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Bill Clinton Launches Charm Offensive For Alison Lundergan Grimes In Coal Country

Howard Fineman   |   August 4, 2014    1:22 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's a good thing for embattled Democrats here in Kentucky that Bill Clinton loves to play golf.

Because he does, and because his foundation supports wellness programs, the Professional Golfers' Association is giving him an award at the all-star PGA tournament that begins in Louisville this week at the Valhalla Golf Club.

When the award was announced last month, Clinton called the U.S. Senate campaign of Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and volunteered to do an event.

So on Wednesday, the former president and 35-year-old Grimes will travel to the town of Hazard, in the hard-hit Eastern Kentucky coalfields, to explain why she -- and not 72-year-old incumbent GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell -- is a friend of coal. Clinton and Grimes will talk about how to spur the economy in Southern Appalachia, and how to revive, but also move beyond, its carbon-based industries. Along with the substantive discussion, Clinton will "bubba it up," predicts Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway. "He is the best there is."

Kentuckians can expect to see Clinton in Grimes' TV spots, Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst told The Huffington Post. And the campaign expects the former president to be back in person in the fall, perhaps more than once.

As far as Democrats in Kentucky are concerned, Bill Clinton is still president, and Hillary Clinton soon will follow him in the office. Two words Democrats rarely utter voluntarily here, especially in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky: "Barack Obama."

Grimes won't win the coalfield counties of Eastern Kentucky, but she also can't afford to be blown out there -- and coal is key.

McConnell's scorched-earth approach to legislating has hampered his ability to reach bipartisan deals on behalf of "clean coal" and other technologies, and that has been one factor in the decline of coal-mining jobs in the state.

But the GOP, led by McConnell in Kentucky and in Washington, has spent millions depicting D.C. Democrats, especially Sen. Harry Reid and Obama, as remorseless Big Brother environmentalists out to destroy the mountain way of life.

That's one reason why the president's approval rating in the state is in the low 30s, about 10 points below his dismal national mark. And because most Democrats in the state don't rush to defend him, Republicans have a free-fire zone in which to attack the president, and potentially to drive his rating down further.

McConnell's strategy as he seeks a sixth term is to overlay Obama onto Grimes to create a single terrifying image.

"That's their entire strategy, and they will tell any lie they can to support it," Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear told The Huffington Post.

McConnell's campaign manager, Josh Holmes, put it another way.

"President Obama is unpopular here. If Grimes gets to Washington, she'll by definition be part of the party of the president and Harry Reid," he said. "That's the simple fact."

That's where Clinton comes in. The former president is a longtime political associate and friend of the Lundergan family. Clinton was among those who initially encouraged Grimes to run for Senate, and her father was once state party chair and an early Clinton supporter. Grimes is running, in essence, as a Clinton Democrat: pro-business, culturally cautious, intimate with voters, but practical rather than ideological.

Clinton has kept close ties to and remains very popular in the state; a popularity his wife, Hillary, also enjoys. Democrats here are convinced that, should she run for president in 2016, she could be the first Democrat to carry Kentucky since her husband did it twice in the '90s.

"She'd extend the presidential playing field in interesting ways," said Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, speaking of Hillary. "And she can win here."

If Grimes pulls off the upset, one is sure to see her in the early photo ops standing alongside not only Bill Clinton, but his wife, too.

Grimes Is As Tough As McConnell -- And As Nasty

Howard Fineman   |   August 3, 2014    7:21 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -– It’s finally dawning on people, perhaps including some Republicans here in Kentucky, that the 35-year-old woman tearing into Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) day after day may be as tough and nasty as the 72-year-old five-term incumbent she is trying to oust.

At the Fancy Farm picnic this past weekend, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) clearly bested McConnell in the most elemental of political confrontations: back-to-back speeches in front of a thousand cheering and jeering partisan spectators.

She essentially called McConnell too old to serve, saying she was in Fancy Farm for his “retirement party." She also painted him as a hard-hearted cynic, a selfish man who had enriched himself at public expense, and the symbol and cause of all that's wrong with politics in the country and in Washington, D.C.

And she did it by pointing in his direction and occasionally turning to gaze at him directly. She seemed confident and in control in what was the most important public performance of her career so far.

She also challenged him to meet her in two debates. So far he has agreed to none. She said that she would be at the designated sites, whether or not he showed up, and that no one would need “bloodhounds to find me.” That was a reference to the classic 1984 attack ads that brought McConnell his first victory over a Democratic incumbent who had missed some votes in the Senate; the ads featured the dogs being used to look for the "missing" opponent.

Grimes is the middle of five daughters in an intensely political family, a fact that's important for understanding where she's coming from and what drives her. To say she's competitive is an understatement. She gives off the aura of someone willing to do whatever it takes, but that's not necessarily a compliment -- except to Democrats desperate to unseat McConnell after his 30 years in the Senate.

Grimes smiled widely but rather coldly as she stood at the podium at Fancy Farm, and as she pointed at McConnell, she seemed at times like she would have banished him from the stage if she could have.

Her campaign strategy boils down to one essential point: destroying McConnell if she can. Her own position papers and proposals exist, and are standard and unremarkable for a Democrat: an increase in the minimum wage, pay equity for women, organizing rights for unions, and so on. But her campaign team is looking at numbers that tell them that once they get her “positives” and her name recognition as high as possible, the last months of the race will be devoted to attacking McConnell as old, out of touch, morally bankrupt and destined for the slag heap.

Some journalists, including this one, have needled her for sticking religiously to her rather narrow script, but she and her handlers aren’t the least bit apologetic about the strategy. They also point out, rightly, that McConnell very rarely answers questions or gives interviews on the campaign trail, so why should they? They think that McConnell, whose “negative” ratings continue to float well above 50 percent, is simply too unpopular to get re-elected -– even in a red state that voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

And to pursue that strategy requires the remorseless approach Grimes is taking.

Even her “positive” TV spots contain tough comparisons with McConnell. Her team is now saving some of its money for an all-out negative assault come the fall. She plans to continue and even increase the pace of her travel around the state, not only to meet more voters face to face, but also to contrast her youth, vigor and camera-friendliness with the demeanor of her senior citizen foe.

Grimes' cheerfully confident and acidic antagonism has to remind McConnell of someone: himself.

Kentucky's GOP Bromance Deepens, Even Without True Love

Howard Fineman   |   August 2, 2014    3:07 PM ET

MAYFIELD, Ky. -- Sen. Rand Paul arrived at the Graves County GOP breakfast here Saturday all but incognito, without an entourage, wearing jeans, cowboy boots and his usual bemused look.

He came to praise Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, not to bury him, as he had once tried to do. But Paul wasn't going to make a big deal of it.

McConnell's challenger in this year's election, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, was utterly unacceptable, Paul told the overflow crowd in a high school cafeteria. The reason was simplicity itself: She's a Democrat and would vote to keep Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has said coal makes people sick, as the Senate majority leader.

"I don't know how any Kentuckian could consider voting for Ms. Grimes," the Republican senator said.

The rest of the sales job was functional.

McConnell, Paul said, was a Senate GOP leader who kept his caucus unified against Obamacare and forced a vote on a constitutional amendment calling for a balanced budget. McConnell, Paul said, would be an even better leader if, as is possible, Republicans win a net of six Senate seats in November.

"I'm a really loud voice, my critics would say a loudmouth," he said. "I try to bring attention to things." McConnell was the perfect ally, he said, "because he knows how to get things done."

McConnell, for his part, expressed support, sort of, for Paul's likely run for the presidency in 2016.

"If he chose to run, he would be the most creditable candidate for president since Henry Clay," McConnell told the crowd.

That sounded nice enough, though McConnell didn't mention that Clay, the legendary Kentucky lawmaker and "Great Compromiser," never made it all the way to the White House.

The sometimes passive-aggressive bromance between Rand and Mitch just keeps getting more interesting and influential. It now operates on two levels and soon may add a third.

The first is in Kentucky. As he faces a tough race for re-election, McConnell needs all the help he can get, and Paul has been helpful. Recent polls show that, after having to defeat a tea party challenger in the GOP primary, McConnell has solidified his Republican base. Paul not only endorsed McConnell over the challenger, but has since worked to heal whatever party wounds there were.

The second level is in the Senate. The two have developed an inside-outside alliance that is mutually beneficial, guarding McConnell's right flank and giving Paul access to the inner workings of leadership that he would not otherwise have.

If McConnell becomes Senate majority leader, the home-state alliance will be even more significant as Paul gears up his presidential campaign.

Still, it's far from clear whether McConnell will go all out for Paul or use his new position -- if he obtains it -- as an excuse to stay out of the 2016 GOP fray.

On the dais here in Mayfield, they shook hands and smiled the correct smiles. But they didn't sit next to each other and didn't seem that eager to talk until the next time they really need to.

In his speech at the annual Fancy Farm political "picnic" later in the day, McConnell argued that his ascension to majority leader would lead to change in Washington, not more of the gridlocked status quo.

"Send this proud Kentuckian to lead the new Senate and we'll take the country back. ... With your help, Kentucky will lead America."

Paul clapped at that.

This story has been updated with Mitch McConnell's remarks at Fancy Farm.

Mitch McConnell Is The Least Of It For Alison Lundergan Grimes

Howard Fineman   |   August 1, 2014   11:07 PM ET

PADUCAH, Ky. -- Two key features of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’ drive to oust GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell were on display here Friday within a few hours of each other.

In an abandoned gas station on the outskirts of town, Grimes opened a local headquarters and drew an impressively large and pumped-up crowd of some 300 supporters who like her -- but like even more that she may “Ditch Mitch.”

Later, seated as a tiny dining table in her campaign bus, she carefully answered or swatted away our questions about immigration, the Middle East, marijuana and tax policy in a disciplined -- and successful -- effort to make no news, and to guard her political flanks in every direction.

A Democratic electorate that loathes McConnell, a diligent ground game and rigorous message discipline have combined to keep the 35-year-old Kentucky secretary of state neck-and-neck with McConnell since she announced her challenge a year ago.

What now? After talking with strategists, organizers, elected officials and observers here in Kentucky and elsewhere, I’ve compiled a list of challenges that Grimes confronts:

Stay Close. Democratic campaign bundlers and mega-rich independent donors around the country have gotten more interested in the Kentucky race, wondering if it's the real deal.

As summer in the Hamptons and the Vineyard turns to fall, Grimes needs polls to stay within the margin of error as these big shots make their late calls about where to invest. Many would be happy enough with McConnell. But if Grimes is to pull off the big upset that saves the Senate for the Democrats, these donors would want in on that action -- to assure their access to the Senate either way.

Go Deeper. Grimes, a lawyer from a deeply political family, is smart and well informed, but her campaign strategy isn’t designed to show what she knows. Instead, she is trying to take advantage of her mere two years in public office, which gives McConnell little of substance to attack. She sticks to her effective talking points -- such as the need to raise the minimum wage and ensure pay equity for women –- but speaks little about most everything else.

It’s not clear that this will work all the way to Election Day on Nov. 4. Three months is an eternity in politics. Grimes will need deeper, more specific proposals to feed into the discussion. And, after all, she would become a key figure if she knocks of McConnell -- and the Senate at least used to deal with serious national and global matters.

Louisville and Lexington. There are many Kentuckys; it is a varied and fractured mix of regions, cultures and even topography. But it’s clear which Kentucky is most important to Grimes: The urban one, especially in Louisville (Jefferson County) and Lexington (Fayette County). Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville is the state’s lone Democratic member of the House of Representatives; Lexington is home to the University of Kentucky. Both have the state's only substantial African-American populations. “She’s GOT to get every single vote she can out of Louisville and Lexington to have a real chance,” said Kentucky's Democratic attorney general, Jack Conway, who is running for governor next year.

Women. Grimes can sound like a Southern fried suffragette, and she is aiming her main appeal directly at women voters in rural as well as urban areas. She attacks McConnell ceaselessly for his votes against pay equity and violence-against-women measures. A group called Emerge Kentucky has worked hard to recruit women for office, and provides a network for candidates such as Grimes. The trick now is getting every female who “leans Grimes” to the polls or to an absentee ballot. That is sometimes hard in a culturally traditional state, where white men trend strongly toward the GOP, while a fair number of their wives are leaning the other way. “Especially among seniors, it’s hard to separate the wives from the husbands,” said Ray McLennan, a retired IRS agent from Paducah who has spent years studying the data.

Number Crunching. Democrats still hold a huge registration advantage in Kentucky. It is said -- and it may well be true -- that if Grimes can turn out every last voter who dislikes McConnell and at least tolerates her, she will win.

That’s where numbers come in. Like everything else, turning out the vote has been transformed with algorithms and big data. Grimes said she'll have state of the art in both, and will be able to concentrate staff and volunteers in precisely the right places in the commonwealth. They need to be right, and as effective as any Democratic effort in the state since the legendary Wendell Ford.

Coal. McConnell’s guilt-by-association attacks focus on Grimes’ alleged ties to President Barack Obama, who is widely disliked in the state, and even to the otherwise fairly obscure Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Both are seen in Kentucky as “enemies” of the coal industry because of their support for limits on carbon emissions and other environmental measures. Grimes has tried to outflank McConnell by being a strong advocate of “clean coal” technology, and by pointing out that McConnell’s 30 years in Washington hasn’t stopped the EPA from imposing new rules.

But she may have to do more to minimize her losses in the coal regions of Eastern and Western Kentucky. She is campaigning in Appalachia next week with the ever-popular (especially in Kentucky) former President Bill Clinton. But as charming as he is, and as capable as he is of, as one local pol said, “bubba'ing it up,” that won’t be enough. Grimes will have to demonstrate a better understanding of, and concern for, the tenuous state of industries and populations that rely on cheap electricity rates.

Ride The Local Races. In presidential years, Democrats' huge voter registration advantage doesn’t seem to matter. Clinton was the last Democrat to win here, in 1996, and Obama lost in 2012 by 18 points. But “off years,” officials in the state’s 120 -- yes 120 -- counties all are on the ballot, along with state legislators. The Kentucky House, the last legislative body in the South (not counting West Virginia) to be held by Democrats, is under threat. The Grimes campaign hopes to ride that concern and the other local races.

Be Ready. So far, Grimes has shown that she can run as nasty a campaign as McConnell can -- a compliment of sorts in these times. But the boys from opposition research and the big outside conservative money will spend whatever they can to get control of the U.S. Senate. “We’ve got to be ready come Labor Day,” said an adviser to the Grimes campaign. “That’s when they stick the corncob up your butt.”

The Wrestling Match Called Congress Moves To A Picnic Shed In Kentucky

Howard Fineman   |   July 31, 2014    9:52 PM ET

PADUCAH, Ky. –- On paper, the U.S. Senate race here shouldn’t be a race at all.

The incumbent is Sen. Mitch McConnell, 72, a five-term powerhouse and the Republican leader in the Senate. He is in line to become majority leader if, as is possible, the GOP picks up a net of six seats in November’s elections.

His challenger is a relatively inexperienced woman not even half his age, running in a state with a Democratic governor, but also five GOP congressmen (out of a total six), two GOP senators (Rand Paul is the other) and a recent record of voting –- overwhelmingly –- for GOP presidential candidates.

Yet Alison Lundergan Grimes is in the race –- trailing by less than the polls' margin of error. She has plenty of money, a first-rate campaign team and a folksy, combative personality perfectly suited to politics in the Bluegrass.

“A year ago, who would have believed that we would still be neck-and-neck with Mitch?” said Jonathan Hurst of the Grimes campaign.

The question now is whether the race will stay that way as it enters the campaign equivalent of the stretch run at Churchill Downs.

“We have built a modest but real lead and have the advantage on nearly every front as we close for the last 95 days,” said Jesse Benton, a close campaign adviser to McConnell.

Either way, Kentucky is the place and the race that may decide who controls the Senate -– and the atmosphere and the accomplishments of President Barack Obama’s last years in office. Calculations vary, but Democrats desperately need to pick up a Senate seat somewhere, and Grimes still has a real chance of doing it here.

This weekend marks what amounts to the start of the race to the wire –- and as such, it is now the epicenter of politics.

It’s an old-fashioned stump-speaking picnic called Fancy Farm.

Now that Congress is leaving D.C. for a month-long, dishonestly named “district work period,” American politics can lose the pretense of real legislating (there has been very little of it in Washington) and get down to some real eye-gouging.

This year -– any year, really -- there is no better place for that than Kentucky, a feud-prone border state and ancient argued-over land the Cherokees called the “Dark and Bloody Ground.”

And in an election year, there is no better place for political arguing than an annual picnic here in the rural “Southern” -– that is, western -– part of the state, near Paducah. Which means the Fancy Farm picnic, held on the grounds of the St. Jerome Catholic Church in Graves County.

Joining Gov. Steve Beshear, Paul and other pols, McConnell and Grimes will attempt to speak above the din of a raucous crowd in an open-sided farm shed the size of a basketball court.

Fancy Farm is electioneering at its most basic: a mix of down-home handshaking, crowd-working and attempts to speak over the shouts and rhythmic chants of supporters and foes. The event is a blend of the House of Commons, a tobacco auction and the desperate din of a high school basketball game.

If you’re a candidate, the objective is to show your organizational clout, shake as many hands as possible, and keep a smile on your face at all times, in camera range and out.

This year, it’s also about dealing with the national media, which is descending on Kentucky in general and Fancy Farm in particular. They are drawn this year by the surprisingly close Senate race.

McConnell is counting on Kentuckians’ dislike of Obama –- the president’s approval is 28 percent in the state. He is targeting as well Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose dour and resentful personality matches McConnell’s, and who presides over a U.S. Senate that, thanks in large part to GOP tactics, is as dysfunctional as any since the days of the Civil War.

Reid is a leader in a national Democratic Party that is committed generally to reducing carbon emissions and therefore global reliance on coal -– a dwindling yet still popular and important industry in the far eastern and western parts of the state. Grimes has tried to radically distance herself from national Democrats on the issue –- to the point of claiming to be a better proponent of the coal industry than her foe has been.

Recent polls show that McConnell has solidified his base among Republicans after a nasty primary battle with a tea party challenger. As a result, the most recent Bluegrass Poll shows him with a slim 2-point overall lead after a year trailing Grimes in the average of all polls. Now, his side is attacking Grimes as an untested lightweight.

But McConnell is hardly home free.

A product of politics in the state’s lone big city, Louisville, he has never been wildly popular statewide. He won only one of his five Senate races by what would be regarded as a landslide.

Incumbents of any stripe are in danger this year, even Republicans in red states. The job ratings of Congress are at historic lows.

Nor is it always clear just how much “pork” McConnell has been able to haul back to Kentucky, especially since earmarks have been cut and the coal-based Kentucky economy has suffered despite his efforts in Congress.

Grimes for the most part has run a cautious campaign, incessantly touting a “jobs agenda,” her Kentucky cultural roots as a horsewoman and target shooter, and ridiculing McConnell as out of touch, ineffective and hard-hearted.

The McConnell camp has cautiously gained confidence in the last few weeks.

“Mitch has solidified his Republican base,” said Benton. “His image is improving as we remind people that he is a great advocate for Kentucky. The president is deeply unpopular, particularly with conservative Democrats.”

Grimes will be fully competitive in TV advertising in the final months, and is pounding away on issues that most directly affect women, such as health care, pay equity and abortion. But she is going to need the best get-out-the-vote ground game the state has seen in recent decades if she is to pull the upset.

“The Republicans have spent $30 million and they haven’t knocked us out,” said Hurst, “and we are going to have that ground game. It’s going to be like nothing you have seen.”

It begins this weekend at Fancy Farm.

Why The World Is Spinning Into Crisis Everywhere

Howard Fineman   |   July 23, 2014    5:13 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Israel vs. Hamas. Ukraine vs. Russia. Unaccompanied minors at the Texas border. Syria in flames, with a militant “caliphate” at the door. Iran stalling for time on nukes. A rising China sowing fear throughout the rest of Asia.

The world seems dangerously unmanageable these days.

President Barack Obama is paying a political price at home, with 55 percent of Americans polled by Pew now disapproving of his handling of foreign affairs -- a dramatic reversal from 2009, when his approval rating was 56 percent. While experts argue about how much Obama and his policies are really to blame, the truth is that he occupies the Oval Office at a time of historic flux and of diminished clout, not only for the U.S. but also for the idea of a dominant global power.

To understand that, you need to revisit an influential article published in Foreign Affairs in 2008 by Richard Haass. It’s called “The Age of Nonpolarity,” and Haass wrote it as he was advising presidential candidates behind the scenes in both parties.

Haass, the longtime president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations (and before that a staffer for President Jimmy Carter and the two Bushes), painted a grim picture of an unsettled, chaotic and dangerously diffuse world Familiar methods of diplomacy, statecraft and war had become feeble, if not useless, in the 21st century, he wrote. The ages of “unipolar” power (i.e., a dominant United States) were over; so were the times of “multi-polar” power, such as the first half of the 20th century.

Now the world faced a free-for-all in which “non-state actors” -- terrorists, global corporations, religious and ethnic tribes, sovereign wealth funds and nonprofit charities, to name a few -- were as crucial as countries in shaping the order of a “nonpolar” world.

To be clear, non-state actors -- which also include alliances such as the United Nations and the European Union, "civil society" foundations and academic institutions -- could be forces for healing as well as mayhem. As Haass noted more recently to The Huffington Post, "If you are talking about education or health care globally, for example, it wouldn't make any sense not to have the Gates Foundation involved." But still these new entities do not follow the familiar playbook of nations.

The Internet and international floods of capital were empowering these non-state players, Haass wrote in 2008. No nation or set of nations was “in charge.” Ethnic, religious and regional rivalries had been set free by the weakness of nation-states, and by an Internet that enables digital forces who couldn't care less about the wisdom of Metternich or Gorbachev-Reagan diplomacy.

The U.S. had to figure out how to operate in this new world, in which my-way-or-the-highway wouldn’t work, and neither would traditional nation-to-nation “talks,” Haass wrote. Military power would be just as important as before, he wrote, but it would have to be shrewdly and surgically applied, and almost always in concert not only with other countries but with other non-state players.

Although Haass had spent many years working for Republicans, his article caught the eye of then-Sen. Obama. Early in his presidency, Obama journeyed to Cairo to give a speech designed to reach out to the Islamic world and, in doing so, to enunciate the core of his own global theory. He declared that the real America did not fit the “crude stereotype of a self-interested empire” -- and certainly would not do so while he was in charge.

The new interdependence of the world, the president said, was in conflict with a “human history [that] has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests.

“Yet, in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating,” Obama said. “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.”

It was an idealistic, uplifting message -- and one that seemed to fit the changing times described by Haass. Four months later, officials in Norway announced that they were giving Obama the Nobel Peace Prize.

Six years after he wrote his original article, Haass is busy writing another, and it's an even more timely call for a new understanding of how to manage world crises. The evidence that we need to do better is in the headlines and the videos.

“Things have gotten much worse,” he told HuffPost. “It’s even more urgent that we figure out a new form of world governance, because the old ones don’t work.”

The disruptive forces he wrote about before have become more potent and unsettling, and President Obama, while he understands the challenge, hasn’t always executed as well as he could have, Haass said. There's a rising factor Haass didn’t predict: the waves of immigrants and refugees “within nations and between them,” who are not easily dealt with by traditional diplomatic or military methods.

“I’m updating the piece,” he said, for a world that is now at nonpolarity plus.

The tangled flare-ups around the world are made more intractable by the fact that one leader can’t phone another and cut a deal that guarantees results. The organizing principals are in flux. Consider these trouble spots:

Israel and Hamas. Once upon a time, the lid was kept on the Levant largely by two great powers, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Those days are over, thanks to Shia sectarianism, Sunni terrorism in the form of al Qaeda and now the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the Israelis’ growing willingness to ignore U.S. pressure.

Ukraine and Russia. Ever unsure of its identity, Russia is once again on the march, albeit not as in the days of uniformed soldiers driving tanks into Slavic city squares. President Vladimir Putin has empowered Ukrainian separatists whom he can’t quite control, with disastrous results.

Two major petro-theocracies. One is Iran, the other Saudi Arabia. Old-style notions of statecraft don’t rule these two oil-rich players. Instead, they are the modern spear points of a 14-centuries-long sectarian war, in which religion is nationhood.

“The Caliphate.” Nothing demonstrates the deterioration of the very idea of “nation” more than the pop-up caliphate declared by ISIS. Sunni insurgents have seized territory in Syria and Iraq, the modern borders of which were drawn by the so-called Great Powers a century ago.

According to Haass, the Far East is the only region where world affairs are being conducted along old lines. “The China situation is the most traditional,” he said. It's a rising major power dealing with its longtime regional rivals.

But even in and around China, there are non-state players and problems. China is exporting tens of thousands of its own workers throughout Southeast Asia, an international business model that is causing friction in Vietnam and Cambodia. And the People’s Republic is being harassed on its western flank by Islamic separatists, who want nothing more -- or less -- than the freedom to worship as they wish.

China’s rulers have responded with a vicious military crackdown.

But that method won’t work in the rest of the world anymore. It may not even work in China.

It's All About Southern Women In The 2014 Elections

Howard Fineman   |   July 20, 2014    6:30 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- "Southern women are different," says Garden & Gun, the cheeky lifestyle magazine out of Charleston, S.C.

"They're forever entangled in and infused by a miasma of mercy and cruelty, order and chaos, cornpone and cornball -- a potent mix that leaves them wise, morbid, good-humored, God-fearing, outspoken and immutable."

This year, they are also politically pivotal.

As candidates and voters, the women of the South could well be the Democrats' last line of defense against Republicans hungering to retake the U.S. Senate in November.

In presidential years, the South is pretty much GOP territory. But in 2014, Democrats are in desperate need of help from four Southern states and the women running in them: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina and charity CEO Michelle Nunn in Georgia.

All but Hagan are members of deeply rooted political families in their respective states, and Hagan has acquired that aura through her unassuming charm and prodigious fundraising.

The consensus of public polls has each of the four neck and neck in her race. The overall Senate math is complex and ever-changing, but Democrats probably need Hagan and Landrieu to hold onto their seats and either Grimes or Nunn to win.

"We're the ballgame," said Grimes adviser Jonathan Hurst.

That the Southern Quartet is even in the ballgame is remarkable.

The national political environment heading into the fall is bleak for Democrats, especially in the deep red and dark pink states.

The recovery from the Great Recession is tepid; international events seem to be spinning out of control; the Affordable Care Act is working but not popular; and President Barack Obama's job-approval number hovers around 40 percent -- historically a danger sign for a president's party.

That environment and the cyclical history of midterms lead the geek squad of algorithmic pundits to predict the GOP is likely to win the six seats it needs to take control of the Senate.

The four don't run as a group, even though they have gotten some combined attention in the past year. But the mere fact that the Southern Democratic women are hanging on is worth noting, and it leads party strategists to look for ways to boost grass-roots turnout -- especially among women -- to allow them to hang on though November.

Democrats have no choice but to try to get it done the hard way.

With ample campaign funds, Democrats not only are planning their largest TV campaign but are putting more emphasis than ever on social media, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

"We're spending at least a third of our money on organization," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a small briefing last week. "I don't think that TV has the bang for its buck that it used to."

Reid is also using the floor of the Senate as a stage to highlight issues of special relevance to the party's base, and especially to women.

For example, Reid used his power to control the floor to try to get a vote on a bill to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby contraception decision. The bill was filibustered, but Democrats were able to make their point.

The women's vote is so important that some of these senators have taken the risk of collateral political damage to target it. Grimes recently welcomed Elizabeth Warren to Kentucky, despite the Massachusetts senator's record of raising environmental concerns about reliance on coal.

Close-to-home issues such as education, health care and pay equity are key, said Grimes pollster Mark Mellman.

"Women voters are of course central," he said, "but those issues aren't just 'women's issues.' Pay equity is a concern for everyone, especially men and women in two-income families."

The four are navigating tricky territory, however, especially in the South, where the name "Barack Obama" is an epithet to some.

They avoid mentioning let alone praising the Affordable Care Act, even less so "Obamacare," and tout the ways they have disagreed with it or tried to change it to suit local conditions.

In Kentucky, Grimes has left prideful talk about the program to the state's popular Democratic governor, Steve Beshear.

Though Nunn and Grimes come from political families (the former's dad was a senator; the latter's was state party chairman), they have a double advantage: They are not incumbents and by definition they aren't part of an "old boy network."

At a time of sulfurous disgust with Washington, the Congress and old-line establishments of all sorts, being a woman is an advantage.

In Louisiana, Landrieu has long since built a brand of conservative Democratic independence, thanks in part to the pro-business reign of her father when he was mayor of New Orleans.

In Kentucky, Democrats have had some success framing the race as a referendum on the ultimate GOP insider, Sen. Mitch McConnell.

"Team Mitch" has yet to find a way to discombobulate Grimes, a young good ol' gal who rides horses, is handy with a rifle and is raising record amounts of money.

McConnell's handlers claim not to be worried, even as they plan to spend record amounts on what could be the most expensive Senate race ever. (Grimes is matching Mitch in the money department.)

They say they think Obama's deep unpopularity in the state (and that of "Obamacare"), coupled with the "anti-coal" environmental positions of D.C. Democrats, will be enough.

McConnell adviser Jesse Benton says he has numbers that show the Affordable Care Act is unpopular even with urban women in Louisville and elsewhere in Kentucky.

We shall see -- and that could be the ballgame.

Zen Master Joe Biden Runs And Does Not Run For White House

Howard Fineman   |   July 16, 2014    5:45 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- It's a tough time for presidential wannabe Joe Biden.

Jokingly but obviously, Hillary Clinton all but declared her competing candidacy on "The Daily Show" Tuesday night, telling host Jon Stewart that she likes to work at home and prefers an office with no corners -- say, an oval one.

As if waiting for Hillary weren't hard enough, the new darling of the Democrats' progressive-populist wing, Elizabeth Warren, just passed Biden in a recent poll. The Massachusetts senator now holds the dubious honor of running a distant second to Clinton in the early stages of the race for the party's 2016 nomination.

What's more, Warren -- who is the object of a nascent, but presumably not accidental, draft movement -- occupies the same political niche as Biden. Both tout their downscale roots and their little-guy appeal.

Once the good news was that Barack Obama chose Biden to be vice president. The bad news now is that Biden is the first veep in decades who isn't automatically the frontrunner to succeed his two-term boss.

At the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this spring, the president told jokes based on the assumption that Clinton would be his successor. The idea was so ho-hum that no one noticed.

To deal with his melancholy predicament, Biden has become the Zen master of politics, holding two contradictory campaign notions in his head simultaneously and believing them both.

One says: You want to be president, you can beat all comers, and you are ready to run in 2016 if Hillary does not.

"He thinks he can beat everybody and win the whole thing," said one former staffer in his veep office. "He really does."

The other says: Clinton is obviously getting in the race, which means you can forget it, especially since you're 71 and a two-time loser in Democratic nomination runs. If Warren goes for it, too, there will be even less room for you.

"Joe's nothing if not a realist," said one of his closest longtime friends in the U.S. Senate. "It doesn't take an expert to know that if Hillary runs, he has no chance. He accepts that." (Both observers spoke anonymously so they could talk frankly about a man they admire.)

To avoid the humiliation of standing down if/when Clinton declares, Biden is making no obvious move to prepare for 2016 -- even as he refuses to publicly, or privately, rule it out.

It's a delicate and -- if you're Joe Biden -- bittersweet fandango.

For Biden's aides, the trick is to schedule him at political events that would be useful should he run in 2016, but that can be explained for other reasons. In 2014, that means events to help Democratic candidates in their congressional midterm and gubernatorial campaigns.

Biden is traveling the summer state convention and picnic circuit -- yes, there are key races this year in Iowa and New Hampshire. Ever the garrulous sort, he is inclined to accept all invitations.

"His favorite word is yes," said a member of his inner circle with a laugh.

The vice president hasn't had much time to talk with his former Senate colleagues recently; he's been busy on calls with foreign leaders. But when he picks up the phone domestically, the topic tends to be the 2014 races and fundraising for them.

Biden held a conference call this month with friends and Democratic Party insiders. Some in Washington saw it as a way for Biden to touch base with his own proto-campaign; it was actually a party-sponsored event to discuss the midterm elections.

On Wednesday, he rallied young progressives at the annual gathering of Generation Progress. On Thursday, the veep will skew both young and digital in Detroit, where he will keynote the progressive bloggers' annual Netroots Nation. Some might interpret that as another move to keep the pilot light on for a 2016 campaign, but it is also true that Obama had been scheduled to deliver the keynote address -- until he canceled two weeks ago due to crises around the world.

As vice president, Biden is having the time of his life. He loves the job, loves the walk-in access to the Oval Office and loves the sprawling Queen Anne-style official residence at the Naval Observatory.

He loved being a senator, too -- loved it so much that he stayed in the Senate for 36 years, piling up seniority, friendships and leading roles in judicial matters and foreign affairs.

It's the running-for-president part that has been a problem. His campaigns in 1988 and 2008 were noble but embarrassing non-starters, over almost before they began. It's quite possible that his last real chance to run for the Oval Office -- from the perch of the vice presidency, no less -- will die before it gets a chance to be born.

And yet it wouldn't be wise of Biden -- "wouldn't be prudent," in the words of President George H.W. Bush -- to let go entirely unless and until Clinton officially declares her candidacy.

So the Zen master soldiers on, with considerable grace and class.

At a picnic for the children of the White House press corps last month, Biden presided with glee over a raucous water-gun fight on the wide lawn of the vice presidential home. His clothing was as drenched as those of the squealing kids.

"I think I'm having more fun than they are," he said. And he clearly meant it.

Harry Reid Hearts Rand Paul, Or So He Says

Howard Fineman   |   July 9, 2014    7:06 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Amidst the nasty partisan torpor that is the U.S. Senate, there are very few Republicans whom Democratic leader Harry Reid likes, or even can stand.

The Nevada senator said these days his favorite is none other than libertarian (and leading GOP presidential contender) Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

"When he came to the Senate, I thought he was going to be the new Jesse Helms," Reid said on Wednesday, referring to the ornery, filibustering conservative who represented North Carolina. "But I like the guy," said Reid. "He's just a super nice guy."

"He and I have spent hours together," Reid added. "At least he tries to find some solutions to things," such as the knotty administrative arithmetic in the new federal highway bill.

Paul has also been working on criminal justice reform with freshman Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Asked by The Huffington Post which other Republicans he likes, Reid mentioned Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Asked for comment, Rand Paul's top adviser, Doug Stafford, responded by email, "Jesus. Stop talking Harry. :)"

"He can't become Rand's 'favorite' Democrat though unless he allows Rand to have a vote on Audit the Fed, which we have been trying to do for three years," Stafford added. (Legislation to audit the Federal Reserve's ledgers has been a Paul family crusade, handed on from father to son.)

What's Reid up to with his laudatory remarks?

In the past he has excoriated Paul over several issues, including the Kentuckian's now-famous 13-hour filibuster over the legality of targeting U.S. drones at U.S. citizens. Reid's current approval seems aimed more at damning the GOP with faint praise -- and highlighting his contempt for Kentucky's other senator (and Paul rival), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Reid doesn't relish talking to journalists. He said that he likes reporters well enough, though he figures that, in the end, they "screw me." But he overcame his fear Wednesday, inviting in a group for an hour around a coffee table in the reception room of his Capitol offices.

His purpose: to explain why the Senate has become a symbol of all that is dysfunctional in American politics, if not life.

Why? The Republicans, of course. Don't blame Harry Reid, said Harry Reid.

"Within three days" of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential election, he said, the GOP had set two goals: to defeat Obama in the next election and to stop any and all of the new president's legislative proposals.

In the first two years of Obama's presidency, Reid said, Democrats had enough Senate votes (at one point it was 60) to pass legislation easily and swiftly. "It was the most productive Congress in the history of the country," he said. Republican gains in 2010 and 2012 changed that calculus. "The last Congress got nothing done, this Congress the same thing," Reid said.

Even when Republicans want to put forward ideas, he said, they are so hampered by their internal divisions that they can't decide how to proceed. In particular, they get stuck on "unanimous consent," which is an arcane Senate procedure by which leaders of both parties agree on which amendments will receive floor votes.

Because senators these days can't decide on which amendments to allow by unanimous consent, Reid said, every amendment to every bill is subject to being filibustered -- a hugely time-consuming process that grinds Senate business to a halt.

Republicans scoff at this explanation. "Harry Reid doesn't want any votes," said Don Stewart, spokesman for McConnell.

"He doesn't want a vote on the Keystone pipeline, for example, because he knows he and the Democrats will lose," said Stewart. Reid shies away from other votes, Stewart said, for fear that red-state Democrats will have to take stands that will cost them at the polls. "Coal is an example," he said.

Reid expressed irritation that as the Senate majority leader, he has become the embodiment of an institution that can't function.

He was able to break one critical deadlock by using an extraordinary parliamentary maneuver (dubbed the "nuclear option") to bar filibusters on most judicial and executive branch nominees. He hinted on Wednesday that he might try to do the same on sub-Cabinet nominations and other judgeships.

The earlier change produced howls from Republicans -- and warnings of what might happen should the GOP win the majority back. It's a real possibility in this fall's elections.

Wouldn't the Democrats then behave the same way the Republicans are now?

"I would hope not," Reid said. But he didn't sound entirely convinced.

Hillary Inevitable? Fading Book Sales Say No

Howard Fineman   |   July 2, 2014    4:30 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- If books can make presidencies -- and Barack Obama proved they can-- then hold the talk about the inevitability of Hillary Clinton.

The Huffington Post has learned that new survey figures show sales of her foreign policy memoir, Hard Choices, are falling fast.

According to authoritative numbers from Bookscan, which monitors sales at 80 percent of bookstores nationwide, retail sales of Hard Choices plummeted another 50 percent in the third week -- down to 26,190 from 48,200 the week before and 85,900 the first week of publication.

Books whose sales drop off by half in successive weeks generally don't become blockbusters, which could be a problem -- a big one -- for Clinton's publisher, Simon & Schuster.

S&S reportedly shipped 1 million copies of the book to stores and is said to have paid Clinton an advance approaching $14 million. At the current rate, it would take many months to sell the million copies -- an unlikely prospect according to industry sources.

"It looks like they are going to be pulping a lot of paper," said a top industry source, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the matter in the industry. A Simon & Schuster spokesman declined immediate comment.

By comparison, Clinton's 2003 book, Living History, sold six times as many volumes in its first week and eventually 1.4 million worldwide in hardback. Obama's Dreams From My Father had sold 4.65 million in hardback, paperback and ebook as of 2010.

Bookscan figures do not count ebooks, but industry sources suggest that most sales of Clinton's book are likely to be hard copies because of the keepsake, for-the-fans nature of such memoirs.

Explanations for the rapidly weakening sales range from the antiseptic cover picture to the edge-of-summer timing. Clinton supporters in the publishing industry say that times have changed for all authors and that nonfiction books of the kind she (and Obama) wrote are not as popular as they once were. They also note that Hard Choices is doing well on a comparative basis, outselling most other nonfiction titles.

But the more urgent question is political.

The sales figures come out amid a war of competing conventional wisdoms, fervently held by pundits and pols.

One says that Hillary is inevitable, that Obama-like lightning can’t strike twice, and that she has sewn up the allegiance of the left with no significant figures on the horizon to challenge her for the nomination -- or even the presidency in the 2016 general election. The New Republic, for example, put her on the cover with the word "Inevitable" just this week.

The other conventional wisdom is just as sure that Clinton is now, as she was in 2008, a heavier-than-air craft. She will never achieve lift-off because she is too establishment, too controlled, too weighed down by her years of association with the rich and powerful -- and too lacking in a clear message of change for younger generations. The rocky rollout of her book tour is evidence of the latter, they say.

At the very least, the book sales seem to confirm the observations of Bill Maher, who advised Clinton to "just go away."

"People say Hillary being out there on her book tour, talking about this stuff, it's going to inoculate her," said Maher, the host of HBO's "Real Time." "You know there's a fine line between inoculate and we're sick of you. So my advice to Hillary is, just go away. Go away for a while. We're going to see each other. In a couple of years, a lot. Just go away. Because otherwise you're going to blow this."

Why Washington Fails The Third Metric And What Some Locals Are Doing About It

Howard Fineman   |   June 30, 2014    8:03 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The nation's capital is not a happy or well place, Arthur Brooks has concluded.

He should know. A pioneer in "happiness studies," Brooks examines the how and why of human wellness in all its dimensions: physical, mental, moral and spiritual.

As president of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank devoted to extolling the virtues of capitalism, Brooks argues that free markets are the most efficient means yet devised to give people the chance to be fulfilled. While pursuing that intellectual sales mission, he has also become a student of the city in which he lives, and he sees a Washington wellness deficit wherever he looks.

The gist of the story lies in the numbers. Silicon Valley aside, the Washington metropolitan area is the wealthiest in the nation. Though some New Yorkers and Londoners might disagree, the Pentagon's budget and the Federal Reserve's balance sheet prove that it remains the world's most powerful city.

Yet Washington rarely, if ever, makes the top 10 happiest city lists, while it ranks at or near the top of per capita lists such as alcohol consumption and psychiatrists in residence.

In his six years in D.C., Brooks, a best-selling author, said he has seen too many powerful people valuing the wrong things in their own lives.

"Thomas Aquinas said that there are four substitutes for God," Brooks said during an interview in his sunny, spare AEI office suite. "They are money, power, pleasure and honor. Different places are attached to different substitutes.

"Power and honor are the coin of the realm here," he said. "The problem is that what gets rewarded in centers of power doesn't lend itself very well to spiritual enlightenment of individuals.

"People go for the easy, shiny lure," he said. "And there is just a ton of it around here: people you see who are actually pretty smart, pretty excellent, becoming these self-caricatures and these self-aggrandizing mediocrities.

"If you don't have a moral core," Brooks declared, "it's going to be really hard to stay happy."

The former college professor said that he didn't wish to lecture and that "Washington is full of wonderful people." But he still urges people to look for deeper types of human wellness.

Brooks has always wanted to do what he wanted to do -- and on his own terms.

The Seattle-bred son of college professors is himself a onetime college dropout who eventually earned his bachelor's degree by correspondence course. He dropped math for music and moved to Barcelona to play French horn in an orchestra so that he could be with his rocker girlfriend (now wife).

He's a 50-year-old fitness devotee with the lean torso of a Tour de France biker. He wears argyle socks, jeans and an oversized orange-faced wristwatch given to him by a friend.

Brooks attends Catholic Mass daily, speaks of his own spiritual journey easily, and is given to quoting Johann Sebastian Bach, economists Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith and, of course, Aquinas -- in adjoining sentences in the same paragraph.

Life, Brooks said, needs to be a "self-entrepreneurial venture" to find your own highest and best use. For him, that means "the business of glorifying God and serving others."

Finding your mission is all the more important in Washington, he said, because as a world capital, the stakes are higher here.

"The thing I love about Washington is that it's excellent. Everything is excellent, from the housing stock to the quality of people's minds," he said.

"But that is where human frailty is the most vicious: among people who are the most excellent. That is why virtue is arguably more important here than it is in other places. The Third Metric is more important here than in other places."

With that in mind, Brooks has begun inviting spiritual leaders to speak at AEI, an institution best known for number crunching, free market thinking and military hawkishness.

Last winter the Dalai Lama came; last week it was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar from India. Brooks said that he wants to invite religious leaders of all stripes to speak.

"People know my views, they know my beliefs," he said. "They know that not infrequently I go to Mass in the middle of the day.

"I want people to be able to have that kind of spiritual free expression. And not just religion. Not everybody's into that. I want them to be able to find their path, too," he said.

Openness to spiritual life is just one aspect of a well-lived life. There are others, perhaps more prosaic but no less important to wellness.

For Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one small step for humankind is her Fitbit. Extolling the virtues of the exercise monitor has become a mission. No one on either side of the aisle is immune.

"I know a senator who wears hers in her bra," said Klobuchar, an upbeat, bubbly sort who chairs the Senate Wellness Caucus. "No, I'm not telling you who it is! But I have convinced quite a few others to at least give the Fitbit a try."

The caucus has only nine members and meets rarely, but it has held hearings on best workplace practices to promote health and well-being (the examples tend to come from Klobuchar's home state), and it has worked to encourage such practices in federal health care laws.

Klobuchar also looks for ways to connect with other lawmakers as individuals, apart from politics. One means of doing so are the "women's dinners" that female senators hold once every other month or so.

"We don't talk about policy or politics," Klobuchar said. "We talk about our kids, our families, our lives.

"Real friendships come out of that, and it makes you feel better about life here."

David McCabe contributed reporting.

Bernie Sanders Thinks Hillary Is Eric Cantor

Howard Fineman   |   June 24, 2014    6:18 PM ET

WASHINGTON –- Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, self-described “democratic socialist,” claims he hasn’t decided whether to run for president, let alone whether to seek the Democratic nomination or try a third-party bid.

But in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, Sanders sounded like he was in for 2016, and that his preferred route is the Democratic race, presumably against Hillary Clinton.

He spoke after returning from a trip to Iowa and before heading back to New Hampshire –- the two most crucial early states in the traditional party nominating process. “I wanted to see what kind of response I get,” he said. So far, he said, it's been very good.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, said he is thinking of calling himself an “independent Democrat” for purposes of a presidential campaign.

“That would mean running in the Democratic primaries and caucuses, but acknowledging that I am an independent, and have won every election I have run as an independent.”

He likened his situation -– and Clinton’s –- to the one in the 7th Congressional District of Virginia, where voters in the Republican primary shockingly ousted the incumbent House majority leader, Eric Cantor, in favor of a libertarian college professor.

Sanders slipped out the conditional tense as he talked about the comparison.

“Everyone was shocked by Eric Cantor,” said Sanders. “My guess -– my experience –- is that when you go out and you talk to working people, there’s a lot more dissatisfaction with the status quo and status quo politics than you think.

“And if that if my conclusion is true, we’ll do better than I think people think.

“In terms of Hillary, I respect her. I’ve known her. I like her. So I’m not running to attack Hillary Clinton. I’m running to talk about the issues that impact the working class of this country and the middle class.”

I asked Sanders if he saw Hillary a symbol of an establishment gone awry.

“No question in my mind that if there was a national Democratic primary today, Hillary would win it, and win it handsomely," he said. "She would win it because she is widely respected, she is popular.”

But that is “today,” before a campaign begins in earnest, and amid a crisis.

“What people are dissatisfied with is not Hillary Clinton,” Sanders replied. “People are dissatisfied with the fact that 95 percent of all new incomes go to the top 1 percent. That’s what people are dissatisfied with. And people are dissatisfied that we have billionaires pay a lower tax rate than working families. And those are the issues.

“I think what we need is a new politics -- a different type of politics than Hillary’s," he said. "A politics that is much more grassroots-oriented, much more having to do with strong coalition-building and grassroots activism than I think Hillary has demonstrated over the years, or supported.”

At first glance, a Sanders campaign of any kind would seem to be an improbable venture. He is 72, with wisps of white hair and the inward gaze of the college professor he once was. Given his preference, he would like to pattern the U.S. after cradle-to-grave Scandinavian socialism. Vermont, home to Ben & Jerry and three electoral votes, is hardly a pivotal launching pad for national office.

But these are unusual times, and Sanders is a tougher, cannier and more practical politician than outsiders might realize.

Born in Brooklyn and educated at the University of Chicago, Sanders moved to Vermont and did everything from carpentry to filmmaking before he entered politics in the early-'70s as an anti-war activist and protest candidate.

But he later became a durable winner of House and Senate races, including in 2012 -– which he won with 71 percent of the vote.

He is perfectly willing to cut deals with Senate Democrats, including his fellow native Brooklynite Chuck Schumer of New York. Sanders chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, working with GOP Sen. John McCain on an overhaul of the beleaguered Veterans Affairs health care system.

While he nods in the direction of an independent bid (“I think there’s probably more dissatisfaction with the two-party system than we have seen in our lifetime”), Practical Bernie seems drawn to the more traditional route.

“How do you run a 50-state strategy if there are states where it’s virtually impossible to get on [the ballot]? And in which you have to have to use huge amounts of resources to get on the damned ballot?

“You want to talk about issues; you want to be out talking to people, not spending half your life trying to get on the ballot.

“The other advantage of running within the Democratic Party –- perhaps as an independent Democrat –- is that you are going to get more media attention, you will be in the debates rather than being on the outside,” Sanders said.

And there is the downside risk that running as an independent in the fall of 2016 could cost the Democrats the White House -– as Sanders has said Ralph Nader’s candidacy did in 2000.

Sanders seems destined instead to spend a lot more time in, say, New Hampshire, next door to his own Vermont.

Another piece of evidence that Sanders is in it for real: He is doing an event at a bookstore in New Hampshire even though, unlike many long-shot candidates, he isn’t hawking a book.

Or unlike a frontrunner who has raked in millions for her new book.

“I’m announcing a book tour without a book,” he said. “How’s that?”

Hillary's Bio Is A Hard Slog, But These Political Memoirs Are Well Worth Your Time

Howard Fineman   |   June 10, 2014    8:45 PM ET

NEW YORK -- Hillary Clinton launched her book tour here amid the screeching of partisan spin and the collective yawn of would-be literary critics in the national political media.

On one level, the initial reception is unfair. Most of the spinners, pro and con, and critics, good and bad, haven’t read the book.

But even those who adore Clinton will have admit that, like the genre of pre-campaign “autobiography” itself, Hard Choices is a hard slog. It’s as engaging and revealing as an up-armored Humvee, which isn’t surprising since the book serves essentially the same purpose, protection.

Which raises several questions: Are there any presidential autobiographies worth reading? How about other writings by presidents? How about good autobiographies by other American politicians? Or books about them and their breed?

Fortunately, good literature and good reads are not totally separate from the topic of U.S. presidents and politics.

There's even one pre-campaign autobiography that is not only a terrific read but the true launching pad of a presidency. It is, of course, Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. He presold the entire story of his life as a narrative of why he was the One We Were Waiting For.

That not all of it was literally true, as we have come to find, is another issue. But it's still a good book.

Here, in no particular order, are some others:

Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. His two-volume autobiography is widely considered the best by a president. Written as Grant faced death from throat cancer -- and with Mark Twain as its salesman and perhaps its behind-the-scenes editor -- the book is both respected by historians and admired by critics for its lean, spare style. Among its fans: Gertrude Stein.

George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation; The Journal of Major George Washington. The former contains precepts on how to build character, as copied down by a young Washington. The latter was his report to Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie on his explorations of western Virginia and Pennsylvania. His report not only was useful to the powers that be in Williamsburg; it served as Washington’s advertisement of himself as a man of the West.

The Reagan Diaries. Anyone who thinks Ronald Reagan was an empty-headed actor parroting the scripts of others should read these absorbing, thoughtful, yet unaffected ruminations on the great issues of the time.

The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt; Rough Riders. Roosevelt was a journalist by nature, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has shown. The man could write, and he was an omnivore when it came to history and adventure.

Memoirs by Harry Truman. Truman was a ferocious autodidact with a gift of gab in person and in print. He was also a serious man at a serious time whom his foes made the mistake of underestimating all too often. There is a reason David McCullough became famous writing about Truman: He was a colorful, crucial character.

La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences. No one reads it now but they should, since Robert La Follette, the great progressive from Wisconsin, was an eloquent writer whose ideas and career are echoing loudly -- or should -- in today’s politics.

Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, by Harris Wofford. As the title indicates, this unassuming but brilliant observer and politician was close to John F. Kennedy (he was a top leader of the Peace Corps at its creation) and to Martin Luther King Jr., whom he served as an aide and adviser. The book is less about Wofford than about what he saw, which was pretty much everything in that decade. He later became a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary. The late Democratic senator from New York was a professor before he became a politician, and he was incapable of writing or speaking a boring sentence. His academic ideas were influential and controversial -- particularly those about the sociology of poverty -- but his real talent was in applying his encyclopedic sense of history to current events. He never wrote an autobiography, but his letters do the trick.

The Letters of John and Abigail Adams. Still the best inside story of a presidential family. Abigail in particular was a pointed, mordantly observant and vastly influential writer.

Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. Not an elected official, Chambers nevertheless was a central figure in the rise of modern conservatism. His book, which centers on the Alger Hiss spy case of the 1950s, mixes the intensity of detective fiction with spiritual, almost theological ruminations.

Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks. The Great Emancipator did not live to write an autobiography, but contemporary journalist Noah Brooks' dispatches, letters, and personal reminiscences constitute a classic that historians and writers have been mining ever since it was published.

The Prince of Darkness, by Robert Novak. Novak was a reporter in Washington who wrote about politicians for 50 years. He was a conservative, and an ideologue as he grew older, but he was also perhaps the best political street reporter the city has ever seen. His brutally candid autobiography is a gem.

Personal History, by Katharine Graham. Graham wasn’t a politician either, but her newspaper, The Washington Post, made and broke politicians and policies for decades. Her autobiography, which she labored over for years, is the real deal. Anyone who thinks there wasn’t a liberal establishment should read it.

More Political Nonfiction: A Good Life by Ben Bradlee, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer.

Political Fiction: Democracy by Henry Adams, The Congressman who Loved Flaubert and Other Stories by Ward Just, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury.

Hillary Clinton's Game Plan Assumes No Second Obama

Howard Fineman   |   June 9, 2014    7:31 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Based on everything Hillary Clinton has done and said since she left the Obama administration last year, her 2016 campaign strategy is as clear as it is simple. The idea is to not run against another Barack Obama.

In 2008, Clinton thought that it was her time, that she had the right (that is, methodical) plan, and that nobody could out-think or outwork her. Instead, a man she regarded as undeserving rode a wave of disgust with war and Washington to a history-making victory.

This time, she hopes, voters will not be distracted, will reward her diligent, earnest toughness, and will see the logic and justice in helping her to break the Final Glass Ceiling.

And the plan might work.

At least it's hard to find another explanation for the book that goes on sale Tuesday.

Hard Choices is a 2.4-pound, 656-page, team-written campaign document designed, as with all things Hillarian, to armor up against political attacks, tout her policy accomplishments, position her with exquisite tactical precision, and provide her fans with carefully polished vignettes of her private life as a wife, mother and soon-to-be grandma.

Unless you are a huge Hillary fan -- and there are, in fact, millions of them -- or a GOP opposition researcher, the book is about as riveting as yesterday's Federal Register.

It lacks detail about where she wants to take the country, how she proposes to do so, or why the person she is at 66 is suited to be the president she wants to be -- whoever that is. The absence of these elements is itself a political calculation. Too much of that kind of talk would make the book tantamount to a declaration of candidacy -- which, of course, it is, no matter how much the gatekeepers, spinners and Friends of Hillary protest to the contrary.

Clinton is a hardheaded realist, yet also someone who yearns to impose her reformist sense of order on everything, from her husband to health care to a presidential campaign.

Behind the scenes, she can be a very gracious, charming and warm person, but Private Hillary is kept out of view of the hated press by Political Hillary. She and her handlers don't even like positive coverage of Private Hillary if it was created without their input or permission.

Her campaign in 2008 had everything figured out in advance except what it was for, besides getting her elected.

Nothing in Hard Choices indicates that this time around anything will be different -- except, perhaps, the result.

Democrats, especially self-described liberal ones, say they would like to see a real contest for the 2016 nomination, but Clinton is lapping the field in the early Democratic polls. The former secretary of state is a hawk who hangs out with campaign cash bundlers and folks from Goldman Sachs, so she is theoretically vulnerable, especially from her left. But it's not clear who will step up.

Vice President Joe Biden, who has done absolutely nothing to prepare any groundwork for a 2016 run -- and who is widely assumed by his own close associates not to be running -- finishes so far behind Clinton in polls as to be invisible.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who mixes faculty lounge charm with populist instincts and a Boston ward leader's sense of when to pounce, says that she isn't going to run if Clinton does -- even though Warren is obviously aching to do so.

There may be an Obama-esque generational wave lurking in the likes of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, but it's hard to sense it.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders may be in, and the 72-year-old semi-socialist from Brooklyn by way of the University of Chicago and Vermont has a certain gravelly retro appeal. But he's probably not another Barack Obama.

As for the Republicans, Clinton for now leads them all by double digits, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz may have the wherewithal to stampede the entire GOP into a demographic box canyon.

Which would leave Hillary. Which is the plan.