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Campaign 2016 Begins In Benghazi

Howard Fineman   |   May 8, 2013   12:01 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Darrell Issa, who made a fortune in car alarms, is now blaring his sirens before the start of a Wednesday hearing on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. The California Republican and his staff are promising a parade of whistle-blowers, who they say will expose inconsistencies, contradictions and unanswered questions in the Obama administration's account of the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

"Jay Carney said that there are no new questions about Benghazi," said Issa spokesman Fred Hill, referring to the White House press secretary. "But after this hearing and what the witnesses have to say, the public will conclude that there are lots of new questions."

Maybe so, but Wednesday's session of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee isn't really meant to be -- and won't be -- a sober reexamination of what the administration did or did not say or do.

The hearing and the leak fest leading up to it are mostly about political payback, Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential campaign.

Issa is happy to play point man in a wide-ranging, coordinated GOP/conservative effort to diminish the president as a terror-fighting commander-in-chief, tarnish Clinton's lofty image as the early 2016 frontrunner, and recapture for Republicans an advantage they enjoyed for decades as the "tough on defense" party.

It's a long way from here to there, but that is where Issa is headed.

Hill indicated that Issa is likely to convene at least one, if not several, more hearings, and he wouldn't rule out the possibility of calling former Secretary of State Clinton, who is now in private life.

"We can't rule anything out, and there are other names of interest that are surfacing from the State Department as we go through this," Hill said.

Democrats are quick to point out that the department under GOP scrutiny was run by a possible future standard-bearer of the Democratic Party.

"I doubt that they would be pursuing this with as much fervor if Hillary were not the prohibitive frontrunner for '16," said David Axelrod, a leading Democratic operative who was President Barack Obama's top political strategist.

Even conservatives concede that Clinton's central role in the Benghazi saga -- or at least in questions about it -- make further investigation politically irresistible, certainly to the conservative core of the Republican Party.

"The witnesses are going to raise questions," said Keith Appell, a conservative GOP media strategist who is working on the issue, "but Hillary is at ground zero, and that elevates it. There is no getting around that."

The Benghazi bandwagon has attracted the usual suspects on the right: from Rush Limbaugh to The Weekly Standard, as well as GOP lawyers experienced in political-legal scandal agitation, such as the husband-and-wife team of Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing.

But apart from scuffing up Clinton -- and finding a way to tarnish Obama as well -- the GOP has a larger goal: to reestablish some version of preeminence as the party of toughness and savvy in military and global affairs.

"There is no doubt that they are eager to grab back the national security cloak," said Axelrod.

From Richard Nixon through George H.W. Bush, Republicans had the upper hand as the pro-Pentagon party of military preparedness and vigilance. President George W. Bush's mistakes and President Obama's success in killing Osama bin Laden changed the equation.

The results were plain in the exit polls of the 2012 election between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The president led Romney by a striking 56 percent to 33 percent among voters who said they cared most about foreign policy.

Asked whether they would trust Obama in an international crisis, voters responded "yes" by a margin of 57 percent to 42 percent -- a net 15 points. Asked the same question about Romney, voters also said "yes," but only by 50 percent to 46 percent.

"Bush got hammered for the 'Mission Accomplished' banner by Democrats and the media," said Appell. "Well, it turns out that they were throwing stones from a glass house. Obama was going around in 2012 saying 'mission accomplished' on al Qaeda and terrorism after Osama was killed, and it wasn't true. That's the point."

In other words, the 2016 campaign has begun, more than three years before Election Day -- not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in Libya.

'Maybe I Should Just Pack Up And Go Home'

Howard Fineman   |   April 30, 2013   12:47 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The sunny, confident President Barack Obama who was the master of all that he surveyed at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last Saturday night was nowhere in sight at the podium in the White House press room Tuesday morning. In his place was a glum character, whose gloomy demeanor matched the lack of legislative motion he was discussing -- and the many obstacles (from Republicans to Russians) he complained were in his way.

After listening to a recitation of his political predicament, the president said, “If you put it that way, maybe I should just pack up and go home.” It was a joke, of course, but no one laughed and, judging from his attitude, it almost seemed as though he wished he could.

Only when asked about Jason Collins did the president become animated and eager to respond. Obama praised the NBA center for his decision to come out of the closet about his sexual orientation and said that the American people should be proud of the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians.

In terms of energy and forward lean, Tuesday morning's performance was about as static as the Obama presidency has ever been.

His administration is not the first to fall into a Slough of Despond early in the second term. It’s all but inevitable. Still, the session was notable primarily for the complexity and intractability of the issues Obama is now facing.

Syria is an unholy mess, a proud and ancient country being ground to pieces in a bloody conflict between a ruthless dictator and rebels whose ideas may well be no more tolerant or democratic.

On the Boston bombings, it is now clear that somebody dropped the ball on the Tsarnaevs, and the only question is who. It might well have been the Russians, which means that Obama has to get closer to Vladimir Putin than he wants. It also means that U.S. and Russian security officials must overcome decades of Cold War distrust.

As for Congress, it’s not the president's job to make them behave and cooperate. “That’s their job,” he said. He objected (again) to the sequestration, but didn’t sound like he had much confidence that he could reach a “broader, larger deal” on taxes and spending with the GOP.

Just as Obama has long wanted to end the sequester, so too has he wanted to close the prison at Guantanamo, but he expressed frustration that politics were preventing that, too. And the American people’s short attention span has been no help. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he observed.

Health care reform has been substantially implemented, the president said. The remaining pieces -- the exchanges to extend insurance to the uninsured, and new subsidies for the near poor -- cover only a “narrow” slice of Americans. To finish those, Obama said, his administration would have to overcome trouble-making Republicans in Congress and recalcitrant GOP governors and state legislators in states such as Texas and Florida.

On health care and other issues, he said, the country needs to focus on the long term, not the minute-by-minute scuffling in the wheelhouse.

President Obama seemed more bored and resigned than frustrated and angry -- and far from a happy warrior.

But, hey, it’s a rainy day in April and all the movie stars have gone home.

Political Read: Psy, Katy Perry And Journalism In DC

Howard Fineman   |   April 30, 2013   11:00 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Lord help me, but I like Katy Perry. She had that one album of pop as perfectly synthetic as Cheez Whiz and as hooky as Neil Sedaka in his prime: sunny, mindless California.

So when I spotted her hurrying past me in a hotel corridor before the White House Correspondents' Dinner last weekend, I did what any 14-year-old would do: I shouted, "Katy, I'm a big fan!"

BuzzFeed caught me, as well they should have.

Before last weekend's Lost Weekend fully fades from view -- it can't happen fast enough -- I wanted to share some thoughts about the event.

I don't want to get all hair-shirty or lugubrious. Much of the weekend is innocent fun (though poor Katy looked confused and alarmed, as if asking herself, "Why is the old guy shouting at me?").

But let's face it: the event has long since metastasized into a symbol of something deep -- and sometimes deeply troubling -- about media culture in general and Washington journalism in particular.

What was Katy Perry of all people doing there? And what was I doing swooning over her?

And what about Psy? He was there, too, which may have been the final jumped shark: a YouTube star so vapid as to make Katy seem as substantive and deep as Billie Holiday by comparison.

The way I would summarize it is this: the dinner has become a three-day religious festival devoted to veneration of the power of celebrity.

Celebrity is the iron ore of our age.

And like any raw material made suddenly crucial by new technology, it can benefit society in unimaginable ways, or destroy it just as utterly.

Iron and steel made the railroads, which made us one country in the mid-19th century under the leadership of a railroad lawyer named Lincoln.

Today, celebrity is driving digital and social media, in society and in journalism. Will it unite us for the common good and for the good of commerce? Or will it divide, distract and dumb us down in an atavistic search for the attention that begets "traffic" that begets advertising that begets profits that beget power?

These are new forms of old questions. Iron and steel not only made the railroads, but also the mass newspaper presses of the ugly tabloid wars. Television brought us Ed Murrow but also, well, television.

What's new now is that journalists have become their own distribution systems, which means that they have a reason -- or an excuse -- to be in the celebrity business, for the supposed sake of their work.

In confident, knowledgeable hands, this can be a very good thing.

Even if I didn't work for her, I would argue that Arianna Huffington is the model of how to leverage visibility into good journalism. She used her prominence to start a revolution: the first mix of social-media, community and newsgathering. You're reading it now.

We just won a series of Webby awards that further prove the worth of her vision.

But lesser hands and minds need to remember not to be distracted.

We need to be known for our work -- for what we report and write and speak -- and not for being known, or for being in proximity to the Known.

And of course I will tweet out a link to this once it is posted.

George W. Bush, From 'Tree Man' To Cheney

Howard Fineman   |   April 25, 2013   11:21 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- In the winter of 1996, forest fires were raging across a tinder-dry Texas. Then-Gov. George W. Bush met the press to outline the state's response.

He told reporters assembled in an ornate meeting room in the capitol that he was, of course, on top of the situation, but that the man in charge of operations was an official from the forestry department.

Bush called him to the microphone. "Come on up here, Tree Man," said Bush.

He didn't know the man's name, let alone the details of the man's position. George W. Bush had been governor for more than a year.

Bush's executive obliviousness seemed harmlessly funny at the time. And a case can be made for proper, even aggressive, management by delegation. So what if he didn't know the guy's name? In the end, the state got the job done -- with, by the way, substantial federal aid for the disaster that the fires created.

But the passage of years and the preliminary judgment of history show a straight line from the Tree Man to "Brownie" to Dick Cheney. Only in the last case, the result was a disaster known as the war in Iraq.

This week is Bush Week in the media, and analysts are looking back at his legacy as he opens his presidential library on the campus of SMU in Dallas. Which is as good a time as any to remember -- and acknowledge -- the bottom line: That as unaffected as he was, as charming as he could be, he gave us Iraq (and Katrina) because of his stubborn, even proud, lack of curiosity, his refusal to pay close attention to details, his instinct to delegate power, and his faith in simple answers.

Bush lived in a world of black and white. He said that it was because of his deep moral beliefs -- and perhaps it was. It is hard to gainsay the fact that Saddam Hussein was "evil," although for many years he wasn't so evil that America declined to side with him against Iran.

But knowing Bush as I do -- I covered him from 1994 to 2008 for Newsweek -- I can say that there was another reason for his Manichean view: It was easier for him to deal with. It gave him further reason to offload key decisions to the men around him, to men he didn't really know and whose motives he never really quite understood.

For Bush, "idle curiosity" was a redundancy. He saw no reason to know anything more than what he needed to know at the precise moment he needed to know it to survive in the business that had been chosen for him more or less from childhood: politics. His desktop in the governor's office in Austin was immaculately clean. There was literally nothing on it the day I interviewed him there.

He wanted to sense just enough about people to make sure that they were not a threat, or to suss out how to initiate them into his informal tribe. Ever the fraternity president, he gave everyone a nickname, not out of affection but to keep them at a safe distance.

Bush once told the queen of England that he was the "black sheep" in the family, and in many ways he was, even though (or, I always thought, because) he was first born and his father's namesake. He was both drawn to and repulsed by the world into which he was born.

As a young man, Bush found it hard to focus. The term ADD had not yet been invented, but he may well have suffered from it. Later, when he prepared for debates, he wrote on large legal pads with a Sharpie pen, only a few words per page in a big, looping scrawl.

He was a product of Andover, Yale and Harvard, but so far as I could tell, he hated them all. He fit in socially but not academically. The professors were liberals, so he could dislike them for that. But mostly he seemed to fear them because they had the power to test his mind.

The result of his upbringing and his education was a combustible mix and a combustible man. His "aw shucks" demeanor hid a sense of entitlement -- and yet he was full of resentment at the intellectual, managerial and personal demands that fate had handed him.

The result was his stone-cold refusal to change or to be curious about the world beyond what he already knew of it once he became president.

There is a durable myth in American history about presidents "growing" in office once they face its unique challenges. It's a convenient myth in a democracy, where we place faith in our own judgment. And sometimes it is true: Harry Truman; JFK was well on his way until an assassin cut him down; Ronald Reagan, the oldest person ever elected president, transformed himself from saber-rattler to epic peacemaker.

Not so with George W. Bush. He was oblivious to the warning signs of 9/11. He turned control over to Cheney and the neocons. He told "Brownie" that he was doing a "heck of a job" in New Orleans.

We went to war in Iraq -- arguably the biggest mistake we have made as a nation since the Vietnam War -- on what turned out to be made-up evidence. Perhaps the best thing one can say about Bush and Iraq is that he wasn't curious enough or closely involved enough to have judged the evidence, or lack thereof.

But he didn’t really want to.

Obama Failing Heart Of Immigration Debate

Howard Fineman   |   April 24, 2013    9:43 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- For President Barack Obama, immigration reform can't come soon enough. His political brand is all about inclusivity and civil rights. Yet he is derided as the "Deporter-in-Chief," thousands of people are languishing in deportation holding cells, and his administration is on the way to setting a record for total number of undocumented residents expelled.

At the current pace, Obama will achieve the dubious milestone of 2 million deportations by next year -- much sooner than President George W. Bush, who took eight years to reach the 2 million mark.

"Deportations are a key part of the reform issue," said Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro of the National Council of La Raza, a leading immigration policy group, "and the administration's track record is lackluster, to say the least."

The rush of deportations has led to emotional stories of families being ripped apart, undocumented parents being separated from American-born children, young undocumented people sent "home" after being raised with an American dream they cannot legally live, people young and old being held for long periods while their cases crawl through the bureaucracy.

But now there is a chance that their pain can be turned into political progress. The stories of the dreamers and the deported are powerful fuel for the immigration reform bill introduced last week and endorsed in outline by Obama on Tuesday.

It is sad but appropriate that families are at the heart of this new debate, for families were at the heart of the last major revision of immigration law nearly a half-century ago.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson and a Democratic Congress, completing work begun in the Kennedy administration, revamped the existing system, which chose immigrants for entry based on their country of origin and favored émigrés from Europe and the British Commonwealth. Instead, family considerations were made central. The idea was to give precedence to the reuniting of husbands and wives, of parents and children, and of other close relatives.

The spirit of family worked well enough until immigrants flooded in, legally and otherwise, from nearby Mexico and Latin America. In many cases, the generosity of the 1965 reform has been abandoned in applying current law to the 11 million undocumented immigrants and their families today.

The pain of dreamers and deported parents is portrayed in a new documentary, "The Dream Is Now," by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. The film has some powerful backers, among them Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. It features stories such as that of Erika Andiola, a scholarship student who organized a social media campaign to keep authorities from deporting her mother and brother.

Obama administration officials explain the rising tide of deportations as a simple matter of budget. The totals -- for both appropriations and deportations -- have risen steadily since the Clinton years, despite cutbacks elsewhere.

"Congress keeps giving us more money, and we have to spend it," said one White House official, who insisted on speaking on background because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But it is widely assumed, especially in the immigration reform community, that the administration's real aim is to establish a tough-cop, enforcement-minded image as a prelude to offering a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Reform advocates see the strategy as a waste of time -- and one that ignores the real heartache that deportations cause.

"They're not scoring a lot of points with opponents of reform, and they never will," said Martinez-De-Castro of La Raza.

The Obama administration has tried to soften the impact by implementing a policy of limited deferrals of deportation for younger immigrants and by ordering officials to put the priority on undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

The administration is "focusing on public safety threats, border security and the integrity of the immigration system," said White House spokesman Clark Stevens. The president and the Department of Homeland Security have made sure, Stevens said, that "removal proceedings are now largely composed of the priorities the administration has set -- convicted criminals, repeat crossers," and others who pose the greatest threat.

That's not what Martinez-De-Castro sees. "They say they want to focus on national security and public safety," she said, "but there are still a lot of people being deported who aren't in either of those categories."

The reform bill crafted by the "gang of eight" senators includes a provision that would allow those who had been deported for non-criminal reasons to reapply for a new legal status called "registered provisional immigrant,” or RPI.

But the real name for that status is -- and should be -- family.

George, This Is What Sequestration Does

Howard Fineman   |   April 23, 2013    2:17 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- George Will is a thoughtful guy, but he and other conservatives are wrong to accuse President Barack Obama of manipulating sequestration to make its cuts more dire and dramatic.

If you read the relevant laws and the sober-minded technical analyses, you know that it is Congress, starting in 1985, that spelled out the straitjacketed process that the president and his administration have no choice but to follow now.

The sequester does not require the administration to cut roughly 8.4 percent across the board. It demands 8.4 percent from each of hundreds of domestic "budget accounts," and 8.4 percent from each of the "programs, payments and activities" within them. The budget cutters can't legally switch one into another.

So for all you Dittoheads who think Obama is personally making you languish in a Transportation Security Administration line at the airport: It's not his fault. Blame congressional negotiators who failed to find a less draconian way to reduce the federal debt by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

This is an obvious point to some, but not to those conservatives who see malevolent intent in every presidential move. Fair-minded voters beyond the Beltway may also be confused. After all, it doesn't take a hardened cynic to suspect a politician of putting his finger on the budget scale for political advantage.

The right conjures up conspiracy. "Obama can pick and choose which cuts to make in order to make Republicans look bad," complained conservative author Rachel Alexander.

Conservative columnist Will accused Obama of wanting to make the cuts as
disruptive as possible. When told that White House press secretary Jay Carney had previously warned of the sequester's severe consequences, Will was dismissive: "I will do many things for my country and my profession. I will not take Mr. Carney seriously."

Was the administration fully prepared on March 1 to deal as smoothly as possible with this fiscal year's $85 billion in cuts, which had to occur over just seven months? Not really -- though, in fairness, it was an unprecedented task.

Are Democrats firing off press release after press release to highlight the impact of the cuts now taking effect? Of course they are.

But is the president somehow stage-managing which cuts go where to focus the pain for political gain?

No. He can't. What is happening now is what the law requires, nothing less and nothing more. The president has no choice but to follow it.

Here's what the laws and the technical analyses say. According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), 897 non-defense "budget accounts" -- and the thousands of "programs, payments and activities" within them -- shall be cut by the "same percentage."

This procedure is spelled out in a 1985 Reagan era law called the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, and it was written to be ironclad on spending, other than exempted programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the like.

According to the OMB (and the Congressional Research Service), the fiscal cliff law of 2011 requires that "each budget account must be analyzed separately to determine its PPAs [programs, payments and activities]." Then, each agency must "conduct a detailed analysis of their appropriation act(s) for the relevant fiscal year and, if applicable, any legislative report accompanying the act." And then they carry out the cuts accordingly.

Which means no leeway. In the list compiled by the OMB, the Department of Transportation has among its many accounts one for the Federal Aviation Administration. Within it are three budget accounts. One is for "Operations." It is, in OMB lingo, "sequesterable."

So if you think air traffic controllers are being furloughed on purpose, you are right -- but only because that is what Congress chose to do.

Political Read: Our Boston Is Now The World

Howard Fineman   |   April 19, 2013   11:01 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Did you know where Chechnya was? You probably do now. Do you know who Tamerlane was? Maybe you should look him up; the now-dead "Man in the Black Hat" was named after the 14th century Mongol conqueror.

In ways we never could have imagined, terrorists with roots in a distant land and an ancient history have overrun the streets of Boston and Cambridge that are sacred to our own history.

Well, there is no "own" anymore. As industrial Britain was rising around him, Wordsworth complained in the 19th century that the "world is too much with us." He had no idea.

We don't know what motivated 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar to allegedly kill and maim in Boston. Perhaps they were moved merely by apolitical madness.

But we know where they happen to come from: a violent land in the Caucasus fired to a fury for freedom by ethnic and religious pride.

As if we needed any further proof, this week in Boston proves that there is no "over there." Ours is not a planet in which distance matters, nor does the passage of time. It may be that centuries-old grievances are erupting worldwide like volcanic lava.

With technology, we can see every street and every forest from above on our iPads. And yet what do we really know of the lives whose external artifacts we see from the air?

Ironically, the U.S. Congress is debating what to do about immigration, but that argument in some ways was rendered antique, naïve and almost meaningless by Boston.

The Tsarnaev brothers were legal immigrants. They were granted political asylum from a Chechen war that they have now brought to Boston, whether they wanted to or not.

Back in the Caucasus, Chechens want their own country.

But so do we.

And now that is impossible for us both.

Washington Proves Again It's Where Change Goes To Die

Howard Fineman   |   April 17, 2013    7:29 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- I saw Vice President Joe Biden in the Senate late last week and asked him about the chances of passing the gun reform legislation expanding background checks. Usually the soul of confidence and good cheer, Biden gave me a weary smile. "I've got my fingers crossed," he said.

That wasn't enough. By a vote of 54-46 -- short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster -- the U.S. Senate proved once again that Washington is the place where change goes to die.

This wasn't merely the Senate being what the Founding Fathers envisioned: the "cooling saucer" for the hot coffee of legislative emotion. This was the Senate, constricted by its own rules and the laser-focused fire of the National Rifle Association, being the slaughterhouse of public will.

It was clear both to reason and arithmetic that most voters wanted to close the so-called gun show loophole. Indeed, the NRA leader who now opposes doing so, Wayne LaPierre, once publicly supported just that proposal.

But it was not to be in the Congress of today. The vote last week to allow debate on the measure was a false dawn, and almost everyone on Capitol Hill in both parties knew it.

The NRA had given members a "pass" on that vote, saying that it would not count the vote as a betrayal come Election Day. But the group said the opposite about Wednesday's vote: This one counted -- and the near score of Republicans who voted to allow debate shrank to four for passage of the measure.

Democrats could see the arithmetic, and the four who voted with the NRA -- all from rural red states -- saw no reason to risk their own necks.

There were some profiles in courage, including Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) -- NRA favorites who took it upon themselves to buck their traditional supporters. But there weren't enough of them.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), not a man with a light touch, called the families of the Newtown, Conn., victims "props," as if they, by sitting in the Senate gallery to watch the vote, were somehow interfering with the legislative process. Actually, it could be argued that the ones interfering with the legislative process were the senators themselves.

In the Rose Garden after the vote, President Barack Obama stood with those Newtown family members. He wore a scowl and spoke with the passion of righteous indignation and the sure knowledge that most of America agreed with him.

He was unusually harsh on his fellow politicians. Those who had voted no had "caved to the pressure," Obama said, and had "failed" the test of courageous leadership in a crisis.

He followed the name calling with a pledge, in essence, to make gun reform a central issue in the 2014 midterm elections.

A president who had come to Washington promising change, and who had fitfully effected some, was now promising to try again. He had stopped legislating and had started campaigning.

Once again, Obama was promising change you could believe in -- and in this case he has the public, if not the current Congress, on his side.

Running Toward The Screams

Howard Fineman   |   April 15, 2013    7:00 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Screams are sweet music to terrorists, the soundtrack they need to hear as they dramatize their grievances by murdering innocents.

They are the kings of chaos and the enemies of freedom, because their only true aim is to shackle society in the chains of fear.

But Monday was Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, a celebration of freedom in honor of the first shots fired in a war fought in the name of liberty.

And this afternoon, the meaning of the day was as important as the size of the crowd.

Bostonians celebrate the battles of Lexington and Concord in a touching act of community, a marathon in which strangers cheer on strangers, and runners push themselves toward the finish line with charming grit.

Today, rescuers were running toward the wounded on Boylston Street in acts of true heroism -- running toward the sound of the screams.

In the end, the terrorists will fail because Bostonians did not turn from their fellow men -- they turned toward them. And that is the real music of mankind.


Kentucky Dems Are Blowing It

Howard Fineman   |   April 11, 2013    7:10 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Kentucky Democrats, you need to get your act together. Nature abhors a vacuum. So does politics. And right now you're all getting sucked into the void.

In the absence of a serious candidate to challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2014, flummoxed Democrats in Kentucky are left to clean up after the juvenile tactics of the dudes who allegedly eavesdropped on a McConnell reelection strategy meeting.

The question of the day Thursday was not -- as it should have been -- the cold-bloodedness of McConnell's politics, but rather who knew what when about what the renegade Progress Kentucky guys might have been up to and about the tape of the February meeting.

For the record, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents Louisville, told The Huffington Post that he had not heard about the tape until Mother Jones published a story on it. Other Democrats in Louisville told us the same thing. But that shouldn't be the question.

This is a case of political malpractice on the part of state and national Democrats. McConnell is a leading symbol of the GOP and of what Democrats loathe about the GOP. And he is, on paper, the most vulnerable Senate incumbent.

In his fifth term now, McConnell has an approval rating in Kentucky of 36 percent. Silent but sullen, most of his own party doesn't really like him. The state's Democrats, who still control the governorship and the lower house, positively despise the man.

Yet out of a toxic mix of fear, self-interest and timidity, no credible candidate has stepped forward to challenge him.

After telling some key Kentuckians that she had decided to do so, actress-activist Ashley Judd changed her mind and renounced the race. Others have claimed they are interested, and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes even met with former President Bill Clinton to talk about it.

But the heavy hitters are waiting for the governor's race in 2015, and Kentucky Democrats are plagued by family and political feuds that make "Jersey Shore" look tame.

The popular Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, won't run, but he and the Lundergan family have a feud that goes back eons -- Grimes' father is former Kentucky Democratic chairman Jerry Lundergan -- so Beshear won't back Alison.

Two attractive contenders, state Attorney General Jack Conway and former Auditor Crit Luallen, want to run for governor. And Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, the former mayor of Louisville, is popular but unsure of his statewide appeal.

The man who once could impose order and unity -- and command a Democratic candidate to step forward -- is former Sen. Wendell Ford. He is a spry, very much engaged 88-year-old and universally beloved by Kentucky Democrats, but he is no longer in the position to run the party he once embodied.

I was a reporter in Kentucky in the Pleistocene epoch (1970s), when Democratic mastodons roamed the bluegrass and imposed their will on the political landscape. They would fight from time to time -- gigantic, ferocious fights that would define blood feuds for a generation. But they all agreed on certain things: the need for the federal government to spend money on the poor and the farmers; the need to protect coal, tobacco, corn, hogs and barge operators; the dominant position of the coal companies; and the role of political patronage in everything that moved.

It was a form of barely enlightened populist feudalism, but it worked, sort of -- especially for the Democratic Party there.

Nearly 30 years ago, the former county judge of Jefferson County -- a clerkish Republican from Alabama named McConnell -- busted up this ecosystem.

He didn't do it to reform the way things worked. He did it to make the old Kentucky Democratic Party system his own, using conservative rhetoric in Washington and assiduous buck raking to claw federal money back to the state.

That is the way it's been for decades, and it seems the way it will remain, unless someone -- other than the guys from Progress Kentucky -- step forward to take him on.

What Mitch McConnell Is Really Worried About

Howard Fineman   |   April 10, 2013    5:29 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- As is often the case, we've been burying the lead as we dissect the leaked recording of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's private whack-a-mole strategy session.

Most of the talk, on the recording and in the media, has been about the cold-blooded, ruthless assessment of the alleged weaknesses of Democratic activist-actress Ashley Judd as a reelection challenger. Riveting if revolting stuff. But what caught my eye was the very last paragraph of the colloquy, in which the Kentucky Republican's staffers assure their boss that they are going to vet and figure out how to destroy "potential primary folks."

Specifically, they said they would investigate a wealthy Louisville, Ky., businessman Matthew Bevin, who has been willing at least to listen to some tea party types.

To understand what the Republican Senate leader is up to these days, you need to remember that he now lives in fear less of his home-state Democrats -- whom he has essentially neutered in his nearly 30 years in the U.S. Senate -- than of tea party and other Republicans who hate his grip on the GOP in Kentucky and his record of talking a better conservative game than he plays.

Working on that resentment is how now-Sen. Rand Paul managed to defeat McConnell's handpicked GOP candidate for junior senator from Kentucky in 2010. And even though Paul now pledges support for McConnell, and Paul's former campaign manager is now on McConnell's team, the five-term incumbent can't be sure that he is a lock in the May 2014 GOP primary.

That is one reason why McConnell took the unusual step (for a party leader) of joining a list of other senators who vowed to filibuster any and all new gun control legislation.

That is why McConnell hit the floor the other day to roundly denounce -- in far more caustic terms than those used by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) -- the president's new budget.

And that is why McConnell is screaming bloody murder about what he claims was the involvement of the "left" in the "bugging" of his campaign office in Louisville last February.

McConnell and his minions have no proof of who was responsible for the recording and the gifting of it to Mother Jones. He may turn out to be correct.

But it is equally possible that the guilty party was a disgruntled Republican -- or even that someone on McConnell's team tried to emulate the tactic allegedly used by GOP strategist Karl Rove in a Texas gubernatorial race in 1986. Rove was widely suspected by the Texas press, and many Republicans, of having bugged his own office so that the device could be "discovered" and he could denounce the Democrats.

No device was found in the McConnell office, though no one apparently looked for one until this week, when the Mother Jones story broke.

Whatever the leak's provenance, McConnell rushed to the microphones in the Capitol on Tuesday, surrounded by his loyal Senate GOP followers, to denounce the recordings as an example of how the "left wing" was out to get him in Kentucky.

McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton stepped up the hysteria level on Wednesday, saying on Mike Huckabee's radio show that the recording's release were evidence of "Gestapo kind of scare tactics."

Translation: Hey, Tea Party! You think I'm an unprincipled dealmaker with centrist tendencies? Look how the left wing hates me!

The idea that a Kentucky Republican might have gotten hold of the recording and leaked it is not so far-fetched in a state party that has begun to feel stale and discontented after decades of control by the Louisville-based McConnell.

"There is a lot of discontent in McConnell Land," said David Adams, who blogs in Kentucky and was Rand Paul's first campaign manager in 2010. "People aren't feeling like the Republican Party in the state is going in the right direction."

The relationship between McConnell and Paul -- who were ferocious enemies until the end of the 2010 primary -- is described by one Kentuckian on the Hill as merely "transactional." McConnell was the tea party's real target in that election, with his chosen candidate, Trey Grayson, just the stand-in.

Now it is McConnell himself who has to face the grassroots wrath, at a time when his overall approval rating in the state is 36 percent -- the worst of any senator.

Adams ticked off his major complaints about McConnell on the issues: "The bank bailout. The sum total of all the wasteful federal budgets he voted for, especially in the Bush years. The Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, for what they did to privacy and civil rights. All the pork barrel money he brings back and all the press releases he puts out it.

"We've got hundreds.

"Just all the years of him claiming that he cares about freedom and liberty when his long record shows otherwise.

"He's playing his own form of whack-a-mole. He pops out of every hole there is."

Gun Control Finds Unlikely Savior Close To GOP Heart

Howard Fineman   |   April 4, 2013    2:48 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Let's hear a round of applause for the Founding Fathers, those dead white men whom conservatives love to lionize. Had it not been for the founders, there would be no relief from the spectacle of a U.S. Congress bound and gagged by the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners of America.

More than two centuries ago, the founders assembled a system of government as complex, but elegant, as an 18th-century clock: a Newtonian mechanism of political wheels, gears and weights driven and regulated by distributed power. They created a commander in chief and a national military, but left the "police power" where it always had been: with the states.

Of course, it took a Civil War, a civil rights movement and a Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to overcome the nightmarish racial consequences of the latter decision.

But that doesn't mean the concept of states' rights is without value, deep historical and constitutional validity, or political necessity. The states can be "laboratories" of reform; they can also be political safety valves at times when the federal machinery in Washington seizes up.

That is what's happening now. Even "small government" conservatives -- if not especially them -- should be thankful that states that want to enact their own strict gun control measures have the freedom to do so. The list so far includes Colorado, Connecticut and Maryland, and others will follow suit.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and his Democratic "allies" in Congress seem on the verge of conceding that they will pass exactly nothing substantive by way of new legislation. Republicans have formed a near-unanimous defensive phalanx, and not enough Democrats have the fortitude to try to bust through it, even if they could.

Senate Republicans are planning a filibuster that would even deny the president his one minimal request: that there be up-or-down votes on various gun control measures.

The GOP doesn't want recorded votes because they know their stand, especially against universal background checks, is deeply unpopular with the public. President Obama, though recently reelected by a healthy margin (remember that?), doesn't have the clout to shame them into it.

So that leaves Democratic governors such as Martin O'Malley of Maryland, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut and John Hickenlooper of Colorado to lead the way to reform.

The traffic in guns of war will not end. Only federal law can establish effective systematic safeguards. Until then, the action is and will be in the states, and for that -- and for them -- we should give thanks.

Sequestration Stupidity Is Genetic

Howard Fineman   |   April 3, 2013    1:34 PM ET

ST. LOUIS -- Of all the blinkered buzz-saw cuts in this year’s $85 billion spending sequestration, perhaps none is as counterproductive -- or as flat-out boneheaded -- as the one now hitting medical research under way in a refurbished industrial expanse of central St. Louis.

Sequester cuts to the rapidly developing process of turning genetic research into a major 21st-century industry -- and saving lives and health care costs -- are the equivalent of trying to build the Interstate Highway System with no ramps or the transcontinental railroad without the final miles in the middle.

In one of the most farsighted and successful government projects ever, Congress in 1990 authorized a 15-year, American-led effort to map the human genome and to make the results available, under careful conditions to protect pure science and personal privacy, to the world. Completed in 2003 at a cost of $3 billion, the Human Genome Project has now spawned a range of technologies -- from tailored drug therapies for cancer to preventative testing to the new big-data discipline of bioinformatics -- which not only are generating jobs, but which hold the promise of dramatically reducing health care costs.

All of that -- not to mention the lives of patients who desperately need advances in care -- is being jeopardized by sequester cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other research agencies.

For a proud but beleaguered city pinning its hopes on health care and medical research, the cuts will be devastating, said Dr. Larry J. Shapiro, dean of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The school is a leader in the fertile new field of quickly translating genetic information into real-time patient treatments, especially drug therapies for cancer. The cost of diagnostic sequencing is dropping fast, making it possible to more precisely tailor medical treatments to individual patients. The school has designed its own cutting-edge informatics software, which has the potential to set an industry standard. A pioneer in patient care, it is studying the best ways to give doctors and patients the data they need.

But out of a $400 million budget, Washington University stands to lose about $40 million in funding over an eight-month period.

"Our genomics progress will be substantially slowed," Shapiro told The Huffington Post.

Aside from delaying the delivery of potential cures, the cutbacks and uncertainty in funding will slow St. Louis' efforts to build a new industrial core. Shapiro and others worry about any pause in their drive to attract top scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs to one of the most advanced programs of its kind in the world.

Simply put, St. Louis can’t afford the setback.

Other key academic centers that receive significant NIH funding in genomics and now stand to lose a big chunk of it include Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania. While the institutions are elite, the potential benefits of their work could not be more Main Street.

The cuts are especially ironic because it was the federal government that made this new industry possible. And it is not yet commercially viable enough for the private sector to fully take it over. Nor should the private sector ever have all of the power and knowledge in an industry fraught with regulatory concerns.

Begun under the first Bush administration and amplified by President Bill Clinton, the Human Genome Project was a model of economic development and federal foresight that even Jeffersonian founders would admire. Clinton routinely mentions the project as he argues for new pro-business roles for government. President Barack Obama is following suit, proposing a new $100 million mapping effort, this one of the human brain.

Missouri's Sen. Roy Blunt warned that the sequester was a blunt instrument, so to speak, but joined his fellow Senate Republicans in voting for it. He has since tried to repair some of the damage by forging a deal to keep federal meat inspectors on the job, and he is working on an effort to keep small-airport control towers open.

His spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about the nascent genomics industry at risk in St. Louis. But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know what the answer should be.

Why Ashley Judd Flipped

Howard Fineman   |   March 28, 2013    2:58 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Wendell H. Ford is 88 years old, but still in full possession not only of his faculties but also of his role as the godfather of the Democratic Party in Kentucky. His conversation earlier this year with Ashley Judd may, in the end, have helped change the actress's mind about running for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Judd had told at least three political allies in Kentucky that she was planning to run, The Huffington Post reported earlier this month. After that story appeared, she issued no denial. In fact, Judd's spokesperson claimed that she was receiving steady expressions of support from voters.

But Judd had also discussed with Ford, the state's former governor, her fast-developing plan to seek the Democratic nomination to oppose incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

"She asked me what I thought and I told her," Ford said.

Ford, who is revered by Democrats, was friendly but noncommittal. And remained so.

In the weeks after that chat, he had little to say publicly. Privately, others in the party expressed doubt and opposition, on the theory that Judd was too liberal, too "anti-coal" and too Hollywood, and that she had not lived in the state for many years despite her loyalty to University of Kentucky basketball.

If Judd was going to make a go of it, she needed the blessing of at least a few of the higher-ups in the state's Democratic establishment. She didn't get the Godfather, and she didn't get any of the other party elders outside Louisville who could have helped her avoid a killingly divisive primary in May 2014.

Her champions, including Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, thought that Judd's entrance into the race would "clear the field," but there were too many indications that in fact would not have been the case.

Although former President Bill Clinton was publicly neutral, his decision to meet with and counsel a Judd rival, 34-year-old Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, in Owensboro earlier this month had an impact. The assumption, at first disputed by Clinton allies, was that he was backing Grimes. News of the meeting, first reported by HuffPost, together with the lack of support for Judd from current and past Kentucky leaders -- including incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear -- showed that Judd would have had to attempt a hostile takeover of the party.

And it has since become clear that the Clintons are backing Grimes. Now the Kentucky party establishment will follow suit. (Bill Clinton won the state twice, and no Democratic presidential nominee has won the state since.)

Although Judd had the backing of Louisville-based supporters of Barack Obama, led by former Obama finance chief Matthew Barzun, the president's advisers in Washington were openly hostile to the idea of her candidacy. That circle, including former Obama top adviser David Plouffe, worried not only that Judd was too liberal and inexperienced for Kentucky, but that Republicans would use her candidacy and Hollywood background to attack Democratic Senate candidates running in other red states.

Her allies were able to find some local support for her opposition to the "mountaintop removal" technique of strip mining, but support for the method is still seen as a symbol of solidarity with the Appalachian coal industry. Judd would have been fighting a rearguard political action in Eastern Kentucky coalfields, a poor area that otherwise might be open to her populist message.

Judd knew all of this, but was going ahead anyway. One of her closest political advisers had described her two weeks ago as "95 percent," adding that only the timing of her declaration of candidacy was yet to be decided. She would have been well financed, would have dominated "free media" and would have made an out-of-the-box foe for the methodic assaults of five-term incumbent McConnell.

Family considerations -- not involving other famous Judds -- may have played into her change of heart, according to one close adviser. (Ashley Judd herself, reached via email, declined to comment to The Huffington Post.)

According to Yarmuth, Judd was undecided as of Monday night, at first telling him that she was out and then emailing him two hours later to say that she was reconsidering, again.

In the end, he said, "I got the sense that she felt she needed to establish deeper roots in the state. I think she has already bought a house in Kentucky, and I definitely got the feeling that she wants to run, but isn't quite ready."

If she does want to run -- say against Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2016 -- Judd will need to win over the Wendell Fords of the world first.

In other words, she'll have to read for the part.