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07/31/2015 09:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- The Debate Debate

In normal years, this would be the official kickoff to the political Silly Season -- the dog days of August when Congress scarpers off for five or six weeks to have fun in the sun at taxpayer expense, and the political chattering classes have so little material to work with that they pick one silly issue and just absolutely obsess over it. This year, however, is not normal, as instead we're right at the kickoff of Presidential Debate Season, and the votes are already in -- the silly subject we're all going to obsess over this year is named Donald Trump. Whether this obsession takes the form of crushing depression (headline: "A GOP Led By Donald Trump Will Fail, And Deserve It") or unconcealed glee (headline: "Christmas Comes Early This Year -- Anticipating The Gift Of A Trump-Fueled GOP Debate") depends, of course, on the viewpoint of the pundit.

Next week, the Republican candidates will all face each other for the first time. Well, the top tier will face each other and the bottom tier will face each other, but no intra-tier facing will be happening, sorry. Those are the rules, although the rules seem to change on a daily basis, to ensure good television for all.

My own personal take on the debate format is that there are really, at this point, only eight candidates who show any life at all in national polls, and nine who do not. So perhaps the cutoff should be "candidates who are averaging five percent or better" instead of just the top ten. Five percent seems to be a reasonable bar to set, especially seeing as how it would cut off the field precisely at the eight candidates who now seem to have a chance. But that's just me -- I'm sure everyone has their own debate cutoff ideas. The cutoff is debatable, in other words.

Of course, everyone has their own ideas on how to improve the Republican debates. The most common heard so far are "have a cage match fight," or, more politely, "make it like a game show, where they have to buzz in to answer." Either idea would seem to be a good one to boost ratings, in my humble opinion. More on this amusing subject (with a chance to participate), at the end of this article.

What has escaped almost everyone's notice, however (I hadn't even heard this until my wife pointed it out yesterday, I admit) is that there will be a pre-debate debate as well. Technically, it won't be a "debate" -- the candidates will not face each other on the stage, so this is really just a variation of a "cattle call." Such hair-splitting is necessary due to the Republican National Committee setting strict rules for how many official debates will be held this election cycle. Last time around, they had more than 20, which just wore them down (in more ways than one). So this won't be a "debate" at all. The format, which will be aired on both C-SPAN and Hearst television stations, will be closer to "speed dating" than anything else, really. Each candidate will get five minutes on stage, one candidate at a time. So far, 14 of the 17 Republicans have accepted the invitation. Donald Trump has declined, in a hissy fit over the New Hampshire newspaper co-sponsoring the candidates' forum. Mike Huckabee and Jim Gilmore have yet to commit, one way or the other. But the interesting thing is that this "speed-dating debate" will happen next Monday -- three days before the big kickoff event on Fox News. Political wonks, mark it on your calendar, as it'll be the first real chance to see the whole GOP field on television in one event.

We did, perhaps, get one precursor event this week (to the general election debates), as both Hillary Clinton and Jeb! Bush addressed the National Urban League. Clinton reportedly included a few zingers aimed at Bush, while Bush stuck to his prepared speech. Hillary pointed out the painful reality for all Republicans when it comes to their laughable attempts at "minority outreach" -- even if GOP candidates can mouth soothing platitudes to minority audiences, that doesn't change the fact that their party is pretty much against everything that would help minorities in any appreciable way (other than, of course, "give your boss another tax break"). From Hillary's speech [Bush's super PAC is named "Right To Rise," for context]:

I don't think you can credibly say that everyone has a right to rise and then say you're for phasing out Medicare or for repealing Obamacare. People can't rise when they can't afford health care.

She left unmentioned the history Jeb! has of purging minority voters from the voting rolls in Florida, another good example of how Republicans can do all the "outreach" they want -- but minorities won't consider voting for them unless and until they actually change their policies towards minorities (which I'm not exactly holding my breath waiting to happen).

But hey, at least Jeb!'s trying. Bush and Ben Carson were the only two Republicans to even dare to address the meeting (Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders also showed up, on the Democratic side). So the three biggest Democratic candidates showed up, while 15 of the 17 Republican candidates took a pass on it. That says something right there, doesn't it?

There was so much silliness over on the Republican side of the presidential contest this week that we're not even going to attempt to list all the outrageous things the candidates are saying. Trump, of course, emits an eruption of jaw-dropping comments on a near-daily basis -- and will continue to do so for the immediate future. Everyone else has realized that they're not going to get a single inch of column space or a single soundbite clip on the evening news unless they embrace their inner Trump and let fly with the worst playground taunt they can think up. Huckabee's already moved into the "compare Obama to Hitler" territory, so it's going to be interesting to see how this whole game of one-upmanship ends.

Some of the candidates will be taking a break this weekend to suck up to the Kochs and their well-heeled ilk. A California luxury hotel will host a meeting of hundreds of deep-pocket conservative donors, and at least five GOP candidates will make their appeal for the billions of dollars in possible donations which could be theirs (if they only beg with the proper amount of humility, one assumes). Invited: Jeb! Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and (for some reason) Carly Fiorina. Not invited: Rand Paul, Donald Trump, and a whole bunch of others.

Republican leaders in Congress aren't even safe from the Republican mudslinging, it seems. Mitch McConnell was called a liar on the Senate floor by presidential-hopeful Ted Cruz, and a petition was filed over in the House to kick John Boehner out of his leadership job. This amazing motion ends with:

Whereas the House of Representatives, to function effectively in the service of all citizens of this country, requires the service of a Speaker who will endeavor to follow an orderly and inclusive process without imposing his or her will upon any Member thereof: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives is hereby declared to be vacant.

Got that? What the Tea Partiers want is a leader who will not impose his or her will upon anyone in the House. Um, how exactly is that "leadership" in anyone's book? I'm just asking....

Let's see, what else? Medicare just turned 50 years old, and despite what Ronald Reagan prophesied about it, freedom still does actually exist in America. Children are not told by the government what subjects to take in college, and doctors are not told where they may live and practice, and where they may not. While wishing Medicare a happy birthday, it's fun to go back and see yesteryear's scaremongering over healthcare reform, isn't it?

Speaking of which, we might all (bars and restaurants and movies too!) be able to freely sing "Happy Birthday To You" once again, without having to pay royalties. The holder of the copyright seems about to lose in court, since the song was actually in the public domain before the original owner filed the copyright.

And finally, in our "what were they smoking" category, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) posted a pro-legalization editorial to their website and left it up for three days before anyone noticed and took it down. Whoops! The eminently reasonable editorial was written by former deputy sheriff Carlis McDerment, from the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (L.E.A.P.), which is pro-legalization. Anyone who had to endure the official lies of D.A.R.E. in school (from about the mid-1980s onwards -- D.A.R.E. were the "Just Say No!" people) will certainly appreciate the irony.

 

We've got a lot to get through in this section, so we're going to be brief. An Honorable Mention goes to Senator Elizabeth Warren, for introducing three commonsense bills to help American workers and their families. Look for this to be denounced by Republicans as creeping Marxism soon, we suppose.

President Obama has announced he's going to attempt to not have a dismal August (as he has pretty much every year of his term, if public opinion polls are to be believed), and will be pro-actively fighting for his Iran nuclear deal. This is good news for those who support the bill, because its opponents have already committed to tens of millions of dollars of advertising against it.

But that's not why Obama gets a "Better Late Than Never" Honorable Mention this week. The White House has finally cleared the backlog of petitions on their "We The People" website (those which had cleared the bar of 100,000 signatures). Any petition which got this much support was supposed to be answered in a timely manner, but some had been languishing for over a year. The petitions which finally were given the dignity of a response included ones on Edward Snowden, condemning Israel, and giving Kurds their own country. All contentious issues, but there simply is no excuse for such outrageous delays in answering them. The White House promises it'll do better in answering valid petitions in a more timely manner from now on, for what that's worth.

Hillary Clinton deserves at least an Honorable Mention this week, for finally getting into the nitty-gritty of campaigning for president. Hillary's getting a lot more specific in what she supports and what she doesn't. She's continuing to unveil her economic agenda, which now includes support for a $12-an-hour minimum wage hike (Bernie Sanders is supporting $15-an-hour, for comparison). Clinton continues to play it coy on a number of subjects (the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to name two), but it is refreshing to see that she's finally showing us at least some of the nuts and bolts of her platform. She also strongly came out in favor of completely ending the embargo against Cuba this week. So while this doesn't rise yet to the level of the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week, we do appreciate the increasing level of detail out of the Clinton campaign (especially since we've complained about it in the past).

But our winner of the coveted MIDOTW award this week goes to Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley, who unveiled a comprehensive plan to reform some of the worst problems of our criminal justice system. This nine-page document goes into detail on many important issues, but the one that caught our eyes was to move marijuana from Schedule I of the list of official controlled substances down to Schedule II.

Admittedly, this is a rather timid move, at least among those fighting for sanity in federal marijuana law. By the science alone, marijuana should really be no higher than Schedule III, in fact. And there's a growing movement to just "de-schedule" marijuana altogether, and move it over to the same federal department which handles alcohol and tobacco -- which is the most logical outcome, really.

Even having said all of that, for a presidential candidate (indeed, for almost any Democratic politician) to stand up for ending the insane and harmful Schedule I designation is notable. Change is only going to come through leadership on marijuana reform. So far, that leadership has been sorely lacking at the national level among Democrats, even among presidential candidates who admit they've smoked weed. But the times they are indeed a-changing, and Martin O'Malley just defined what Democrats should immediately get behind -- not just on marijuana laws, but on the entire criminal justice front.

So while the Schedule I thing might have earned O'Malley an Honorable Mention, what earns him instead this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week is his whole criminal justice reform position paper. It is thorough, it makes good sense both realistically and politically, and it is full of precise details. Other Democratic candidates, please take note.

[Unfortunately, Martin O'Malley is currently not in public office. We have a longstanding ban against linking to any candidate's official website, so you'll have to search his contact information yourself, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]

 

Sadly, this week the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week is a pretty easy call.

Representative Chaka Fattah, Democrat from Pennsylvania, was indicted this week on some pretty serious federal corruption charges. These all have to do with an unsuccessful bid for the mayor's office in Philadelphia.

From the story:

In a 29-count indictment, federal prosecutors charged that Fattah and his associates were part of a racketeering conspiracy that involved "several schemes" intended to further their "political and financial interests."

Prosecutors said Fattah, who was elected to Congress in 1994, and four associates were involved in a scheme to borrow $1 million from a wealthy donor, disguising it as a loan to a consulting company. After losing the election, Fattah reportedly returned $400,000 in unused campaign funds to the donor, then engaged in a series of maneuvers -- including the misuse of federal grant funds -- to repay the outstanding $600,000.

There are other sordid details as well, as can be expected in a "29-count indictment." Fattah insists he's innocent and will prove so in court, but he's facing a whale of a lot of jail time if that doesn't prove to be the case.

As always, in cases where charges are brought (but before a plea deal or trial), if Fattah does turn out to prove his innocence, then we'll of course revoke his award. Until then, however, Congressman Chaka Fattah is easily our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

[Contact Representative Chaka Fattah on his House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]

 

Volume 355 (7/31/15)

Most of this week's talking points deal with Congress, although the presidential race does creep in at the end. As usual, use these responsibly, whether you're a Democratic politician being interviewed on television or just a fellow traveler shooting the political breeze around the water cooler. Next week we fully expect quotes from the debates to dominate our Fridayfest, just to warn everyone. Got your popcorn ready?

 

   Congress still pathetic

I went with that as the title of an earlier article this week, and I find I still can't improve upon it.

"So Congress managed not to leave the highway fund bankrupt right before they all adjourned for their big monthlong summer holiday. Am I supposed to be impressed? It's only a three-month extension, adding to the over 30 such short-term bills Congress has passed in the last few years. I thought when Republicans took over Congress they were going to show Democrats how to get things done. And yet they can't even pass a highway bill that lasts past Hallowe'en. Can anyone name me one positive thing the Republicans in Congress have achieved since their big midterm election? One thing that they weren't forced to do by some artificial deadline? One item on their agenda that they even managed to put on President Obama's desk? Because I certainly can't come up with a single thing this Congress has actually done. Hope they all have a good time on their taxpayer-funded break, for all of next month!"

 

   Roadblocks ahead

This is a continuation of the first one, really.

"Congress not being able to perform its basic functions is worrisome, because when they do get back from vacation, they're facing a whole lot of deadlines to pass some crucial legislation. There are multiple dates when Republicans could conceivably shut down the government once again, whether by pushing extremist causes that the public does not support and refusing to negotiate, or simply through their own sheer incompetence. The rest of this year could be a very rough ride indeed, especially since we've got four sitting Republican senators running for president, who are all going to be downright desperate to get media attention. Hold onto your hats, folks."

 

   Liar!

You can bolster this case with a few examples, too.

"For instance, did you catch Ted Cruz calling his own party's Senate Majority Leader a liar on the Senate floor last week? By doing so he was flat-out breaking the rules for decorum in the Senate, but he certainly didn't seem to care (and he certainly wasn't punished in any way for doing so). This is just the beginning of a very ugly road we could be going down. Republicans aren't even training their sights on Democrats, anymore -- this is all a Republican circular firing squad."

 

   Boehner not exempt, either

Yet another fun example.

"For only the second time in American history (the first was in 1910), the Speaker of the House is being challenged from the floor, in what might be called a 'vote of confidence.' Republican Mark Meadows filed a challenge to John Boehner this week, which is worth quoting from to learn the inside of the Tea Party psyche. The motion has eight clauses, ending with a call to declare the office of Speaker 'vacant.' The first of these clauses complains Boehner has 'endeavored to consolidate power and centralize decision-making.' OK, he's a little tyrant, got it. The second, however, complains that he's 'caused the power of Congress to atrophy.' Still with you -- Boehner's an incompetent tyrant. Later, it complains that Boehner 'uses the legislative calendar to create crises for the American People, in order to compel Members to vote for legislation,' which I guess means Boehner is a big ol' meanie for making the representatives do their jobs and vote. But then it ends by stating that the House requires 'the service of a Speaker who will endeavor to follow an orderly and inclusive process without imposing his or her will upon any Member thereof' in order to 'function effectively.' Wait, the House is going to function more effectively with a weaker leader? Really? Boehner seems weak enough as it is, if Republicans are openly challenging him, but whatever. Does anyone else think this sounds an awful lot like a kindergartener angry at a teacher making him take his nap on time? Just imagine if John Boehner was replaced by this guy -- we'd have absolute anarchy in the House. He's essentially calling to elect a leader who guarantees not to lead. Hey, at least over in the Senate they're just calling Mitch McConnell a liar, and not trying to overthrow him!"

 

   Language, boy, it's tough

There's this thing called "spell check"....

"One day after hurling McCarthy-style charges at a House hearing, attacking a witness over the actions of his brother and his father, Representative Steve Russell issued a press release calling the witness, quote: 'anti-Sematic." That's S-E-M-A-T-I-C, which doesn't actually appear in the dictionary I use. Perhaps Congressman Russell was having his own problem being 'anti-semantic'? [Pause for laughter] OK, I apologize for that one...."

 

   Trumpism of the week

We're just going to have to limit these Trump quotes, otherwise the talking points section will be all-Trump, all the time, and who wants that?

"Donald Trump has now called for deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. My first reaction to this is to wonder what the rest of the Republican candidates think about this idea. Because for all their insistence that immigration policy begins and ends with 'border security,' this is a question few ever ask all the other Republicans in the race: What, specifically would you do with those 11 million people? Secondly, if you do agree with Trump that they all need to be deported, how exactly is that going to happen? How many hundreds of billions of dollars are you going to get Congress to appropriate for such a program? How many thousands of buses, airplanes, or rail cars are you going to need? How will the roundup take place -- door-to-door searches, or what? How many federal agents is that going to take? Donald Trump may be getting heat for what he said, but his position is really the default position for every Republican -- especially the ones who never want to talk about what happens to those 11 million people. Here's a handy guide: if they don't have an answer for what will happen to the 11 million up on their campaign website, then they are actually in full agreement with Donald Trump. Period."

 

   Hire Simon Cowell

And finally, because it's debate week next week, let's hear some suggestions for how to improve the television experience! Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments, as always, and enjoy the debates (and the speed-dating) this week.

"The first Republican debates are going to happen this week. With Donald Trump leading the pack, I really think we ought to introduce an element of reality television to these debates. How about at the end of each night, one contestant is voted off the stage? Maybe by the other candidates, or the moderators, or by phone-in votes during the action. Start with all of them up there, and have debates until there are only a few candidates left standing! Or maybe hire Simon Cowell to critique the performances, that'd be enjoyable, wouldn't it? Or maybe conceal each question in a beach ball and toss it into a pool, and the candidate who makes it out of the pool with the beach ball gets to answer it -- that'd be fun! Divide them into teams, and yell at them in the kitchen, while they try to deep-fry corndogs! Oh, the possibilities are truly endless.... I mean, if we're going to elect a reality television star president, why not do it in true reality television style?"

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com

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