Scott Walker Faces Higher Hurdles Than Polls

Scott Walker Faces Higher Hurdles Than Polls

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

How can we tell if Scott Walker’s polling surge means anything?

Walker has been doing well for three weeks now — including in a new Iowa survey putting him firmly in the lead (albeit with only 25 percent of the vote) and a national poll on Tuesday showing him just ahead of the rest of the pack.

Here’s the thing: Anyone can get a bubble like this. It happened to Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain (among others) in 2012. Before the current cycle is through, even the most unlikely presidential contender — George Pataki or Carly Fiorina or, for that matter, Joe the Plumber — could surge after rave reviews from a speech or a successful debate.

I wouldn’t spend a lot of time studying the polls to find out how real Walker’s numbers are. We already know that most voters had barely heard of the Wisconsin governor a month or so ago, and that he’s attracted excellent coverage, especially in Republican-aligned media, over the last several weeks.

The first thing to watch for real is whether he receives a flood of endorsements from politicians, interest-group leaders, campaign and governing professionals, and other important party actors.

And a second indication that Walker is gaining ground would be if some possible rivals drop out. In particular, watch four other Republican governors who have started out slowly or appear to be struggling: Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich and Mike Pence. If one or more drop out in the next few weeks, it may be because uncommitted resources are drying up and because the people they are reaching out to are telling them 2016 isn’t going to be their year.

The lack of such signs was key when Mitt Romney made a big splash about running. Even though he was polling well, he quickly gave up. Nor did the party immediately rally around Jeb Bush after he first expressed interest — in contrast to the early acclamation his brother received in the 2000 cycle. Jeb has chosen to fight it out.

Every politician has a personal calculation of what he or she is willing to risk on any particular campaign. Overall, however, if people are still jumping in, it means the race is wide open. If candidates are leaving, this probably indicates that most party factions have committed somewhere, even if they haven’t said so publicly.

Walker appeared to be a formidable contender even before his surge, and he’s in better shape now than he was a month ago. But until the party sends clear signs it is beginning to decide on its nominee, I’m leaving him where I’ve had him for a while: in a top tier with Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Nothing more.

Add Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley to that list: A polling surge by one of the also-ran Democrats would capture the attention of the press, which would love to have a competitive Democratic nomination fight.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist at Bloomberg View. He can be reached by email at

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Don’t Blame Liberal Media For Giuliani Gaffe

Don’t Blame Liberal Media For Giuliani Gaffe

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

We’ve had a terrific demonstration over the last week or so of why the belief in liberal media bias is so strong.

It isn’t because of actual liberal media bias. Academic research finds plenty of ways the press gets things wrong, but an ideological slant isn’t one of them.

Most bias has to do with the industry’s norms (stories involving the president get more play than articles about governors, and so on). In some cases, the self-interest of the media plays a role, whether it’s promoting freedom of the press, for example, or building up anyone who might take on Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination as a way to build interest in that snooze fest.

What sustains the belief in liberal bias? It’s the go-to explanation among conservatives for almost everything that happens, and has been for at least four decades. Repeat something long enough, without strong opposition, and people will accept it.

So the reaction to the Rudy Giuliani story, in which the former New York mayor claimed Barack Obama didn’t “love” America, invoked howls of media bias from conservatives. Some said it wasn’t a story at all — Giuliani hasn’t been in office for years, so who cares what he says? Isn’t there real news out there? Others were upset that Republican candidates were pressed to agree or disagree with Giuliani — look, the liberal media is trying to make conservative politicians look stupid!

But we had an almost perfect parallel in the coverage of Howard Dean’s complaint that Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin shouldn’t be president because he didn’t graduate from college.

Giuliani left office in 2001, ran for president in 2008, has since been out of active politics but shows up on TV all the time. Dean left office a year after Giuliani did, ran for president in 2004, was Democratic National Committee chairman through 2008, has since been out of active politics but shows up on TV all the time.

Republicans were forced to take a stand on whether Obama loves America; Democrats were pressed to say if they thought a college dropout was unqualified to be president.

The Giuliani story was bigger only because attacking the president is a bigger deal than attacking one of many Republican presidential candidates, and New York (where much of the national media is based) trumps Vermont.

Both accusations were pretty much denounced by everyone; both sparked predictable partisan bashing and a few interesting reflections.

But liberals didn’t go crying about conservative media bias in the Dean-Walker case because they don’t see every news story as an example of prejudice against them. Conservatives do.

For example, they screamed that the media ignored the scandal ending the career of Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon, but as Philip Bump explained, this too was caused by ordinary press norms, not ideological bias. Kitzhaber’s scandals were undercovered (at least in the national media) compared with those of Republican Chris Christie because Christie is running for president and he’s a governor in the New York area. Think about it. The press hardly ignored scandals costing Democratic Governors Rod Blagojevich or Eliot Spitzer their jobs. It’s just that Democrats never interpreted those firestorms as examples of Republican media bias.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out when news coverage is wrong or wrong-headed. But ideology isn’t at the root of those mistakes and biases.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Readers may email him at

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

How The Kochs Wasted A Fortune On Campaigns

How The Kochs Wasted A Fortune On Campaigns

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

What if the fuss over big money in elections is mostly over nothing?

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz at the Crystal Ball reported Thursday on his analysis of the effects of outside spending on Senate races in 2014, and finds a big, fat zero. (I’m referring to direct spending by groups other than the candidates and other formal party organizations.) Instead, the factors that mattered, he finds, were the balance between the parties in the state, the role of incumbency and the overall tilt toward Republicans in that election year.

Some important caveats are in order. The effects of election spending are notoriously hard to nail down, and it’s possible that a different way of analyzing the numbers might yield a different result. In addition, just one set of elections in one year are included, and something the analysis doesn’t account for could be messing with the results.

As Abramowitz explains further, the hotly contested elections attract big outside money for both sides, so we can’t know whether something would change if only one side was dumping tons of cash into a campaign.

Still, I believe these results, because they fit with what we know about campaign financing in general. Spending is subject to sharply diminishing returns.

As Abramowitz writes:

“After each side had spent $30 million on attack ads in a small state like Iowa, it’s hard to believe that an additional $1 million in spending on attack ads by either side was going to have much impact on the Hawkeye State electorate — except perhaps causing more Iowans to turn off their televisions.”

Money is wasted on those who have already made up their minds.

Overall, campaign spending has the biggest impact when voters have little other information. The most important piece of information for voters is a candidate’s party affiliation, so money is more influential in primaries than in general elections.

In addition, the more media attention a campaign gets, the less money matters because voters learn about the candidates from sources other than ads. So the flood of cash plays less of a role in presidential elections, which draw saturation coverage, than it does in high-profile statewide contests, which receive only a fair amount of news attention. Races out of the limelight might see the largest impact.

Of course, even if campaign money doesn’t sway elections, it might shape how winning candidates govern, or shift influence within the political parties. Still, the findings provide more evidence that the fears on this issue are overstated. And they give us more support for a “floors, not ceilings” approach to campaign-finance reform.


Obama Hypocrisy On Gay Marriage Was Ethical

Obama Hypocrisy On Gay Marriage Was Ethical

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Surprise! It turns out Barack Obama supported marriage equality the whole time.

Well, not much of a surprise. Close political observers strongly suspected all along that he supported same-sex marriage. But advisers dissuaded him from taking that position in 2008, and he only chose to “evolve” on the issue going into 2012, when polling indicated his support would no longer be a liability.

What’s the sin here? I’m pro-hypocrisy. The ethics of politics don’t require politicians to take positions they “really” believe in. To the contrary: They are representatives, and what they owe their constituents is good representation. This begins (as the political scientist Richard Fenno understands it) with making promises during an initial campaign.

When those politicians govern, they make choices with those promises in mind, and then they explain their actions to constituents in terms of those promises. Eventually, they campaign for office again, and make a new set of promises, constrained and informed by what they said in the previous cycle.

It would have been a problem if Obama claimed to oppose same-sex marriage while intending to support it once he was elected. It wouldn’t have mattered if the broken promise was based on personal beliefs or on political considerations.

I see no evidence (so far) that Obama was guilty of such a violation. Instead, he gave weak support for his position in the 2008 campaign. And, while pure fiction, his subsequent story that his stance on same-sex marriage was “evolving” was nevertheless consistent with the obligation to explain his actions (in this case, his new position) in view of his original promises.

It’s true that Obama’s actions early in his presidency (before he supposedly evolved) had the effect of supporting marriage equality — in particular, selecting two Supreme Court justices likely to rule that way. But this, too, was consistent with the overall thrust of his 2008 promises, which were to be a liberal on social policy. One reason observers assumed Obama would flip his position as the polls changed was because his position on marriage was increasingly at odds with the rest of his stances on social issues.

Anyone looking for an area where Obama’s campaign promises haven’t matched his actions in office should focus on civil liberties. It’s no big deal when politicians conceal their private positions. It’s more serious when they don’t follow through on public promises and fail to explain the change.

Those promises might involve specific policies (such as opposing marriage equality), or they might be more amorphous commitments on how the politician will act in office — as a wonk, as a member of a demographic group, as an ideologue, or whatever else she promises. Note, for example, that Obama’s 2008 rhetoric emphasized his beliefs “as a Christian” while his 2012 public reversal also emphasized his (supposed) moral awakening on the issue, the place of “powerful traditions” and “religious beliefs” in the discussion, and how states moving on marriage had done a “good job in engaging the religious community.”

Photo: President Barack Obama speaks at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Monday, Feb. 9, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Don’t Mess With Iowa As First Caucus State

Don’t Mess With Iowa As First Caucus State

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

If it’s a year before the Iowa caucuses, it must be time for someone to complain that voters there and in New Hampshire are the first to cast ballots for the presidential candidates. As Philip Bump of The Fix asks, why not let a big, diverse state — California — go first?

If it was true that a few voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada were the big players in presidential-nomination politics, then Bump and the other anti-Iowans would have a case. But that isn’t how many political scientists believe nominations are won.

The primaries and caucuses are (as I’ve argued) no longer the main arena, as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, they are a version of what they were before 1968: a way for the parties to gather information.

Party actors — the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists and donors, formal party officials and staff, and party-aligned groups and media — coordinate with one another and compete over the nomination. Their decisions and resources help determine what happens in Iowa. So, for example, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama had all outpaced Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd in (national) party support well before the Iowa caucuses in 2008.

Party influence from outside the state doesn’t totally control what happens in Iowa, as surprise finishes such as Rick Santorum’s in 2012 and others going back to Pat Robertson’s in 1998 demonstrate.

But here’s where party actors come in as the most important interpreters of caucus and primary results. If a winner (say, Sen. Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire in 1992) has little support besides the voters in one small state, he’ll get little help — money, favorable publicity, volunteer hours — from that victory. On the other hand, a disappointing finish from a candidate with solid party support (Bill Clinton’s second place in New Hampshire in 1992, John McCain’s fourth place in Iowa in 2008, or even Hillary Clinton’s third place showing in Iowa that year) won’t necessarily deliver a knock-out blow.

True, by the time most Democrats got to vote in primaries in 2008, they could only choose Obama or Clinton, while Iowans had six other options. But what did it matter? If Dodd or even more improbably Dennis Kucinich had managed to score well there despite lack of party support from outside Iowa, they would not have gotten much further.

Let’s look closer at the 2012 Republican contest. After Santorum’s surprising victory in Iowa, he wasn’t able to capitalize on it because he had little support in the “invisible primary” leading up to the caucuses. Relatively little money came in to his campaign. He didn’t receive major endorsements from high-profile Republicans or party-aligned groups, which could have flooded New Hampshire or South Carolina with volunteers. It might have been different if a candidate with more party support, such as Rick Perry, had scored an early upset win.

The parties are better off sticking with the status quo. Keeping the small states first reduces chances that a single state’s quirks will make a difference to the eventual outcome. If Iowa votes for Pat Robertson or New Hampshire puts Pat Buchanan first (as it did in 1996), only a few delegates are at stake, and the process moves on with no problems. But a candidate with a flukish strong finish in California would have enough delegates nailed down to cause a fair amount of trouble.

So why not mix it up and switch to other small states? The party actors have become experts in interpreting the results from the current early states, and swapping in different ones runs the risk that their results will be misinterpreted. A fluke victory might be seen as more significant than it is.

Bottom line: The nomination process, Iowa included, may look messy, but it’s working just fine.

This is also the case against a national primary. Multi-candidate primaries are unstable, and random things can happen. The state-by-state sequence protects the parties from fads, and allows time for careful vetting of the candidates without worrying about overreactions to minor revelations about them.

Photo: Rick Santorum at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, ahead of the Ames Straw Poll. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Christie’s Measles Vaccine Madness Explained

Christie’s Measles Vaccine Madness Explained

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

This week’s tempest on the trail of possible Republican presidential nominees has been New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s seemingly weak defense of vaccinating American children. By calling for “balance” in government policy, and saying that “parents need to have some measure of choice,” Christie was blasted by both liberals and conservatives. By late Monday morning he seemed to be backing off his comments.

But Christie’s apparent attempt to appeal to vaccination opponents, while a surprising strategy for a governor in a densely populated state, is consistent with a plausible Iowa caucus strategy: an attempt to lock up a small faction of voters.

It’s hard to know exactly why a presidential contender makes any particular comment. Yet one challenge for candidates, especially in a large field in a mostly unified party, is how to differentiate themselves if they share positions with their rivals on every important issue — as most Republicans do in the 2016 cycle. This devolves into petty arguments about which candidate is most adamant on, say, opposition to Obamacare.

That situation is even tougher in Iowa. Mike Huckabee, for example, may have won the Republican primary in the state in 2008 by winning the support of Christian home schoolers — not a huge constituency, but big enough when 34 percent of the vote (and only 41,000 voters) was enough for a solid victory.

The problem with that strategy, however, is that finishing first in Iowa over a fractured field isn’t enough to propel a candidate to the nomination. The parties, not the voters, are the major players. Doing well in early contests can matter to party actors, but only if they are otherwise open to the candidate and if their main concern is electoral success. (Thus, Democratic party actors were especially impressed with Barack Obama’s Iowa victory in 2008, while being convinced that Howard Dean’s failure there in 2004 showed he had no special electoral magic.)

Still, differentiation is a solid strategy — so long as it increases a candidate’s chances with one group but doesn’t risk alienating the bulk of the party. Whatever happens with Christie and measles, expect more of the same from the large Republican field. The candidates are going to be desperate to find a way to stand out from the pack, and they may try some pretty nutty gambits to do so.

Old-timers will recall a spirited fight between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart in 1984 over which of them declared his support for a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem first, a particularly silly argument given that neither of them would have carried out that pledge (which is always embraced by candidates, but not by presidents) had he been elected. In the 1970s, when the nomination system was new and party actors hadn’t learned how to deal with it, things were different. Jimmy Carter’s Iowa “win” (he actually finished behind undecided voters) was central to how he won the Democratic nomination in 1976. But those days are long gone.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Lift The Blockade On Confirming U.S. Judges

Lift The Blockade On Confirming U.S. Judges

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Almost a month into the 114th Senate, the new Republican majority still doesn’t know what to do about filibusters of judicial nominations. The latest? An idea floated recently to eliminate filibusters on Supreme Court nominations (or, technically, to change cloture to a simple majority) seems to be DOA.

The background on this is that when Democrats went “nuclear” in fall 2013, reducing the votes necessary for ending filibusters on judicial and executive-branch nominations from 60 to a simple Senate majority, they omitted Supreme Court confirmations.

Democrats weren’t objecting to ideology-based filibusters against specific nominees, but to the across-the-board blockades preventing the president from filling any judicial vacancy at all. The filibuster that pushed Democrats over the edge was over three seats on the District of Columbia Circuit Appeals Court.

Even if the Republican position was indefensible, it isn’t off base to require some kind of supermajority to approve judicial candidates for the Supreme Court and for other seats on the federal bench.

Federal judges hold lifetime appointments. It’s a little bit weird that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all have considerable influence today because of their choices still serving not only on the Supreme Court, but on the lower courts as well. It’s consistent with the spirit of the Constitution to establish rules that reward mainstream selections. It shouldn’t be easy for a small, temporary majority to set its preferences in stone for a generation.

I’ve been floating a compromise that would prevent blockades of nominations by the minority party, but would also give some check against easy confirmations: requiring a number of Senate votes equal to the number of majority-party senators to block filibusters on judicial nominations. So with 54 Republicans right now, cloture would require 54 votes.

Now, of course, when the government is divided (as it is now, with a Democratic president and a Republican majority in the Senate), the Senate majority party can defeat any nomination without even needing floor votes; it can just kill nominations in committee, or refuse to bring them up for a vote. But in periods of unified government, this compromise would allow the president’s choice to be confirmed only if the president’s party was 100 percent united on the nominee — or, if the majority party wasn’t unified, it would need to find some votes from the other party.

This would still allow a unified party (controlling the presidency and a Senate majority) to confirm anyone it wanted. Presumably, though, anyone supported by the president and the party’s entire Senate caucus, or an equivalent number of votes drawn from both parties, would have to be someone in the mainstream. Otherwise, party moderates (and there are always moderates) might defect, and no crossover votes would make up for it. If support for a prospective nominee is going to be a tough vote for some in the party, that would encourage the president to make a less controversial or factional choice.

This kind of supermajority system — for all federal judges, including Supreme Court justices — gives at least some protection to minority points of view without allowing partisan blockades such as the ones Republicans put up in the last Congress. Senators who are looking for a compromise should consider the idea.

I’d also shift the burden from majority to minority; instead of needing 54 votes to invoke cloture and therefore defeat a filibuster, I’d require 47 votes to sustain a filibuster. Filibusters are justified in part because intense minority opinions are important; therefore, absent senators should count against the minority, not the majority.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at

Photo: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, waits for the start of the State of The Union address by President Barack Obama on January 20, 2015, in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Pool/TNS)

Romney Is The Only One Who Thinks He’s Reagan

Romney Is The Only One Who Thinks He’s Reagan

By Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

Yeah, this one isn’t gonna fly.

Mitt Romney’s third campaign for the White House got off to a good start … for about three days. The backlash this week came not just from core conservatives, who have never been enthusiastic about the ideological chameleon, but also from just about everyone who isn’t a die-hard Romney supporter. This group includes quite a few mainstream conservatives, according to Washington Post and New York Times reporting.

What is Team Romney’s answer to those who say he’s had his chance?

“If that’s the case, then Ronald Reagan never would have become president,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime spokesman. “Reagan ran three times. Mitt learns from experience. If he does run, he will run his strongest campaign yet.”

Yeesh. I can just imagine all the Republican contenders and conservative leaders going all Bentsen on the Mittster, as the Wall Street Journal did Wednesday.

Does Romney really want to die on this hill?

Between Reagan’s first (1968) and second (1976) presidential runs, he went from being an inexperienced governor who had given an impressive speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964 to being a successful two-term governor who continued to consolidate his position as leader of the conservative movement. Then, in the run-up to his third try in 1980, Reagan remained the clear conservative leader. A real, influential leader: His attack on the Panama Canal treaties, for example, made opposition to them the standard conservative position.

In other words, Reagan didn’t just get better at running for president. He was a much more impressive politician with far more accomplishments by 1980 than he had been in 1968.

Romney? Not so much.

He first ran for president as a successful one-term governor, although he had to repudiate much of what he had done when he moved to the national stage. He ran for president a second time as a successful one-term governor. He is now running for president yet again as … a successful one-term governor.

As far as I can see, he has done exactly zero to enhance his credentials apart from having now developed extensive experience in running for president. If he has ever been an influential leader among Republicans on any policy position, I’ve clean forgotten about it.

More to the point, no one has rallied to Romney’s side other than his core supporters, and reporters are having no trouble finding 2012 supporters who are willing to distance themselves publicly from his third effort. And not only has no one dropped out of the race in the last week since Romney and Jeb Bush stepped up their efforts, other than the already bearded Paul Ryan, but Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and others are ramping up their own campaigns.

Right now, the odds of Romney’s campaign fizzling out before summer appear to be higher than the odds of his making it to New Hampshire, let alone repeating as the Republican’s presidential nominee.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may send him email at

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Congressional Dealmaking Isn’t Extortion

Congressional Dealmaking Isn’t Extortion

Dec. 12 (Bloomberg View) — Are Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats who opposed the government funding bill the practical equivalents of Senator Ted Cruz and the radical Republicans who shut down the government last year?

They are not.

Matt Yglesias makes the case that, in fact, Republicans were responsible for trouble in both 2013 and 2014. In both cases, Republicans pressed to add a provision that Democrats opposed — most recently one that rolled back a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law in the funding bill that passed the House yesterday and is moving to the Senate .

There’s something to this argument, but it really understates what was special about Tail Gunner Ted’s shutdown in 2013.

Of course, part of normal bargaining involves a certain amount of brinksmanship and part of deliberate shutdown politics can involve claims that the other side is “really” responsible for the breakdown.

The process goes off the rails when it includes excessive demands, backed up by ultimatums, that are far outside what appears to be the normal range of bargaining. Demanding a repeal of Obamacare (or “defunding”) despite a solid Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House is of a different order than a fight about a relatively small provision of Dodd-Frank, or the other policy riders added to the current funding bill.

In any case, it was clear from the beginning of last year that the radicals were more interested in the principle of blackmail than they were in the fate of any particular hostage. Indeed, most of the drama of the government shutdown involved Republicans flailing around looking for a good demand they could make for the shutdown they had already engineered.

That was true this time, too — but it only involved a small group of Republicans. The bulk of mainstream conservative Republicans made policy demands (and will win some policy victories if the Senate, as expected, passes the bill this weekend). But that was in the context of normal bargaining, in which Democrats also won concessions. Sure, there’s always the implicit threat that a failure to reach a deal will cause a shutdown. But that’s very different from the attitude of the Cruz group in 2013 (or New Gingrich’s similar plan in 1995) to use a shutdown as a strategy for getting the other side to agree to something outside of normal negotiating.

What Warren and the other liberal dissenters have done this week is equivalent to saying that the deal isn’t quite good enough for them. They’re not starting from the assumption that they should hold their breath until they get their way… and then looking around for something to demand. This wasn’t extortion for the sake of extortion. Just regular sausage making.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

Rand Paul Isn’t Leading The Republican Pack

Rand Paul Isn’t Leading The Republican Pack

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg View) — The Fix’snew rankings for Republican presidential candidates are out. Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake pick Senator Rand Paul as the most likely nominee.

I’ve excluded Paul (and Ted Cruz, ranked No. 8 by Cillizza and Blake) from my list of plausible nominees. Do I need to revisit the question? Sorry, still not buying it.

Here’s the case The Fix makes:

No one rolls their eyes anymore. Paul has a unique activist and fundraising base thanks to his dad’s two runs for president, and has shown considerable savvy in his outreach efforts to the establishment end of the party over the past few years … Paul is the candidate furthest along in the planning process for president and the one with the most current strength in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

I don’t see much there. Of the four attributes listed, three — unique base, early planning, strength in early states — are exactly what was said about Ron Paul in 2012. Given that Ron Paul never had a realistic chance against a very weak field, I’m not convinced that we should think much of Rand Paul’s chances.

That leaves the question of whether the rest of the party is more interested in Rand Paul 2016 than it was in Ron Paul 2012. Not whether Paul has been “savvy” in selling himself, but whether anyone is buying.

I remain highly skeptical and will have to see some explicit support from important party actors outside of the Paul orbit (and outside of Kentucky, where he and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have developed a working relationship). We know that Paul will have some important opponents within the party, especially on national security. He’s going to need some serious supporters to overcome that. And given the large, strong group of contenders, I just can’t imagine why any (non-libertarian) group of party actors would take on that battle.

I understand the math: It’s a large field and Paul is more or less guaranteed to get 20 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. All he needs then is to exceed his father’s performance by a few thousand votes and he could easily capture those early states against a splintered group of Republicans. That’s an illusion. There probably won’t be a dozen candidates in Iowa; Republicans have efficiently winnowed their field pre-Iowa for several cycles. But it doesn’t matter; even if Paul wins with 25 percent of the vote in Iowa, he’s not going to win the nomination unless he can eventually reach more than 50 percent. And as long as a substantial clot of party actors opposes his candidacy and most of the rest are indifferent at best, he’s not going to get the favorable publicity he needs to do that.

Yes, lots of candidates at this stage of the process haven’t demonstrated their ability to win over half of the primary vote. Mitt Romney hadn’t last time. But the opposition to Paul, and the policy differences between Paul and most of the party, are far deeper than was the case with Romney in 2012.

Show me evidence Paul is attracting support from mainstream conservatives, and I’ll start believing he’s a viable nominee. Until then, he’s an implausible longshot.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

The Curious Case of McConnell’s Genius

The Curious Case of McConnell’s Genius

Dec. 1 (Bloomberg View) — Liberals have converged on a consensus about Mitch McConnell and congressional Republicans: The party’s rejectionist strategy for dealing with Barack Obama (oppose everything, filibuster everything) has been electorally brilliant yet has cost Republicans when it comes to results on policies. MSNBC’s Steve Benen makes the case today; Vox’s Matt Yglesias has separate posts on the benefits and costs to Republicans from McConnellism.

I agree on the policy point. But I disagree with them on the political part. The electoral benefits of rejectionism remain unproven. Just because Republicans won big in the midterms after McConnell and his allies in Congress used the rejectionist strategy doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship.

We need to take apart three pieces here.

One is conservative antipathy toward Obama. That was inevitable for conservatives inside and outside Congress, no matter what strategy the party as a whole was following.  Those who cut deals would always be seen as Republicans in Name Only to the conservative media. This alone meant that few if any of Obama’s achievements were seen as bipartisan.

The second is unhappiness about the U.S. economy. That — and not Obama’s failure to “fix Washington” — is most responsible for his mediocre approval rating and Democratic losses in both midterms. Was Republican rejectionism partly responsible for the slow recovery?

Perhaps the economy would have recovered more strongly if Republicans hadn’t provoked the budget and debt-limit crises in 2011, 2012 and 2013; succeeded in slashing spending at the federal, state and local levels; and blocked Obama’s jobs package and the additional stimulus he sought. Yet it’s hard to draw a line on how much of that was sheer rejectionism and how much was opposition based on Republican principles.

Finally, there’s the pure McConnell-led rejectionism: the filibusters on judges Republicans didn’t even oppose, the pressure on moderate Republicans to stop bargaining for concessions, and more. I’m not convinced any of that made much of a difference to Obama’s approval or, through that, to voters.

For example, even if some Republicans had supported Obamacare (none did), it would still have been unpopular. Conservatives were going to hate it no matter what, and the costs were going to be more visible than the benefits for most people.

In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans went from 48 Senate seats (a majority) to only 34 over a similar span, at what is considered a low point of partisanship in congressional history. Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats were clobbered in 1966 and 1968 after plenty of congressional Republican support for civil rights, Medicare and the war in Vietnam.

Ronald Reagan had both widely acknowledged victories on policy and a relatively fair amount of bipartisanship in his presidency, yet his Republicans were reduced from 53 to 45 senators from 1981 to 1987. During George W. Bush’s presidency, especially his first term, Democrats probably came as close to cooperation as is possible in the current era, and Republicans still lost plenty of seats during his presidency.*

The bottom line is that being in the White House is bad for a party in subsequent elections even when the president is popular, and being in the White House during bad times is even worse. That’s true during eras of partisan cooperation and partisan polarization.

Yes, it’s possible that McConnell’s strategy in Congress was a small electoral plus. Senator Bob Dole’s similar response to the 1992 elections may have hurt Democrats a bit in 1994. But mostly, it’s just the economy and holding the White House that have hurt Democrats. Most of what Republicans have done has been irrelevant — when it hasn’t been actively harmful.

*This doesn’t mean there were no clashes; the basic condition of partisan polarization is that virtually all Democrats are more liberal than virtually all Republicans, so natural alliances that were available in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s are simply no longer there. On taxes, however, Democrats generally did exactly what McConnell didn’t do: Moderates cut their best deal, while liberals opposed Bush. On education and terrorism, Democrats worked with Republicans. And while Democrats did ratchet up use of the filibuster against appellate judges, they didn’t insist on a 60-vote Senate for everything.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

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Here’s The 2016 Republican Nominee

Here’s The 2016 Republican Nominee

The Republican presidential field just gets bigger and bigger. Three early-look lists last week — compiled by Karl Rove, by Politico’sMike Allen and by conservative talk-show host Steve Deace — identified 26 candidates in total. Yikes!

I’ve been commenting on candidates as it becomes clear they are running for 2016 (regardless of whether he will still be running in 2016). But I haven’t talked about all 26. A quick categorization is in order.

Early in 2015, which will be about a year away from the Iowa caucuses, candidates must start establishing campaign organizations, nationally and in the early states. Stronger candidates don’t have to declare formally too soon. But it’s already late for any candidate to begin to campaign.

I’ve already discussed 12 of the 26 Republicans who appear viable, given their credentials and their positions on issues more or less within their party’s mainstream: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry, John Kasich, Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rob Portman, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. (Some candidates may have views on issues where they’ll find resistance – Bush and Rubio, for example, on immigration, or Kasich on Medicaid expansion. But they have plenty of time to adjust, or no organized group within the party had proved to have a veto on the contenders who disagree with them.)

Each candidate appears to have done what he has to do up to this point. Presumably several will drop out in the next few months. (Will Ryan concentrate on the House? Does Bush want the nomination if it isn’t served up on a silver platter? Is Huck just trying to boost his speaking fees? Or, if he stays in, will Santorum give up his long-shot attempt?)  There is a very good chance, however, that the nominee comes from that list.

No, I didn’t forget Senators Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. They are running serious campaigns, but I don’t think they are viable nominees. Paul isn’t within the party mainstream on several issues, most importantly national security. As for Cruz, it isn’t just that he has annoyed far too many party actors. The failure of the government shutdown he spearheaded in 2013 surely convinced others that he can’t be trusted to look out for the Republican Party.

Rove includes Michigan governor Rick Snyder on his list, while Mike Allen mentions Senators John Thune and Lindsey Graham. But they don’t have the stature in the party to afford a late start, so we need more signs of serious activity before considering them as candidates. I have a low bar for the “running for 2016” classification, yet it has to be a bit more than the old saw of every senator (or governor) seeing a president in the mirror.

That leaves nine other names. Several don’t appear to be running. Why is former New York governor George Pataki still on these lists?  Same with another Rove mention, former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich. Donald Trump won’t be running either (I think Deace is including him as a joke).

That leaves six who may be running, but who aren’t plausible nominees. Dr. Ben Carson is getting the most attention. And, oddly enough, Carly Fiorina has managed to pass muster with the Great Mentioner despite having nothing resembling conventional job credentials or any reason to expect any party group to rally to her. Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, former Representative Allen West, Herman Cain and Representative Peter King — none has any chance.

Even for viable choices such as Governors Kasich of Ohio and Pence of Indiana, it’s getting to be time to step it up. There’s no one in this field who has the clout to straddle the “maybe” line until June. And there’s little chance any new real candidate can emerge (although virtually any conservative can claim 15 minutes of fame on Fox News and get a mention).

After all, with a full field of serious candidates already in place, the winnowing is probably just around the corner.

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

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Boehner’s Lawsuit Is Betrayal Of Congress

Boehner’s Lawsuit Is Betrayal Of Congress

Nov. 21 (Bloomberg View) — Republicans have finally filed their lawsuit against the president over implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Actually, the president isn’t a respondent; the suit names the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Treasury Secretary. It’s still a horrible idea.

Michael Lynch and Rachel Surminsky at the Monkey Cage provide one reason: The suit is likely to fail. The first issue is “standing.” To get into court, the House would have to prove that it was damaged by the way the administration carried out the ACA, and courts have consistently rejected that idea. Beyond that, it’s far from clear that the administration’s actions, including the delay of the employer mandate and cost sharing for insurance companies, were beyond the normal discretion the executive branch has to carry out laws. Just because some Republicans want to pretend that before January 2009 presidential power had been limited to pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys doesn’t mean they are right.

And if Republicans win, it would be terrible for Congress.

I’ll say it again: Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans aren’t asking for authority to be returned from the White House to Congress. They want an imperial judiciary that could trump either of the elected branches.

In a system of separated institutions sharing powers, which is what the Constitution created, all three branches do things that look a lot like legislating, but laws can trump administrative or judicial rule making. That gives Congress serious clout within the system. This lawsuit, however, is an abdication of that clout. In effect, it says that the courts, not Congress, should have the last word when there’s a dispute between branches.

Filing this lawsuit amounts to institutional treason. Boehner and House Republicans should be ashamed. The rest of us can only hope that the courts rescue them by keeping to precedent and tossing this lawsuit into the garbage.

Then, perhaps, the House could consider getting back to legislating.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

Boehner Wants To Expand Magic Obama Lawsuit

Boehner Wants To Expand Magic Obama Lawsuit

Nov. 14 (Bloomberg View) — House Speaker John Boehner’s magic lawsuit against President Barack Obama is back! And he’s considering whether to try to use it to solve his immigration problem.

Initially, the suit was intended to address a real issue for the Speaker and his party: Many Republicans were fed up with the normal frustrations of separated institutions sharing powers under divided government. Their answer was to take dramatic – but counterproductive – action, such as impeaching the president.

The lawsuit was Boehner’s solution. It was enough of a radical gesture that Republicans could feel they were doing something about the lawless Kenyan socialist in the Oval Office. But, unlike impeachment or shutting down the government, it wasn’t so radical that it would make Republicans sound like a bunch of crazy people to the 80 percent of the electorate that doesn’t get all its information from conservative talk radio.

One of the drawbacks, however, is that every precedent suggests the courts would dismiss the suit because the House doesn’t have standing to sue the president. The Republicans’ solution? Make a big fuss about the suit, even have the House vote to authorize it (thus allowing Republicans to claim they voted to Do Something about Obama), but neglect to actually file it.

The brilliance of this tactic is becoming obvious, because it turns out that the hypothetical lawsuit — which hasn’t been filed and dismissed — can be expanded to cover any new White House outrage. Magic!

So with Obama reportedly about to take executive action on immigration — which Republicans assume he has no authority to do based on their narrow, Obama-specific reading of presidential powers — Boehner once against needs to distract his cohorts from talking about impeachment or shutting down the government. Will the lawsuit do the trick? It just might.

By the way, frustration is inherent to the U.S. political system and normal political parties just try to make the best possible deal. Republicans, however, are faced with a rank and file that sees compromise as evil. And on several issues, including immigration, they don’t have a specific policy to articulate and fight for.

That is what makes magic lawsuits an ideal solution. The goal isn’t public policy; it’s expressions of outrage. And the job for Republican leaders isn’t to move public policy as close to their ideal as possible, it’s to find ways to channel the most potent expressions of outrage without hurting the party’s standing with voters.

I have no idea how long the magic lawsuit will work, but it succeeded admirably over the summer, and maybe it’s still potent enough for this immigration situation, too. And that’s also part of the reason Boehner continues to be an underrated Speaker of the House.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr

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Republicans Aren’t Rigging The Electoral College

Republicans Aren’t Rigging The Electoral College

Nov. 12 (Bloomberg View) — No, Republicans aren’t going to use their triumphs in state legislative and governor’s races to rig the Electoral College. Let’s try to kill this one off right away — and not just because, as Dave Weigel reports at Bloomberg Politics, Republicans don’t seem to have much interest in it, aside from a single National Review blog post.

There are three things to know about rigging the Electoral College.

First, it would be perfectly legal for Republicans in Democratic-leaning states to change the way these votes are accumulated there. Here’s how they would do it:

Currently almost every state has a winner-takes-all allocation of electoral votes. When Barack Obama narrowly won Ohio in 2012, he received all of Ohio’s 18 votes. But each state is free to choose how to divvy up theirs as they please. Nebraska and Maine already do it by congressional district, although it usually doesn’t make any difference. The idea would be for Republicans in office in Democratic-leaning states to switch to a plan that would split the votes in those states.

For example, a proportional system in 2012 in Ohio would presumably have given Obama only 10 electoral votes and Mitt Romney 8. Or a plan that allocated one electoral vote for winning each congressional district, plus two votes for winning the state, would also effectively split the tally.

Doing this in a bunch of Democratic-leaning states, while preserving winner-take-all in Republican-leaning ones, would strongly bias the system toward Republicans. If Ohio goes for Democrats, for example, and Georgia (16 votes) goes for Republicans, the Democrats win an 18-16 advantage, but if Ohio has a proportional system, then the same voting would produce a 24-10 Republican landslide.

The second thing to know is that such tactics would be despicable. A horrible thing to do. Winning elections and then changing the rules to prevent the other side from ever winning again is what destroys democratic government.

But just because we can say this is technically and constitutionally possible doesn’t mean it will happen. It’s as relevant as saying that any party could put five Supreme Court justices in place who would be willing to approve laws restricting the vote to people who have purchased at least three Newt Gingrich novels (or, alternatively, people who can recite passages from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States).*

The third thing to know is the most important: It won’t happen, just as I predicted the last time these ideas were bandied about. That’s because what’s good for the national Republican Party as a whole — reducing the damage Michigan or Ohio would cause for their candidate in the Electoral College — is bad for those states, including the Republican Party in those states.

Their large Electoral College clout is what makes them valuable presidential prizes, which means candidates devote resources to them, both in electioneering efforts and in pandering to their interests. Why would presidential candidates promise Youngstown or Flint more federal largesse if winning Ohio and Michigan no longer nets a large electoral vote prize?

What’s more, the logic of using electoral victories in this way requires Republican governors and state legislators to believe that their wins were flukes — that they have to act now before they are booted from office the next time. People don’t think that way! Instead, you can be sure those winners right now believe that their states are trending Republican and that dividing the Electoral College vote would backfire against them when Republicans win the state in 2016.

And that’s without crediting Republican legislators with having any commitment to democratic values, decency and fair play. Sure, they’ll work voting rules to give their party an edge, but there’s a huge difference between “targeted inconvenience” and a flat-out rigging of the game.

So, yes, Electoral College rigging is possible and would be monstrous. But it’s also low on the list of things to worry about.

*As Matt Yglesias notes, it’s also constitutional for states to decide not to hold a proper election at all and for a state legislature to award its electoral votes to any candidate it chooses. “Constitutional” isn’t, that is, the test of whether something is democratic.

Photo: Vox Efx via Flickr

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Jobs Report Is Good News For 2016 Democrats

Jobs Report Is Good News For 2016 Democrats

Nov. 6 (Bloomberg View) — In recent months, I have argued that solid jobs reports wouldn’t help the Democrats in the 2014 elections. We have another excellent set of numbers today, showing that the unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent in October, the lowest level in six years.

This report will matter … for 2016. Or, as Ryan Lizza tweeted this morning: “The jobs report that came out today is probably more important for 2016 than anything that happened on Tuesday.”

Well, not this particular jobs report in isolation. But cumulatively, the odds are increasing that voters are finally going to believe the economy is growing. The economic picture is hardly perfect, but it’s also not unusual for perceptions to lag any improvement. For example, 20 years ago, Republicans would tell you that the recession that began in 1990 had ended well before voters went to the polls in 1992 and kicked President George H.W. Bush out of office because of the economy’s performance.* But that electorate turned around and punished the Democrats in 1994 for that same long-ended recession. It took about three or four years for voters to acknowledge good times.

This time, it’s taken even longer for voters to decide the economy has turned around. The lag is consistent with a far deeper recession and halting recovery. But I suspect we’re very close to a change in perceptions, at least if solid numbers keep rolling out. For example, Gallup’s “economic confidence” index is very close to turning positive for the first time since the recession. Consumer confidence is up, too, and the number of Americans who think the economy is in a recession, while still high, is declining.

So in another year or so, we will get to the point when the economy is strengthening and voters start to believe it, which should help Democrats in 2016. That’s true whether or not President Barack Obama’s policies are responsible; it’s true even though a Republican Congress could claim credit. On this, the record is clear: A good economy helps the party that holds the White House.

The economy, however, isn’t the only thing that will affect the 2016 elections; foreign policy disasters would hurt Democrats, as might any other large-scale domestic policy failure. And Republicans should be in a decent position for the presidential race, given that three consecutive terms for any party are rare. So reading the early tea leaves, I’ll say that 2016 begins as a tossup. But the more positive economic news we get, the better the Democrats’ chances.

*Of course, the same Republicans who tell you that Bush had saved the economy also told Bush that he deserved his fate for accepting (supposedly) economy-destroying tax increases. I never understood how those two arguments fit together.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

How Reporters’ Bias Is Helping Republicans

How Reporters’ Bias Is Helping Republicans

Nov. 3 (Bloomberg View) — A Catch to Norm Ornstein, who explains a case of media bias that’s helping Republican Senate candidates Joni Ernst in Iowa and Tom Cotton in Arkansas.

This isn’t an instance of the “neutral” press preferring Republicans and slanting its reporting to match that partisan preference. Instead, it’s about how the press settled on a theme about the 2014 elections early on, then interpreted what has happened since through that lens:

The most common press narrative for elections this year is to contrast them with the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Back then, the GOP “establishment” lost control of its nominating process, ended up with a group of extreme Senate candidates who said wacky things — Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle — and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in races that should have been slam dunks. Now the opposite has happened: The establishment has fought back and won, vanquishing the Tea Party and picking top-flight candidates who are disciplined and mainstream, dramatically unlike Akin and Angle.

As Ornstein notes, any “evidence to the contrary” of this narrative “tends to be downplayed or ignored,” while stories that show the “personal gaffes or bonehead moves” by the candidates’ opponents are played up. Thus, for example, when Democratic speakers such as Michelle Obama mispronounced the name of Ernst’s opponent, Bruce Braley, the story is played up, while Ernst’s conspiracy theories on sinister United Nations plots get less traction.

This is yet another example of how the broadcast networks, CNN and the news pages of national newspapers can produce biased results even when they have no partisan or ideological motives in doing so. In this case, it’s about telling a consistent story (one that, as Ed Kilgore notes, they adopted early in the 2014 cycle). Perhaps the best example was in the 2000 presidential campaign, when the media decided that Al Gore was a liar and George W. Bush was stupid, and interpreted everything they said through that lens. It isn’t as if the press couldn’t point to examples to back up their preconceptions. It is just that it yielded a distorted picture of the candidates and the campaign.

Yes, Republicans and conservatives are convinced that the media has a liberal bias. The “neutral” press does have biases – but they are more for sensational stories, for individual-level explanations over institutional ones, for bad news over good. So partisans on both sides have plenty of ammunition. For example: A Democrat convinced the news media was biased for Republicans might note how the media had hyped the Ebola threat and relatively minor government errors in handling it just weeks before the elections, then played down the government’s success at keeping the disease from spreading (or, in some cases, still hyped the view that the policies were a disaster). Again, this impression is far better explained by reporters’ tendency to sensationalize than by any supposed conservative bias.

The bottom line is that while media bias frequently produces liberal or conservative results in newspaper, online and broadcast stories, the biases themselves aren’t liberal or conservative.* They have to do with what sells, or with the incentives of individual reporters and editors, or simply with the way that news gathering and publishing are organized. And in the case of the Senate races in Iowa and Arkansas this year, that means leaving voters misinformed about the candidates.

So: Nice catch!

* Yes, it’s absolutely true that reporters tend to be liberals in their personal politics — and that most media outlets are owned by large corporations that tend to be conservative. Neither, scholars find, turns out to be important in influencing news coverage. For much more on media bias, see the links in this old Monkey Cage post.

Screenshot: YouTube

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