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Howard Fineman   |   November 3, 2015    5:03 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Republican officials here in the capital had dismissed Matt Bevin’s chances of winning the governor's race in Kentucky. They thought he was just too weird and wild, even in a state that has become deep red in presidential elections.

A Louisville businessman and tea party leader, Bevin (who was originally from New Hampshire) had had the reckless temerity to run -- and lose -- a race for the GOP Senate nomination last year against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the founder and leader of the modern Republican Party in the Bluegrass State.

But Bevin never stopped running. Earlier this year, he narrowly won a fluke, three-way race for the gubernatorial nomination. He was so anti-everything that, when asked whom he supported for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, he dismissed Kentucky’s other GOP senator, Rand Paul, and instead said that he preferred novice candidate Ben Carson.

Bevin was anti-Obamacare, anti-immigration, anti-tax, anti-media (constantly at war with the state's largest newspapers and television stations) and was barely on speaking terms with Paul, McConnell and just about everyone else.

Except the voters.

Sensing an opening in the late polls, GOP officials in Washington -- at McConnell’s urging -- began pouring last-minute money and resources into the state.

On Tuesday, in a low-turnout election, Bevin easily dispatched the Democrats’ shopworn best hope, Attorney General Jack Conway, who had lost a Senate race to Paul in 2010. Polls that showed the race neck-and-neck had been wildly wrong, with Bevin winning by a comfortable 8-point margin.

Democrats were flabbergasted -- but shouldn’t have been.

Conway was a weak and unpopular candidate (a Duke alum from Louisville); his campaign consisted of negative attacks on Bevin. Kentucky is culturally conservative and uneasy in the multicultural era of Barack Obama, and had gone for Paul in the tea party’s first insurgent wave in 2010. Bevin, who had no experience in elective office, fits the mood of the electorate today: utterly contemptuous of the powers that be in politics, and looking for leaders in new places.

Republicans will see Tuesday’s results, with good reason, as a harbinger of national success next year. There is history to support them. In 1967, a Republican named Louie Nunn won the governorship of Kentucky -- the first to do so after World War II. Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968, and always viewed Nunn’s win as the first sign of a GOP wave.

In 1998, Republican Ernie Fletcher won a House race in (then) normally Democratic Lexington. Two years later, George W. Bush made his way to the White House -- followed by Fletcher’s win in the governor’s race two years later.

Bevin, only the third GOP governor in Kentucky since 1947, may be a harbinger, too. But as a Carson fan, he's probably not a GOP mainstreamer in the mold of Nixon or Bush.

No one knows the history better than McConnell. Ever since he was student council president at the University of Louisville in 1964, he has dedicated himself to two goals: becoming the second Henry Clay (who was Senate leader) and establishing complete GOP control in what used to be a Democratic state.

He has now achieved both. No wonder that, at the age of 73, McConnell is shopping around his autobiography with the assistance of DC super-agent Bob Barnett.

McConnell and the GOP not only beat Conway, they also snuffed out (for now) the career of the up-and-coming, 40-year-old state auditor, whom Democrats were grooming to take on Rand Paul in the Senate race next year.

Auditor Adam Edelen, elegant and well-spoken and a darling of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and Aspen Institute, lost his race for re-election. GOP local and national organizations shrewdly targeted Edelen precisely because he was the Democrats’ consensus pick to take on Rand.

Now the job of taking on Paul may be left to Andrew Beshear, the son of the current Democratic governor, Steve Beshear. Andrew apparently narrowly won his race to succeed Conway as Kentucky’s attorney general.

The Senate contest will be tough: Paul is not wildly popular, but a presidential election year is likely to bring out a big GOP vote. The last Democrat to win in Kentucky was a Clinton, in 1996. But a lot has changed since Big Dog Bill was around, and Hillary Rodham Clinton will be a tougher sell.

So, Mitch stands astride the state.

But the party McConnell built in Kentucky -- and the one he ostensibly presides over in the U.S. Senate -- is not the machine-like conservative establishment that he envisioned when he started out as an aide to moderate GOP Sen. Marlow Cook decades ago.

McConnell, and other GOP “leaders,” have to deal with the likes of Paul and now Bevin -- tea partiers who want to tear up the pea patch, that is, government.

They can all agree on trying to get rid of Obamacare – another clear message from Kentucky.

But what about immigration, and taxes, and subsidies for big business, and the rest?

What kind of GOP has Mitch built? We are about to find out.

Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   October 16, 2015    6:41 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- At least one thing has been decided: Joe Biden has retired the trophy for candidate indecision.

A weary Washington has been driven batty by the vice president's "I'm in, I'm out, I'm in again" agonizing about whether to enter the 2016 presidential contest. He has given us either the longest goodbye since Bogart in "Casablanca" or the longest hello since Castro in Havana.

People were bound to lose patience, even before the boffo performances by both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Tuesday night's debate, not to mention Martin O'Malley's debut as a BuzzFeed-certified hunk.

It's finally dawned on Biden World that they've run out of time. A statement is expected any minute, hour or day now.

Biden's former chief of staff and longtime Sancho Panza, ex-Sen. Ted Kaufman, sent Biden's friends and allies a letter to calm them as the dramatic moment approached. He assured the troops that, if the vice president indeed were to run, he would do so in the name of the middle class -- as well as in memory of his son Beau, who died of cancer in May.

But the decision slog has focused mostly on Joe Biden himself. No talk of an actual agenda. No hint of his assessment of the candidates already in the race. No talk of what the Democrats really need in order to secure a third-straight term in the White House. Instead, we've been shown a saga of grief and inspiration, with Biden offering soulful public updates on the condition of his political heart.

Why did he do it this way?

Biden is politically savvy and devises strategic and tactical plans at a rapid rate. But they can be contradictory and sometimes pile up like cars on an icy highway. He's both gifted and cursed by the ability to sense all options.

He has wanted to be president forever and has already run twice (in 1988 and 2008) with embarrassingly bad results. It's hard not to think third time's the charm, especially since he's been second in command since 2009 and since age might not be a factor given the other top Democratic contenders. (While Biden is 72, Clinton is 67 and Sanders is 74.)

First elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden sees himself following in Kennedy footsteps -- minus the big money, the Harvard connections and the grand presidential history of Massachusetts behind him.

Then there is Biden World, a vast array of former staffers and permanent friends who adore the man they used to work for. Their hearts ache for the pain he has suffered -- not just the loss of one son, but the deaths of his first wife and daughter in a car accident. They can't bear to tell him that it's over, if indeed it is. They want to accommodate his dreams. And they love being part of the political action, the thrill of being on the inside with a man of certifiable importance, and the cachet they will lose when his career ends.

Has the indecision hurt him?

Waiting this long certainly hasn't helped him, whatever he decides to do.

If he does run, attention will focus on the signs that he was preparing all along but waited to see the shape of the race. Reporters will seek out some Democratic operative who moved to Washington because she had been promised a job in the campaign policy shop, or examine the donors Biden called on the q.t., or lay out all the detailed groundwork of his innermost circle.

If he doesn't run, expect his inner circle to leak stories about how earnest and serious he was about entering the race. But there will be lots of reasons not to believe them. People will look back at all the things he did not do, such as call key members of Congress whose support was "gettable" by their own description.

Either way, Biden looks less and less like a father stalled by grief and more and more like a manipulative politician. So in that sense he has already lost, no matter what he decides.

In a "60 Minutes" interview last weekend, President Barack Obama praised Biden, calling him perhaps the best vice president ever. But Obama was careful not to recommend Biden as a presidential candidate. In fact, he rather drily observed that running for president is something almost everyone in national politics wants to do.

The implication was: Be kind to Joe, for he has an affliction he can't shake.

CORRECTION: Sanders' age was incorrect in a previous version. He is 74.

Howard Fineman   |   September 16, 2015    5:49 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Political junkies around the globe are worried that we crazy Americans are about to anoint a clownish, racist, authoritarian billionaire named Donald Trump to be president of the United States.

That's completely understandable.

Hasn't he rocketed to a lead in the polls? Aren't the American media obsessed with him and the ratings he produces? Haven't the experts who discounted him been wrong every step of the way? Isn't Big Money all that matters in the conduct of U.S. elections? Isn't he merely using cruder-than-usual words to express an agenda of exclusion and contempt for immigrants and foreigners that is powerful not only in the U.S., but across the entire planet?

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

But none of that means Trump will actually be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017. Or ever.

To understand why, you need to look a little closer at the insanely (wonderfully?) long, complex and theatrical way in which we Americans elect our chief executive.

Here are the main points to remember:

A Month Is A Year, And A Year Is A Lifetime. Events move faster than ever, in part because attention spans are shorter than ever. Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination exactly three months ago. At the time he was a blip on the radar screen in national polls. What goes up that fast can plummet just as quickly.

No One Votes Until Feb. 1, 2016. It's four and a half months until Republican voters cast their first ballots, in the Iowa caucuses. Can Trump sustain the fizz and fight of his anti-everything candidacy? The longer the slog, the more like a regular candidate he will inevitably become.

Debates, Debates, Debates. The Republicans are scheduled to stage at least nine debates between now and late next spring before their nomination race will be decided. Can Trump unveil and defend policy proposals and plans for a real administration? He'll need to do so to fill the time. Bluster won't carry him all the way.

And Money, Money, Money. Trump claims that he is and will be "self-financing" his campaign. And why not, since he claims that he is worth $10 billion? But, even accepting his figures, it is not clear how "liquid" his wealth is and how much he really is willing to spend in an environment where a rival or two may be able to raise and spend $500 million. Does Trump really want to spend that much? More to the point, does his daughter?

The Details. Trump has put out one detailed policy proposal, on immigration. It's full of argumentative specifics about sending people back where they came from. Politically, it's his safest issue for gaining early Republican support. But now he's said that he'll soon unveil his tax proposals. His views there aren't entirely orthodox within the GOP, which may begin to slow his momentum. Other policy proposals could prove equally complex, politically.

The Establishment. It's true that the GOP "powers that be" are largely powers that were. But they see a chance to win back the White House -- to go along with their control of Congress and, nominally, the U.S. Supreme Court -- and they will fight to the death to keep that cross-Washington control from being ruined by the likes of Trump. It will take months for them to chose their candidate, but they will. And when they do, they will unload on The Donald.

Ground Game. Trump so far has focused on mass rallies. But if he is to win in Iowa and New Hampshire -- which are essential to his chances -- he's going to have to expose himself to the unpredictable give-and-take of one-on-one conversations. He can crush campaigns rivals with a nasty comment; he dares not do that to individual voters. That would violate the pope-like foot-washing rituals of American politics.

His Core Message. The spark that started the Trump fire was racial and ethnic fear. He gained a foothold in politics by questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the U.S. He caused a sensation when he charged that many undocumented Mexican immigrants were drug dealers and rapists. Such comments gave him a base, but it is limited. Most Republicans really don't think they can win the White House with the Trump hate message.

Mistakes. No one, not even Donald Trump, gets through an entire campaign without putting a foot wrong. He will, and it will be magnified by his egotistical stance.

The GOP Convention. The Republicans won't officially settle on their presidential nominee until July 2016. This year the nominating convention will be held in Cleveland, which is the home base of another Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and isn't exactly a hotbed of radical political change. If Trump hasn't won the GOP race outright by then, he isn't going to be able to pull it together on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena.

The General Election. One of the oddities of American presidential elections is that they spend many more months deciding who wins the major party nominations than they spend deciding who wins the White House. The nominees chosen by the Republican and Democratic parties are usually saner and more moderate than the excesses they survived. That's a remnant of the still-powerful centrism, thankfully, that controls American politics. The general election doesn't roll around until November 2016. Should Trump somehow have managed to win the Republican nomination, he would still have to prove to millions of undecided middle-of-the-road voters that he was not someone from the fringes.

And if he gets that far, and manages to do that, he won't really be Donald Trump anymore.


Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   September 8, 2015    4:32 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who earned degrees from Oxford and Brown, previewed his presidential candidacy last year by unveiling a 47-page booklet of granular (if controversial) details about his record and proposals for balancing energy production and environmental protection.

Go to his website, and you will see that paper, plus other detailed position papers on education, defense and health care, and links to op-eds on those and other topics.

If you are curious about a candidate with actual policies, though, you'd better hurry. Jindal, currently running at zero percent in the polls for the 2016 Republican nomination, is headed for oblivion. 

Dr. Ben Carson, by contrast, is surging ahead. He's now at second in the GOP race even though -- or precisely because -- he has said next to nothing specific.

A neurosurgeon with degrees from Yale and Michigan, Carson doesn't bother with policy details. For example, he says he wants to reform the monstrously complex federal tax system, in part by rewriting or eliminating 74,000 pages of the Internal Revenue Code.

How? Go to his website and see! Carson explains it all in a mere 74 words, including five old standbys: "fairer, simpler and more equitable."

How about Carson on health care? You'd expect some specificity there and some nuance. He is, after all, a doctor -- one who practiced at Johns Hopkins. Carson offers a 98-word disquisition, mostly a vow to get rid of Obamacare.

To be fair, the good doctor becomes positively verbose on the topic of education. He uses 124 words to decry the state of American schools.

The discussion of substantive issues by U.S. politicians has never been mistaken for the Dialogues of Plato, or even the College Bowl. Candidates rarely are eager to spell out proposals in detail. "Why give your opponents ammo to attack?" said Larry Sabato, longtime political observer and professor at the University of Virginia. "That's been true for a long time."

But the 2016 campaign, especially on the GOP side, is setting a modern record for vacuity and even pride in ignorance about government. The widespread lack of civic education, the failure of media interest and growing public cynicism have made not knowing any details a perverse qualification for the highest office.

"There has been an anti-intellectual strain in American politics forever," said Sabato, "but now it's almost purely the person, not the positions on any issues."

On the GOP side, the candidates with the most momentum in the last month are those with the least amount of specificity in their campaigns and, it would seem, the least amount of specific policy knowledge and experience: Carson, real estate mogul Donald Trump and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

The Democrats are more substantive, befitting their belief in the positive role of government. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley are duking it out, policy speech by policy speech.

But even on the Democratic side, the man with the mo' at the moment is Joe Biden, racing upward in the polls by virtue of his avuncular smile, non-Hillaryness and zen-like status as a "candidate" who is not yet, and may never be, a candidate. The vice president obviously knows whereof he speaks, but in terms of a substantive 2016 campaign of his own, if there is one, he is saying nothing.

No one explained the new state of things better than Fiorina on Sunday's "Face the Nation." One should know the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah, she said, but common sense and nongovernment experience are what counts now.

"We have a professional political class," she said, "and 80 percent of the American people now think we have a professional political class that is either unwilling or unable to challenge the status quo of Washington and get anything done."

"I understand how the economy works," she went on. "I understand how the world works and who is in it, who are our friends and who are our enemies. I understand how big bureaucracies work, which is what Washington, D.C., has become. I understand technology and I understand leadership."

There you have it -- and don't look for any specifics on her website because there are none.

In a concession to … it's not quite clear whom … Trump recently posted his first and only detailed position paper, on immigration.

But the main action on Trump's site is elsewhere, over at the campaign store. The offerings are robust: 24 kinds of T-shirts and other apparel for men, women and children; 12 versions of "Make America Great Again" caps, just like the ones The Donald Himself wears when he steps off his jet; and "signage," including chrome-ish plastic license plate holders. The site will process your order with Amazon-like efficiency.

There's only one detail that matters: your credit card number.

Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   September 4, 2015    4:59 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- To launch a building project in New York, you need to be a ruthless, egotistical bully: intimidating bureaucrats, buying politicians and unions, and selling your dream by spinning the local media like a top.

But to finish it, you need to be adaptable. If you hit unexpected bedrock, you change the footprint. If a supplier goes bankrupt, you sue and find another. If interest rates rise and the project no longer “pencils,” you build fewer floors. If the deal falls apart, you declare it bankrupt and unapologetically stick your investors with the loss, dismissing them as greedy predators even more ruthless than you are.

Then you start over, for the goal remains the same: to get your name on yet another Taj Mahal on the island of Manhattan.

And so it is with Donald Trump, the New York-based builder/TV host who was always too scary to be a joke and who is now the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination.

He cold-bloodedly has used personal attacks; fear based on class, race and ethnicity; cynical appeals to marginal voters – and lots of his own jet fuel – to impose at least a temporary stranglehold on most of American campaign politics.

He has built his campaign foundation on the Manhattan Schist of disaffected white voters who believe in a variety of ideologies, including none at all. But there are not enough of those voters, and not enough proof that they will show up at the polls, to guarantee victory, even in a crowded field.

So now Trump must adapt. That is, he must be seen as adapting.

Trump is ever so slightly but noticeably domesticating himself: throwing fewer counter-punches, hiring politically experienced staff, soliciting small donations, pledging to remain a Republican (on his own terms), and offering somewhat less-combative statements and policy proposals.

Late this week, for example, Trump said that he would not repudiate the six-nation nuclear arms deal with Iran, comparing it to a bad contract he would inherit and work to salvage. 

Asked about the migrant crisis in Europe, where fleeing refugees from Syria are facing hardship and generating controversy, Trump said that he would “possibly” accept some in the U.S. 

Although he still relies largely on bluster and vague promises, Trump’s team is working on “position papers” on tax and foreign policy -- the former likely to include proposals for tax hikes on the rich and on hedge fund managers.

Trump has made common cause with one of his rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, on foreign policy, even though Trump earlier said that anyone who goes to work in Washington becomes “impotent” and corrupt by definition.

Confronted by GOP rules in various states that require candidates to pledge fealty to the party to run in a primary, Trump shrewdly made a virtue of political necessity. He insisted that a new national party pledge be signed by all of the GOP candidates, not just him -- assuring that the others, in a sense, must testify to his mainstream credentials. 

Trump more or less walked away from another war with a media figure, in this case influential conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. Hewitt surprised Trump by asking him to identify by name and comment on several key Middle Eastern terrorism leaders. An embarrassed and confused Trump failed the test.

Trump dismissed Hewitt as a “third-rate radio announcer,” but chose not to prolong the argument, perhaps because Hewitt is slated to be a panelist at the next TV debate.

And in a way Hewitt did him a favor: Trump will learn the names.

The Donald foreshadowed the arrival of this new, semi-domesticated self two months ago, long before rumors arose that he would sign a pledge of allegiance to the GOP. He did it by saying that he was running in the name of a new “Silent Majority.” In saying so, Trump was telling the world that his GOP role model was Richard Nixon, not Patrick J. Buchanan. 

Trump knows the history.

In 1992, “Pitchfork Pat” upset then-President George H.W. Bush in the New Hampshire GOP primary with a gut-punching, openly xenophobic populist attack. But his style and speech, which contained touches of Savonarola and Joe McCarthy, made him obviously unelectable. 

In 1968, by contrast, Nixon was the ultimate party man (former GOP representative, senator and vice president). And he ran in the name of a newly discovered “Silent Majority,” who merely wanted “law and order” -- a shrewdly benign slogan in which to wrap an appeal to racial fear.  

Nixon’s core supporters were angry about and fearful of social changes rocking the U.S. in the '60s, led by the push for racial equality. But even as he played to those fears, Nixon calmly promised the country that he would “bring us together.” He cleverly didn’t ever say who “us” was.

Trump is now moving toward his own version of the same thing. Having secured the lowest fetid ground, he is edging upward.

Has he had a change of heart? No. Does he now suddenly care about the courtesies of traditional campaigning? Hardly. His brand remains the same. It’s all about disruption and the Great Man Theory of how to solve problems.

It’s just that to build a new skyscraper, even a Great Man must act like a mortal now and then.   


Also on HuffPost:

Howard Fineman   |   August 31, 2015    2:40 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Of course Kanye West declared that he is running for president. And of course he did it in an unconventional way: during MTV's Video Music Awards. And of course some people are taking him seriously, or at least not laughing.

West's only mistake is that he isn't running until 2020. The often controversial but never dull artist should jump in now. The anti-politician thing is red, red hot.

Disruption is the way to go.

One poll this week from Iowa, where the primary season will kick off in February, found that three Republican candidates who have never held elected office -- real estate mogul/reality TV star Donald Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina -- register a combined 46 percent. Another new poll shows Trump and Carson tied for the top spot in Iowa, at 23 percent each. With Fiorina third at 10 percent, the three get a combined 56 percent.

All of the current and former elected officials running for the GOP nomination, meanwhile, are stuck in the single digits in both surveys. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents, is at an abysmal 5 or 6 percent.

On the Democratic side in Iowa, the details differ but the anti-insider theme is the same. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dropped from 57 percent in May to 37 percent now. Her main challenger, lone-wolf Senate socialist Bernie Sanders, has risen from 15 to 30 percent.

Clearly, this is a treacherous year in which to be part of the old order.

Twenty years ago, a professor at Harvard Business School named Clayton Christensen first applied the term "disruption" to the world of innovation. He was thinking of economics and business: how cell phones would replace land lines and personal computers; how LEDs would push aside light bulbs.

But the same word -- and the same process -- applies to whole societies and governments. In recent decades, most have been massively disrupted.

The Soviet Union was undermined by individualism, free markets and its own inefficiency. European nations that had been at war for a thousand years decided to try a new form of unity. The People's Republic of China launched its vast experiment in controlled capitalism. The Arab Spring tried, with some success, to sweep across the Middle East.

Perhaps the least disrupted government since 1945 has been that of the United States, which won World War II and stood astride the planet. But the "American Century" is ending. In the face of new challenges, the victor's public institutions have seized up and stalled out in ways that threaten to render them useless -- and that have left them despised and distrusted by the American public.

The reasons for public disgust are everywhere.

Congress can't be relied on to accomplish one of its most basic functions: enacting a budget. Political parties, fixated on money and voters from their extreme wings, no longer function as brokers of compromise. Washington supports a welfare state, but borrows trillions to pay for it. The military hasn't "won" a conventional war since 1991 and doesn't know how to defeat the Islamic State. Borders are porous and immigration laws a mess. Big banks are more powerful than ever; corporate CEOs are richer than ever; the middle class is neither. The advances of the civil rights movement, in the courts and legislatures, have not brought true equality and are now being rolled back. Post-Watergate reforms to campaign financing laws have been wrecked by the courts, which now allow billionaires to buy campaigns. Barack Obama, an effective president on many fronts, has failed to inspire the kind of fundamental change that so many had hoped for.

In this swamp of stalemate and dysfunction, traditional politicians -- not to mention dynastic ones -- face disruptions by outsiders. The latter seem unbound by old ways and old media; they tend to offer exciting, albeit simplistic or unrealistic answers; they appeal directly to voters' emotions and fears, rather than reciting timeworn party agendas; and they campaign with a swirl of celebrity style, sensational accusation and combative stance.

Trump, who has lapped the GOP field, is an expert at all of this. He blames America's ills on forces and people outside the U.S. -- Mexicans, Chinese and Japanese in particular. He calls all elected officials in Washington "impotent." He derides Obama and his advisers as "clueless." He vows to solve every knotty problem with his own forceful "management."

Dismissed first as a clown, then as a man on a fling, then as a summer curiosity that would fade, he is now being taken seriously by Republican operatives and mainstream commentators of many stripes.

Some conservatives see in Trump the Jeffersonian idea that each generation needs a "revolution" of the people. "Waves of populist reform come in cycles, and Trump looks like the next one," said historian Craig Shirley, a prominent biographer of Ronald Reagan. In previous centuries, leaders such as Andrew Jackson and even Teddy Roosevelt used their perceived outsider status to stoke resentment of entrenched power and promote change.

But other conservatives join some mainstream writers in worrying that Trump evokes the dangerous tropes and deliberate ignorance of an authoritarian "strong man."

"My family and I left Cuba in the late 1950s to escape a leader like him," said GOP consultant Alex Castellanos. "I'm not saying we are about to become a 'banana republic' or a communist dictatorship, but he worries me."

Conservative columnist George Will (whose wife works for another presidential candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) has raised similar alarms, as has political moderate Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.

Will derided Trump's vow to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants en masse as implicitly Nazi-like. Friedman was less apocalyptic. Trump, he wrote, reminded him of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who briefly rose to prominence in the 1950s by indiscriminately accusing government officials of being Soviet spies.

Kanye West, who entered politics in 2005 when he said President George W. Bush didn't "care about black people," hasn't taken on Trump so far.

It can't be long, though. And when it happens, it'll be one disruption against another.

Howard Fineman   |   August 25, 2015    5:06 PM ET

WASHINGTON – In 2008, the Democratic Party in the U.S. nominated one of its youngest candidates ever, and its first African-American. Everyone assumed that the choice of Barack Obama, 47, meant a new day and a new era.

But seven years later, the party’s 2016 contest is shaping up as a battle of aging white Baby Boomers for control of an ancient organization desperately in need of a fresh identity and a new wave of ideas, leaders and voters (though Hillary would be the first woman to win the nomination).

Democrats like to brag that they have been in continuous operation for two centuries, longer than any other major political party in the free world.

It certainly feels like it.

With the possible (perhaps even likely) entry of Vice President Joe Biden, 72, the contest will become an old-fashioned tale of palace intrigue, as he and Hillary Rodham Clinton maneuver for the favor and endorsement of the president.

And a three-way race with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would feature the three sub-brands that have dominated and defined the Democratic Party on campus and in the country since the 1960s. In chronological order, here they are:

KENNEDY GUY: From a large, well-connected and prosperous family that had fallen on hard times, Biden was a prep-school kid and college athlete with affable blue-collar charm and a mixture of political instincts and faith in Catholic “social gospel.” In other words, a Kennedy Democrat and fan of touch football.

An elected official since 1973, Biden is at one with the party’s ancestral big-city tribes: labor unions, Black mayors, Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek and other business people. If he runs, his closest advisers tell The Huffington Post, he will do so with a sense of moral urgency about the Democrats’ failures to close the ever-widening gap between the rich and the rest.

As for the world, he would run as the anti-ideological dealmaker in the Kennedy manner, with “street cred” from decades of travel and work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and two terms at President Barack Obama’s side.

"NEW LEFT" INTELLECTUAL: Sen. Bernie Sanders, 73, Brooklyn-born of the New Deal and '60s-era “New Left”; the “Democratic Socialist” with “non-negotiable demands” to tax the rich, shackle global corporations, block free-trade agreements, limit immigration (in the name of saving existing working-class jobs), bestow new government benefits on students and the poor, and oppose most military interventions.

COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER: Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67, quintessence of the “neo-liberal” Democratic establishment: in college, a critic of the “System” whom the faculty nevertheless trusted because she got all A's and didn’t lead a sit-down strike in the Administration Building. Religiously devout and a one-time Republican, molded by “rights” movements – on behalf of race, gender, children, sexual orientation – she also agreed with husband Bill that power lay in “neo-liberal” centrism. She's friendly to Wall Street (and its donors), in favor of the death penalty, champions free trade, has correct but not close relations with unions, supports a muscular foreign and military policy, and has a personal yen for wealth. 

As recognizable as these three characters are, it’s not clear how convincing any of them can be.

Sanders is drawing the large crowds, and the allegiance of some of the same kinds of voters who idolized Obama in 2008. But Sanders has drawn the ire of the Black Lives Matter movement, which argues that Bernie’s Scandinavian socialist model is fatally blind to the racism and intolerance that are the most important cause of global economic inequality.

Clintonism, with its faith in the power of a cautiously regulated marketplace to lift all boats, seems to many Democrats to be just as outdated. The so-called “Washington Consensus” that emerged in the Bill Clinton years held that business investment would yield not only profit but also democracy in post-communist societies. The main result is that the rich got richer.

As for Biden, the question is whether the Kennedy model can still sell, and if so, whether he is the man to do it after so many years of life and service. His advisers say he still has the passion and purpose and what one called “bold, go-big” ideas to create a more just society.

No one doubts his heart or his sincerity; he is the least political lifelong politician in history.

But he has made a lot of compromises over a 43-year career in Washington. Perhaps the most damaging in today’s political context is a 1994 crime bill he authored that is now regarded as the proximate cause of the “mass incarceration” of minorities (and doubling of the U.S. prison population since). 

If Biden is to have a chance, he’ll have to somehow reach out to minority voters, who so far seem cool to or even estranged from Sanders and Clinton. 

He’d also have to somehow reach out to a new version of the party that is out there waiting to be born. It is a yet-to-be-defined mashup of Black Lives Matter; pro-immigration activism; non-European cultural consciousness; tolerance of all religions, lifestyles and genders; genuine urgency about the fate of the planet; confidence in technology, social media and the sharing economy; and skepticism about America’s right, power and duty to lead the world.

Forging and leading that new coalition is not going to be easy, no matter what your age. It seems unlikely that the Three Musketeers of the Baby Boom can do it.

To paraphrase the Rolling Stones from 1964, time isn’t on their side.

Howard Fineman   |   August 21, 2015    3:52 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Rand Paul's campaign is teetering on the edge, with the once-trendy presidential candidate telling fellow Kentucky Republicans that his chances of winning the 2016 GOP nomination are no better than "1 in 10."

"Actually, his chances are probably more like 1 in 50," said University of Kentucky professor Al Cross, the dean of the state's political observers. "He's kind of disappeared on us."

Paul gained a small victory Saturday when the Kentucky GOP voted to move the state’s nominating event from May to March, which allows the candidate to continue to run for the White House next year and campaign for another term in the U.S. Senate. Under state law, he would not have been able to do both.

Paul has promised to pay for the earlier primary, which he may come to regret as his own fundraising efforts have not met earlier expectations.

Rand Paul, the son of onetime Libertarian Party presidential candidate and former GOP Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), broke onto the national scene in 2010. An eye surgeon with no elective experience, he defeated McConnell's handpicked candidate in the GOP primary that year and went on to win the Senate seat in a tea party wave.

Three years later, he electrified the Senate and won libertarian (and even liberal) plaudits by staging a passionate filibuster against the possibility of drone strikes on U.S. soil.

At the start of the 2016 campaign, he was regarded as a top White House contender, and he was consistently running in the top three or four of the GOP field as recently as May. This week he is running far back in the pack, in the eighth or ninth spot, with an average of 4.3 percent among likely Republican voters.

What's wrong with Rand?

BEHEADINGS. Paul's initial appeal was as a certified libertarian skeptic of the use of military force abroad. He was right about trouble in Iraq, but over the last two years the rise of the Islamic State has muted his potential appeal to the GOP grassroots. In response, Paul has shifted to a more muscular stance on military force, which seems like the kind of politics-as-usual move he claims to hate. "He got caught in a changing international situation," Cross said.

TRUMP. Like everyone else, Paul has been overshadowed by the rocketing rise of celebrity-pol Donald Trump. But Paul, too, was trying to run as a nonpolitical figure -- even calling himself "Dr. Paul" in campaign ads. On that score, Trump makes him look like a rank insider.

Trump has even outmaneuvered Paul on Iraq, portraying himself as more of a dove on Iraq than Paul has been doing lately.

MONEY. Not a wealthy man, Paul had been counting on his father's web-based "money bomb" fundraising pushes. He did raise $7 million in the second quarter of this year, but that still left him halfway back in the pack -- and that money is being split with his potential Senate campaign.

Unlike rivals Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, Paul has been unable to find any billionaire backers.

LEGAL TROUBLE. Not for Paul, but for one of his former key aides, Jesse Benton, who has pleaded innocent to charges that he was involved in bribing an Iowa politician during the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Benton was working for Ron the father at the time, but the case is being heard in Iowa and will continue to produce headlines there.

MEH MITCH. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell are not friends. They are, at best, uncomfortable allies. When Paul announced his presidential campaign, McConnell said that he supported his fellow Kentuckian, but also that he would not campaign for him, citing the fact that there were at least two other Senate Republicans in the race.  No one seriously thinks that McConnell wants Paul to win.

NO FEEL. Local political observers say that Paul doesn't get the rhythm and the requirements of early-state campaigning. In Iowa, Huffington Post contributor Samantha-Jo Roth reports, he jams as many events as possible into a short visit. Doing so misses the point in Iowa, where candidates are supposed to listen and converse patiently -- and endlessly -- with voters.

But then if things keep going the way they are, Rand Paul may not have to worry about campaigning in Iowa -- or anywhere else but Kentucky.

Howard Fineman   |   July 24, 2015   10:58 PM ET

WASHINGTON – In person, Donald Trump is a bit larger than life. He is tall, and his shelf of tangerine hair makes him appear taller. He exudes a calm aura that doesn’t seem to have stemmed from a gym workout, but rather a sauna, and perhaps a manicure. In conversation (I  have had a couple with him over the years), he wears the indulgent smile of a man who knows the exact hierarchy of power in the room. He’s atop it. You’re not.

In sum, he is insufferable -- and fascinating.

Now, of course, he is the most reviled man in American politics, even as (or because) he leads in many (mostly meaningless) polls. Trump is widely dismissed as a fraudulent, egomaniacal clown; a cynical showman and racist, spewing invective and fear for the sole purpose of advancing his personal “brand.” As a real estate mogul and reality television star, he behaves as though adherence to facts is the habit of weaklings. Strong men lie.

Like an engine running too hot -- whining constantly that he is being “misquoted,” spewing accusations in all directions -- Trump could well break down after providing a few month’s worth of annoyingly cheeky entertainment. 

In the meantime, though, it’s worth facing this truth: In many ways, Trump is the all too-logical result of corrosive currents that have been gathering force for decades in public life. To a degree greater than we want to admit, we have created the conditions that allow him to flourish.

Trump, sad to say, is us. Here is a list of trends that have enabled him:


Distrust of government is a bred-in-the-bone feature of American politics. But a paralyzing sense of disgust is something else, and has been growing since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. In 1973, for example, 42 percent of voters in a Gallup poll said that they had a “great deal or quite a lot” of faith in Congress. Today, that number is a pathetic 8 percent -- the lowest on record.

It’s the same story with popular culture. The popular and much-praised Netflix show “House of Cards” centers on a murderous president who urinates on his father’s grave and spits on a statue of Jesus.

Enter Donald Trump. No, he is not a politician. No, he doesn’t have intimate knowledge about or experience in government. That would ruin him! He ridicules politicians in every direction: Sen. John McCain for being captured in the Vietnam War; the former governor of Texas for being dumb. Trump is the cleansing, can-do Deus ex machine.  

Immigration failures

One reason why voters hate Congress and the federal bureaucracy is that both have failed for decades to deal comprehensively with immigration. This is everyone’s fault. President Barack Obama didn’t want to spend political capital on a comprehensive deal in his first term; besides, he was happy to let Republicans trap themselves in a demographic corner of Hispanic enmity. Republicans, for their part, can’t resist playing to their nativist, anti-foreigner core of tea party voters. Would-be compromisers, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), gave up and gave in. They are playing to fear.

But in so doing, they opened the door for a far more professional fearmonger in Donald Trump. He’s built a whole sideline in denouncing what he sees as the depredations of foreign forces, from China and Mexico to Iran and Russia. Never mind that a good bit of Trump’s branding business is outside of the U.S. The world is against us, and Mexico is sending us “rapists” and drug dealers.

Short attention span

Eight years ago, Obama was the Facebook candidate, his rise powered by the 20 million “friends” he made in that collegial, familial medium. But Facebook is so 2007. Trump is made for a more contentious time in social media, a new era of distraction and accusation. He speaks loudly, simply, bluntly -- as if from the street, not the suite. His patented phrase is a clipped sentence of doom: “You’re fired!” He is made for the machine-gun burst of Twitter, where feuds explode instantly and anonymity and instantaneously generate controversy. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj have their feud, but The Donald has 3.34 million Twitter followers -- many times more than any of his Republican rivals.

Money doesn't just talk -- it shouts

Candidates' traditional hunt for campaign contributions turned to frenzy after the U.S. Supreme Court said corporations and labor unions could “independently” spend as much as they wanted touting candidates. Enter the billionaires, such as the Koch brothers in the GOP, and Tom Steyer among Democrats. 

Trump is just taking the next logical step -- one that Ross Perot anticipated 24 years ago. If you are a billionaire (and Trump claims to be one many times over), why bother buying a candidate when you can be the candidate yourself? The flood of money already has dulled the outrage about it. It seems like a force of nature that it is useless to resist.

And there is something else at work: a weird sense of working-class dream-world solidarity with Trump, whose message is that if he is president, everyone will be rich, just like he is. At a time when so many Americans see genuine upward mobility as impossible -- The Donald himself has declared that the “American Dream is dead” -- why not believe in a man who knows how to work the engines of salesmanship to amass wealth for himself?

It's as though Trump’s very being is somehow proof that the dream is still alive.

Substance-free celebrity

Notoriety is the iron ore of our era. It’s less important what you know or what you have done than what impression you make or how much fame you possess. Indeed, fame has become fungible; you can transport it from one arena of public life to another.

Until recently, entertainers (and Trump is essentially one) felt required to serve a mid-life apprenticeship if they wanted to enter government. Ronald Reagan went from actor to president, but only after serving as governor of California. Comedian Al Franken, a Harvard grad, educated himself by writing (funny) political books and hosting a wonky public affairs radio show a long stretch. Only then did he run for (and win) the U.S. Senate.

Trump the celebrity has watered down his apprenticeship. He has been a contributor, and a kibitzer in New York for years, a dilettante whose major substantive contribution until now was his “political campaign” to discredit Obama as a man who had been born in Kenya.

Trump feels no need to have detailed proposals, or any real proposals at all. He will build an impenetrable wall on the Mexican border (though he backpedaled frantically when his new “friends” in Laredo, Texas, told him in public that it was a bad idea). He will “create millions of jobs.” How, no one knows. He will stop the Chinese from taking advantage of us in trade, no one knows how. He will stand up to Iran, no one knows how. He will protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, no one knows how.

Knowing details, like telling the truth, is the habit of wimps.

If it bleeds, it leads 

Media in general and TV networks in particular (especially cable) can’t take their eyes and cameras off of a gruesome scene on the highway. Trump is a never-ending car crash of controversy, accusation, bile and baloney. In the midst of the summer ratings doldrums on cable, he has been a godsend.

The political divide on American cable and in digital media makes Trump even more attractive. GOP-leaning Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdoch, features non-stop coverage of the Republican race. It can’t avoid Trump even if it wanted to, which it doesn’t, though he threatens to turn the GOP contest into a circus. Mayhem means ratings. MSNBC, the ideological counterpoint to Fox, loves Trump for the same reason: He can make a mess of the GOP.

The party's over

American voters no longer identify themselves politically by their allegiance to a political party. A large plurality now call themselves “independents.”  Trump offers himself as the denouement of this slow-motion collapse, telling the GOP that if they don’t play fair with him, he could run as third-way force that would all but guarantee the election of a Democrats, if not of Trump himself.

Trump’s policy positions, such as they are, are a shrewd mix of Columns A and B on the restaurant menus of the existing parties. He is not running against the “welfare” state, but rather offers himself as a protector of it. He’s not suggesting massive tax cuts, either. He does not kowtow to the powerful evangelical Christian wing of the GOP.

At the same time, he ridicules the Obama administration as weak and corrupt, especially in its dealings with other countries and peoples. He decries the ineptitude of government as a whole. He scorns regulatory controls on business.

The answer to every knotty problem is that he, Donald Trump, will “make America great again.” That’s what it says on his white cap, and there is nothing more American these days than that simple, almost desperate, slogan. 

Howard Fineman   |   July 16, 2015    6:13 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Despite the controversy in Congress and on cable TV about the nuclear arms agreement with Iran, the view in the diplomatic community here is calm, clear and simple: “It’s a done deal,” said one key ambassador.

President Barack Obama argues that the seven-nation deal merits support for its own sake. Anyone who reads the whole document, he says, will come away convinced that it does what the U.S. and its allies set out to do: to deny Iran, at least for a decade or more, the ability to build a bomb.

But whether Obama is correct on the internal details or not, there are external reasons to think that the G-7 envoy I spoke with was right that Obama would get his way.

Here’s a list:

Saudi caution. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are furiously opposed to the deal. As recent WikiLeaks cables show, the Sunni Saudis view Shiite-led Iran as its moral foe in the global theological war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim faithful.

Critics worry that Iran, invigorated by post-sanctions cash and renewed economic ties to major trading partners, will go on a buying spree that will prompt a Sunni response -- and spawn a new conventional arms race in the region.

But don’t expect the Saudis to fill the U.S. airwaves with anti-Iran warnings, or the halls of Congress with lobbyists or sheiks.

“They don’t operate that way,” said an American advisor to the kingdom. “They are never going to disagree here with a president in public. Why? Because they want to maintain the trust of presidents. They think that if they undercut this one, why would the next president trust them?”

Israel alone.  With potential allies seething but silent, the Jewish state is in a tough spot. Obama admits that Israel’s fearfulness is justified. At the same time, the president lumps Israel’s elected leader in with Republicans he accuses of mindlessly opposing the deal for political reasons.

in part, the Netanyahu government has brought this predicament on itself. By openly, aggressively and even operationally allying itself with the GOP in Washington and at the grassroots, Israel has turned itself into the partisan player it never had been. Now, Republicans will line up as one, if for no other reason than they reject everything Obama does. But such partisan rancor flows both ways. Some Democrats who otherwise might vote against the deal will stick with Obama if for no other reason than that the GOP is for it.

Grease for squeaky wheels. Although Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (and the Pentagon, for that matter) warn that Iran will start a new regional arms race, they're willing to augment it by demanding upgrades of their own weaponry from the U.S. "They're going to demand to be taken care of and they will be," said the G-7 ambassador. In fact, Obama said as much in his press conference. 

Follow the money. Obama rightly noted that other nations aren’t eager to continue the ironbound economic sanctions imposed on Iran in recent years. But he hasn't really explained why. It's not so much that they want to buy oil from Iran. It’s that they want to sell goods, services and financing to Iran.

A good example is the German industrial giant Siemens. Germany and Siemens have a long and lucrative history in Iran. But by insisting on a “secondary” embargo on Iran, the U.S. told foreign companies that, if they traded with Iran, they could not conduct new business in America.

Siemens, General Electric’s main global competitor, was forced to forego billions of dollars worth of sales of industrial equipment and services in Iran if it wanted to keep its U.S. business.

Now Siemens –- and the German government -- want that Iranian business back. Same for France, the U.K., Russia and China.

(Ironically, the new deal won't free U.S. companies to renew business in Iran, at least for a time.)

Hillary's deal, too. More hawkish by nature and by record than some Democrats, and historically close to Israel’s strongest supporters in the U.S., Hillary Clinton might have kept some distance from a deal like the one Obama struck. But of course she could not. As Obama's secretary of state, she had been a part of the process that led to the talks. In some senses, the deal is hers as much as the president’s. That’s of course even more true for another top Democrat and former presidential candidate, Secretary of State John Kerry. He literally broke his leg to get the deal.

 U.N. and EU. As Obama notes, the U.S. is only part of the sanctions regime, although his leadership was crucial to tightening it. The United Nations Security Council and the European Union conceivably could end sanctions on their own, whatever the Congress does. If the U.S. wants to maintain a measure of control, it has little choice but to go along.

Iranians 'R Us. Quietly but effectively, the Iranian diaspora in the U.S. and in Europe has been making the case that the bloodthirsty mullahs of Teheran can best be tamed by renewed trade and contact with the West and the world.

It’s not surprising that they would think that way, in that most of them are educated professionals who fled their homeland after the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah.

Whether their view is realistic or not, it is stirring, hopeful and heartfelt. Activists such as Soroush Richard Shehabi, a Harvard-trained business leader in Washington, have allied with anti-Netanyahu Israelis and American Jews on a host of issues. They can be effective now.

They have key allies in the White House, such as National Security Adviser Susan Rice and her deputy, former speechwriter Ben Rhodes.

It's good to be president. In the end, presidents usually get their way on international deals. The major exception was Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He helped found the League of Nations after World War I, but couldn’t convince Republicans in the Senate to allow the U.S. to join. Sounds familiar, but this time the result will likely be different.

It’s about the math.  Obama and his allies on the Iran deal call it a “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” -- not a treaty. As a result, the president doesn’t need to get “yeas” from two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. He only needs to get one-third, plus one.

Planet Politics: Germany Takes The Lead

Howard Fineman   |   July 13, 2015    8:03 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Germany finally is admitting the obvious.

Two generations and 70 years after a war that left it divided and in ruins, Germany is once again willing not only to play a leading role in Europe -- which it's been doing for years -- but to discuss its role openly and even proudly.

That was the clear message on Monday here from German Ambassador Peter Wittig, who invited reporters to his vast, coolly geometric Bauhaus-style embassy to explain the view of his country -- and the European Union -- on the controversial new financing deal for Greece.

Germany, he said, was acting in the interest of all of Europe, which needs not only a common currency but the integration of “economic and fiscal policy.” In a “rule-oriented” European Union, he said, Greece must accept the same austerity and budget-balancing medicine that had been administered -- with success, he said -- to Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Europe needed to unify and modernize its labor rules, regulations and investment rules to compete in 21st century trade, Wittig said. If Germany was blamed for insisting on as much, then that was a price it would pay, in the interest of a “European project” that has bred peace and prosperity on the continent.

Well-liked and well-connected here, and sure of his ground in talking with Americans, Wittig acknowledged that “there is concern” in Germany about a backlash from its allies against its highly visible role as the bad cop in the Greek drama.

“Leadership comes with strong criticism,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “We are not used to that, quite frankly.

“The U.S. is used to that for a long, long time -- basically 70 years after the second World War. U.S. leadership usually comes with the difficult task to satisfy everybody, but certainly not with great applause and curtain calls.

“Now, that is nature of leadership in the greater community of nations,” he said. “And of course we are facing criticism. Do we like that? I guess, no. I think it also something fairly new in our sort of collective consciousness. But it happens, and it comes along with leadership.”

Asked what role the U.S. -- specifically U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew -- had played in the Greek crisis, Wittig's answer was polite but clear: The U.S. had offered valuable advice and counsel. That is, the U.S. had had no role whatsoever.

In fact, Germany had ignored Lew’s suggestion that Greece needed debt relief and not just another dose of austerity.

Wittig’s open willingness to compare German’s role in Europe to America’s in the world -- and to even proudly admit its role -- was remarkable, at least to some ears here.

“It’s an inflection point, a big change,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama administration official who now studies European affairs at the Brookings Institution. “Germany has preferred to keep a low profile when it can.”

It no longer can, especially since its hard-line stance on fiscal policy drove it to insist on taking the lead in this case.

Even more remarkable than the talk was the action, said Shapiro. Despite a lot of chatter about how France was crucial in the last hours of the negotiations, and how other EU nations were on board, Germany was clearly in the lead at the end.

France, Spain and Italy -- “a big bloc,” said Shapiro -- were far from enthusiastic. The German cheering section comes mainly from smaller nations such as Finland, Slovakia and the Baltic countries, whose main concern is not the fate of Greece but protection for themselves from Russia.

“It’s a little like the coalition that President George W. Bush put together for the second Iraq War,” said Shapiro. “It’s less than meets the eye. And the economic plan is crazy.”

It may be like the second Iraq War for another reason: macroeconomics. The predominant Keynesian view -- still prevalent among academics and many policy-makers outside of debt-obsessed Germany -- is that doubling down on an austerity program for Greece is a folly sure to fail.

Wittig disagreed, not only as a matter of policy but also of domestic politics. EU founding rules forbids “bailouts,” he argued. Moreover, “haircuts” -- forgiveness of intergovernmental loans -- are politically indefensible in Germany. “Greece isn’t the only democracy in Europe,” he said.

As for rifts in Europe, he said, these can be managed, and it will be up to Germany -- openly the power broker -- to handle them.

“Whatever fault lines have been emerging,” he said, "we are hopeful that we can manage them -- to soothe and reconcile divergences that have been merging -- and also maybe criticism and misunderstandings or perceptions of nations.”

Throughout the talks, he said, the Germans and the Greeks had remained cordial, and would continue to be so, he said.

“The German foreign minister met with his Greek counterpart frequently. He, by the way, speaks in excellent German, due to a German wife.

“There was always a bond, a channel of communication open, and there was never any feeling of hostility or of calling out -- and this happened even at the height of the crisis.”

Greece Is Just The Beginning Of The Great Austerity Backlash

Howard Fineman   |   July 6, 2015    7:44 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The global politics of austerity seeped into the press room of the White House on Monday, the day after the Greeks voted overwhelmingly to reject a harsh bailout deal with Europe.

Reporters pressed Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s spokesman, for details of what his boss thought of the vote and of the bailout deal, and whether he agreed with 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that the latter was outrageous. Earnest answered with streams of polite words that added up to ... nothing. Obama was staying out of the issue, as he apparently had promised German Chancellor Angela Merkel he would when they met at the G-7 summit recently.

Obama favors “a package of relief and reform,” was all Earnest would say.

Nevertheless, the exchange with reporters in Washington was another of the many signs that the debate over the power that should accrue to money -- and what those who wield it can fairly demand -- is spreading around the world.

It’s a new echo on a global scale of the politics of a much earlier, but in some ways remarkably similar, era in the U.S. As the U.S. became a continental economy in the late 19th century, with vast new hordes of wealth built in railroads, coal, electricity and communications, a political backlash arose. The new “money power” was judged too big and uncontrollable: an engine not of prosperity, but of inequality and corruption. The backlash launched America's Progressive movement, which among other reforms pushed laws to rein in the power of big corporations in the interests of ordinary people.

Now that the planet’s economies have essentially become one, and the world’s top dozen banks control $30 trillion in assets, the callous demands of a new and even larger “money power” is starting to spark a worldwide backlash.

Even the ever-cautious Obama has alluded to it. This past winter, he defended Greece, saying that “you can’t keep squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression” to pay off debt and warning that "eventually the political system, the society can’t sustain it.”

Around the same time, he sent the U.S. Congress a budget proposal with many new spending plans, declaring that it was time to end the “mindless austerity” of his Republican foes. They responded by proposing their stingiest budget plan in years.

This fall, Obama will again be battling the Republican Party over cutting spending to reduce debt -- even as he declines to get involved in the more intense version of the same debate going on in Europe.

Europe, meanwhile, is likely to see the Greek anti-austerity sentiment spread -- in the first instance to Portugal and Spain, which have national elections this fall and winter, respectively. Governments in both countries are responding to heavy borrowing and debt with controversial austerity measures sure to be at issue with the voters. French and Italian national elections are much further away, but the leftist parties in each nation have been invigorated by the fight in Athens. Representatives of parties and movements in all four countries were on the scene in Greece this week, cheering on the Syriza party and trying to learn from its victories and mistakes.

The leftists face long odds despite growing evidence that what British economist John Maynard Keynes warned during the Great Depression (and what Obama said this winter) remains true: You can’t “squeeze” a country into prosperity. Just the opposite, in fact.

This was something the founders of the International Monetary Fund understood. Their original aim was to provide guidance to national governments in economic distress but also to feed in more money where needed, not cut it back. Today the IMF has become something akin to a collection agency, insisting on harsh measures that guarantee the repayment of loans made to vulnerable countries by private global banks.

Something has to change, as the Greeks declared with their vote this weekend.

Planet Politics: The Bushes Are Back

Howard Fineman   |   June 15, 2015    4:08 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- America’s founders hated what Thomas Jefferson called “an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth.”

So you have to wonder what they would think of Barbara Pierce Bush, the 90-year-old, snowy-haired, tart-tongued, blue-blooded matriarch of the Bush family dynasty, who grew up in the wealthy New York suburb of Rye.

She is the distant cousin of one president (Franklin Pierce), the spouse of one president (George Herbert Walker Bush), the mother of another president (George Walker Bush) and the mother of another son who Monday announced that he, too, is running for president: John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

Is Jeb Bush “artificial” and thus doomed to be resented and dismissed by average (Jeffersonian) American voters? Is he the kind of aristocrat -- self-made of his own “virtues and talents” -- that Jefferson praised and that American voters often have elected?

We’re about to find out.

As of Monday, being a Bush has been as much (if not more) of a burden than it has been a blessing for Jeb. His family contacts have allowed to him to build a war chest of perhaps $100 million. He has built-in contacts in key states and has no trouble getting attention.

But he has been hampered by questions about his older brother’s controversial record, especially George W.’s fateful decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Almost everyone else in America, including his hawkish rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, have now branded the Iraq War an ignorant, colossal mistake.

And yet Jeb seemed surprised when asked about it, and at first defended his brother out of what he said was family loyalty. After days of dodging hesitation, he finally joined with rest.

And he has the burden of inheriting, by inference, his father and brother’s reputations as relative ideological moderates, especially by the Tea Party standards of today’s hard-right GOP.

Jeb has tried to prove his conservative bona fides by being stoutly opposed to abortion and gay marriage. But his family’s history of more open-minded views make Jeb’s own cautious moderation on immigration and public education all the more suspect to the right.

Bush unveiled his campaign slogan Monday and it was one word and an exclamation point -- "Jeb!" -- with no mention of "Bush."

As he enters the race, Jeb is in an unusual position for a member of such a prominent, if not historic, family: not really a clear front-runner, and nowhere near a prohibitive favorite.

The smartest money at this moment is on two much younger men, both more conservative and utterly self-made: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

In theory, the world’s oldest modern democracy should see a constant churn of names and faces in high places. In truth, political dynasties in America are common and, arguably, becoming more so at a time when Big Money -- personal and corporate -- means so much to the conduct of elections.

And with Jeb’s announcement, the United States and the world face at least the possibility of a 2016 campaign between two dynasties: the Bushes and the Clintons.

And it would be a familiar exercise. From 1980 through 2008, the U.S. conducted seven general elections with a Bush or Clinton on the ballot.

There are advantages to the Bush name and tradition -- and not just connections and access to a giant contributor list.

The Bushes “aren’t the freshest fruit in the basket,” said historian Evan Thomas, who has written extensively on the family. “But they appeal because, to a lot of people, they project an old-fashioned image of service to the country.”

They also have a knack for embodying elements of social change -- a kind of dynasty by adaptation, if you will. H.W. Bush moved to Texas as a young man, just when the U.S. “Sun Belt” was becoming the base of the new Republican Party; George W. cemented that trend and built upon it.

Jeb Bush settled in Florida, now the ultimate “swing” state. And, as fate would have it, he is well positioned to woo the now most influential voting bloc: Hispanics. He speaks fluent Spanish, and has been married since 1974 to Columba Garnica de Gallo Bush of Leon, Mexico. The couple has three children, one now in politics, too.

When Jeb and Columba’s kids were young, the first President Bush referred to them jokingly as “the little brown ones.” The comment was seen as a colossal gaffe; now it’s a potent truth.

In his two terms as governor of Florida, from 1999 to 2007, Jeb Bush -- pushed along by the rightward drift of his party -- took mostly conservative political positions: pro-life, anti-gay marriage, pro-massive tax cuts and anti-business regulation. There were exceptions, on environmental issues, immigration and education standards, but he moved to the right on those and others as he prepared to launch an appeal to the GOP’s core voters.

All the while he and the family have kept their ties to their old base in New England -- roots symbolized by the Bush summer home at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, on the Atlantic coast of Maine. Jeb is even building a vacation home in the family compound. It’ll be ready next summer.

“The Bushes have the capacity to embody shifting demographic realities,” said historian Jon Meacham, whose book on the first President Bush, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush, will be published in November by Random House. “It’s the combination of Walker’s Point (in Maine) with Texas and Florida that has made them a durable political force.”

What some might call aristocracy by adaptation others call by less flattering terms: elitism and the power of corporate money.

The Bushes are all too aware that now is not a moment to be thought of as a professional politician, let alone the scion of a political dynasty. American voters -- indeed, voters worldwide -- have soured on politics as it falls ever more tightly into the grip of ultra-rich individuals and global corporations.

Even Republicans -- the party of business, tax cuts and corporate power -- are facing a grassroots rebellion with the kind of populist fervor that could make life difficult for Jeb Bush.

“I sincerely hope the Bushes are done,” said a top GOP strategist who is working for one of Jeb’s Republican rivals.

“The only thing he has got is name recognition and establishment money,” said this adviser, who insisted on anonymity. “And he would be the worst of all candidates to run against Hillary, because we would lose the advantage on the ‘dynasty” argument.”

Jeb, at 62 years of age, has another, more personal burden: The elder Bushes have always considered him their child most suited to be president. Failure now would be a bitter family scenario.

Jeb was the “smart one” -- the academic, almost wonky one. He was a superb student at the University of Texas. He enjoys reading detailed papers as much as his older brother, former President George Walker Bush, enjoys reading the sports pages. He is the master of every topic he discusses, which are many. Most of the time he can duck and dodge skillfully, or take a stand and drive his point home.

And he is tall -- 6’3”, or 1.92 meters, a good 4 inches or more taller than W. This matters to the Bush family: they like tall and lanky. It comports with their idea of themselves. In 1991, at a White House state dinner hosted by his father and mother, George W. joked to Queen Elizabeth that he was “the black sheep in the family.” He meant, in part, the runt.

Two years after their father lost a bid for a second term, Jeb and George in 1994 began their political journeys to the top. Jeb ran for governor of Florida; George for governor of Texas.

The assumption outside the family was that Jeb would win and George would lose. The hope WITHIN the family was that, if only one of them could win, it would be Jeb.

But, to almost everyone’s shock and surprise, it went the other way -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Twenty-one years after his early train to the White House ran off the rails -- and after years of soul searching, family heartache (a daughter with drug addiction troubles) and a religious conversion to Catholicism -- Jeb is in.

In the summer of 1994, I flew with him in a small plane across central Florida. He was on his way to a campaign stop in that first, ultimately unsuccessful run for governor.

We flew over the Everglades, the vast, precious and famously threatened wetlands and wildlife refuge. He looked down at the lush expanse below and launched into a discussion of how the water flowed in a shallow invisible river.

In the air, he sounded like a knowledgeable would-be public servant.

But when we landed at a small rural airport in central Florida, a group of his father’s old political retainers and allies came out to the plane to greet him. They didn’t know him well, but they treated him with automatic respect, affection and loyalty.

It did seem a little aristocratic.

Anti-Globalism Has Its Day In DC

Howard Fineman   |   June 12, 2015    4:32 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The American capital isn't Madrid or Rome, let alone Athens. No people are massing in the streets, governments aren't collapsing and no one is threatening national bankruptcy.

Still, in its own way, the American political system on Friday dared (in at least one legislative vote) to question the benefits of globalization, reflecting the mood of European protesters that have soured on austerity and the power of the European Union.

The U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession more successfully than much of the rest of the world. But at the same time, the gap between the richest and the rest has grown into a chasm of historic proportions. In real terms, wages of average Americans haven't moved upward in more than a decade. Meanwhile, CEO pay has skyrocketed.

The House, led by President Barack Obama's erstwhile Democratic allies, derailed his push for a sweeping new trade agreement with 11 Asian countries, and other technical measures designed to enhance the global flow of investment, jobs, manufacturing and telecommunications.

After decades of supporting such deals -- backed by U.S. corporations, establishment opinion leaders and presidents past and present -- a coalition of Republicans and Democrats said no, for now.

The long-term benefits of unfettered global trade, such as they are, are less vivid and dramatically evident than a closed factory, a payroll cut in half or an American company unable to adapt to waves of cheap imports from Asia. This is especially true in the U.S. industrial heartland of the Midwest, but also in much of rural America, where patriotism and resentment of outsiders can sometimes play a larger role in the equation.

Past trade bills have “ruined millions of middle-class jobs,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D), whose Michigan constituency has been hard-hit.

There are numerous lesser reasons why Obama lost the vote as well. For most of his six years in office, he and his superbly credentialed -- but often arrogant and insular -- aides have shown nothing but disdain for the workings of Congress and its members. The president went to a baseball game here on Thursday specifically to plead his case with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents a constituency -- San Francisco -- that is as ardently pro-free-trade as any in the country. He went to Capitol Hill Friday morning to plead his case en masse to Democrats.

Pelosi and a large contingent of Obama's own party, however, ended up voting against him.

In voting to put the trade deals on an unpalatable "fast track" earlier, the U.S. Senate inserted -- and the White House accepted -- a provision to pay for retraining workers by cutting federal health care spending by $700 million. That gave House Democrats the tactical opening they needed.

There was also the fact that the details of the deals are effectively secret: Members of Congress can only read them in a secure room without being able to make copies. That mechanism -- fairly routine in trade talks -- did nothing but add to suspicion and cries of elitism around the world.

But there are deeper issues at play.

Poll after poll shows that American voters know that free trade in theory can be a good thing -- and that in any case it's all but inevitable -- and yet they are increasingly skeptical about whether the benefits of it are spread equitably.

What good is a cheaper imported shirt from, say, Vietnam, if you don't have a good enough job to afford it in the first place? And what about the fact that the average CEO now makes more than 300 times the salary of the average worker -- 10 times the ratio of 20 years ago?

These are some of the same questions being asked across Southern Europe by populist movements that have shaken governments, particularly in Italy, Greece and Spain.

Here, there are no workers in the streets. In Washington's way, it was all handled by the lobbyists -- and for once (and it rarely happens these days), the labor unions and their allies won.

Obama & Co. will be back. The need to strengthen Asian trading ties as China rockets to supremacy in the East may in the end be the president's most urgent and effective sales point.

But if American workers are going to be put at risk in the process, Obama needs to admit it, and explain his case more clearly.