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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) answers a question during a news conference on Thursday at the Statehouse in Trenton. The Christie administration is accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to create a huge traffic backup as retribution against a local mayor for not endorsing the governor’s reelection. (Mel Evans/AP)

Are Chris Christie's problems getting worse? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.13.14

Chris Christie did a good job defending himself against Bridgegate last week, according to many Washington politicos. At his operatic press conference on Thursday, the GOP governor of New Jersey expressed shock and outrage that his aides would shut access lanes of the George Washington Bridge for political reasons. He said he’d just learned of the Bridgegate charges himself and summarily fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly.

But today’s a new dawn and for Governor Christie, the woods remain dark and deep, to mix a few metaphors. Bridgegate is not going away. Many questions remain, and top New Jersey Democrats have vowed to continue issuing subpoenas in an attempt to get answers. Christie’s troubles may be at their beginning, not their end.

More people. For one thing, the universe of Christie aides with some connection to the Fort Lee lane closures keeps expanding.

Ms. Kelly; former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien; and David Wildstein, a Christie associate and Port Authority official, remain at the core of the known Bridgegate problems. But what about David Samson? Documents made public last Friday showed that Mr. Samson, the Christie-appointed Port Authority chairman, accused the agency’s executive director of “stirring up trouble” by leaking information about the controversial lane closures, according to New Jersey newspaper The Star Ledger. They also suggest that Christie and Samson met before Kelly sent her now-infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail.

Then there’s Regina Egea. She’s been “added to the mix," in the words of MSNBC host Steve Kornacki. Ms. Egea, another senior Christie aide, oversaw Christie appointees at the Port Authority and other agencies. She’s also Christie’s pick to be his next chief of staff.

Newly released documents show she got a September e-mail from a Port Authority director charging that the lane closures may have violated federal and state law. “That raises a ton of questions,” claims Mr. Kornacki.

All these folks may now get subpoenaed to testify before the New Jersey Assembly committee that’s probing Bridgegate. It’ll be pretty interesting to hear what they have to say about who knew what, when.

More questions. In his bravura performance before reporters last Thursday, Christie made many flat assertions that he wasn’t aware of the politics behind the Fort Lee mess. Of course, it’s quite possible, even likely, that he was telling the truth. But what if he isn’t? What if the situations he described in black-and-white begin to look a little gray? Christie’s political prospects could be in trouble.

And the press is already picking at key Christie statements. For instance, in his press conference, Christie denied that he and David Wildstein were close in high school. They were not friends, he said. He (Christie) was a jock and Wildstein was not. They ran with different crowds.

“We were not even acquaintances,” Christie said.

That’s news to Christie’s high school baseball coach Tony Hope, apparently. He told The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis that Christie was his catcher and Wildstein did all the team’s statistics.

So they were on the same team, in a way. Maybe the player overlooked the nonplayer who toted up batting averages.

“Nice knowing you kid. Or not knowing you,” jibes Mr. MacGillis.

More scandals. Nor is Bridgegate the only nascent scandal in the New Jersey gubernatorial in-box. On Monday, CNN reported that federal investigators are looking into whether Christie improperly used Sandy relief funds to pay for tourism ads that starred him and his family.

The ads per se aren’t the potential problem. It’s the fact that the winning bidder, the politically connected communications firm, got $4.7 million for the contract. That’s $2 million more than the next lowest bidder asked for. The loser did not envision personal use of Christie in the ads, however.

“This was money that could have directly been used for Sandy recovery,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D) of New Jersey told CNN.

Having the New Jersey Assembly on your case is one thing. The feds are another.

“If the Sandy inquiry finds any wrongdoing, it could prove even more damaging to Christie’s national ambitions,” writes CNN’s Chris Frates.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (2nd l.) arrives at Fort Lee, N.J., City Hall, on Thursday, to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich. Moving quickly to contain a widening political scandal, Governor Christie fired one of his top aides, insisting he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams in Fort Lee to get even with the Democratic mayor. (Richard Drew/AP)

Chris Christie is learning who his friends are. And his enemies.

By Staff writer / 01.10.14

The George Washington Bridge scandal is a big problem for Chris Christie, obviously. It’s damaging his reputation as a take-charge administrator and has made him the subject of days of pointed political jokes.

If it turns out he had any foreknowledge that his aides were creating traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., by blocking bridge access lanes, his electoral career may be dry and crumbly toast. (He says he had no idea what was happening, and there’s no hard evidence indicating otherwise.)

But the crisis may have one wan upside for the New Jersey governor: He’s finding out who his friends and enemies are just as the 2016 presidential race begins.

So far that’s breaking down along relatively predictable lines. Establishment Republicans and current and former GOP officials who might be labeled as moderates have been generally supportive. Many waited until after Governor Christie’s lengthy press conference Thursday to weigh in. But they say he stood and answered lots of questions, took responsibility, fired somebody, and seemed contrite.

Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Christie mentor, said the presser went “extraordinarily well," though he added that he still wants to know why Christie aides thought the Fort Lee move a good thing. Ex-New York City Mayor Rudoph Giuliani, himself a former GOP presidential aspirant, said that the bridge blockage was a stupid prank that got out of hand and that Christie “is one of the most honest, straight guys you’re going to meet."

Former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said that Christie on Thursday “acquitted himself well” but that his uphill fight for the GOP nomination “just got uphiller."

“Those Republicans who didn’t quite like him for other reasons have something new to hang their antipathy on,” Ms. Noonan writes.

Indeed, the further right on the GOP spectrum the observer, the less enthusiastic the praise. Thus House Speaker John Boehner was lukewarm about Christie’s apology, saying “I think so” when asked whether the New Jersey governor remained a viable 2016 candidate. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a tea party favorite and potential rival for the GOP nomination, was chillier. In brief remarks with reporters after a meeting at the White House, Senator Paul declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying it was a local political matter, but that “I have been in traffic before, though, and I know how angry I am when I’m in traffic, and I’m always wondering, ‘who did this to me?’ ”

Ouch.

Why does all this matter? Because the 2016 campaign is now under way, writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in an inaugural post at his new Bloomberg View perch.

What’s going on now is the so-called invisible primary, in which presumptive candidates jockey for the approval of key party figures, from elected leaders to fundraisers to top turn-out-the-vote folks in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“So we can speculate about how voters might react to this scandal two years down the road. But we will learn more from good reporting about how Republican Party actors are handling the news – both actors who were prepared to support Christie and those who would’ve found him at least minimally acceptable as the party’s nominee,” writes Mr. Bernstein.

The attitude of moderate Republicans in particular is important because they are the subset of the party, however small, that is Christie’s logical base of support. If they desert him, he is in real trouble.

In that context, it is important that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has expressed support for Christie, writes political scientist John Sides on the “Monkey Cage” Washington Post political science blog.

“She may not be a true moderate, but she endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 and seems willing to back relatively moderate Republican candidates,” Mr. Sides writes.

OK, what about Democrats? Given a teed-up opportunity to take a four-iron to a GOP contender, most are swinging for the green.

The Democratic-controlled New Jersey legislature is gearing up for lengthy investigations, for instance. Next door, newly installed (and liberal) New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the bridge lane closures “unacceptable." Then he added that the stunt “is not professional, it’s not mature, it’s absolutely immoral."

Double ouch.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky walks out of the East Room of the White House on Thursday, after President Obama announced the first five 'promise zones' to create jobs, including one in eastern Kentucky. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Obama 'promise zones' deliver rare moment of détente with top GOP rivals (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.09.14

Day after day, the US senator with the lowest approval rating in the country bashes a president trying to recover from his lowest approval rating ever.

But today, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and President Obama, for a brief moment, found common cause – not over Obamacare, but over something almost as unlikely: poverty.

Senator McConnell, the minority leader, and Sen. Rand Paul, the tea party darling and junior senator from the Bluegrass State, joined Mr. Obama at the White House as he announced his first five “promise zones” – impoverished areas of the country targeted for federal help to boost economic growth.

Among the chosen? Eastern Kentucky, where the average poverty rate is more than 30 percent.

That’s an economic boost for the state, but what about the politics for McConnell, who faces a tea party challenger in a May primary and is basically tied in polling with Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) for the general election in November?

“Senator McConnell requested the support for the Kentucky region last year, and he’s glad they were included,” says his spokesman, Don Stewart.

The event was quite serendipitous, actually, as McConnell and Senator Paul recently introduced a bill along similar lines, called the Economic Freedom Zones Act. Their bill is a larger, simpler version of the president’s plan, covering more areas and relying heavily on tax breaks to grow jobs.

The development “zone” idea has been tried by both Republican and Democratic presidents. Before heading over to the White House, McConnell even proposed including his bill in Thursday's debate to extend long-term unemployment insurance that expired for 1.3 million Americans on Dec. 28.

For a moment, at least, economic cooperation appeared to trump political bludgeoning. And Wednesday, too, McConnell gave a lengthy speech on the Senate floor about the need to restore the Senate to its more deliberative self, a self that allows more “give and take” than now, he said.

Could it be that McConnell has in mind the sobering lesson of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, who unexpectedly lost his seat in 2004 to a Republican who repeatedly derided him as “obstructionist” – the same label that is so often applied to McConnell?

According to a December poll by the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling, McConnell is highly unpopular in his home state – with 61 percent of voters disapproving of his job performance. That makes him the least popular senator in the country, according to the poll.

But not the least popular politician among Kentuckians. That honor goes to Obama, with 64 percent of voters disapproving of the job he's doing. Which is why, even as McConnell stood in the Senate Thursday and praised the president's inclusion of Kentucky coal country in the promise zones, he, at the same time, blamed much of the hardship there on the administration for its " 'war' on coal families."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering in Union City, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. (Mel Evans/AP)

Chris Christie bridge scandal: 3 tough questions for the governor (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.09.14

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has the eyes of the US political world on him Thursday morning. He’s got a lot of explaining to do about e-mails and text messages released Wednesday that show top aides conspired to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of a nearby town who didn’t support the governor’s reelection.

Governor Christie denies he knew anything about this and has said the aides in question acted without his knowledge. His problem is that it is a story that’s easy for voters to grasp (unlike financial skullduggery), and it goes to the heart of his long-cultivated image as a no-nonsense bipartisan problem-solver.

He’s holding a press conference Thursday morning at which he may address some of the obvious outstanding questions on the scandal. Here are three we anticipate he’ll have to confront again and again in coming weeks.

Who's lying? The choice here is pretty stark: Either Christie’s staff has lied to him, or Christie is not being upfront with the people of New Jersey.

Last December, Christie said he’d made it clear to his senior aides that if anyone had any knowledge about the cause of the bridge closings they had to come forward.

“They’ve all assured me that they don’t,” he told reporters.

That’s not true, given that at one point his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, e-mailed that “It’s time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Did she and other involved aides mislead the governor? What did he know and when did he know it?

Why bother? The implication from the communications, first published by NorthJersey.com, is that the traffic jams are payback. Fort Lee, N.J., the town next to the GW Bridge local approaches, is run by a Democratic mayor who last year did not support the Republican Christie for reelection.

“It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” said Christie associate David Wildstein, a Port Authority official, referring to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

First of all, Mr. Sokolich is actually Croatian, and if you know anything about the Balkans, that’s like calling a Red Sox supporter a Yankee fan. Croatians and Serbians have historically clashed, a lot.

Second, we get that Christie was trying to drum up Democratic endorsements. He got a lot of them – he was a popular governor cruising to reelection. But he is, or was, the most popular governor in the US, and he did not need Sokolich’s support at all. Engaging in dangerous political retribution to run up the score sounds like a page from President Richard Nixon’s playbook. The Watergate break-in was intended to get intelligence on a Democratic Party whose nominee was George McGovern, one of the weakest major-party candidates in modern times.

What else? It’s possible that now other stories will surface about the harshness of Christie’s political methods. Old stories will get a second look. By appearing to confirm what many political observers long suspected about Christie’s tendency toward retribution, Bridge-gate (or Bridge-ghazi, or whatever) could lead to a long period of difficult Christie press.

“There’s a lot about Christie that’s deeply appealing. But there’s one big thing that’s not: He’s someone who uses his office to intimidate people and punish or humiliate perceived enemies,” writes Ezra Klein, the Washington Post's "Wonkblog" blogger.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looks out at the crowd at a gathering in Union City, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 7. A top aide to Christie is linked through e-mails and text messages to a seemingly deliberate plan to create traffic gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J., at the base of the George Washington Bridge, after the city's mayor refused to endorse Christie for reelection last fall. (Mel Evans/AP)

Chris Christie traffic scandal: An end to his presidential plans? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.08.14

[Updated at 5:45 p.m. EST.] New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in big political trouble at the moment. If you haven’t heard, NorthJersey.com has published e-mails indicating that several top aides to Governor Christie conspired to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge, punishing the Democratic mayor of a nearby town who did not support Christie’s recent reelection.

The flap over the e-mails became frenzied enough that the plain-speaking Republican governor was moved to release a statement Wednesday afternoon disavowing the traffic scheme, saying he was "outraged" at the "inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct."

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” one of the aides, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, reportedly had said in an e-mail to Port Authority employee and Christie associate David Wildstein.

As that missive indicates, the aides took a measure of vindictive glee in their handiwork, which involved closing access lanes to squeeze traffic back onto access roads. At one point the Fort Lee mayor complained that school buses were having trouble getting through the mess. In response, Wildstein counseled an associate to not feel bad about the kids’ plight.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, according to NorthJersey.com. He was referring to Barbara Buono, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christie defeated in November.

Hmmm. We’ll start here by noting that conspiring to create back-ups on the GW Bridge is a huge waste of effort. That’s like organizing a committee to plan ways of getting the sun to rise in the east. How did they distinguish between pay-back traffic jams and congestion created by natural phenomena? We drive through there quite often and, trust us, one box truck with a blown timing belt and the audiobook is over before the toll booths loom into view.

With that as context we’d say that many interpretation of how this may affect Christie’s political future are, in our view, overblown. As we noted above, this obviously isn’t a great thing for him. But will it “probably destroy Christie’s chances in 2016” as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait argues?

C’mon, let’s not get carried away.

First of all, gaffes, scandals, misstatements, and other individual news items usually play much less of a role in determining political fortunes than reporters like to admit. While they can have a short-term effect on public opinion, usually voters revert back to attitudes determined by fundamentals such as the economy or perception of a candidate’s general character.

As political scientists John Sides and Lyn Vavreck showed in their retrospective on the 2012 campaign, a whole line of supposedly game-changing events – including the famous “47 percent” secret video of a Mitt Romney fundraiser – had little effect on the election’s outcome. No, really.

Second, this particular scandal seems tailor-made to reinforce the beliefs of Christie opponents and proponents alike.

Does it show that Christie is a bully who at the least created an atmosphere where such vindictiveness could flourish? His opponents think that already, and in “Bridge-ghazi” will see confirmation of their view. Is he a take-charge guy who is willing to break a little china to get stuff done? There are probably lots of Republican primary voters who do not believe that jamming up New York City’s intake routes is a bad thing.

Remember, modern politics, especially modern presidential politics, is largely about mobilizing and energizing people who are already inclined to vote for you. It is not about trying to woo over the folks on the other side. In that sense the traffic scandal, as outlined so far, may be a wash.

Finally, Christie still has deniability. Nothing that has emerged so far has tied him directly to the scandal. Condemn the actions, fire those involved, promise an investigation – mischief managed!

Christie's statement Wednesday afternoon followed the script:

"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable," he said. "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.” 

“I think the whole thing will fade within a week unless proof emerges that Christie had a bigger role in it,” writes Allahpundit at the right-leaning Hot Air web site.

Remember, it’s quite possible Richard Nixon might have gotten away with Watergate if it had remained something he could continue to blame on misguided aides. But the White House tapes linked him to the cover-up and brought him down.

In the end Christie’s 2016 problem remains what it has always been: he’s a northeasterner with liberal views on some social issues that the GOP base may not accept. That’s likely to remain the central obstacle between him and the nomination, if he decides to run.

Dennis Rodman sings 'Happy Birthday' to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, seated above in the stands, before an exhibition basketball game at an indoor stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)

Dennis Rodman in North Korea: Has he finally gone too far? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 01.08.14

Is Dennis Rodman doing his best to destroy the chance of any good coming from his visit to North Korea? We ask that because his behavior in Pyongyang seems almost intended to wreck his credibility back home.

First, he implied that Kenneth Bae may be guilty of something. Mr. Bae is an American citizen now imprisoned in North Korea on vague charges, and when asked Monday by a CNN interviewer whether he’d raise Bae’s status with North Korean leaders, Mr. Rodman just ranted.

“You know what he did? In this country?” Rodman shouted back to CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

Then at Wednesday’s exhibition game between a team of former NBA players and North Korea’s national team Rodman sang “Happy Birthday” to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It came across as kind of weird, as officials began rhythmic applause while Rodman crooned.

Overall Rodman’s evident anger and defensiveness over his trip is alienating even analysts who weigh both the positive and negative that could come from sports diplomacy between adversaries.

“OK, Dennis Rodman in North Korea isn’t funny anymore,” tweeted Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher.

Also, the Rodman-led US team lost to the North Koreans in the first half. (They mixed teams for the second half.) Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, given that the scattering of NBA stars in the US squad were all long retired, and the North Koreans looked young and fit.

Look, Tuesday we defended the Rodman trip as a possible good thing. It is not as if there is any momentum in US-North Korean relations that Rodman could undo. Plus, the presence of a once-famous American athlete next to Kim Jong-un won’t further boost the latter’s status at home. The Pyongyang regime’s grip on power seems pretty firm.

If the Rodman trip could open the mind of even one member of the North Korean elite just a little bit, wouldn’t that be positive? As The Guardian notes Wednesday, the US-China ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s owed much to the courage of one Chinese table tennis player, Zhuang Zedong, who talked to American counterparts when it was forbidden.

Also, does anyone remember that the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea in 2008, and that music director Lorrin Maazel said the US was in no position to criticize Pyongyang’s human rights record, given its own abuses? Just asking.

But we recognize that this is a subject open to lots of debate, and right now we are ready to throw in the towel. Rodman is just too fraught. Whatever his impact on the North Koreans, he’s having a very negative impact back in the US. That could only make it harder to muster a domestic consensus for any agreement aimed at scaling back Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

“I think he’s an idiot,” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said of Rodman yesterday on “Piers Morgan Live.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney was more diplomatic.

“Sports exchanges can be valuable, sports diplomacy can be valuable, and it’s something that we pursue in many places around the world,” said Carney at Tuesday’s press briefing.

But of Rodman’s contentious words about Kenneth Bae, Carney added that “I’m not going to dignify that outburst with a response.”

Liz Cheney speaks with voters during a Republican and Tea Party gathering in Emblem, Wyoming in this photo from August 2013. Cheney, the oldest daughter of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, announced that she is ending her bid for US Senate. (Ruffin Prevost/Reuters/Files)

Liz Cheney drops Senate bid. Which donors may get refunds?

By Staff writer / 01.07.14

Liz Cheney is not running for a US Senate seat in Wyoming anymore. She announced Monday that she is ending her bid to unseat the Cowboy State’s incumbent Republican senator, Mike Enzi, because of unspecified “serious health issues” in her immediate family.

Ms. Cheney’s staff did not know her campaign was ending until the last minute, apparently. Her family’s health certainly comes first, but many pundits noted that Cheney is also conveniently abandoning an effort that had made little headway.

She was branded a carpetbagger from the start, as she has lived most of her adult life in northern Virginia. She made rookie mistakes, such as sniping at local journalists in a thinly populated state where local papers still have a big impact. She got caught up in a highly publicized spat over her opposition to gay marriage with her (gay and married) sister, Mary.

Most of all, she never really summarized for Wyoming voters why she thought she could do a better job than the popular, genial Senator Enzi.

“It had become clear over the last few months that her challenge to Enzi was at a dead stop due to a single issue: She simply couldn’t explain why she was running,” writes Washington Post political expert Chris Cillizza on his “Fix” blog.

But here’s our question: What will her donors think? We ask that because she did raise a lot of money. Her 2013 third-quarter report on file with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) shows she netted $1 million in campaign cash during that period.

Fourth-quarter reports aren’t public yet. Cheney campaign officials say their fundraising remained strong through the end of the year.

“Liz Cheney may have left a lot of money on the table when she dropped her 2014 bid for a US Senate seat in Wyoming,” writes Russ Choma of the campaign watchdog group Center for Responsive Philanthropy.

Cheney raised more money in large contributions than did Enzi, according to CRP. Eighty-nine percent of her third-quarter money came from people making donations larger than $200. And much of that came from outside the state of Wyoming – 72 percent, to be precise.

Unsurprisingly for the daughter of a former vice president, Cheney’s donor list was high-profile. A perusal of the third-quarter FEC listing shows dad Dick Cheney and mom Lynne Cheney each maxed out on their daughter's campaign, giving her $2,600 apiece for her primary campaign against Enzi, and $2,600 for a general election campaign that now will not occur.

Other donors who gave the maximum allowed include former President George W. Bush, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Joyce Rumsfeld, Mr. Rumsfeld's wife. Also donating were Michael Mukasey, who served Mr. Bush as attorney general; Donald Evans, secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush; and Mary Matalin, who served as a consultant to both Bush presidents. General rich person/Republican backers T. Boone Pickens, August Busch III, and Richard DeVos gave Cheney money, as well.

Never fear – Cheney intends to give her campaign cash back to donors, according to Politico’s Alexander Burns.

No statute requires her to do that, however. Her general election contributions are still there, so there should be little problem with refunding that money. But Cheney was already up and running with TV ads in Wyoming. Plus, getting a campaign going is expensive. That means many of her donations for the primary may already have been spent – expenditures in the third quarter of 2013 were $232,000, for instance.

One final note: Liz’s sister, Mary Cheney, is not listed as a donor; nor is Mary Cheney’s wife, Heather Poe.

Dennis Rodman stands up to leave after he and fellow US basketball players completed a television interview at a Pyongyang hotel in North Korea Tuesday. (David Guttenfelder/AP)

Dennis Rodman: In defense of his North Korean adventure (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.07.14

Should Dennis Rodman’s latest trip to North Korea be welcomed or condemned? That’s a hot topic at the moment as the bestudded former National Basketball Association star readies for an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang.

Since his first visit to the hermit kingdom of East Asia in February, Mr. Rodman has struck up an unlikely friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Now he’s back in-country with a 12-member team of retired NBA journeymen and other US hoop semi-stars. They’re set to play a team of North Koreans on Wednesday, which is reportedly Kim’s birthday. It’s all about engaging in a little light sports diplomacy, according to Rodman.

“One day this door is going to open,” he said Tuesday in an interview with CNN from Pyongyang.

Unfortunately, that’s not all Rodman said. After all, this is a guy who dresses as if every day was Mardi Gras and speaks his own language, which seems half expletives and half random nouns. Asked by CNN’s Chris Cuomo if he’d bring up with his friend Kim the subject of Kenneth Bae, an American citizen long imprisoned in North Korea on vague charges, Rodman at first implied that Bae was guilty of something.

“You know what he did? In this country?” Rodman ranted.

Then he yelled in his inimitable incoherent deep rasp for several minutes.

“We have to go back to America and take the abuse!” was one of his understandable lines.

OK, here’s the problem. Many human rights activists and US officials think it’s wrong for Rodman to go to North Korea and pal around with a guy who happens to run one of more repressive regimes in human history. Didn’t Kim just execute his own uncle?

“I don’t think we should ignore the real suffering in this gulag state. And Dennis Rodman wants to go there and play basketball. It would be like inviting Adolf Hitler to lunch,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democratic member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, in a Monday news conference on the subject.

Plus, it’s Dennis Rodman we are talking about. It’s not as if he’s going to be giving North Koreans a glimpse of what typical Americans are like. He isn’t even representative of US basketball stars. NBA commissioner David Stern has made it clear the league disapproves of the venture.

“Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them,” said Mr. Stern in a statement.

But here’s the counter argument: It’s North Korea we’re talking about. The US probably knows less about what really happens in North Korea than in any other country on earth. And they have nuclear weapons! So, you know, every bit helps.

The presence of a tall, exotic foreigner in photos next to their leader is unlikely to make any difference in North Koreans’ allegiance, or lack thereof, to the state, argues Andrei Lankov, a Korea studies specialist, in an article today at NKNews.org. If anything, it may give them a slightly better view of the US. The official North Korean narrative about America has long stressed its oppression of blacks. Rodman’s status as an unofficial emissary in this context might be surprising.

Of course, Rodman and his team members and entourage will only actually speak with a limited number of elite North Korean athletes and officials. But you have to start changing attitudes somewhere, a drop at a time, according to Mr. Lankov. It is not as if official diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang is making progress.

“While Rodman’s activities are not going to change much, let us hope that many more Western athletes, scientists and artists will follow him to Pyongyang to participate in all kinds of exchanges and projects (big and small),” writes Lankov. “Isolation will not change North Korea – only interaction with the outside world gives us some reason to hope.”

As International Crisis Group East Asia expert Daniel Pinkston wrote last September, Rodman’s basketball diplomacy could become a mechanism for the introduction of new ideas and information into one of the most closed societies in the world.

The alternative is isolation. Thus despite Rodman’s flamboyance his trip “should be encouraged since it comes with very little risk and cost,” Mr. Pinkston wrote in an analysis for ICG.

Senate candidate Liz Cheney speaks with voters during a Republican and Tea Party gathering in Emblem, Wyoming, August 24, 2013. (Ruffin Prevost/Reuters/File)

Liz Cheney drops US Senate bid. What happened? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.06.14

Liz Cheney has announced she is ending her US Senate bid in Wyoming because of unspecified “serious health issues” in her immediate family.

“Under the circumstances, I have decided to discontinue my campaign,” said Ms. Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a prepared statement issued Monday morning.

Cheney and husband, Phil Perry, have five children. Although she did not say so, the implication is that the health issue in question may involve one of her kids.

It’s an unfortunate ending to a campaign that seemed misbegotten from the beginning. Cheney never made much headway in her attempt to unseat Wyoming’s incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Enzi.

For one thing, she had a hard time establishing exactly why Cowboy State voters should ditch Senator Enzi for her. She was not really a tea-party conservative running to Enzi’s right, as are many of the primary challengers to GOP incumbents. She was certainly not a moderate running to his left.

Her pitch seemed to be that she was just like Enzi, only younger, more energetic, and a mom. One of her campaign spots featured her three daughters talking about their family history in the state, including their grandpa’s service as George W. Bush VP, and how proud they were of their mom.

But critics called her a carpetbagger from the get-go. While the Cheney family has deep roots in Wyoming, she spent most of her adult life in northern Virginia and moved to the state just before setting up her Senate bid. Plus, her Wyoming home was an expensive spread in Jackson, the well-off resort town that’s a world away from the rolling grasslands down near the Nebraska border. It’s as if she moved to Nantucket to run for a Massachusetts seat.

The capper may have been a very public feud over gay marriage with her sister, Mary, who is gay, married, and has kids of her own.

After Liz announced on national TV that she remained opposed to gay marriage, Mary’s spouse slammed her in a Facebook post, saying Liz’s words were “offensive to say the least.” Mary Cheney then chimed in on her own page, saying her sister was “on the wrong side of history.”

Liz Cheney’s electoral problem here was that she was caught between her own family and Wyoming’s conservative lean. A pro-Enzi "super PAC," the American Principles Fund, broadcast ads that in essence charged Cheney with being soft on gay marriage. So it would have been difficult for her to ignore or finesse the issue.

Given this tangle, polls showed Wyoming voters weren’t ready to ditch Enzi for a shiny new Cheney. Surveys showed she was 20 to 30 percentage points down, and not gaining.

As Slate political blogger Dave Weigel notes Monday, if Cheney had stayed in northern Virginia, she’d be well-positioned to run for the House seat of retiring GOP Rep. Frank Wolf.

“Instead, by managing to turn a 33-point poll deficit into a 51-point poll deficit simply by being herself, she’s leaving behind nothing but a rich vein of liberal schadenfreude,” Mr. Weigel writes.

Clay Aiken attends the Broadway opening of 'After Midnight' on Nov. 3, 2013 in New York. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/File)

Clay Aiken of 'American Idol' may run for Congress. Could he win? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.03.14

Clay Aiken is apparently thinking about running for Congress in his home state of North Carolina. That’s the rumor roiling Tar Heel State political circles Friday, in any case. The “American Idol” singer hasn’t confirmed this yet, but there’s a story about the possible candidacy in the Washington Blade that’s got lots of details and sounds well sourced.

Mr. Aiken, the Blade says, has talked to D.C. political operatives about running as a Democrat in North Carolina’s Second Congressional District outside Raleigh. He’s started making phone calls to gauge support in the state and is working with a woman named Betsy Conti, a Raleigh strategist and former aide to ex-Gov. Bev Perdue.

“Another Democratic source said Aiken was in D.C. last month meeting with pollsters at Hart Research Associates to examine polling data with one of the partners at the firm,” writes the Blade’s Chris Johnson.

The Blade focuses on issues of importance to the gay, lesbian, and transgender community. Aiken, who said he is gay in 2008, finished second in the “American Idol” competition in 2003, and he's since become one of the bestselling artists to emerge from the competition. Does he have the star power and political chops to pull off a Democratic victory in a state that went for Mitt Romney in 2012?  

Well, first of all, someone or some group wants him to try. That’s our reading of the anonymously sourced Blade story. It reads like a leak intended to push further into the political arena someone who’s considering a bid for office. The usual suspects for this would be locals who think he represents their best chance to unseat GOP incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers or national groups who think he’d bring issues they support to the fore.

It’s also possible that Aiken himself leaked the story, as a classic trial balloon.

Second, victory in this case isn’t an impossible dream. The Second District was represented by a Democrat, Rep. Bob Etheridge, from 1997 until 2011. Mr. Etheridge lost to Ms. Ellmers in the GOP landslide of 2010. Aiken could easily raise lots of money, which can make a big difference in a House race. Plus, he’d be running in a state that isn’t shy about electing celebrities. Remember Rep. Heath Shuler?  He’s a former NFL quarterback who was also a three-term conservative Democratic lawmaker from North Carolina’s 11th District. (Mr. Shuler declined to run for reelection in 2012 after redistricting made the 11th more Republican.)

But in the end, Aiken would still face a tough race. In fact, our prediction is that like Ashley Judd, who toyed with opposing Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky, Aiken eventually will decide not to run in 2014. Midterms are not hospitable environments for political neophytes of the incumbent presidential party. They’re especially tough if you’re running in a state that’s lately leaned the other way, in a district that’s become more solid for your potential opponent.

Political prognosticator Charlie Cook rates North Carolina’s Second District as “solid Republican” in his Cook Political Report. So does University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in his “Crystal Ball” newsletter listings.

John McCain beat Barack Obama by 12 percentage points in the Second in 2008. Mr. Romney won it in 2012 by almost 17 points. Those numbers indicate that any Democrat faces a steep uphill climb in the district this year.

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