I have a confession to make: When the presidential campaign begins, I not only feel some excitement, as you might expect from someone interested enough in politics to write about it every day, but I also get a feeling you might call relief. For the following 18 months, I know that one of the most challenging parts of my job—finding things to write about on very short notice—will be substantially easier.
One of the big challenges of blogging or writing on a daily basis is being able to look at what's going on in the world and come up with something valuable, or at least interesting, to say about it. And that usually (not always, but usually) requires some new development that adds information, changes something, or reinforces things you've already been thinking, which will allow you to write something (seemingly) fresh about it.
That means that doing daily writing gets easier in campaign season, because it's always changing (in at least some trivial way) and so much of it is public. Sit down at your desk in the morning and a bunch of stuff will have happened since yesterday. There will be a new poll, a candidate will have given a speech on a topic they haven't addressed before, or maybe somebody said something outrageous you can get worked up about. In contrast, the news of what happens when there isn't a campaign on often comes slower and can be harder to find. There might be a fascinating policy initiative in the works over at the Department of Labor, but unless that's your specific beat and you are keyed in to the developments there, you probably won't hear about it until it's officially presented. But the campaign is easy to find.
There's an accompanying danger, which is that if you're writing about the campaign every day you can get bogged down in the trivia of that daily back-and-forth and lose sight of what the whole thing is supposed to be about. The world doesn't actually need the fiftieth article about yesterday's "gaffe," though it might need the first article on a policy topic the next president will confront that hasn't gotten any notice. Jay Smooth is contemplating the temptation to get mired in the horse race part of the story, and he's come to a decision:
Will I take Smooth's "50-50 horse race/human race challenge"? Well...I like the idea, but in a way I feel like I already do that, at least insofar as I try to bring a broader perspective to even the most ephemeral stories. I'm not sure what side of the ledger it falls on when you look at a seemingly trivial matter, step back and try to answer whether it means anything or not, why we get sucked into talking about it, what it would mean if things like that actually have an impact on the race, and so on.
For instance, back in 2008 there was one of these miniature controversies about air pressure in tires, which you've surely forgotten about by now. Gas prices were high, and at one point Barack Obama suggested that keeping your tires properly inflated is a good way to save gas. The McCain campaign hooted in glee, literally passing out tire pressure gauges to mock Obama and sending their candidate to do a photo-op in front of an oil rig. In and of itself, the argument was meaningless, but I wrote a piece about it that I rather liked (titled "I'm Sigmund Freud, and I Approve This Message") pointing out the obvious symbolism of the tire gauge vs. the oil drill, and connecting it to previous campaigns in which Republicans tried to paint Democratic candidates as being insufficiently manly.
Is that horse race or human race? That particular piece wasn't about the policy consequences of the campaign, but I was trying to contextualize the controversy of the moment and say something broader about American politics, which I hope is more useful for readers than just asking whether tomorrow's tracking poll is going to tick up or down. I write about the details of policy quite a bit, but I also do a lot of meta-coverage, which some might argue is no more substantive than ruminating on the latest poll. But it's important to think about how we receive, process, and understand the news in general and the campaign in particular, because it's the informational ocean in which we're all swimming. There's no better time than a campaign, when people are actually paying attention, to examine what the news looks like, what kinds of assumptions are embedded within it, what we're taking from it, and how it might be altering our perspective on the world.
The impulse to just get sucked into the who's-winning-the-morning vortex is something you have to keep checking constantly. Smooth alludes to something I've noted before: one of the reasons there's so much horse race coverage is that if it's your job to write about politics, you almost certainly find the horse race stuff interesting. Campaigns are about tremendously consequential issues, but they're also a dramatic contest between two (or in the case of the primaries, many) antagonists. Most of them are interesting characters, even the ones who might not seem interesting at first (for example, for some strange reason I find Mitt Romney utterly fascinating).
Of course, it isn't a journalist or commentator's job just to talk about what they find interesting; they're also supposed to be informing the public. But just as there are multiple varieties of drivel, there are many meaningful ways you can analyze the ongoing campaign. Lengthy analyses of the candidates' policy proposals are absolutely vital, but they're not the only valuable kind of coverage.
The casket with the body of Freddie Gray is taken from a hearse at New Shiloh Baptist Church prior to the start of his funeral service, April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
I'll give Peter Schweizer this: Not since the Swift Boat veterans has someone gotten as much press coverage for their critical book about a presidential candidate. And though his book, Clinton Cash, hasn't come out yet, and it may well contain stories that really do point to malfeasance on Hillary Clinton's part related to contributions to the Clinton Foundation, the story this book rollout has led with—about the approval of a sale of a uranium mining concern to a Russian company—has some real problems. I did a rundown at the Plum Line today, but there's one key point I want to focus on.
This sale had to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is an inter-agency group made up of the heads of nine different federal departments. The whole question here is whether the fact that the Clinton Foundation got contributions from people with an interest in seeing that sale approved led to Hillary Clinton exercising influence over the sale. Schweizer argues that you don't need an explicit quid pro quo for something like that to be problematic or even illegal, which is true. The problem with this case is that there doesn't seem to be any quo at all. The guy who was the State Department's representative on CFIUS says Clinton didn't intervene in the matter, and for the moment we don't have any information to suggest she was involved in the decision in any way. Here's some of what I wrote today:
Even if Clinton had wanted to make sure the sale was approved, it wouldn't have been possible for her to do it on her own. CFIUS is made up of not only the Secretary of State, but also the secretaries of Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, Defense, and Energy, as well as the heads of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Labor are non-voting members, and CFIUS's work is also observed by representatives of other agencies like the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget. The idea that Clinton could have convinced all those officials and all those departments to change their position on the sale, even if she had wanted to, borders on the absurd.
Furthermore, the official who was the State Department's representative on CFIUS at the time, Jose Hernandez, toldTime magazine that Clinton did not participate in the evaluation of this deal: “Secretary Clinton never intervened with me on any CFIUS matter,” he said.
So in this case, we have no evidence of a quid pro quo, and we don't have evidence that Hillary Clinton took any action at all with regard to this sale, in favor of the interests of the donors or otherwise. In interviews, Schweizer has referred repeated to "dozens of examples" and "a pattern" in which donations are made to the foundation and official action by Hillary Clinton occurs thereafter. His book hasn't come out, so we don't yet know what he's referring to, but in the uranium case, there doesn't appear to be any official action Hillary Clinton took one way or another.
Schweizer was pressed on that point yesterday by both Chris Wallace and George Stephanopoulos, and he gave essentially the same answer both times. Here's what he said on Fox News Sunday:
Well, here's what's important to keep in mind: it was one of nine agencies, but any one of those agencies had veto power. So, she could have stopped the deal. So, what's interesting about this, of all those nine agencies, who was the most hawkish on these types of issues? Hillary Clinton.
So the alleged wrongdoing isn't that Clinton helped the people who gave donations to the foundation, it's that she failed to oppose them, something that the secretaries of defense, treasury, and all the other agencies also failed to do, with or without donations to foundations controlled by members of their families. Schweizer repeatedly compared Clinton to former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who was convicted of corruption, and Sen. Bob Menendez, who is currently under indictment, arguing that in those cases there also wasn't direct evidence of a quid pro quo. But in those cases there were specific acts that the officials took in support of the person who had lavished gifts on them. In this case, Schweizer's criticism of Clinton rests on the fact that she failed to intervene in the sale, and came to the same conclusion about it as the heads of eight other agencies did.
Anyone who's been reading my work here knows that I'm hardly a reflexive cheerleader for Hillary Clinton. I've criticized her plenty in the past, and I'm sure I'll have grounds to criticize her in the future. But on this particular case, it doesn't seem like she did anything wrong. Schweizer's argument is essentially that we have to keep looking to figure out the connection. But if he can't even come up with the official action that was supposedly influenced by contributions to the Clinton Foundation, then he has no leg to stand on.
Does the fact that the Clinton Foundation took contributions from foreign sources who had interests before the U.S. government warrant some examination? Absolutely. Investigative reporters should check all those contributors out. And frankly, I would be surprised if those donors didn't hope that their contributions would buy them some good will (even if the money was going to good purposes). The real question, though, is what Hillary Clinton did.
It certainly would have been preferable if the Clinton Foundation had stopped accepting foreign contributions completely when Hillary became secretary of state. Given everything that's happened in the past, she had a particular obligation to stay 100 miles from anything carrying even the faintest whiff of ethically questionable behavior. She obviously didn't stay far enough away. But that doesn't mean she actually did anything wrong, at least not in this case.
It's the season for pandering to the base, which is as good a time as any to ask whether the glorious, fascinating mess that is today's Republican Party can ever unify enough to win back the White House—or whether unity is something they should even be after. Because it may well be that a fractured, contentious GOP is the only kind that can prevail next November.
You probably missed it, but over the weekend nearly all the Republican presidential candidates (with the notable exception of Jeb Bush) hotfooted it back to Iowa to participate in the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Forum, where they testified to the depths of their love for the Lord and their hatred for His enemies, particularly Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The entreaties to this band of the base—important in primaries everywhere, but critically so in Iowa, where 57 percent of the attendees at the Republican caucuses in 2012 identified as born-again or evangelical Christian—are a good reminder of the internal and external challenges the candidates face.
According to multiple reports, the biggest ovations were given to two candidates who are almost certainly not going win the primaries: Bobby Jindal, who has already made clear that he wants to be the most sectarian candidate in the race, and Carly Fiorina, whose pitch many of the assembled probably hadn't heard before. But Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, was enthusiastically received as well. Walker's message, the New York Times reported, "is that in an unusually fractured Republican field, with 10 or more candidates potentially on the ballot in the Iowa caucuses next year, he is best positioned to unite the party."
And he may well be, since he is liked by everyone from evangelicals to Tea Partiers to the plutocrats waiting to anoint the candidates with a shower of cash. The problem is that if you haven't ticked off some faction of the Republican Party, you've probably put yourself in a dangerous place for the general election.
Think about where Republican candidates have gotten in trouble within their party. Jeb Bush has been attacked for talking about undocumented immigrants with compassion, and Marco Rubio alienated many by seeking comprehensive immigration reform. Rand Paul ruffled feathers by questioning whether a return to Cheneyite foreign adventurism is really in America's interests. Ted Cruz got criticized for attending a fundraiser at the home of two gay supporters. Rick Santorum (yes, he's back) raised eyebrows by advocating an increase in the minimum wage.
What do all these little dissents and blasphemies have in common? In every case, the thing that the candidate did to upset Republican primary voters would make him more attractive to voters who aren't Republicans—and the Republican nominee will need a healthy chunk of them to win. So the candidate who can unify the Republican Party may by definition be the one who will start the general election at a disadvantage.
Not that any candidate wants significant portions of his party disgruntled and disillusioned after a bitter primary campaign. But by next summer, unifying the party with real enthusiasm from all sides will probably mean proposing tax cuts for the wealthy, last-ditch opposition to marriage equality, an interventionist foreign policy, a crackdown on immigration, and doing nothing on climate change (among other things)—and doing so with the zeal of the true believer. That's not a program likely to win many converts who aren't already committed to the conservative cause.
The response that most Republicans are gravitating toward (which has been expressed most forcefully by Cruz and Walker) is that this isn't really a problem at all, because capturing independent votes isn't about lining up with them on issues, it's about having confidence in your conservatism. It's the kind of advice you can find in a hundred self-help books: Keep your chin up and your chest out, walk in like you own the room, give everyone a firm handshake and a hearty clap on the back, and they'll be drawn to your powerful electoral charisma, with success inevitably to follow.
This argument has obvious appeal. It says that winning is about attitude, and requires no compromise on the things you (or the primary voters) find important; even if an independent voter disagrees with you, they'll be so impressed by your firm gaze that they'll rally to your side. And there's some truth to it, at least insofar as voters don't just tally up a checklist of issues and determine which candidate they agree with more.
The irony is that winning the primary is in significant part about issues. Primary voters are paying attention, and with so many candidates to choose from, they've got plenty of opportunities to eliminate some based on even one area of disagreement. Stray from what they want to hear, and you can be punished—and it won't do much good to say that a year from now, independent voters might find precisely that heresy appealing.
So anyone who could be a uniter will also be a divider: Unite the party and you'll put up a wall between yourself and the general electorate. In the right circumstances and from the right candidate, that wall might be low enough to leap over. But it might be better to leave behind at least a few bruised feelings and ideological doubts.
Attorney General Eric Holder says goodbye to Justice Department employees on his last day on the job. Tonight on Fox: What crimes has Attorney General Loretta Lynch already committed, and what is she covering up?
Ted Cruz was the only senator to miss the vote on Loretta Lynch's confirmation as attorney general, despite his vociferous objections to her nomination, because he was on his way to a fundraiser—a circumstance that generated some predictable mockery. Yet as Philip Bump tells us, Cruz has actually missed lots of votes—70 percent of them this month, more than any other senator. Bet let me defend the gentleman from Texas.
Obviously, we want our senators to vote on bills and nominations. That's a big part of what we send them to Washington to do. At the same time, there are very few votes where one senator's vote makes the difference, and the outcome of this particular conflict was clear to all. Cruz's opposition to Lynch would have been made no more emphatic had he actually been there to offer his official thumbs-down.
The fact that Cruz has missed more votes than anyone else isn't too shocking either, not only because he's running for president—an enterprise that takes up a lot of one's time—but also because legislating never really was his first priority to begin with. He's a show horse, not a work horse, and he sees his job not as passing legislation but as using his position as a platform to advocate the things he believes in. He's certainly not alone in that.
And at a time when Congress accomplishes very little, there aren't that many votes of consequence to begin with. Lynch's confirmation may have been one of them, but as a general matter, not much depends on whether Ted Cruz is there to vote or not.
So go ahead, Senator—skip it. We don't need to pretend that you're really trying to legislate. That's not your thing, and that's OK. Of course, your constituents might not feel exactly the same way I do.
The primary game, I'm afraid, is rigged. In a perfect world, all contenders would start from the same point, equally able to assemble a compelling candidacy and make their case to the voters. In this world, however, the reporters who cover the race have already decided that only a few candidates are really worth thinking too much about, despite the fact that the first votes won't be cast in over nine months and even the supposed front-runner garners only 15 percent in polls.
This, from the Cook Political Report's Amy Walter, is a pretty good statement of the media wisdom of the moment:
At the end of the day, when you put all the assets and liabilities on the table, it's hard to see anyone but Rubio, Bush or Walker as the ultimate nominee. Sure, one of them could stumble or come up short in a key early state. It's also highly likely that someone like Huckabee, Paul, Cruz and even Perry could win in Iowa. But, when you look at the candidate vulnerabilities instead of just their assets, these are the three who are the most likely to win over the largest share of the GOP electorate.
Nothing Walter says here is wrong. And I don't mean to single her out—I've seen and heard other reporters say the same thing, that Bush, Walker, and Rubio comprise the "top tier." I've written some similar things, even predicting that Bush will probably be the nominee. So I'm part of the problem too.
This judgment isn't arbitrary—there are perfectly good reasons for making it, based on the candidates' records, abilities, and appeals, and the history of GOP primary contests. But it does set up an unfair situation, where someone who hasn't been declared in that top tier has to work harder to get reporters' attention. Or at least the right kind of attention, the kind that doesn't come wrapped in the implication that their candidacy is futile.
The candidates who aren't put in that top tier find themselves in a vicious cycle that's very difficult to escape from. Because they're talked about dismissively by the media, it becomes hard to convince donors to give them money, and hard to convince voters to consider them. They end up running into a lot of "I like him, but I need to go with someone who has a real shot." Their more limited resources keep their poll numbers down, which keeps their media attention scarce, which keeps their support down, and around and around. The media's prophecy is self-fulfilling.
That isn't to say that it's impossible for a candidate who isn't granted a higher level of attention by the press to find a way to break through. It happens from time to time; Howard Dean in 2004 is a good example of someone who wasn't considered top tier to begin with, but was able to work his way into it. The 2012 Republican primaries were a crazy free-for-all where there wasn't a real top tier for most of the time; the race was led in the polls at one time or another by five different candidates. Any one of them might have held on if they hadn't been such clowns.
Nevertheless, the press has now decided that the only candidates who are worth giving extended attention to are Bush, Rubio, and Walker. As I said, there are justifiable reasons for that judgment, and they do it for their internal reasons as well—most news organizations don't have the budget to assign a reporter to each of ten different candidates, for instance, and if they assign a reporter on a semi-permanent basis to only three or four candidates, then there are going to be many more stories written about them than about the others. However understandable, though, the granting of that elevated status is like an in-kind contribution worth tens of millions of dollars, whether it's truly deserved or not.
View from Puerto Varas, southern Chile, of a high column of ash and lava spewing from the Calbuco volcano, on April 22, 2015. Chile's Calbuco volcano erupted on Wednesday, spewing a giant funnel of ash high into the sky near the southern port city of Puerto Montt and triggering a red alert. Authorities ordered an evacuation for a 10-kilometer (six-mile) radius around the volcano, which is the second in southern Chile to have a substantial eruption since March 3, when the Villarrica volcano emitted a brief but fiery burst of ash and lava. (Giordana Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Today, President Obama revealed that a drone strike in Pakistan killed two aid workers who were being held by al Qaeda, one an American named Warren Weinstein, and the other an Italian named Giovanni Lo Porto. This is obviously generating news because there was an American killed, while the accidental deaths of innocent civilians don't usually merit notice here. As we note what a terrible tragedy this was, we shouldn't forget that this is the kind of war on terror we asked for.
Even as he ended the war in Iraq and began winding down the war in Afghanistan, Obama greatly increased the use of drones. Thousands of people have been killed in these strikes, and the number of civilians killed is in the hundreds. Perhaps because many people see drones as the only alternative to large-scale military operations where death tolls are much higher, support for the strikes has remained high, so long as they're occurring in foreign countries and not targeted on Americans. For instance, here's a Gallup poll from 2013:
As it happens, this strike did kill an American member of Al Qaeda, Adam Gadahn, or so the administration says. My suspicion is that the number of people who fall into the majority in that second category—opposing drone strikes against a U.S. citizen living abroad who is a suspected terrorist—would be lower once you personalize it in one individual who proclaims his membership in al Qaeda, as opposed to a hypothetical American who might or might not be guilty.
It's also important to know just how despised the American drone program is around the world. Take a look at this graph from the Pew Research Center:
The only countries where a majority approve of the strikes are the U.S., Kenya, and Israel. Why are people around the world so opposed to a program that most Americans would say is justified and restrained? It's the civilian casualties, but I think it's probably also something else: the idea that the United States retains for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone anywhere at any time. To people in other countries, that represents America's arrogance and disregard for the sovereignty of other countries. You can say, "Well, isn't it better than us invading them?", but they don't find that very convincing.
Yesterday, The New Yorker's George Packer pronounced himself bored with the 2016 campaign in particular and American politics in general, and though I think he's wrong, I understand where he's coming from. But if those of us who have devoted our lives to politics can't find enough about it to sustain our interest, what hope is there for the citizens who have better things to do with their time? This isn't an easy question to confront, but I'll give it a shot.
First, this seems pretty understandable:
American politics in general doesn't seem like fun these days. There's nothing very entertaining about super PACs, or Mike Huckabee's national announcement of an imminent national announcement of whether he will run for President again. Jeb Bush's ruthless approach to locking up the exclusive services of longstanding Republican political consultants and media professionals far ahead of the primaries doesn't quicken my pulse. Scott Walker's refusal to affirm Barack Obama's patriotism doesn't shock me into a state of alert indignation. A forthcoming book with revelations about the Clintons' use of their offices and influence to raise money for their foundation and grow rich from paid speeches neither surprises me nor gladdens my heart.
I know what he means; I confess that I found myself feeling something between gloom and despair after the seventh or eighth shutdown/default crisis, like we were trapped in an endlessly repeating and miserable cycle, and it wasn't easy to do my job of examining the situation and writing something both informative and interesting about it. But that passed. And the thing is, it's up to those of us who write about politics to make it interesting. That's what we're here for.
Would a Clinton-Bush matchup lack novelty? In some ways, sure. But there are still things that make each of them, familiar though they might be, interesting characters. Their paths to this point and what voters think of them now tell us a lot about American politics and America itself. And this election will be hugely consequential. The next president is probably going to shape the Supreme Court's path for decades to come (there are four justices over the age of 76). The fate of the Affordable Care Act, and the health of tens of millions of Americans, hangs in the balance, as does the question of whether we're going to have another war in the Middle East and whether we're finally going to address decades of rising inequality.
Elections can be interesting (or even fun) for a lot of reasons. It becomes interesting if it's close, as this one is almost sure to be; the uncertainty of a conflict's outcome always heightens the dramatic tension. Beneath even the most practiced and cautious candidate lies a complex party with factions and internal divisions that can be explored. Every presidential campaign features uses of technology to reach voters that didn't exist four years before. Yes, the daily repetitive grind of the campaign trail and the latest micro-scandal or "gaffe" can enervate the spirit. But there's plenty more going on if you're willing to go deeper.
Maybe what's eating Packer is the lack of a collective sense of fun about politics and the campaign. I suspect this may be a hangover from 2008, which for liberals was, and probably always will be, the most interesting and fun campaign of their lives. You had a charismatic new candidate who got liberals excited and motivated to cast off the ennui that had overtaken them after eight years of George W. Bush, and in the midst of a horrible economic crisis it seemed like the future was filled with hope and possibility. Many of the elite liberals I know are now greeting the Clinton candidacy with an attitude of, "Well, I guess so." And if the people you know don't seem excited, it can be hard to get excited yourself.
I'm sure George Packer has plenty of other things he can write about if the campaign isn't grabbing his fancy. But if you're going to write about it and it doesn't yet look interesting, then you just have to look a little harder.