Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential campaign

Are Rick Santorum’s Liberal Economic Preferences Really Smart Politics?

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul earned quite a bit of well-deserved grief when he bizarrely and baselessly accused his fellow Republicans of giving life to the ISIS threat. He does, however, deserve quite a bit of credit for advancing the Republican Party’s agenda both culturally and politically in a way that other Republicans do not. Read More

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul earned quite a bit of well-deserved grief when he bizarrely and baselessly accused his fellow Republicans of giving life to the ISIS threat. He does, however, deserve quite a bit of credit for advancing the Republican Party’s agenda both culturally and politically in a way that other Republicans do not.

Paul’s deft defense of his principled pro-life stance compelled the political press to turn the tables on Democratic figures like Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who traditionally demagogues the issue of abortion rights unchecked by a critical media. What’s more, the junior Kentucky senator’s devotion to the cause of minority outreach is exemplary. Both Paul’s mission and his style of execution are worthy of emulation, and the entire 2016 Republican field would do well to consider following his lead.

It is, however, objectively true that Paul’s foreign policy prescriptions do not reflect consensus opinion among his party’s voters. If Rand Paul regards the 2003 Iraq War and the ensuing aftermath as a mistake, he shares that opinion with only 28 percent of his fellow Republicans, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released on Thursday. By contrast, 78 percent of self-identified Democrats share the view that the Iraq War was a mistake. The senator’s views on the war and its still reverberating impacts are more closely aligned with the opposition than the members of his own party.

Similarly, another Republican presidential aspirant has determined to tether his political fortunes to a set of policy positions that could be, or at least should be, out of step with the rest of his party.

Sen. Rick Santorum is generally known for his socially conservative views on a variety of divisive subjects like abortion and same-sex marriage, but it is his economic vision that most defines him as a Republican presidential candidate.

“Regardless of what people think about Rick, and I know a lot of people in Manhattan may not like him, he’s got the best message — the best economic message — for Republicans,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough insisted on Friday. Santorum had just joined the MSNBC panel where discussed his economic platform, much of which he espoused in 2012. Some of Santorum’s policy preferences include providing tax incentives to manufacturers, eliminating tax breaks for firms that contract out or ship manufacturing work abroad, casting a skeptical eye toward free trade, and hiking the federal minimum wage.

On the most divisive free trade agreements, it would be difficult to identify where Santorum’s policy preferences diverge from those of Vermont’s self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. In the U.S. Senate, Santorum voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement. Apparently, his views on free trade have not changed in the last 22 years. Though he told Breitbart reporter Matthew Boyle that he generally favors trade, Santorum remains opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement because the president who would be negotiating the deal “has not proven to be reliable or trustworthy.” But the former senator objected to NAFTA not because Bill Clinton would sign it (many of the terms were negotiated during George H. W. Bush’s administration), but because it would “produce pockets of winners and losers across the country” and his state would be in the latter group.

In 2014, Santorum told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that his party’s opposition to hiking the minimum wage “makes no sense,” and added that he believes at least 7 and preferably 9 percent of the nation should be covered by the minimum wage. “Let’s not make this argument that we’re for the blue collar guy but we’re against any minimum wage hike ever,” Santorum said. The presumption that a minimum wage hike helps workers rather than creates incentives for their employers to automate and thus eliminate their positions is fallacious.

Santorum’s policy preferences are based not in sound market economics, but in a gauzy and romantic reflection on an idealized American past epitomized by a manufacturing-based economy that no longer exists. To sustain that fantasy, Santorum would use tax breaks, trade impediments, and market-distorting incentives to retain the low-skill employment opportunities that have already largely gone overseas. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Scarborough embraced the GOP candidate with the most programmatically liberal economic positions in the race.

There are some who contend that Santorum’s policy preferences might not be economically conservative, but they at least smart politics. Republicans suffer from the dubious but prolific perception that theirs is the party of the rich, and Santorum is focused squarely on attracting middle and even low-income voters. There’s just one problem with this theory: The voters Santorum are trying to attract are already in the GOP’s corner.

As National Journal’s Ron Brownstein observed, the majority of the Republican Party’s gains since 2010 have come from predominantly blue-collar areas of the country with a majority white or aging population. “These voters, and particularly those well above the poverty line, began to shift toward the GOP decades ago, but in recent years that shift has become progressively more pronounced,” Emerging Democratic Majority co-author John Judis wrote of the working-class white voters who primarily occupy “blue-collar and lower-income service jobs.” Indeed, one of the most staggering developments of the Obama era is that states like Wisconsin and Michigan, places where the labor movement in America was born, are now Right to Work states. As the labor union movement has dissolved, so has the Republican Party’s appeal to traditionally pro-labor constituencies.

If one were comparing outreach strategies, it’s hard not to conclude that Rand Paul’s is infinitely more valuable to the GOP than is Santorum’s. The former Pennsylvania senator is reaching out to voters who are already receptive to the Republican message.

If Santorum did not hold traditionally conservative views on value issues as well as on foreign policy, it would not be unfair to question whether his policy preferences are a good fit for his party. His economic philosophy is not all that dramatically divergent from the left. Perhaps this is why, now that he is contending with stiff competition for the values vote from candidates like Mike Huckabee, Santorum struggles to even register in the polls of Republican primary voters despite the fact that he won 11 states and nearly 20 percent of their vote just three and a half years ago.

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An Heir But No Spare

The slow drip of scandal surrounding the Clintons continues apace.

Yesterday, a federal judge ordered the State Department to release the 55,000 emails that Hillary Clinton turned over as being concerned with official business on a monthly basis, all of them by next January, before the first primary. The 300 emails that the State Department released late on Friday afternoon last week (just before a three-day weekend, a classic ploy to minimize attention) proved more than newsworthy, so one can only wonder what is in the remaining 54,700.

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The slow drip of scandal surrounding the Clintons continues apace.

Yesterday, a federal judge ordered the State Department to release the 55,000 emails that Hillary Clinton turned over as being concerned with official business on a monthly basis, all of them by next January, before the first primary. The 300 emails that the State Department released late on Friday afternoon last week (just before a three-day weekend, a classic ploy to minimize attention) proved more than newsworthy, so one can only wonder what is in the remaining 54,700.

It has also come out that Bill Clinton formed a shell company in Delaware as a pass-through to receive income. Even more interesting is the fact that it was formed on December 3rd, 2008, two days after President-elect Obama named Hillary as his secretary of state.

And yesterday as Swiss authorities were rounding the upper echelons of FIFA, which governs professional soccer, for decades of corruption, it turns out that one of the major donors to the Clinton Foundation (between $250,000 and $500,000) is (wait for it!) FIFA. As Paul Mirengoff of Power Line puts it, “where’s there’s corruption, there’s the Clinton Foundation.”

Candidates can suddenly become non-viable. In 2002, Senator Bob Torricelli of New Jersey was running for re-election when it came out that David Chang, who had ties to North Korea, had made illegal campaign contributions to him. He had no choice but to withdraw and be replaced on the Democratic line by former Senator Frank Lautenberg.

Could it happen to Hillary? You bet. There is an ever-growing legion of reporters, sniffing blood, looking into the Clintons’ tangled affairs. The slow drip could turn into a torrent and Hillary might have no choice but to decide to spend more time with her grandchildren.

So it seems to me that the Democratic Party should follow the traditional plan of royalty and have both an heir and a spare.

But who could the spare be? Joe Biden? He would dearly love the job, but he’ll turn 74 in November, 2016, far older than any previous president’s first election, and he’s generally regarded as a bit of a joke. Elizabeth Warren? She’s no spring chicken herself at 65, and she’s so far to the left that she’d be George McGovern in a pants suit. Bernie Sanders? He’s announced, but he’ll be 75 on Election Day and he’s an avowed socialist who advocates a 90 percent tax rate for high earners. Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland? Well, at least he’s not receiving Social Security (he’s 52).  But his own lieutenant governor couldn’t carry this deep blue state in last year’s election, despite O’Malley’s energetic campaigning for him. Jim Webb, former senator from Virginia? He’s a centrist, which means the Democratic base would go ballistic (not to mention stay home on Election Day).

Who else is there? I really can’t think of anyone.

The Democrats, in their own self-interest, had better start looking for a spare, in case the heir implodes.

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Rand Paul is Running for the Wrong Party’s Nomination

After reflecting on Sen. Rand Paul’s reprise of his marathon 2013 Senate speech in opposition to the National Security Agency’s information collection and retention programs last week, Jonathan Tobin observed that the Kentucky senator now appears to be a largely spent force. Paul retains the unfailing support of his cadre of libertarian acolytes, of course, and his foreign and domestic policy prescriptions retain their appeal among a set of soft Republicans. But the Paul who spoke for 11 hours last week in opposition to the NSA’s programs looked less like a figure that could unite a major American political party and more like someone desperately trying to retain the support of those libertarians disappointed in him for deviating from the dogma to which his father adhered.

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After reflecting on Sen. Rand Paul’s reprise of his marathon 2013 Senate speech in opposition to the National Security Agency’s information collection and retention programs last week, Jonathan Tobin observed that the Kentucky senator now appears to be a largely spent force. Paul retains the unfailing support of his cadre of libertarian acolytes, of course, and his foreign and domestic policy prescriptions retain their appeal among a set of soft Republicans. But the Paul who spoke for 11 hours last week in opposition to the NSA’s programs looked less like a figure that could unite a major American political party and more like someone desperately trying to retain the support of those libertarians disappointed in him for deviating from the dogma to which his father adhered.

The most stalwart libertarian supporters of the Paul clan grew disenchanted with the prodigal son when it became apparent that he was vying to actually win his party’s presidential nomination, and was thus compelled to appeal to the broadest base of Republicans possible by adopting more moderate stances on matters relating to foreign affairs.  For a moment, it appeared as though Paul might prove an attractive candidate for a majority of war-weary conservatives leery of the intrusive security state. But the wave of anti-government sentiment among conservatives that crested in 2013 was dashed against the rocks of renewed fears about Islamist terrorism, the rise of ISIS, and revanchism evidenced by state actors like Russia, China, and Iran. Today, rather than broadening his base, Paul clings as desperately as he can to that meager coalition that inspired nearly 11 percent of GOP primary voters to cast their ballots for former Rep. Ron Paul in 2012.

In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday, Paul channeled his father when he was asked whether the present incarnation of ISIS, the successor organization to the defanged and exiled al-Qaeda in Iraq, would have arisen had the United States aggressively contained the Syrian Civil War in Syria in 2012-2013. “[Sen. Lindsey] Graham would say ISIS exists because of people like Rand Paul who said, ‘Let’s not go into Syria,’” Scarborough noted. “What do you say to Lindsey?”

“I would say it’s exactly the opposite,” Paul replied. “ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS.”

“These hawks also wanted to bomb Assad, which would have made ISIS’s job even easier,” he added. “They created these people.”

This is a rather juvenile and unconvincing effort to square a predetermined conclusion with contradictory evidence. The responsibility the West shirked in Syria was the maintenance of the prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons, not in combating terrorism. President Barack Obama declined to mete out the consequences he promised Bashar al-Assad should the Syrian dictator continue to use chemical weapons, and instead relied on Russia to broker an arrangement that preserved their client in Damascus and helped Obama to save face. Nearly two years later, chemical weapons are regularly deployed in Syria, and the world is a more dangerous place as global actors test the parameters of America’s commitment to its word. Apparently, Rand Paul thinks that this is sound form of statecraft.

Paul’s instinctual aversion to interventionism may be principled if not wrongheaded, but it is a losing approach to the Republican presidential primaries.

“Nearly three-quarter of Republicans now favor sending ground troops into combat against the Islamic State, according to a CBS News poll last week,” a February report in the New York Times read. “And in Iowa and South Carolina, two early nominating states, Republicans said military action against the group was, alongside economic matters, the most important issue in the 2016 election, according to an NBC survey released last week.”

“When Pew asked respondents to choose between ‘using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world’ and ‘relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism,’ last October 57 percent of Republicans chose the overwhelming military force option; that number is now 74 percent,” the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman noted in that same month.

Regardless of what you think of Paul’s approach to governance, his is not a strategy aimed at winning the support of even a plurality of Republican primary voters. It is increasingly unclear, however, if Paul is even interested in securing the GOP nod. The junior Kentucky senator seems to find himself more at home in liberal enclaves than he does in the Republican Party’s geographic heartland. A recent Times dispatch noted that Paul recently found himself warmly received in a manner not often reserved for Republicans in the liberal bastion of Manhattan. “Paul played to the crowd,” the report read, noting that his speech “had echoes of the messages of his father.” The Bluegrass State senator is equally eager to reach out to atypical Republican voters in places like the Bay Area. Paul’s decision to open an office near San Francisco in order to appeal to libertarians in the Silicon Valley last year was framed as an outreach effort when, in reality, it’s more likely constituency maintenance.

Rand Paul is no longer waging a broad-based campaign to win the Republican nomination. His candidacy looks more and more like a factional effort to compel the Republican Party to embrace the libertarian foreign policy prescriptions of retrenchment and disengagement; policies already espoused by the present occupant of the Oval Office and which must be defended by his party’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton.

The promise of Rand Paul’s campaign was that it would build his father’s political base into a mainstream force that would shift the GOP in a libertarian direction. While Paul’s adherence to his principles, as dangerous as they are, is laudable, they render him as niche a candidate as his father ever was.

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Carly Fiorina’s Choice

Carly Fiorina is about to become the Democratic Party’s favorite Republican.

The honor of being the Republican held in high regard by the left is reserved primarily for the members of that political party who have either lost a high-profile race, died, or both. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard might, however, earn Democratic esteem by virtue of being excluded from the group of top-tier GOP debate participants when the 2016 presidential primary race begins in earnest.

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Carly Fiorina is about to become the Democratic Party’s favorite Republican.

The honor of being the Republican held in high regard by the left is reserved primarily for the members of that political party who have either lost a high-profile race, died, or both. The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard might, however, earn Democratic esteem by virtue of being excluded from the group of top-tier GOP debate participants when the 2016 presidential primary race begins in earnest.

Jonathan Tobin noted how Fox News Channel and CNN’s plans to either cut underperforming candidates off or to establish a two-tiered system in which floundering candidates will compete in their own separate but equal debate will make for a long, hot summer for the GOP. No fewer than five prospective Republican presidential candidates are polling so poorly that they may not meet the required threshold of support in the average of recent surveys to join the top tier candidates on the debate stage. Only one of those candidates, however, has captured the media’s attention, and it is no secret as to why.

If the debates were held tomorrow, a variety of qualified candidates would be excluded or relegated to the also-ran stage. Many are perfectly well qualified, and their exclusion should inspire some introspection among Republicans. Likely candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich is the chief executive of a must-win state in which the party will hold its nominating convention. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry governed one of the largest states in the Union, a border state and one in which the most influential mass of GOP voters reside, for three terms. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the last candidate standing in 2012 before Mitt Romney secured the delegates required to win the nomination, and he only conceded his loss after carrying 11 states. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is the youngest Republican candidate in the field, the Indian-American son of immigrant parents, and the candidate perhaps best positioned to represent the GOP’s evangelical base. But only Fiorina’s exclusion will inspire hand-wringing thought pieces and fiery cable news panel segments, and that has everything to do with Hillary Clinton’s gender-centric presidential campaign.

It is not preordained that Fiorina will be unable to generate enough support in the coming months to secure a coveted spot on the GOP debate stage. The former candidate for U.S. Senate in California is a skilled communicator, a deft campaigner, has been positioning herself as uniquely able to neutralize Clinton’s advantages, and has chosen to fundraise rather than whine in the face of the adversity presented by her modest support in the polls. If, however, the debates were held tomorrow, Fiorina would be relegated to the kids’ table.

Predictably, the left and their allies in the press will frame this as a snub. Both the Republican Party brass and the base of GOP primary voters have rejected their only female candidate, they’ll note. By inference, the media will imply that Republican voters’ rejection of Fiorina is as unthinking as will be their rejection of Clinton in November, 2016. With varying degrees of subtlety, the implication will be made that the obstacles Fiorina’s campaign encountered are due to the brutish bias of those to whom she was attempting to appeal.

When Fox News revealed that its criteria would exclude some highly qualified candidates from the debates, a series of headlines made note of the suboptimal optics associated with the likely exclusion the GOP field’s only female candidate. It is perhaps unsurprising that this instinct merely reflected the thinking inside Democratic circles. “At this point the Republican clown car isn’t big enough for the only girl clown, and that shows you why Hillary Clinton will be the next president,” an unnamed Democratic operative told the Daily Mail.

If Fiorina fails to make the cut ahead of the Fox and CNN debates, the former CEO will find herself at the center of a media melee. It will certainly be tempting for the unloved presidential candidate to bask in the newfound attention, generate some publicity and much-needed name recognition ahead of the primaries, and perhaps entertain the notion that her inability to appeal to the Republican voting base has its roots in something other than reason. If she took this approach, Fiorina would do her candidacy, her party, and her country a great disservice. Fiorina is, however, likely to take a much more productive approach to contending with this hardship.

In the media, Fiorina’s attacks on Clinton’s qualifications for the presidency have apparently grown quite irksome. Former GOP strategist Nicolle Wallace recently advised Fiorina to back off what she saw as increasingly “personal” attacks on the former secretary of state. Yahoo’s Katie Couric, too, questioned whether Fiorina’s “unkind words” for Clinton, including critiquing her accomplishments, was ill advised. Fiorina smartly replied that her qualifications for the presidency are based in merit rather than her title or her gender. If she is excluded from the debate stage, Fiorina should maintain that this is the result of a meritocratic process based on objective polling data.

If Fiorina declines to wallow in self-pity amid inevitable prodding of reporters in that direction, she will sacrifice her position as media darling and the spike in name recognition that accompanies this condition. To do so would, however, be the nobler course of action. It would also demonstrate why Fiorina deserved to be on that stage in the first place.

Carly Fiorina may soon have to make that choice, and it won’t be an easy one. But if her past actions are any indication of future performance, she can be expected to make the right call.

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The Slow, Painful Death of the Iowa Straw Poll

The Iowa Straw Poll, sometimes referred to as the Ames Straw Poll in reference to its former host city, has been teetering on the brink of demise for years. It had been dealt a hundred cuts over the decades; many of them self-inflicted, but others meted out by allies and adversaries alike. Perhaps the most serious wound now threatening the future of the Iowa Straw Poll was delivered this week by an unlikely source, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. It is a blow from which the event that marks the informal start to the presidential campaign season may not recover.

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The Iowa Straw Poll, sometimes referred to as the Ames Straw Poll in reference to its former host city, has been teetering on the brink of demise for years. It had been dealt a hundred cuts over the decades; many of them self-inflicted, but others meted out by allies and adversaries alike. Perhaps the most serious wound now threatening the future of the Iowa Straw Poll was delivered this week by an unlikely source, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. It is a blow from which the event that marks the informal start to the presidential campaign season may not recover.

In an op-ed for the Des Moines Register, the winner of the 2008 Hawkeye State caucuses revealed that he would not compete in the quadrennial straw poll. Huckabee insisted that to do so would only distract him from his focus on courting the votes that count.

“In 2008, I competed and finished second in the Iowa straw poll — our first big break on our way to winning the Iowa caucuses and receiving the most votes ever cast for a Republican in the history of the Iowa caucuses,” Huckabee wrote. “But to win in 2016, it’s important to learn from the mistakes of the last few election cycles, in which conservatives were divided and opened a path for a more moderate establishment candidate to ultimately win the nomination, only to lose to Obama.”

Displaying perhaps more candor on the matter, Huckabee went on to note accurately that the winner of the Straw Poll rarely goes on to win either the caucuses or the party’s nomination. And he’s correct. The last politician to win the Straw Poll, the caucuses, and the nomination was George W. Bush in 1999-2000. In fact, Bush remains the only politician to have earned that title in the Straw Poll’s six-election cycle history (Bob Dole won the caucuses and the nomination in 1996, but he shared his Straw Poll victory in 1995 with Sen. Phil Graham).

In an appearance on Fox & Friends on Thursday explaining his decision, Huckabee candidly confessed that competing for the top spot in the Straw Poll might be more trouble than it’s worth. “It’s not a good indicator, but it can be an eliminator,” the former governor said of the pyrrhic effect of a Straw Poll victory.

Huckabee is only the latest Republican presidential aspirant to forego competing for a Straw Poll victory. Citing a scheduling conflict, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has already indicated that will not compete for the approval of Straw Poll participants. Huckabee is the first, however, to contend that the early contest is a waste of campaign resources. Moreover, he is the first candidate to bow out of the Iowa Straw Poll that had a decent chance of winning it, or at least of finishing with a strong showing.

Huckabee’s contention that the cost of competing in the Straw Poll is not worth the reward also has merit. Candidates who compete effectively in the Straw Poll are those that have the funding and organization required to bus supporters in from all around Iowa, incurring both the costs associated with that transportation and attendance at the event. It’s prohibitive for most candidates, even those like Huckabee with national name recognition and a strong base of support in Iowa.

Huckabee’s may be the unkindest cut of all, but the Straw Poll has been dying a slow death for decades. It may only be mourned by its organizers when it is finally retired.

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How to Answer the Question of the Week

I am mystified as to why Republicans are always so polite to journalists who are, obviously, allied to the liberal side of American politics and are willing to carry water for it.

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I am mystified as to why Republicans are always so polite to journalists who are, obviously, allied to the liberal side of American politics and are willing to carry water for it.

For instance, for the last week, journalists have been asking Republican presidential hopefuls a question. “Knowing what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq in 2003?” All the candidates have answered the question, some better than others. Jeb Bush did the worst job and had to amend his answer not once but twice.

But why answer it at all? The question is a pointless hypothetical, utterly irrelevant to the politics of 2015. Its transparent purpose is to avoid talking about the fast gathering disaster of Iraq today.

So, if I were running for president (alright, no snickering in the back of the room, please), I’d answer in one of two ways. First way, ask the journalist a question. In response to “Knowing what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq in 2003,” ask “Knowing what you know now, would you have abandoned Iraq in 2011?” and then talk about how the new president in 2017 will have to deal with the results of the most shockingly inept American foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson sailed for Paris a century ago.

The second way to answer would be to ask, “Excuse me, is this a history show or a news show? Are you a historian or a journalist? If the latter why aren’t you asking about what I would do in the future, not what I would have done in the past? Are you trying to protect the Obama Administration from the criticism it so richly deserves for its disastrous foreign policy?” When the journalist, inevitably, says no to that, say, “Well, you could have fooled me. How about asking me an honest question?”

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say, punch back twice as hard.

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More Nixonian Moments for Hillary

Hillary Clinton’s first official campaign appearance yesterday after announcing her candidacy on Sunday set off a media circus as reporters chased her around Iowa in search of a big political story. But though Clinton’s wooden appearance at a community college was newsworthy, it was not quite as interesting as the one about her that surfaced in Washington. As the New York Times reports, it turns out that contrary to the spin from her camp, Mrs. Clinton was actually asked about whether she was using a private email account to conduct business while serving as secretary of state a full two years ago. As long ago as December 13, 2012, Clinton was asked by Rep. Darrel Issa, the chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight, whether this was the case. Mrs. Clinton never replied to the query that would blow up in her face in 2015. In doing so, it must be admitted that the former first lady saved herself from possible charges of lying to Congress. But the revelation that she wiped her home server clean when she was already on notice that the House wanted to know about the emails is one more brick in the wall of Nixonian stonewalling that makes it hard to take her claims of transparency or of being the candidate of “everyday Americans” seriously.

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Hillary Clinton’s first official campaign appearance yesterday after announcing her candidacy on Sunday set off a media circus as reporters chased her around Iowa in search of a big political story. But though Clinton’s wooden appearance at a community college was newsworthy, it was not quite as interesting as the one about her that surfaced in Washington. As the New York Times reports, it turns out that contrary to the spin from her camp, Mrs. Clinton was actually asked about whether she was using a private email account to conduct business while serving as secretary of state a full two years ago. As long ago as December 13, 2012, Clinton was asked by Rep. Darrel Issa, the chair of the House Committee on Government Oversight, whether this was the case. Mrs. Clinton never replied to the query that would blow up in her face in 2015. In doing so, it must be admitted that the former first lady saved herself from possible charges of lying to Congress. But the revelation that she wiped her home server clean when she was already on notice that the House wanted to know about the emails is one more brick in the wall of Nixonian stonewalling that makes it hard to take her claims of transparency or of being the candidate of “everyday Americans” seriously.

Of course, Clinton and her supporters are dismissing the significance of this latest piece of an embarrassing scandal saying, as all those caught making mischief do, that the voters want to hear about more important things. To that end, Clinton was engaging in staged photo-ops in Iowa where she had to pretend to listen and to care about what community college students thought. Clinton’s demeanor or speaking style is so forced that she makes a stiff like Mitt Romney seem charismatic. Though there is little doubt about her inevitable coronation as the Democratic presidential nominee, convincing voters to embrace a candidate who is clearly out of practice when it comes to faking interest in what those who aren’t paying her six-figure honorariums have to say remains a problem.

But the drip-drip-drip of stories about the emails should remind voters that the apt comparison for Clinton is not Romney (GOP groups hope to demolish her with negative ads the same way Democrats eviscerated the 2012 Republican nominee) but the president whose impeachment Hillary worked to obtain as a young lawyer.

Clinton’s apologists can complain all they want about her critics seeking to distract voters with fake scandals, but the fact remains that she conducted herself in office in an unaccountable manner and then covered up evidence of her activities by using a private email server that was eventually destroyed even as House committees sought information it contained as they began the investigation of the Benghazi terror attack. Her private account shielded her communications from investigators and the press. The successful effort to cover this up and then to ensure that no one will ever know the truth about Clinton’s work was a brilliant piece of lawyering that will guarantee that her secrets will never be uncovered, whatever they might be.

Liberals are right when they say Clinton did nothing that will cause her to be subjected to investigations aimed at punishing her for violating or pushing the boundaries of government accountability regulations. But they are wrong when they assert this is meaningless. As the woman who intends to serve what will, in effect, be Barack Obama’s third term in the White House, the spectacle of such deceitful behavior that skirts the boundaries of legality is exactly the sort of thing that may be fatal to Democratic efforts to reassemble the hope-and-change coalition that won in 2008 and 2012. Combined with her shaky performances in even the most controlled circumstances such as yesterday’s show in Iowa, this is a bad beginning to a presidential campaign that ought to already be running smoothly.

Bad retail political skills combined with inauthenticity, a penchant for secrecy, and stonewalling is a bad combination for politician, though not necessarily ones that bar one from winning the White House. Unfortunately, the only real precedent for such a person winning the presidency is Nixon. That’s a bad omen for a woman that hopes to lead the party that regards him as the symbol of everything they hate about American politics.

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Has Romney Really Thought This Out Yet?

Days after telling supporters that he is considering another run for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be moving quickly to prepare his campaign and to give it a clear rationale. Given that only a few weeks ago most Republicans were not exactly clamoring for the former Massachusetts governor to make a third attempt at the White House, that is probably the most important thing Romney can do. His confidants are telling reporters like Politico’s Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann that he intends to run to the right of Jeb Bush on some issues but also to make tackling the issue of poverty one of the key elements of his campaign. In theory that sounds good, but like his statements about changing his approach to a presidential run while retaining what seems like most of his 2012 staff, the disparate elements to Romney 3.0 don’t seem to match. All of which leads one to wonder just how thoroughly the normally meticulous wonkish Romney has thought all of this out prior to jumping into the fray last week.

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Days after telling supporters that he is considering another run for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be moving quickly to prepare his campaign and to give it a clear rationale. Given that only a few weeks ago most Republicans were not exactly clamoring for the former Massachusetts governor to make a third attempt at the White House, that is probably the most important thing Romney can do. His confidants are telling reporters like Politico’s Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann that he intends to run to the right of Jeb Bush on some issues but also to make tackling the issue of poverty one of the key elements of his campaign. In theory that sounds good, but like his statements about changing his approach to a presidential run while retaining what seems like most of his 2012 staff, the disparate elements to Romney 3.0 don’t seem to match. All of which leads one to wonder just how thoroughly the normally meticulous wonkish Romney has thought all of this out prior to jumping into the fray last week.

Romney’s entire effort seems geared toward preventing Bush from gaining a stranglehold on the party’s establishment wing and major donors. To that end, he has seized on a key flaw in Bush’s strategy: his seeming determination to run against the party’s base by sticking to his unpopular positions on Common Core and immigration. This way he’ll avoid having to tack to the right during the primaries and then back to the center in the general election as Romney did in 2012, an inelegant process that is at least partially blamed for the Republican defeat in November. Romney, who sought to appease a party base that distrusted him on ObamaCare by taking an uncompromising stand on immigration in his last campaign, understands that this could be a formula that could help a candidate from the party’s more conservative wing gain an advantage in the primaries.

Yet at the same time, Romney thinks he can talk more about poverty. Is that possible?

The short answer is that there is no contradiction between a tough stance on immigration or even education and concern about poverty. Indeed, it is high time that Republicans began following the lead of Rep. Paul Ryan (who just declared that he won’t run for president) and become the party of ideas again by charting a conservative approach to economics and opportunity that will help the poor. Indeed, the idea that the only way to help the impoverished is to create more big government and entitlements is antithetical to the notion of promoting self-sufficiency.

But it will take a deft touch on policy to be able to swing between those two modes convincingly. To imagine that Romney, a brilliant thinker and analyst but a poor political communicator, is the man to do it requires a considerable stretch of the imagination.

Even worse is the fact that the public’s image of Romney is that of a wealthy plutocrat.

It should be conceded that this image is the creation of a systematic campaign of Democratic attacks more than reality. Though he is wealthy, Romney’s extensive religious activities, a story that he and the GOP did a poor job of telling in 2012, were largely focused on good deeds and helping others. But unfair or not, politicians rarely get a second chance to define themselves before the general public. To do so on one’s third run for national office is unprecedented.

This is, after all, the same man who was caught on tape claiming that the “47 percent” of the country that were beneficiaries of government largesse would never vote for the Republicans. He disavowed that statement as an unfortunate gaffe but he reinforced it after the election on a conference call when he seemed to be saying more or less the same thing about Democrats buying the votes of various groups with funding.

For any politician to undo such an image while speaking convincingly about poverty while also running to the right of the leading moderate in the race would seem to be the sort of nuanced trick that might challenge the talents of even a communicator as skilled as a Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. But does anyone seriously think Romney can pull it off even if it is, as it surely must be, a sincere reflection of his views?

Like the idea that he had created a completely different kind of campaign that is smarter and more attuned to technology with a lot of the same people running it, this set of ideas doesn’t exactly compute. Perhaps with more preparation and a more experienced Romney at its helm, this campaign can head off Bush, a host of conservatives challengers, and then defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election. But until this gets sorted out, it’s hard to shake the impression that all of this hasn’t been entirely thought out very well. If Romney is to succeed, he’s going to need to sort out all of this out in a manner that so far does not seem to have happened. Until he does, Jeb Bush may be forgiven for thinking that Romney’s entrance into the race is a problem but not a catastrophe.

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Hillary Clinton, the Press, and the Permanent Campaign

The Sunday column from Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’s public editor, was an interesting and balanced consideration of a topic that will only gain in relevance to political journalism: how should reporters cover candidates who aren’t (yet) candidates? The subject was Hillary Clinton and the Times’s decision to devote the resources of a full-time reporter to cover Clinton–who has not yet announced that she is running for president–as a distinct beat, a full three years before Election Day 2016.

Sullivan quotes academics and media watchers raising the three crucial questions: Will the dedicated Clinton beat serve to pre-anoint her and reinforce the notion that she is inevitable? Is the “permanent campaign” in the public interest? Should the media resist or enable that permanent campaign? The answer to the first question is both obvious and complicated: it depends on the coverage. The answer to the second question, with regard to the press, is: that’s irrelevant. And the answer to the third is: neither.

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The Sunday column from Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’s public editor, was an interesting and balanced consideration of a topic that will only gain in relevance to political journalism: how should reporters cover candidates who aren’t (yet) candidates? The subject was Hillary Clinton and the Times’s decision to devote the resources of a full-time reporter to cover Clinton–who has not yet announced that she is running for president–as a distinct beat, a full three years before Election Day 2016.

Sullivan quotes academics and media watchers raising the three crucial questions: Will the dedicated Clinton beat serve to pre-anoint her and reinforce the notion that she is inevitable? Is the “permanent campaign” in the public interest? Should the media resist or enable that permanent campaign? The answer to the first question is both obvious and complicated: it depends on the coverage. The answer to the second question, with regard to the press, is: that’s irrelevant. And the answer to the third is: neither.

The concern about covering Hillary Clinton is directly related, however, to the second and third questions. When the media decides that something or someone is or isn’t in the “public interest,” it will inevitably abuse the elasticity of that category. When the media sees itself as responsible for enabling or resisting trends in American politics, it tends to take sides. It is not the fault of the New York Times that the 2016 presidential campaign seems already to be under way.

If the reality is that the campaign is off and running, then the Times’s responsibility is to write about that reality, not pretend it isn’t happening because the paper’s editors or critics don’t like the timeline. What’s more, not covering the campaign could be construed as an enabling all its own; for the press to allow politicians to set their own coverage by employing legal obfuscations or linguistic shenanigans would be to abandon its obligations. Clinton is already benefiting from using her family’s tax-exempt charitable organization as a basic campaign and fundraising infrastructure. She may be well within the bounds of election law to do so, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t entitled to adhere to observable reality instead of subjecting ourselves to the classic Clintonian spin cycle.

But that doesn’t get the Times completely off the hook. The type and tone of the coverage will matter a great deal. If the media decides to follow Clinton around and perpetuate the personality cult it helped create for Barack Obama, while insulating her from serious investigation–again, as it did with Obama–the press will be doing the public a great disservice. If it can puncture the self-constructed myth Clinton seeks to create and paints an honest portrait of the candidate, it won’t be putting Clinton’s potential rivals–who don’t have wealthy donors at the beck and call of their family foundation–at a disadvantage. It will do so, however, if it acts as Clinton’s traveling press secretary.

There is also a challenge in covering the Clintons that the Times’s reporter, Amy Chozick, will have to grapple with, especially this early in the campaign. Sullivan explains:

Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporter who wrote the well-regarded biography of Mrs. Clinton “A Woman In Charge,” told me in a phone interview that she is “really difficult to get a reportorial handle on.”

“She’s someone who tries to write her own narrative,” and who, in words from the last chapter of his book, “has a difficult relationship with the truth.” So, The Times’s putting an aggressive reporter on Mrs. Clinton early, he said, is a laudable effort to publish “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

Saying either of the Clintons “has a difficult relationship with the truth” is about the most generous way of characterizing the world of messy relativism and unprincipled triangulation of the Democratic power couple, especially considering the vicious and royal defensiveness with which it is secured. It is not an easy beat to cover because to the Clintons there are only enemies and captives, and Chozick will have no easy task to spend the next three years trying not to be either.

Chozick, to her credit, seems to understand some of these challenges. It may be too much to hope for a complete absence of puff pieces, but those will be more palatable when balanced with articles like the piece Chozick wrote along with Nicholas Confessore last week about a review of the Clinton Foundation’s finances. It found that “For all of its successes, the Clinton Foundation had become a sprawling concern, supervised by a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest. It ran multimillion-dollar deficits for several years, despite vast amounts of money flowing in.”

The piece from Chozick and Confessore dug into these and other red flags and the personalities behind them. It shows Chozick was willing to ruffle feathers and make clear from the outset that she is not there simply to republish Clinton press releases. The article also, while ostensibly describing the Clinton Foundation, depicts what a Clinton White House may look like the second time around. It isn’t especially flattering, and it won’t get Chozick a designated seat on the Clinton bandwagon. And it’s not a bad example to set for Chozick’s colleagues.

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