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Clintons Go Deep Into The Bluegrass

Howard Fineman   |   July 30, 2013    6:23 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The Clintons are all-in on Kentucky.

Bill won there twice, in 1992 and 1996, and remains a popular figure. Now he and Hillary are backing a political ally they hope will win a U.S. Senate seat in 2014 -- and become a key Southern booster for Hillary if and when she runs for president in 2016.

The former president couldn’t change his plans to go to Africa, but he wanted to help Alison Lundergan Grimes, a fellow Democrat and family friend, launch her Senate campaign Tuesday in Lexington, Ky. So he filmed a two-minute YouTube video for use as Grimes kicked off her drive to oust Republican Mitch McConnell, a formidable five-term incumbent and the GOP Senate leader.

Without mentioning the 71-year-old McConnell by name, Clinton dismisses him in the video as a Washington pol who likes to “just say no for the sake of saying no” and is unable to “reach across lines of party, geography or philosophy.”

Grimes, the 34-year-old daughter of a former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman who is a longtime Clinton loyalist, has held elective office for little more than a year, as Kentucky secretary of state.

In the video, Clinton says he has known her for years and watched her rise. She’s “smart and strong, compassionate and effective, and Kentucky through and through," says the former president.

The former First Couple had encouraged Grimes to enter the race against McConnell, especially after Kentucky-raised actress Ashley Judd balked at the starting gate and decided not to run. Bill took the direct approach, mutual friends said. Hillary acted more as a motherly counselor, advising Grimes to take what her heart told her was the wisest course.

The Clintons can and are helping in other more tangible ways, especially with fundraising. Grimes can expect the big bundlers and campaign donors of Clintonworld to at least be open to her appeal for cash, and several are said to have already responded.

She can also expect Bill and Hill to appear in the state for her more than once, if not often, between now and the general election in November 2014.

“Hillary is popular in the state, and Bill’s numbers are absolutely through the roof,” said Jonathan Hurst, a top campaign adviser with deep roots in the state Democratic Party.

That doesn’t mean the Grimes campaign is or will be a wholly owned Clinton subsidiary -- far from it. Indeed, the Clinton stamp of credibility has helped attract talent from across the party spectrum, including Mark Putnam (media and advertising) from the Obama team; pollster Mark Mellman, whose clients have included the mayor of Lexington and numerous women candidates; and fundraiser Colleen Coffey, who did the same task for (now) Sen. Elizabeth Warren and (now) Sen. Ed Markey in Massachusetts.

McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton honored Grimes' campaign launch, so to speak, with his own statement Tuesday: “Kentuckians have a clear choice between Mitch McConnell, an unwavering defender of our people and Alison Lundergan Grimes, an ambitious but unproven liberal who will be more beholden to President Obama and his financial backers than the citizens she hopes to represent."

Grimes will get her first chance to square off against McConnell at this coming weekend’s Fancy Farm political picnic in Western Kentucky. The two will be among the political figures speaking -- separately -- on Saturday.

She will journey there on a new campaign bus, one in which she will be spending a lot of time for the next year and a half.

“It’s going to be a long, hard campaign,” Bill Clinton says in the video. “But you can win it.” He doesn’t say “we,” but that is what he means.

Grimes Wows Democratic Donors

Howard Fineman   |   July 13, 2013    4:55 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Alison Lundergan Grimes stumbled out of the gate in Kentucky earlier this month when she announced that she would run against five-term incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell in next year's Senate race.

The 34-year-old Democratic secretary of state has the right blood lines: She's the daughter of the former Democratic Party state chairman. But though she is well-schooled in the basics -- firm handshake, straight-ahead manner and careful talking points -- Grimes launched her campaign without a website, position papers, staff or much of anything else.

Team Mitch unloaded with derision and precision, posting an online video portraying Grimes as Barack Obama's dancing partner (the president isn't popular in Kentucky) and a tree-hugging foe of the state's powerful coal industry.

But a Senate race is a long-distance affair, especially in Kentucky, where polls show that McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is weak, at a time when voters everywhere despise Congress and Washington. And now in the second furlong, evidence is beginning to emerge that Grimes may turn into a surprisingly formidable foe for a man who is more than twice her age.

In her first major appearance before national party leaders, Saturday on Martha's Vineyard, Grimes wowed Democratic senators, Senate candidates and donors alike at the party's annual private summer fundraising retreat.

Each year the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee invites top donors to schmooze with senators, especially those up for reelection, and inspect the merchandise of challengers who will take on Republican incumbents.

Grimes spoke to the group Saturday morning and brought the jaded and normally undemonstrative crowd to its feet in wild applause, said one top donor, who had been deeply skeptical of the idea that McConnell could be knocked off by anyone. He and another attendee spoke to The Huffington Post on the condition that their names not be used.

Grimes' feisty talk, the sources said, mixed a commitment to a Democratic job-creation agenda with a pedal-to-the-metal attack on McConnell.

"I've been going to these for years, and I have never, until this morning, seen a candidate get a standing O," said the donor, who is among the top 100 contributors to the committee over the last five years. "It was amazing."

Clearly, dislike of McConnell -- a shrewd, remorseless combatant in the Senate and in GOP circles nationally -- is one reason why Grimes was so well-received in Martha's Vineyard. It's also well-known that former President Bill Clinton, who is close to Grimes' father, encouraged her to enter the race.

But another reason that she was a hit, an attendee said, was that she exceeded expectations with a good speech, strong presence and youthful appeal. "She's attractive, by the way," the donor said. "Doesn't hurt."

Rand Paul Not Sure NSA Leaker Can Get A Fair Trial

Howard Fineman   |   July 12, 2013    8:27 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- In one 35-minute interview this week, there were two Rand Pauls: Tea Party Rand, firing his libertarian guns, and rising Republican Rand, gingerly accommodating himself to the GOP establishment.

Tea Party Rand isn't sure Edward Snowden can get a fair trial in the United States. GOP Rand thinks it's "none of our damn business" where Israelis build new neighborhoods near Jerusalem.

If Rand Paul were a dog, he'd be a terrier: taut, feisty, determined, diminutive, with tightly curled hair. His eyes are fastened on a juicy bone: the presidency.

At a time when voters are fed up with Washington, the freshman senator from Kentucky sees what he considers his main chance -- to sell himself as a tea party Republican, a permanent political outsider who nevertheless knows enough about government to radically cut its size, breadth and intrusiveness.

So Rand Paul in the summer of 2013 is toggling between pure tea party libertarianism and carefully calibrated appeals to the GOP establishment that he ran against in 2010, but now needs to pacify, impress or, at the very least, reassure.

Tea Party Rand emerged in response to a question about the fugitive National Security Agency leaker. When I asked whether he thought Snowden could be treated fairly by U.S. courts, Paul demurred -- a remarkably skeptical non-answer for a leader of the federal government.

"I don't know," the senator said. "I think the thing is, they've accused him under the Espionage Act, and I think he would probably face life imprisonment, would be my guess."

I repeated the question. Another demurral.

"I think the best person to ask -- because I don't think I can give you an answer -- is Daniel Ellsberg," Paul said. "He wrote a reasonable article about this, talking about how America is a little different now" than it was in 1971, when Ellsberg was prosecuted for leaking the Pentagon Papers.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Ellsberg praised Snowden's decision not to return to the United States. Ellsberg argued that the fugitive would face lengthy solitary confinement awaiting a trial in which he could not question government conduct that was once -- but no longer -- seen as illegal.

The other Rand Paul, the one making strategic adjustments as he rises, emerged in answer to questions about Israel and the close U.S.-Israel relationship.

Supporters of Israel, a powerful force within the GOP, are deeply suspicious of Rand's father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He sought to abolish all foreign aid immediately, including to Israel, and was critical of many policies and actions of the Jewish state.

His son is trying hard to escape that shadow, traveling to Israel earlier this year and reaching out to various pro-Israel groups. "He's made a real effort, and I don't think he has the visceral dislike of Israel his father did," said Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Rand Paul, unlike his father, declares that we should cut foreign aid first to those countries where citizens are "burning our flag." "I don't think you will meet anyone in Israel who will ever burn the American flag," he said.

Paul was vague when asked about the right of Jews to a homeland in Palestine.

"The reason why I am being careful is because what is Palestine?" he said. "What are you talking about? Are you saying the whole country over there? Is Israel squatting on 'Palestine'? Are you talking about the West Bank? Are you talking about Gaza? In this business, sometimes it's important to be careful."

Yet he also said it's up to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves to decide these questions, and "those in Israel have a right to make decisions concerning the sovereignty of their own country."

"The mistake we've made is that we are a little too bossy," Paul continued. "We know what's best for everybody.

"I actually take this as being a very pro-Israel position. The neighborhoods around Jerusalem, for example: You've got Hillary Clinton, you've got Joe Biden, you've for the president telling them [Israel] that they can't build in certain neighborhoods. It's none of our damned business where they build neighborhoods over there."

Paul is looking for balance elsewhere as he tries to combine tea party and GOP.

He became a national sensation by filibustering against the use of drones, but Paul is toning down his rhetoric -- or at least his visibility -- on the rise of the Surveillance State.

His reasoning is simple enough and surprisingly realpolitik: Everyone is against him. He got a talking-to by his own party leaders, and most Democrats are loath to criticize President Barack Obama on the issue.

"There is no sentiment or will here on either side," he said. "Like I say, there's no stronger bipartisan consensus than there is on spying and military issues."

On the other hand, he has no use for those who would try to write a new preclearance formula into the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court struck down the old one.

"There was a need for the Voting Rights Act," Paul said. "With regard to whether or not we should have federal intervention now in voting, the statistics are indisputable: Blacks are voting in higher percentages than whites. There is no uniform, legal or somehow organized animus to prevent people from voting anymore. So I think the Supreme Court had a point."

Those who want to write a new formula, he said, would be doing so only for "demagogue reasons."

Asked whether he would choose to carry a tea party flag or a Republican flag if he could have only one, Paul answered, "An American flag."

"I am part of the Republican Party. It's 'we,' not 'they.' And I see that we are having a great deal of influence within it. And we want it to be the freedom-loving party that attracts youth to it," he said.

"The president has dropped 20 points with young people in the last month," said Paul, apparently referring to a CNN/ORC International poll in June. "They see him as a hypocrite on the Internet and on his spying. And they are quick to leave him."

Even though he was practicing medicine only four years ago -- and previous held no public office -- Paul thinks he is ready to run for the presidency in 2016.

People said similar things about Obama, another relative novice, he pointed out.

"I would stack up the background of being an ophthalmologist with a community organizer any day," Paul said.

Caitlin MacNeal contributed reporting.

Rand Paul Stands By His 'Southern Avenger'

Howard Fineman   |   July 11, 2013    7:35 AM ET

WASHINGTON –- In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sen. Rand Paul stoutly defended an aide who, as a radio shock jock in South Carolina, praised John Wilkes Booth, heaped scorn on Abraham Lincoln and wore a ski mask emblazoned with the stars and bars of the Confederate Battle Flag.

Paul (R-Ky.) stressed that he opposed such views, many of which have been recanted by the Senate aide, Jack Hunter, who co-wrote Paul's first book in 2010 and who is now his social media adviser in Washington.

“I'm not a fan of secession,” Paul said. “I think the things he said about John Wilkes Booth are absolutely stupid. I think Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents. Do I think Lincoln was wrong is taking away the freedom of the press and the right of habeas corpus? Yeah.

“There were great people who were for emancipation. Lincoln came to his greatness. One Republican congressman described it as ‘on borrowed plumage.’ I love the description, because there were some great fighters [for emancipation] and Lincoln had to be pushed. But I'm not an enemy of Lincoln, like some who think he was an awful person.”

Paul said that Hunter had never acted in a discriminatory way, and that his earlier work in South Carolina was a form of youthful political showmanship.

“People are calling him a white supremacist,” Paul told me in his Senate office. “If I thought he was a white supremacist, he would be fired immediately. If I thought he would treat anybody on the color of their skin different than others, I’d fire him immediately.

“All I can say is, we have a zero tolerance policy for anybody who displays discriminatory behavior or belief in discriminating against people based on the color of their skin, their religion, their sexual orientation, anything like that,” Paul told me. “We won't tolerate any of that, and I've seen no evidence of that.

“Are we at a point where nobody can have had a youth or said anything untoward?” the senator asked rhetorically.

Hunter is 39 years old. He was a well-known figure in South Carolina for years before he caught Paul’s eye with some well-circulated YouTube videos.

Say this about Paul: He doesn’t run from a fight, especially if it means defying a Washington Beltway consensus.

The 50-year-old freshman senator, a tea party libertarian hungering to climb his way through the GOP to the White House, wins passionate fans for questioning the rise of the Security State at home and the drone wars abroad.

But he wins equally passionate critics for some of his statements on race and civil rights, which foes see as a throwback to the days when resistance to federal power was tantamount to defending the Old South.

The consistent thread is his irritation at other people -– especially those in the federal government or media –- telling him what he should do, say or think.

And he is not about to distance himself from a writer who long called himself the “Southern Avenger.”

Paul insisted that he had only known “vaguely” about Hunter’s work. But even if he had known all of the details, Paul said, he would not have shied away from hiring Hunter because he is a talented conservative writer.

“Let me put it this way,” Paul said. ”I’m aware of some of your columns, but not all of them. And some of them I find very unfair, calling me a conspiracy nut, things like that. But I chose to talk to you today. So that means we have a relationship now. But it doesn't mean that I agree with all of your past writings.

“It's the same way any time you meet somebody who's got a large body of work,” Paul continued. "So if I hired you to work in my campaign, there would be some things I agreed with, and some things I disagreed with.

“I think it's hard. The thing is, I grapple with this. What am I supposed to do? I'm going to have a lot of people working for me. They've all got writings and opinions."

Hunter, he said, "is incredibly talented."

Behind the flashy and provocative rhetoric, Paul said, Hunter often made thought-provoking arguments. “Look and listen to the actual words and not to the headlines, people,” Paul told me.

What about the ski mask? I asked.

“It was a shock radio job. He was doing wet T-shirt contests. But can a guy not have a youth and stuff? People try to say I smoked pot one time, and I wasn't fit for office.”

Paul clearly thinks that he is.

And, by the way, he told me, he was headed to Nevada this weekend -- Nevada being a key early-nominating state in what would be a 2016 GOP nominating race.

Before he gets there, Paul will have to deal with myriad nettlesome issues that come from his family’s political roots in the libertarian, states’ rights and nativist soil deep in some reaches of American politics.

A major theme of Paul’s short career has been the tension between the grassroots tea party enthusiasm and libertarian online donors he inherits from his father -– perennial presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul -– and Rand’s own strategic plan to be seen as a mainstream-able GOP figure.

The two imperatives seemed to have collided in the person of Jack Hunter this week, and Paul stood by his friend. He could hardly do otherwise. Hunter is too close to him, for one, to be easily jettisoned. But more important for Paul, firing him would have been allowing other people to tell him what to do.

Spitzer v. Fitzgerald: Second Acts In Politics

Howard Fineman   |   July 8, 2013    4:53 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Eliot Spitzer, the previously disgraced former governor of New York, told me today that he is testing what may be new dynamics of personal transgression and forgiveness in politics.

In 2008, Spitzer resigned amid disclosures that he had paid as much as $80,000 to prostitutes over several years.

Yesterday, a little more than five years after his humiliating departure, the 54-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer declared his candidacy for comptroller of New York City, a little-known but powerful post.

Spitzer’s announcement comes in a campaign era that seems, at first glance, to have become more tolerant of second chances for those involved in sexual and marital scandals.

I asked Spitzer if he thought that public mores -- and the rules of politics -- had changed in a fundamental way that would offer him an easier route to redemption.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I really haven’t been in politics long enough to have a basis for comparison."

“I don’t know if the circumstances are different now than they were, say, 30 or 50 years ago,” he said.

“I do think that back then, there was in general less known about the private lives of politicians,” he said. “So the idea of redemption wasn’t the factor that it is now.”

Spitzer made it clear that he was not assuming he would be forgiven. While he was not prosecuted for a crime, he spoke of earning back the trust he lost in 2008.

“I think that the public has always been wonderfully forgiving. But I have to quickly add that we will see if that forgiveness extends to me. The public believes in redemption, in second chances. We’ll see if that applies in my case. I have to earn it,” he said.

Spitzer said the decision to run was not an easy one. His family is on board as he seeks to once again fulfill his lifelong ambition to be a public servant, he said.

“It was a tough decision,” he said, “but [comptroller] is an interesting position. I have always been interested in public service, so I decided to go for it.

"I know that there will be body blows ahead, but I will just have to absorb them," he said.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He was wrong. As Spitzer shows, the political stage these days is full of presumed-dead careers in the midst of remakes.

On the sex scandal front, the other names are familiar: Rep. Mark Sanford and mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, both of whom had their own falls from grace prior to their current political revivals.

Meanwhile, on a different plane, former President George W. Bush has begun a gradual, cautious and shrewdly managed rebuild. And even former Vice President Dick Cheney -- whose approval rating once rested at 13 percent -- is venturing forth after a heart transplant onto Sunday talk shows and appearances in his home state of Wyoming.

Fitzgerald’s dictum hasn’t always applied to politics, but there have always been risks in trying to successfully defy it. Richard Nixon did so for a while -- only to see his second act come crashing down in Watergate.

But the idea of one-act careers seems almost quaint today. Why?

On the sex-and-marriage front, the bounds of tolerable behavior have widened, or at least public discussion of them has become more accepted in recent years.

President Bill Clinton, impeached and nearly convicted in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, wrote a new textbook on how to survive in the crosscurrents of American culture, which both glorifies sex for its own sake and puritanically scourges those who seek it.

On one level, Clinton was the patron saint of shamelessness. Looked at another way, he was a paragon of political fortitude, soldiering on for his policy goals.

With political parties divided, there are no “smoke-filled back rooms” to block second acts. And with the abolition of most fundraising rules, the second acts can now self-fund or crowd-fund their way up again.

The rhythm and power of scandal has changed, too, said Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster and consultant.

In the age of Twitter and cable TV -- and broadcast shows with names like “Scandal” -- individual political disasters have become industrialized, trivialized and conveniently (for hardy folk in high office) disposable.

“Things are so instantaneous now that these scandals burn white-hot -- hotter than they ever did, which can quickly drive people from office,” Ayres said. “But it also means that the damage might not be as deep."

“People have such short attention spans now,” Ayres said. “If you are a politician, all you have to do is wait.”

John Roberts Is Washington's Most Cold-Blooded Pol

Howard Fineman   |   June 26, 2013    1:29 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The shrewdest, most manipulative and radical politician in this city isn't the president or a member of Congress. He's the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, John G. Roberts Jr.

Roberts assured the nation during his 2005 confirmation hearing that he would be an umpire of constitutional law, but instead he has become the cleanup hitter, manager and team owner.

In a now familiar two-step of jurisprudence, the Roberts Court on Wednesday tactically ceded ground it did not regard as crucial -- this time, on two gay rights cases. Cable TV was full of smiling gay rights activists, happy that the Supreme Court had effectively restored same-sex marriage in California and ensured federal benefits for same-sex couples married in the 12 states (and D.C.) that sanction it.

But politically, these tolerant rulings on the country's social fabric deflect attention from the Roberts Court's deeper goal: to remove the federal government as an impediment to corporate, state and local power. In other words, to dismantle a framework of progressive laws and court rulings stretching back to Teddy Roosevelt, the New Deal and the Great Society.

"Roberts has a long-range plan for radical change," said Norman Ornstein, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "And he's moving faster than he thought possible when he started eight years ago."

Viewed over a series of years, the major decisions of the Roberts Court exhibit a contrapuntal political rhythm -- and a sharp awareness of how it's all playing.

Roberts may have wanted to be cautious initially, but his eyes grew wide when presented with the Citizens United case. In 2010, he led the court to declare that corporations, like individuals, have free speech rights that bar the government from limiting what they spend independently on campaigns and elections.

The reaction was swift -- and negative.

"I think the chief justice was taken aback a bit," said Ornstein. "I don't think he expected as much criticism as he got."

So even as the court sought ways to limit federal regulation of business and markets, Roberts boldly created a majority to uphold the central provision of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act in the midst of the 2012 campaign.

Court observers figured -- rightly as it turned out -- that Roberts would balance that move with the one he made on Tuesday: writing the opinion that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act and essentially freed the Republican-dominated South from the last vestiges of federal control of the region's election laws.

And then observers figured that once the Supreme Court had lurched to the right on voting rights, it would angle back on gay rights. As his final act in the two-step for this term, Roberts wrote the majority opinion against supporters of California's Proposition 8, but let Justice Anthony Kennedy do the honors in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

Roberts' moves in these cases may also have had a personal dimension. Jean Podrasky, his first cousin, lives in San Francisco and is a lesbian and an avid gay-rights supporter. She was present for the oral argument on Prop 8 and now, thanks to her relative, could marry her partner and receive federal benefits.

Where is Roberts headed from here?

For one, expect to see the Supreme Court take up affirmative action again. On Monday, the court by 7-1 sent the University of Texas at Austin's plan back for review under stricter standards. That or another case will be return to the justices, and the betting is that the Roberts Court may well swat it down again.

Having substantially weakened federal spending limits on elections, the Roberts Court's next move may be to end contribution limits to political parties and candidates' campaigns.

Environmental and other business regulation must also be on the agenda. Indeed, the court spent this term, as it has earlier ones, issuing decisions generally favorable to business, at least as judged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Gay rights won Wednesday. Voting rights lost Tuesday. But in the Roberts era, big money tends to win every time.

Supreme Court Declares The Civil War Over Today

Howard Fineman   |   June 25, 2013   10:58 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court just declared that the Civil War is no longer relevant to the history and administration of racial justice in America.

In a sense, the court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder validated a generations-long effort -- first by Democrats and later by Ronald Reagan and the Bush family -- to throw off the moral weight that slavery and the Civil War had placed on the South.

“The court is essential saying that the South is no longer the South, the North is no longer the North, and the whole country has to consider how to go forward,” Yale Law School professor Heather Gerkin told The Huffington Post.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and amendments that followed through 2006, held that the states of the Old South, and a few other jurisdictions that had practiced official or “de jure” segregation, should be specifically and deeply scrutinized every time they tried to change their voting laws. The requirement for “preclearance” was based on voting and turnout patterns that, in turn, had their roots in segregation, Jim Crow and the practices that the South devised to disenfranchise blacks after the Civil War.

The court said Tuesday that that history and those formulas are no longer relevant -- or at least not relevant enough to make sense in the multiracial America of today.

“They are saying that the idea of preclearance is still valid,” George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton told The Huffington Post. “But they are saying that the way we go about it no longer applies.”

The effect of the ruling is to throw back to Congress the entire issue of deciding which jurisdictions' registration and voting procedures should require special scrutiny. “They are leaving it up to Congress,” said Overton.

But Overton and others doubt whether Congress will have the will and the wherewithal -- let alone the commitment to racial justice in this confusing new era -- to come up with a new formula.

“I think the chances of that are slim,” said Gerken.

Which means that the era of preclearance, which beat back at least a thousand discriminatory schemes over the years, may well be at an end. Complaints about voter discrimination will have to be filed in court -- after the fact and after the beneficiaries are already incumbents.

GOP 2016 Contenders Test Swords In Immigration Debate

Howard Fineman   |   June 19, 2013    7:30 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- It's a crucial statistic, and it animates the ferocious debate about immigration now consuming Congress: Of the 12 million Hispanic Americans who voted in 2012, only some 4 million voted for the Republican presidential candidate, Ol' Whatshisname.

Without a much better showing in future elections, the GOP has little hope of avoiding what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) calls a long-term demographic "death spiral."

Which is why it isn't surprising that the preliminary skirmishes of the GOP's 2016 campaign are over immigration reform: how to secure U.S. borders while offering citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, some 8 million of whom came from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Paradoxically -- but perhaps hopefully for the GOP -- a surprisingly large number of its key 2016 players are Latinos. Their prominence is fortunate for the party. Their chances of rising to the top could well be boosted by their own life histories.

Democrats claim to be unimpressed. "The problem with the GOP and Latinos is ideological," said Sergio Bendixen, a leading Democratic strategist in the community. "It can no longer be solved with a Bush-like strategy based on 'hugs and kisses' or with charismatic Latino personalities, especially considering the fact that the two best-known are Cuban-American." (Cuban Americans already tend to be more conservative than their fellow Hispanics.)

"Latinos support a strong government role in the economy, a U.N.-based foreign policy, socialized medicine, public education, generous social and welfare programs," Bendixen told me. "They are probably the most left-wing constituency in our electorate. It's a tough challenge for the GOP to connect."

Still, the Republicans' crisis could be -- indeed for the party, almost has to be -- an opportunity for their Latino leaders.

Marco Rubio, a freshman senator from Florida who is the son of Cuban immigrants, leads the Republican immigration reform effort in the Senate. A potential ally -- or foe -- is another freshman senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, whose father was also a Cuban émigré.

In Massachusetts, Gabriel Gomez, a businessman, former Navy SEAL and son of Colombian immigrants, is the Republican candidate in a race to fill the unexpired Senate term of Secretary of State John Kerry. Should Gomez pull an upset against Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, he would immediately become a player not only in the Senate, but in the GOP nationally.

It's also worth remembering that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's wife is from Mexico (he met her as an exchange student); that Bush himself speaks fluent Spanish; and that his older brother, George W., won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote -- an all-time high for the GOP -- in his 2004 presidential reelection campaign.

Even possible Republican contenders who aren't Latino and don't speak Spanish are maneuvering their way carefully through the immigration reform debate. They, as much as the others, need to find a way to balance anti-immigrant sentiment at the GOP's grassroots with a more welcoming message to Hispanics.

So how are they approaching the issue so far, both as a matter of substance and as a test of their political maneuvering toward 2016?

Having been lauded by Big Media as a charming, photogenic, striving savior of the party, Rubio made bold to take the Senate lead on immigration, even though he is only serving his first term. In a Congress that has an increasingly hard time dealing with complex issues -- and that has failed to pass a major immigration reform measure in more than 20 years -- his charge to the front was the equivalent of a college freshman going immediately for a Ph.D.

To his credit, Rubio worked with a bipartisan "gang of eight" to hash out a compromise bill, although it was one he knew –- or should have known -- was too "soft" for much of his own party because it offered too many benefits to immigrants and not enough guaranteed border security. But since then, he has moved steadily to the right, even suggesting that he might oppose his own legislation if it does not incorporate tougher provisions than he was willing to insist on initially.

At only 42, Rubio won't be made or broken as a leader by the fate of the immigration bill. Still, a legislative triumph would show a level of skill and drive that could only enhance his 2016 prospects.

Cruz, so forceful and almost alarmingly blunt on most issues, is being careful on this one, at least so far.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was denounced by anti-immigration reform leaders this spring after he declared his general support for the effort. But when the gang of eight's bill was panned even by Rubio, Paul moved more aggressively to propose his own amendments. One would deny benefits to immigrants in the "pipeline" toward legalization; another would require detailed, yearly certification of progress toward a locked-tight southern U.S. border before undocumented immigrants get on the citizenship path.

Jeb Bush, playing the Florida and Bush-family senior statesman, has largely stayed above the congressional fray so far. He's confined himself to oddly laudatory statements about immigrants (they "are more fertile, and they love their families, and they have more intact families ...") and to joining with Karl Rove and mainstream business types as signatories on a newspaper ad calling for a tough but fair bill.

The consensus among GOP insiders is that either Rubio or Bush will run in 2016, but not both. For now they are allies; we'll see if it stays that way.

Supporters of Rand Paul are hoping that Bush does enter the race. They want to see him vacuum up the Florida cash that otherwise would go to someone they evidently fear more: Rubio.

Cruz has yet to make clear which way he will ultimately head on the still-evolving reform bill.

As for other possible GOP presidential contenders -- governors such as Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin's Scott Walker -- they haven't become leading players in this immigration drama. But if they are serious about running in 2016, they will have to.

For the game has already begun inside the Beltway.

'I Just Don't Get What We're Doing Here'

Howard Fineman   |   June 17, 2013    5:53 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, is a jovial sort, but he was scowling like a man who'd just discovered that he might have boarded the wrong bus.

"How do we put together a bill and then the guy who put it together says that he may not vote for it?" Graham asked me. "I just don't get what we're doing here."

His specific complaint: that GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a fellow member of the Senate "gang of eight" who had spent months drafting a bipartisan immigration reform bill, seemed to be backing away from the legislation.

Rubio said that its border enforcement provisions need to be strengthened -- and that he might oppose the bill if he didn't get strong enough revised language. This infuriated and exasperated Graham, who had joined the gang in the first place to try to do a good legislative deed and also to protect himself politically.

Graham is the human fault line of Republican national politics. He is a conservative who represents a ruby-red state and still might face a tea party primary challenge next year, an inside dealmaker who thinks that the GOP will enter a demographic "death spiral" if it doesn't quickly figure out a way to appeal to Hispanics and take the immigration issue away from the Democrats.

Graham needed Rubio to bless the deal and stick with it, not flinch at the first whiff of tea party gunpowder.

The truth is that the immigration issue is getting bollixed up in 2016 GOP presidential politics. Other young Republican bucks didn't like Rubio arrogating the issue to himself, especially since he (like they) is a Senate novice.

It took all of five minutes for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to move to Rubio's right, demanding much stronger border security measures. Paul's staff told me that he's hoping for a vote on his amendment later this week. The bet here is that Rubio will support it. So, presumably, will Graham.

Senate supporters are still aiming to somehow gather 70 votes for passage of the full 800-page bill, but since they are likely to lose a couple of Democrats, that means roping in 20 or so GOP votes.

As of now, that seems unlikely, which means that Graham may be stuck on the bus headed for the worst of all worlds: support of a bill that was deemed too soft by a key author and couldn't win enough votes to pass Congress.

Can Turkey Still Thrive?

Howard Fineman   |   June 11, 2013    7:13 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- I have a Turkish friend, who must remain nameless. He had lived here in the United States for years until he decided a decade ago to go home.

It seemed like a great idea. The Turkish economy had started to boom, and he wanted to become a part –- a profitable part –- of his homeland’s new revival.

For a time, everything worked out well. He tapped his deep contacts in Istanbul to get established in the restaurant business and later, in the resort and hotel scene in Bodrum.

He was happy, giddy almost, making money and being back where he grew up in the glittering new Istanbul.

But as the years went by and the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan became entrenched, my friend began to worry: privately and fleetingly, then openly and constantly.

My friend was a secularist by nature and upbringing. His hospitality businesses involved selling alcohol. His girlfriend was blonde and wore short skirts. He liked to promenade with her in the Grand Bazaar, if only to annoy the shopkeepers. He and his boyhood friends would roll their eyes when they heard the muezzins’ calls to prayer in the city.

Slowly, but implacably as my friend saw it, Turkey under Erdogan was becoming inch-by-inch more Islamic –- something it had not been, even nominally, since Ataturk replaced the Ottoman Sultans with a secular state.

Under Erdogan, first you saw more women in the streets with headscarves or more complete coverings. You would see them in increasing numbers on the commuter ferries crossing the Bosporus. Then, the old, decrepit mosques in the city began to be restored, and no one rolled their eyes at the call to prayer.

Erdogan eased if not erased tension over this creeping piety with a furious flurry of state-augmented capitalism. He invited billions in foreign investments (especially, though not exclusively, from the Gulf). He financed vast public works projects, particularly in Istanbul. He loosened rules on business.

The resulting surge of economic growth kept people too busy to hate, to use the old slogan of Atlanta back in its post-segregation heyday. But that same growth also fueled the power and wealth of the prime minister’s political machine, the Justice and Development Party.

Moving carefully but systematically, Erdogan began rooting out secularist foes in the military, jailing journalists and taking other actions that indicated to people such as my friend that there was more Development than Justice in the Erdogan movement.

Then the visits began to my friends' businesses: the visits from the government men. Even in Bodrum, they wore plain pants and white shirts. They looked out of place, and they wanted to look out of place.

They wanted to know more about his businesses. Not that there was anything wrong with them, but were they being run properly? Did they shut down for the night at a decent hour? Were the books in order? Were they disturbing the neighbors in any way?

The last time I talked to my friend, he was no longer such a happy-sounding fellow. He was worried and not eager to talk. You could almost hear the sound of a window closing. So far as I know, my friend has not been in Taksim Square. He’s no fool, and he is too old for that kind of action anyway.

But his friends' kids are, I am guessing -– armed with fireworks and Twitter. They want a democratic Turkey, but a secular one. They want modernity and all of the personal freedoms that go with it. There are students and environmentalists and women’s rights advocates. There are people drinking beer, which has now become an act of defiance.

They don’t want what they fear Erdogan wants to give them, which is a boring and controlled semi-religious state, even though he was frank about his desire to build a Turkey that is both dynamic and devout.

And here is the complex thing: Whatever his flaws, the United States and its allies are counting on Erdogan. They need him to not fail. They don’t want a coup, either from the right (the army) or the Islamists. Above all, the allies want stability, which is what they have always wanted from the Turks, who sit astride history and geography and faith as no other people.

The United States and Europe have military alliances they want to keep. Israel has a neighbor it doesn’t (for now) have to fear in an existential way. Arabs want a place to invest and to vacation. They have purchased many of the grand old homes along the Bosporus. It is a lovely and historic Islamic riviera, where old wooden summer villas cost millions.

Nobody wants this to end, or end badly.

The symbol of Erdogan’s party is a shining light. It’s iconography that advertises technology -– not religion. And it was deliberately chosen for that reason.

Such cheap symbols hardly reassure my friend. The rest of the world may have no choice but to see it as a ray of hope.

This Is Rand Paul's Moment

Howard Fineman   |   June 10, 2013    5:04 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- At Pitzer College's commencement in California recently, former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett lamented the lack of candor in American life. Only a few political leaders seem to be trying to break through the "bullshit," he said, including a few Republicans.

One, Lovett said, was Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

In a Washington ballroom last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading civil liberties group, gave Paul a major award, even though he's been in town for a mere two years. Praise was bipartisan, led by fellow honoree, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. At Mitt Romney's high-powered retreat in Utah last weekend, Paul by all accounts got a hearty reception at an event that was arguably the first audition for GOP presidential contenders in 2016.

And all of that was before a flood of stories that are defining, for the first time, the scope and detail of the new American security state that has arisen in the decade since the 9/11 attacks. The Big Brother narrative about secret government collection and analysis of Big Data plays directly -- and powerfully -- into Paul's libertarian message. And it is further emboldening him as he develops plans for 2016.

Paul and his aides insist that he is focused on seeking reelection in Kentucky that year, but he, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are widely considered to be the most active among early national candidates.

Paul built his anti-establishment campaign in Kentucky in 2010 on tea party bedrock, expounding a message of a smaller role and reach for the federal government; radically lower and simpler taxes; abolition of federal departments and agencies; opposition to the Patriot Act; opposition to an increased federal role in education; a less intrusive IRS; questioning of the role of drones and wars in the Middle East; and opposition to Obama's Affordable Care Act.

The theme of distrust of government, so prevalent in 2010, has returned with a vengeance within parts of his own party and the tea party grassroots -- but also among millions of younger voters who either tend to lean toward the Democrats or are unaffiliated.

The latter like his position on the wars and drones, his skepticism about the criminalization of minor drug offenses, and now his declaration that the NSA call data collection and PRISM web surveillance are a "direct assault on the Constitution."

Leaders of both parties, from President Obama to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), are defending the vast surveillance and data storage scheme, made much easier to execute in the years since 9/11 by advances in computer, communications and software technology. With only limited modifications, Obama has accepted most of the basic architecture of a program launched by President George W. Bush. Democrats and Republicans alike are loath to dismantle it.

The system also draws support from the limitlessness of security logic, which says that you can never know or protect too much; the inevitable growth of new federal bureaucracies; and the profit motive of defense contractors, who have shifted sales to government from hardware to software. Those same contractors can and do contribute to candidates and lobby Congress in support of the controversial secret programs that are now coming to light.

Paul has vowed to counter this vast machinery by encouraging a class-action citizens' lawsuit. He hopes to help gather millions of plaintiffs -- and with it, millions of potential supporters for his campaign.

One of them could well be Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose leaks to the media last week became a trumpet blast. Snowden was a supporter of Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul, and it would come as no surprise if we were to discover that Snowden likes the son as well.

Paul sees Snowden as a hero. Will Republican primary voters see him that way? Rand Paul seems destined to find out the answer soon enough.

Dare I Make A Phone Call

Howard Fineman   |   June 6, 2013    5:00 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's surveillance of tens of millions of Verizon phone calls is questionable at best and illegal at worst, a top privacy-rights advocate said Thursday.

The National Security Agency's broad tracking of "telephony metadata," approved by a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, violated the law and longstanding practice on the use of subpoenas, said Marc Rotenberg of the nonpartisan Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

"The FISA law is designed for the surveillance of foreign powers and foreign threats," said Rotenberg. "This is an entirely domestic operation, monitoring millions of calls between Americans who have nothing to do with anything abroad," he continued. "We think that what they are doing here is illegal."

Additionally, he said, the NSA's massive request steamrollered the traditional limits on the scope of subpoenas, which should be carefully tailored to specific people or specific acts, not metadata dragnets.

Rotenberg said that several years ago an opinion from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel -- itself a secret document -- purported to give the administration the right to use FISA in this sweeping way, but that his group viewed the opinion -- which few members of Congress or other officials have seen -- as itself an illegal expansion of surveillance.

Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on the opinion. A handful of members of Congress were briefed on it, but sworn to secrecy about its contents. They are now in a difficult position should they want to question the administration's use of it.

The Verizon story is yet more evidence that America is reaching a crisis point in the more than decade-long trend of expanding federal power to reach into the private lives of Americans. At the same time, the government inevitably is becoming more opaque, and more focused on leaks, in the name of protecting the investigations that it instigates in the name of national security.

The time has come for a deep, serious national debate on the balance between freedom and security. The president's spokesman, Jay Carney, has already said his boss would welcome it. He should. We all should.

Osama bin Laden's attack on Sept. 11, 2001, set off a new chapter in the age-old argument between liberty and security, a debate in which Ben Franklin warned that those who would sacrifice the former for the latter will end up with neither. The passage of the Patriot Act soon after the 9/11 attacks vastly expanded federal surveillance and investigatory powers, but the early Bush administration exceeded even that new authority.

An obscure state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama rose to the U.S. Senate and then to the presidency based, in part, on his presumed eagerness to restore the liberty-security balance. He had been a constitutional law lecturer and, as state legislator, had championed measures to prevent police from racially profiling drivers at traffic stops.

Republicans, by and large, have continued to wave through reauthorizations of the Patriot Act, preserving its basic architecture. No one expected the GOP to do otherwise -- in Congress or elsewhere.

Civil liberties advocates placed faith in President Obama, but they have been largely disappointed, as he has focused on preventing a second 9/11 and yanking the "tough on defense" label away from Republicans, who wore it for decades.

It's hard to tell the difference between the Obama administration and the Bush administration on these matters, said Shayana Kadidal, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

"Except for torture, it has been status quo," said Kadidal.

The NSA sweep of Verizon is being defended by an unusual alliance of Obama supporters and Republicans. They note that Congress since 9/11 has pressed hard for more extensive anti-terrorism investigations and that the Patriot Act has been repeatedly reauthorized with overwhelming GOP support.

But an equally unusual alliance of civil liberties progressives and tea party Republicans sees in the NSA story another data point in the rise of the security state. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for example, links together into one vast conspiracy the NSA's netting of phone records, the Internal Revenue Service's vetting of conservative groups and the Justice Department's subpoenaing of journalists' phone calls.

Paul can sometimes get carried away with his own rhetoric, but you don't have to be a libertarian -- let alone a member of the tea party -- to wonder why the NSA needed a record of every Verizon customer phone call for a three-month period that began on April 25. The surveillance doesn't end until July 19 (and could continue after that).

It stands to reason that if the NSA was so sweeping in its Verizon ask, then it has done the same, at some point, with other phone companies' records.

So go ahead and make your phone calls today, but you can assume that the Obama administration knows -- should it care to check -- whom you called and when and probably the location from which you made the call.

Where Is The Obama Of Ohio 2012?

Howard Fineman   |   June 3, 2013    4:34 PM ET

WASHINGTON –- Barack Obama was so focused and organized in Ohio for his reelection last year that he had 1,000 neighborhood teams in place in the state a year before Election Day.

His Ohio message was clear and sharp: the country was facing an historic “make or break moment for the middle class,” and his work on health care and the auto-industry rescue were evidence of his enduring commitment.

The Ohio field workers and message were driven by an innovative and unrivaled machine of political organization and persuasion. The best and brightest of Geekdom flocked to Chicago to use the latest in Big Data analytics, social media and on-line feedback research to put Ohio, and other key battleground states, in the president’s column.

This famously aloof president assembled an unrivaled system of person-to-person, face-to-face and email-to-email contact – a writ-large 21st century version of the 20th century Chicago ward politics, only without the patronage.

These and other details from a new book by author and historian Jonathan Alter beg crucial questions at this new pivotal moment in the Obama saga:

  • What happened to the focus, drive and the “message discipline"?
  • What happened to those geeks, so brilliant at political persuasion?
  • How could a leader who assembled two superb, well-run presidential campaigns seem at times so tuned out to operational details of his administration?
  • In other words, where’s the Ohio Obama?

In The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, Alter set out, among other things, to show the how and the why of Obama’s convincing victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“Everyone has known since the election that Obama did better on digital tech,” Alter told me. “I wanted to show how he did better –- and in plain English, translated from the original geek.”

For anyone interested in politics –- or tech for that matter -– the result is a fascinating look at the new mechanics of politics in the age of the Internet, social media and Big Data.

You can read about the creativity of the Chicago Geeks and their urgency and dedication: the secret boiler room of algorithm writers, the mix of throw-it-against-the-wall imagination and hard-data research, the seven-day-a-week, dawn-to-midnight hours, the (mostly) clear lines of authority and (comparative) lack of leaks and backstabbing.

And then you can wonder: where is all of that now?

Well, there is, for one, the unavoidable physics of second terms. It afflicts every two-term administration. Early pioneers depart for private life and/or profit. “I was struck by how almost none of the stars of the campaign went into –- or back into –- the government,” Alter said. One exception is David Simas, a shrewd survey researcher.

The new wave of geeks and managers isn’t interested, either, and that is because of their view of government itself.

“Generally speaking, talented people from the campaign want to have nothing to do with the government,” Alter said.

Obama has done some things to geek up government. His administration has upgraded some digital capacity –- some of which is being applied to Obamacare, Alter said. “But the government hasn’t changed as much as they had all hoped. They have social media down, but the big analytical advances don’t seem to have been incorporated," he said.

The sad fact is that government today –- as opposed to campaigns -– is usually behind the curve of technical innovation, something that wasn’t always the case in U.S. history, by the way.

“It’s not fair to expect the government to be ahead of the private sector,” said Alter. “In that sense, the campaign was even more innovative than people have recognized. It may take a few years for these techniques to work their way into the private sector and then into government.”

In the meantime, what does Obama say? The election was supposed to be a “make or break moment for the middle class,” and Alter believes that it was –- if only because Obama was able to fend off a victory by a Romney-led right wing.

But the president’s message has been notably muted and muddled in what should be a vigorous first six months of a new term. He mentions the middle class fitfully, almost as if a to-do widget on his iPad is telling him to.

In other parts of his book Alter portrays a first term White House full of barely contained divisions and resentments that sometimes hamper Obama’s ability to get things done –- a vivid contrast to the Chicago campaign.

With key aides gone, who is in charge now? If Alter’s account is correct, the key and indispensable remaining inside player is long-time Obama Chicago friend and loyalist Valerie Jarrett.

Now the president faces another inevitable piece of second-term physics: a season of accusation. In Obama’s case, it’s about IRS vetting of conservative groups and Department of Justice subpoenas of news organizations and reporters.

Can the president soldier through it, make his case and get important things done in a second term –- say, immigration reform, a budget deal and a solid implementation of Obamacare?

He will need to show the discipline and focus of 2012. Think of this as Ohio, Mr. President, and assemble accordingly.

McConnell, Paul Gang Up On GOP

Howard Fineman   |   May 24, 2013    3:23 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- They began as sworn enemies and later made peace as allies of convenience. Now Kentucky's two Republican senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, have developed a working relationship that serves their mutual interests (at the moment), but which is threatening to tear the GOP apart in the U.S. Senate.

The symbol and operational center of their relationship is an unassuming but effective political operative who now lives in Louisville, Ky. Jesse Benton, a veteran of grassroots organizing and Washington consulting, straddles the Republicans' Tea Party vs. Establishment fault line -- a line that seems increasingly to be shifting in the tea party direction.

Benton's resume tells the story. He was spokesman for Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign in 2008, was campaign manager in Kentucky for son Rand Paul's winning Senate campaign in 2010, returned to run the father's presidential campaign in 2012, and now serves as campaign manager for McConnell's 2014 bid for a sixth term.

And there is more to come. While working for McConnell, Benton keeps an eye on the larval stages of Rand Paul's bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Paul has made scouting trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and fundraising forays around the country.

The objective of the Benton nexus is as clear as the water in a bluegrass stream: to use the Paul family's tea party ties to ensure that McConnell faces no significant primary opposition in Kentucky (opposition of the kind that Rand Paul himself provided McConnell's handpicked Senate candidate in 2010). In exchange for which, Senate Minority Leader McConnell will guard Paul's flank in Washington and bless him -- if not outright endorse him -- for 2016.

"There is no quid pro quo," Benton told me in an interview in Louisville earlier this month. "But the hope is that Mitch, having worked with Rand and seen him at close range, will tell the establishment guys that Rand is a good guy and a guy they can work with."

Ironically, the deepening Kentucky ties are causing friction elsewhere -- in the Senate.

For example, McConnell, as a floor leader, five-term senator and certified member of the party establishment, might be expected to side with the traditionalists against a tea party effort to dictate how senators can negotiate with their House counterparts over a new budget. GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine) see it as a harsh and unprecedented move.

But McConnell is siding with a tough-talking rejectionist front of tea party activists that includes not only Paul but Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah).

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart blamed Democrats for his boss's stance, arguing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is using a procedural maneuver that would diminish Republicans' power to stop the budget in a final floor vote.

The specifics of McConnell's position on this arcane matter are less important than the identity of the man he is teaming up with: Paul.

As of now, McConnell has no serious GOP opposition at home. And if he and Rand Paul have anything to say, it'll stay that way.