Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Battle In Boulder

Last night's CNBC debate has been roundly panned. The moderators are being blamed for asking bad questions and for failing to control the stage. Candidates blithely uttered empty rhetoric without pushback from the journalists or each other and the network could not even get the debate started on time.

These are all fair criticisms. But I would argue that in this chaos an important thing happened. Like hockey's recently adopted three-on-three overtime rules, the unwieldy flow of conversation combined with some candidates' clear desperation to attract attention and have "a moment" as they say in the business these days, resulted in some very important takeaways:

  • Jeb Bush Is Done. Like a silent movie actor who did not adapt to "talkies," Bush is a politician from a prior era who has not been able to make the transition to today's campaigning. Whether it has been his tin ear for social media or penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, he has floated on "inevitability" and his family name for months while his campaign has sunk like a stone. But last night may have been the death knell. He threw a tentative jab at Marco Rubio and Rubio was ready to counter-punch, flicking aside the older man's zinger and coming over the top with a haymaker. Bush spent the rest of the debate mostly silent and when he did speak, touted his fantasy football team. One would have thought it impossible for someone to make his brother George W. look deft and intelligent, but somehow Jeb managed this trick.
  • The Rise of Generation X. I am roughly the same age as both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and while I find their politics odious, I must tip my hat to their understanding of the modern media environment. Rubio sidestepped a high and tight pitch about his shady dealings in Florida (all of which were totally within bounds to ask about and accurate to boot) and Cruz dropped the line of the night when he flashed his Princeton-honed debating skills in skewering the moderators with a real time critique of their questions. That a candidate who has skipped out on his job (and readily admitted as much) and whose rise has been lubricated with a billionaire's largesse, and another one who espouses extreme right wing views on basically every subject under the sun, came out looking like winners should tell you something.
  • Joisey Attitude. Given even small openings, Governor Chris Christie displayed some of the natural political chops that once made him a favorite among the GOP donor base. He also took a swing at the moderators and used each opportunity provided to drive home his message. It may not end up making a difference in his polling, but Christie sold his version of governing (which those of us in New Jersey know was, well, a bit exaggerated) while coming off as someone who would not shrink from a debate with Hillary.
  • A Kinder, Gentler Trump. Other than the quick strike oppo dump he did on John Kasich (whose shellshocked reaction ended whatever flow he was trying to establish), Trump's shtick was toned down compared to previous debates. I will be interested to see if this version of Trump, equal parts dorsal-fin-flashing shark and guy-now-trying-to-talk-policy works for voters. Trump himself recognized the hedged bet, using his closing statement to take a pot shot at CNBC and bragging about how he re-negotiated the terms of the debate to everyone's benefit.
  • Everyone Else. With Rubio, Cruz, Christie, and to a lesser extent, Trump, sucking up most of the oxygen, the also-rans were Rand Paul (why are you still in this race, sir?), Mike Huckabee (ditto), Ben Carson (a paper tiger if you ever saw one who is out of his depth after 15 seconds), and Carly Fiorina (slick presentations may work in the boardroom, but you've been exposed as a shitty CEO and liar on the debate stage). 

In another era, after a debate like this, one or more of the candidates circling the drain below 5% would drop out and maybe even a guy like Bush would reexamine whether he should continue, but as was shown in 2012, all a candidate needs to do is get hot at the right time and suddenly they could find themselves in the "finals" for a 50/50 crack at being the most powerful person in the world. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Congress Takes A Vacation

With news that the White House and Congressional leaders have worked out a deal that will raise the debt limit through March 2017, fund the federal government and wrap other important matters like the highway bill into a massive legislative burrito, the passage of any additional, meaningful legislation before the President leaves office in January 2017 has come to an end.

This is quite convenient for incoming Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. He need not sully himself with the messy details of governing or horse trading with the so-called Freedom Caucus over threats to default on our debt or other silliness. He can focus on his primary interests, which appear to be convincing the country that Social Security and Medicare need to be some combination of slashed and privatized while ensuring the wealthiest Americans pay as little in taxes as humanly possible.

More generally, this gives Congress the freedom to do fuck all before Election Day 2016, which I would guess suits the 435 members of the House and 34 Senators who are up for re-election just fine. Without the need to do the basic blocking and tackling of legislating, they are free to raise money and campaign about how shitty their opponents are without fear of having to do any work. In the Senate, any notion of basic governing, like voting on Obama appointees to the federal judiciary or a random Cabinet Secretary (looking at you, soon-to-be Acting Secretary of Education John King, Jr.) are already out the window and with Republicans nursing a small majority that they desperately want to hold on to so they can either ram through a new Republican President’s agenda or get to the business of blocking anything a new Democratic President might do.

This also works nicely for the media. After all, why bother having reporters on Capitol Hill when they can be disbursed to cover the antics of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and the rest of the crew on the Republican side or hound Hillary Clinton while she waltzes to the Democratic nomination. Campaigns are far more compelling than dreary legislative sausage making or Committee hearings (oh right, we had one of those recently and after drumming up anticipation for months, the media gave a “move along, nothing to see here” sign when Trey Gowdy deteriorated into a puddle of sweat).

I suppose we should not get too upset about this. After all, it is nice that there will be people to inspect our food, investigate criminal activity, and allow us access to national parks, but one wonders whether a bit more should be expected from people making $174,000 a year and who are provided with lifetime health benefits after serving 5 years in office. Of course, since Congress is only in session for about 135 days each year, passing a budget and ensuring that the bills get paid may be the bare minimum of what it can do – the equivalent of getting a D minus grade on an exam in a class you are taking pass/fail. Hoping that Congress would address larger societal concerns like gun safety, climate change, income inequality, or the minimum wage, or would keep the judiciary properly staffed with judges and Cabinet agencies helmed by people who receive Senate confirmation seems to be more than we should expect anymore.

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review - One Man Against The World

On April 17, 1973, FBI agents arrived at a private residence in Washington, D.C. to serve a subpoena. It was the kind of thing FBI agents have done thousands of times, but on that day, the residence they drove to was at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the subpoena they served was on the police officers who patrol the White House, demanding the names of visitors to the President's home on June 18, 1972. As chronicled in Tim Weiner's excellent new book, One Man Against The World, upon learning of the FBI's visit, the President had this remarkable exchange with his closest aide, H.R. Haldeman:

Nixon: I need somebody around here as counsel.
Haldeman: And Attorney General.
Nixon: I need a Director of the FBI.

Just months into his second term but well into a series of decisions that would ultimately force him from office, the Washington, D.C. that Nixon bestrode was crumbling around him. Weiner's depiction of Nixon's Presidency is a car crash in slow motion, a steady drip-drip of unwise choices, venality, and bald criminal conduct by the man who held the most powerful job on the planet and a cadre of willing staffers who engaged in everything from bribery to evidence tampering in an effort to hide their illegal activity. 

Nixon's conversation with Haldeman is of a piece with his attitude toward most of the government. He cared little about who he appointed to head Cabinet agencies, shuffling people around willy nilly. One "acting" FBI Director, William Ruckelhaus, served in that position for a whole 59 days before being appointed as Deputy Attorney General, the number two position within the Department of Justice and James Schlesinger had a cup of coffee as CIA Director (five months) before being appointed Secretary of Defense. Even those who appeared to have power, like Secretary of State William Rogers, were systematically cut out of the most sensitive and important decisions as Nixon consolidated power within the sprawling federal bureaucracy in the hands of just a few trusted aides. 

In page after page we see Nixon's internal struggle to elevate himself to greatness while lowering himself to achieve that goal. Indeed, even before he was elected, Nixon's penchant for underhanded behavior revealed itself. As Weiner argues, Nixon flirted with treason as he back channeled the South Vietnamese while still merely a candidate for President, encouraging them to walk away from negotiations and tacitly promising a better deal if he were elected. And once elected, Nixon took for himself and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger the job of ending the Vietnam War, and, more broadly, redefining our role in the world. But in doing so, Nixon usurped the traditional balancing of powers among the three branches of government and ran roughshod over elements of the federal government who could have provided valuable advice. 

Vietnam would consume all of Nixon's first term as he toggled between escalation and strategic withdrawal while pressure from anti-war activists and some members of Congress grew. And in Nixon's paranoia and obsession with secrecy, the seeds of what would become Watergate were sown. All of the things we now associate with Watergate - break-ins, secret recordings, and lying to the public, began well before that fateful evening in June 1972. Weiner mines what is now an extensive public record to lay bare the scope of Nixon's deception - falsifying flight records to cover up the bombing in Laos, forming the "Plumbers" unit to ferret out embarrassing leaks to the media, the warrantless wiretapping of National Security Council aides and reporters and on and on. In his obsession with his own place in history, Nixon never seemed to know when to drop the shovel and stop digging.

In reading Weiner's account, it is difficult to credit Nixon for grand strategic thinking whether it is in his opening with China or detente with the Soviets. Both were done in the service of trying to find an honorable end to the Vietnam War but both failed. Nixon's recognition of the People's Republic had great symbolic value, but it would be another generation before that country would fully re-enter the world stage. As Weiner notes, even as Nixon negotiated an arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, the United States was engaging in the greatest escalation of its nuclear firepower on record. In the Middle East, Nixon ignored warnings of an impending war, was caught flat footed (and half in the bag) when the Yom Kippur War started, and was unprepared for the oil embargo unleashed in its aftermath. 

The tacit parallel woven throughout the book is Nixon's strategy in Vietnam and in Watergate - continued escalation to break the will of the enemy. In Vietnam,  this strategy "succeeded" insofar as the final push to settle occurred after the Dresden-like bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong weeks after Nixon's re-election, but the ratcheting up of Watergate, from paying hush money to suborning perjury to the Saturday Night Massacre of the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, and Special Prosecutor, had the opposite effect - it steeled the opposition and lost him the scattering of supporters who may have found the idea of removing the President from office a dangerous precedent. 

The subtext to Weiner's book is "The Tragedy of Richard Nixon," but I find that conclusion a bit facile. While he surely saw a larger diplomatic picture when it came to opening relations with China, his entreaties to the Soviet Union were of limited success and ultimately, neither country did the one thing that Nixon craved - helping end the war in Vietnam. Further, the scope of Nixon's mendacity was so deep and unremitting that it is impossible to think of his fall as anything but well deserved. Over and over, as Weiner highlights, Nixon had the opportunity to come clean on Watergate and instead doubled down on falsehoods and lies.  

In the balance, Nixon's "great man" theory of governing that placed him at the center of a constellation of competing interests and powers was delusional at best and criminal at worst. He believed in total warfare against all his enemies, which is fine so long as you are swinging the biggest stick, but when fear is the only tool at your disposal, your power is utterly diminished once the opposition decides to fight back. His behavior was abhorrent to the rule of law, he cavalierly used the gears of government in the service of destroying his political opponents, and sullied the highest office in the land. That behavior is many things, but tragedy is not one of them. 

But for all the sturm und drang that Watergate created, the real tragedy is how little it impacted the body politic. The President and his men got off relatively easily. Sure, Nixon had to resign his office, but as an unnamed co-conspirator, he was in real legal jeopardy until President Ford issued a blanket pardon. His aides got off with the legal equivalent of slaps on the wrist - Haldeman and Ehrlichman each served eighteen months in prison, while John Dean served just four. Other key figures also served mere months in prison, in the case of two, Egil Krogh and Herb Kalmbach, they had their licenses to practice law restored when it was all over, and most of the people who actually carried out the burglary at the Watergate went to prison for less than two years (the exceptions being E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, though the latter made out quite well for himself in a second act as a conservative radio talk show host). 

Indeed, it is arguable that the modest punishment these men received encouraged subsequent administrations to thumb their nose at the law. The Reagan Administration illegally sold arms to the Iranians and diverted those funds to pay rebels in Nicaragua, but the President skirted justice and those involved in that illegal conduct received Presidential pardons or had their convictions tossed on technicalities. George W. Bush's Administration flagrantly violated laws on torture, manufactured a casus belli for war in Iraq and flouted the Fourth Amendment by authorizing warrantless wiretapping, but no one was ever called to account for that conduct. Instead of prosecuting the men and women involved in these activities, they have basically been shrugged off as policy discrepancies. While there was much hand wringing as Watergate unfolded that failing to prosecute those who perpetrated that crime would subvert the rule of law, the actions of succeeding administrations did just that.

Ironically, Nixon has received a bit of a revisionist gloss thanks to loyal aides like Pat Buchanan and others who focus on Nixon's foreign policy achievements and sage (but discreet) counsel to his successors as evidence of his greatness; that Watergate, like Johnson's escalation in Vietnam, should be viewed as a flaw in his record, not a condemnation of it (or of the man himself). "Nixon Goes to China" is now shorthand for a counter-intuitive, but bold move by a politician, and Watergate itself is now viewed as mere skullduggery and not part of a pattern of illegal conduct that began well before the break-in. That is tragic. 

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bush, Blame, and 9/11

The other day, and unprompted, Jeb Bush whipped out a talking point he first used back in September at a Republican debate in Simi Valley, California. He mentioned that his brother, George W., had “kept us safe” during his Presidency. Unsurprisingly, this large piece of chum in the water was too irresistible for Donald Trump to pass up. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Trump observed that the 9/11 terrorist attack had occurred while Bush was President (a statement with the added benefit of being true). When his interviewer affirmatively stated that Bush should not be blamed (a topic for another conversation – like, why are reporters editorializing?), Trump said blame or don’t blame, the guy was President. Again, true. Somehow, this devolved into another Twitter slap fight (I’ll spare you the details, suffice to say, they are readily accessible for those who want to find the back and forth tweets), raised questions of how we view that day in our country’s history and whether it is appropriate that the accepted conventional wisdom inside Washington that no one should be faulted (other than the terrorists themselves) for that awful attack is appropriate.

It is hard not to see in Jeb’s eagerness to defend his brother a large measure of defensiveness and overcompensation. Indeed, he has now clarified his comments to say that after 9/11 we were safe for something like 2,600 days. True enough, if you ignore the anthrax attacks, the fact that we voluntarily sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the Middle East where they became targets for extremists and our decade-long wars there helped train a new generation of terrorists bent on attacking us, but even if you gave Jeb the greatest benefit of the doubt, his statement is akin to asking Mary Todd Lincoln how she liked that play at Ford’s Theater other than the whole assassination thing.

Of course, if the conventional wisdom somehow shifted to the idea that perhaps there is some blame to be leveled at George W. Bush, it would simply add to the already heaving weight of failure (Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession) most Americans associate with him. Indeed, I always found the argument that “no one could have foreseen 9/11” a bit odd. I mean sure, there was no one email or recorded phone message that said, “Al Qaeda is sending 20 people to America and  teaching them how to fly planes which they will hijack and use to destroy the World Trade Center” but if there was, there would be no need for agencies like the FBI, CIA, or NSA.

The truth is that there were warnings ahead of time, but they were largely ignored. The outgoing Clinton team attempted to warn the incoming Bush team about the rise of non-state terrorist actors, Richard Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton Administration, attempted to focus attention on Al-Qaeda and was largely rebuffed, there had been an attack by Al-Qaeda on the USS Cole in October 2000 – during the Presidential race – that would have suggested the need to take Bin Laden more seriously, and of course, the famous daily briefing George W. received on August 6, 2001 that included the not-so-subtle bullet point “Bin Laden Determined To Strike In The U.S.” (the Bushies fought really hard to keep this PDB private) and his equally famous response to his briefer that he (the briefer) had “covered his ass.”

This is all a matter of record and when Republicans now toss out equivalency in Pearl Harbor (FDR’s fault!) or the Bay of Pigs (JFK’s fault!) the response should be two-fold: First, that yes, you can argue that these too were failures, but neither FDR nor JFK then had people claiming that they had “kept us safe” (much less run a re-election campaign with ominous wolves in forests suggesting the other side would make us vulnerable to attack); Second, that those attacks be put in context – FDR mobilized our military and helped win the Second World War and JFK learned from his mistake and got the Soviets to back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Putting 9/11 in that same context simply acts to dredge up all the awful decisions that flowed from that day. Had Bush swept into Afghanistan, neutralized Al-Qaeda, captured or killed Bin Laden, and helped install a pro-Western government there, I suspect history would treat him much differently.

But he did not. He never committed the ground troops to Afghanistan to flush out Al-Qaeda, never invested the resources to help redevelop that nation and then diverted much of the armed forces in combat to fight a war in Iraq that became the biggest military boondoggle since Vietnam. These are inconvenient truths that do not get discussed at Georgetown cocktail parties or the green rooms of Sunday talk shows but are incredibly important for the American people to consider when deciding whether Jeb Bush, who has recruited nearly two dozen of his brother’s advisors to come work for him, should be elected President.

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Photographic Study - God Bless America

Seward Johnson's art is best described as a mash-up of Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons. He takes familiar cultural icons and re-imagines them in larger-than-life proportions. Here in New Jersey, the Grounds For Sculpture is dedicated largely to his work but his output is so prolific that it has bled out into the areas surrounding that wonderful space. Across from the Hamilton Train Station, Johnson's "God Bless America," an homage to Grant Wood's iconic 1930 painting "American Gothic," towers over the quirky intersection of Sloan Avenue and Klockner Road. Yesterday, we had good cloud cover and I was able to spend some time capturing this work of art from a couple of different perspectives and in both color and black and white. Enjoy!

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Deficit

Buried on page A21 of Friday's New York Times was news that our budget deficit for the fiscal year that ended on September 30th was $439 billion - $44 billion less than the prior year, almost $1 trillion less than its peak during the Great Recession, and a mere 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

That you may not be aware of this fact is unsurprising. If the "paper of record" deems this story inconsequential, do not hold your breath that the nightly news, the Sunday chat shows, or anyone else in the media will do anything other than make passing reference to this fact. And that too says something. It was not so long ago that the media was obsessed with the budget deficit, egged on by Republicans who pulled out Talking Points 101 from their playbook about the need to slash Social Security and Medicare or fear becoming a beggar nation like Greece. There was breathless coverage of the tick-tock of "grand bargain" negotiations between the President and John Boehner and one of DC's favorite creations, the blue ribbon commission, was formed to provide a blueprint for long-term deficit reduction.

But a funny thing happened on the way to no one remembering Simpson-Bowles and opting against trimming earned benefits like Social Security or Medicare. The budget deficit is no longer a problem. Indeed, not only is the total amount less than what it was before the Great Recession, but because our economy is larger, it is also even less as a share of our GDP. Indeed, at 2.5% of GDP, our current deficit is less than the modern historical average and a half-percent below what economists think appropriate for sound fiscal policy. 

Of course, we have seen this movie before. When Bill Clinton inherited a massive budget deficit after 12 years of runaway deficit spending by Reagan and Bush, he passed a tax increase on the wealthy, reined in government spending, and the economic boom resulted in a flood of tax receipts that left a $236 billion surplus when he left office. Barack Obama and the Democrats passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, invested in research and development, saw unemployment plummet, and passed a teensy-weensy tax hike on the top 1%. The reductions in health care spending, the increase in tax receipts from an improving economy (and stock market), and marginal cuts to federal spending have all helped drop the deficit by almost 75 percent from its 2009 high. 

Why the Beltway media continues to fall for the Republican trope that they are the fiscally prudent party while the Democrats are shameless spendthrifts is beyond me. We now have 35 years and five Presidents of proof that Republican Presidents spend like teenagers with their parents' credit card and leave it to Democratic Presidents to pay the bill. 

But the ho-hum, Obama-cut-one-trillion-from-the-deficit shoulder shrug emoji from the Beltway media is really disappointing.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Bern Feels It (And Not In A Good Way)

Somewhere between Hillary’s evisceration of his gun control position and her slam that we are “not Denmark,” Bernie Sanders was probably wondering where it all went wrong. How a self-described democratic socialist who had received fawning news coverage of his large campaign rallies and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine was being gutted like a fish.

Things did not go so well for the Vermont Senator on Tuesday night. The after action reporting criticized his lack of preparation and seeming unseriousness on any issue other than his signature refrain about the evils of income inequality. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was lauded for her razor sharp responses and ability to incorporate the populist anger Sanders channels, while underscoring her capacity for getting things done. The other three candidates on the stage barely rated a mention, but the consensus was that Sanders had exposed himself as not-ready-for-prime-time, a relic of old lefty politics that the Democrats had dropped in the dustbin of history after McGovern was blown out by more than 20 points in 1972 and Reagan crushed Mondale in 1984.

To be sure, there is something to be said for Sanders’s earnestness. When he told Chuck Todd he does not consider himself a capitalist, I do not doubt his sincerity. When he said we should look to Scandinavian countries and how they provide social welfare to their citizens, I know Bernie Sanders truly believes that. The only problem is that verbalizing those ideas to an audience of 15 million people and more than 700 reporters covering the Presidential race is a complete non-starter for anyone actually interested in becoming President.

It is one thing to preach to a choir of 300, 3,000 or even 30,000 supporters, as Sanders has done on the campaign trail. But the United States of America is not just a college campus in Madison, Wisconsin or Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vermont. What candidates say is not just heard here in our country but around the world and whether you are grasping for depth on foreign policy or suggesting that banks be broken up, those words echo in ways they do not when you are merely one of 100 Senators in Washington, D.C.

You see, for all of the superficial similarities the media wants to point out between the Republican and Democratic outsiders running for President, there is one key difference – Republican primary voters clearly enjoy the clown car aspect of their nominating process. They are okay with “truthiness” on a wide range of topics and are not punishing candidates for saying stupid things. If anything, they are rewarding one offs like Ben Carson’s comment that he would not support a Muslim becoming President, Carly Fiorina’s easily debunked lies about Planned Parenthood or basically anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

But Democrats have become far more sophisticated in their nominating process. The Bill Bradleys and Howard Deans of the world have had their moments in recent nominating contests and there will always be a portion of the party that embraces Medicare-for-all and massive tax hikes on the wealthy (this writer included!), but at the end of the day, Democrats have embraced the idea of “electability” because we understand that inhabiting the White House is far more important than any ideological purity test.

My suspicion is that Sanders is collecting some portion of the primary electorate that would have backed Elizabeth Warren had she run, but there is a ceiling for that support. Indeed, the idea that Hillary is unacceptable to the liberal base has always been a canard, but what Tuesday night also showed was how commanding a presence she is when the discussion turns to policy and, like it or not, how that conversation occurs in our modern media age. It is easy to buy into your own hype when the coverage is good, but unlike Sanders, who, but for a brief moment in the sun a few years ago when he filibustered the extension of Bush-era tax cuts, has strictly been a gadfly and cable TV presence, Clinton has decades on the national stage and understands its rhythms far better than her erstwhile opponent. That, far more than a clever hashtag or cheeky merchandise, is what helps win elections.

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Friday, October 9, 2015

Speaker Ryan

The Beltway media has found its new obsession. The implosion of the House Republican conference that began with John Boehner's announcement that he was stepping down as Speaker went thermonuclear when Kevin McCarthy, his presumed successor, bowed out of the race. The internecine war within the House GOP has become a full-fledged crisis that laid bare a years-long descent into blind governmental obstruction that included hundreds of Senate filibusters, a government shutdown, and more than fifty fruitless attempts to repeal Obamacare. 

While the media has, until now, been wary of pointing a finger solely at the GOP (the preferred "both sides do it" trope is so ingrained at this point, you wonder whether it's taught in J school), journalists are slowly coming around to the idea that it is not President Obama's failure to invite Republicans to the White House for drinks that is to blame for Washington dysfunction, but rather, the nihilistic streak infecting the House Republican caucus. Their timing could not be worse - the country will hit its borrowing limit in less than a month and the government is running on a continuing budget resolution that expires in two. 

Of course, as is the media's wont, the focus is on process and personalities - can Paul Ryan be cajoled into accepting this thankless job? Did McCarthy bow out because of rumors circulating in the right-wing blogosphere? Might Newt Gingrich return to save the day? (not making this one up). This plays to the preferred narrative that has turned politics into some combination of soap opera and professional wrestling, and it surely fills hours on cable news and column inches in newspapers, but lost in this is the fact that paying the country's bills and passing a budget that funds everything from the FBI to food safety, is the bare minimum of what any Congress should be able to do. It is the equivalent of waking up and brushing your teeth in the morning. 

That the Beltway media characterizes raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget as burdens, not requirements of government is embarrassing. Instead of shaming Republicans for failing to achieve even this minimum threshold for governing, journalists view these issues through a purely political lens that simply considers how John Boehner might ease Paul Ryan's ascension to Speaker by getting these pesky pieces of business out of the way. And if the media wants to focus on Ryan's viability, it would be great if they spent a bit more time picking through his radical policies like privatizing Medicare and transferring trillions in tax dollars to the wealthy and what it would say about the Republican party if their public face supported such extreme positions than whether or not he is BFFs with his own caucus.

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Stuff Happens

After nine people were murdered in yet another mass shooting, Jeb Bush shrugged it off - "stuff happens" he said - and when that "stuff" happens, apparently, the last thing you do is try to figure out how to make sure less of it happens in the future. Bush's offensive remarks were also exposed as foolish - he mentioned that if a child dies in a pool, the inclination may be to require that fences be built around them, but that might not be the best idea - ignoring the fact that the state of Florida passed such a law when he was Governor

Of course, this was just the latest in a series of foot-in-mouth moments for Jeb. Whether it was his four day fumble over whether the country should have invaded Iraq, his loose use of the term "anchor babies" (clarified the next day to claim he was speaking of Asian-Americans?!), or his suggestion that his brother "kept us safe" (well sure, if you ignore the whole 9/11 thing), it is a good thing Jeb has a Greek chorus of journalists swooping in to defend him or put "context" around his musings:

The media's focus on Trump's rise and Hillary's email has papered over two simple facts - (1) Jeb Bush is not a very good candidate and (2) the more Republican primary voters hear and see him, the less they like him. Bush's polling has sagged the longer this campaign has gone and just dropped to 4% in the latest national Pew poll. Bush has also fallen well back of the contenders in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire but it was not until this past week that the idea Bush is in trouble seeped into the mainstream media with a piece in The Washington Post, even though his swoon has been going on for weeks. 

And it may be that the conventional wisdom is true - that a $120 million war chest can be deployed to pump up Bush's flagging campaign, but the lay of the land does not look promising - Bush is a poor fit for Iowa and its social/religious conservative voters, who have handed people like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum their caucus votes and New Hampshire has been exquisitely anti-Bush since 1992, when Pat Buchanan took 37% of the vote against President George H.W. Bush and then in 2000 when John McCain thumped then-Governor George W. Bush by 17 points. The March 1st "SEC Primary" is steeped in more southern states unfriendly to Bush (he's behind Rubio and Trump in his adopted home state of Florida) and by then, the jig may be up.

No one is more surprised than me. After all, I had Bush as the 2016 GOP nominee way back in October 2011, more than a year before Obama crushed Romney. But what I, and I think many in the media missed is how hard right the GOP primary electorate has become. Most polls show the support of three candidates with no prior political experience totaling close to if not more than 50% of the vote. While pundits like to trot out Romney's struggles in 2012 as a potential caution against writing off Bush, Romney never sank so low in the polls and never lost sight of the front-runner even as that seat was rotating among lightweights like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. 

No, Bush has gotten a pass for so long simply because of his last name and the media's expectation that history will repeat itself - that Republicans "fall in line" at the end of the day and go for the name brand. But what if this time is different? After all, stuff happens.

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