Obama campaign, waist-deep in a yearlong campaign to define Romney as an unfeeling plutocrat.

The Bad Faith Gaffe: The evolution of gaffe coverage inevitably led here, to the “bad faith” gaffe. This is when the media willfully ignores context and circumstance to transform what would ordinarily be read by a fair-minded observer as a situation in which a politician bungled a stump speech or clumsily riffed on a standard position into something that is supposedly revelatory.

Examples: Obama’s “You didn’t build that,” in which the president attempted to borrow a well-known argument from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) only to demonstrate that she was better at delivering her own lines. Another classic was Mitt Romney’s “Our productivity equals our income” gaffe, in which Romney’s discussion of national productivity and the competition between nations was treated as if he’d said that individually impoverished people were to blame for their own circumstances.

This is, if anything, a woefully incomplete taxonomy of gaffes. But the point is this: Instead of thinking of a gaffe as a true thought accidentally clarified, the term was redefined. In many instances, the concept ended up being applied to any garden-variety campaign trail cock-up. In many more, it was applied to anything a politician said or did that could be spun into a cock-up.

That’s an even larger deviation from Kinsley’s original idea. Instead of a gaffe occurring “when the spin broke down,” many in this new breed of gaffes came about when the spin was successful.

The Consequences of Gaffe-Journalism

And as long as common sense, curiosity about context and good faith were slow in coming, gaffes could become a bedevilment to both politicians and, more importantly, news consumers.

Some of the utterances now known as “gaffes” were actually important in shaping the political landscape. Democrats dined out on Akin’s nonsense for the better part of an election season, catching Republicans across the nation in the net woven by his idiocy.

And many hold the granddaddy gaffe of them all, Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” remark, as a (if not the) game-changing moment in the 2012 presidential election cycle.

Nevertheless, there came a point when the media’s ability to see gaffes everywhere and assist in creating more of them started to look ridiculous.

Actual voters, to their enormous credit, found the wherewithal to largely tune out the noise, correctly identifying gaffe-journalism as a goofy game of patty-cake played by elite media insiders and their sources. As political scientist John Sides observed, people remained mostly ignorant of all the flaps and flubs that were constantly being foisted upon them, and in many instances, the gaffes that members of the media were busy promoting simply failed to affect voter opinion in any way.

But the unending gaffe cycle did affect the way politicians interacted with the media. As The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone and Sam Stein reported in August 2012, one of the immediate effects was that campaigns got a lot more scripted and candidates sought ways to bypass the traditional gatekeepers. As a result, the more free-wheeling, open-ended political conversations that were the staple of candidates like McCain fell by the wayside.

The constancy of gaffes forced a reaction from political fixers as well. The organizing principle behind Karl Rove’s “Conservative Victory Project” was to organize political donors behind candidates who demonstrated enough message discipline to avoid fiascos like Akin’s “legitimate rape” commentary. (Of course, rather than simply reward candidates who knew better than to enunciate their dumb beliefs, it might have been better to recruit candidates who didn’t have dumb beliefs in the first place.)

Flash-forward to today, and the overall interest in gaffes has substantially faded. Yes, politicians are still gaffing it up out there, and the media is covering it. But the love is gone. People have moved on. 

The Post-Gaffe Era

It would be really nice if we could credit the decline of the gaffe to all the lessons learned about how useless and pedantic most of the body of gaffe-journalism really was. But it’s pretty clear that what’s killed gaffe-journalism is Trump, whose hallucinatory presence and constant stream of cuckoo-bananas balderdash have essentially made the gaffe entirely irrelevant.

What gaffes were really about was the inability of politicians to be perfect at all times, and the media’s ability to monetize these momentary lapses. When you consider the fact that every campaign has a rival it would eagerly prefer to see wounded, this was pretty good business for a while.

But Trump neatly inverts this entire idea. He doesn’t have momentary lapses. He is a constant, walking lapse of good sense, taste and judgment. He almost entirely eschews the idea of a scripted campaign. He rarely spins, because what’s to spin? If he’s facing criticism for something he says, he’ll either say it again, say something else, or say that he never said what he actually said in the first place.

This is, at best, spinning at a Pre-K level -- the kid caught among the remains of a broken cookie jar, insisting he’s not to blame. Trump places no value in logic or consistency. He creates a welter of bullshit and hurls it at the world.

Really, what do gaffes even matter in a media landscape perpetually enshrouded in Trump’s skein of gibberish? All of the politicians that have, in previous election cycles, been waylaid by gaffes have got to be envious of Trump’s ability to drive right at the heart of infinite wrongness and remain a threat to win the nomination of a national political party. Sure, his recent primary loss in Wisconsin has slightly punctured his imperviousness, but he’s gotten much further than many of his nominal peers.

And he’s gotten there by saying things that would have easily capsized any other candidate and driven them from the race in shame. While so many of Trump’s positions are simply the standard GOP subtext given greater enunciation, doing things like excoriating McCain for being a prisoner of war, or making fun of people with disabilities, or inciting violence on the campaign trail would have been a death knell for any other Republican. In fact, it’s not insane to imagine that Trump and GOP rivals John Kasich and Ted Cruz could all issue the same bonkers statement simultaneously, and only the latter two men would pay a price for it.

Really, what do gaffes even matter in a media landscape perpetually enshrouded in Trump’s skein of gibberish?

If anything, Trump’s rivals have struggled because they’re just a pale imitation of the reality-television star’s extremism. Their ingrained caution from past lessons of gaffe-journalism has, at least with the GOP base, been their undoing.

In this environment, gaffes simply become irrelevant. The game has become one in which Trump madly dictates the tempo and the temperature of the race, and his competitors struggle to respond to it. The entire discourse begins and ends with an “ungaffable” candidate.

There is an additional level of irony to be found in this post-gaffe environment. Whenever Trump pitches something crazy, the media works very hard to plumb the depths of his imagination to explore whether or not there’s anything plausible to be had. So when he offers up a plan to ban Muslims from entering the country, the machinery of media expertise gins up and examines the proposal's feasibility. When he says that he can pay down a $19 trillion national debt in eight years, good journalists whip out their calculators. “For a moment, let’s take Donald Trump’s economic promises seriously,” write The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley and Jeff Guo.

The good news, of course, is that good reporters usually see Trump’s bullshit for what it is and say so wholeheartedly. But by then, it’s too late. They’ve raised Trump’s insanity to a level where it becomes worthy of debate. They normalize his ideas. They even do all of the critical thinking work on Trump’s behalf, and provide him with a map to plausibility, should he want one.

In a way, we’ve all forgotten that Trump is, first and foremost, a birther -- the sort of vexatious, conspiracy-minded wildling that the professional press dismisses out of hand because doing otherwise would cause a degeneration of the discourse.

The irony here, in terms of gaffes, is that back during the gaffe-addled election cycles of yesteryear, the issue was the media’s propensity to act in bad faith and cause problems for candidates. Trump, for whatever reason, has largely elicited nothing but a good-faith effort from reporters, who bend over backwards trying to explain how the guy came up with the strange ideas he promulgates on the stump. During the gaffe cycle’s sillier season, such efforts forced politicians to be far more dextrous and much more fearful of earning some undeserved dose of accountability. Similar attempts to counter Trump have resulted in nothing of the sort.

This is a sad, strange time for anyone who ridiculed the excesses of the media’s gaffe obsession. Something bad has given way to something worse. This election season has a long run ahead of it, but at the moment, one can’t avoid thinking it was preferable when members of the media harmed many candidates with their worst work -- now, they enable a monster with their best.

Gaffes: We’ll miss them. But maybe Bill Clinton will bring them back.


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.