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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. 

Bob Woodward speaks during a function at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., in April 2011. The prominent Washington journalist said the press is focusing too much on his quarrel with the White House. (Alex Gallardo/Reuters/File)

Has the left turned on Bob Woodward? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 03.01.13

Does the left now have its metaphorical knives out for Bob Woodward? It sure seems that way at the moment. Many Democrats are deeply peeved at what they consider to be distortions in Mr. Woodward’s account of President Obama and the origins of sequestration. They’ve scoffed at reports that the hero of Watergate felt threatened by the White House’s own response to his charges.

“Woodward’s act is getting painfully old, and I don’t plan to pay any more attention to his feverish efforts to stay in the limelight,” writes Ed Kilgore, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, in a typical response.

Conservatives are gleeful about this and count Woodward as a “new hero," according to a headline in Friday’s New York Times. The right-wing website Breitbart.com compiled a list of what it described as lefty-leaning mainstream media types who are now, in Breitbart’s words, “throwing Woodward under a bus."

What’s going on here? Why the partisan divide? As you might expect we’ve got some comments on those questions.

Woodward's never been a liberal. Neither has the man who helped bring down President Nixon ever seemed a conservative. In recent decades he’s been something of an establishmentarian, reflecting the conventional wisdom of Washington insiders with his long, detailed books about policymaking in various administrations.

That means it would be dangerous for the right to anoint him one of their own. Next thing you know he’ll say something that outrages them. During an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show Friday, Woodward was already touting a possible move by Senate Republicans to accept some new tax revenues in a sequester-fix deal. That’s not going to make the House GOP happy.

The White House "threat" was exaggerated by the media. The e-mail exchange between Woodward and White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, which created the “threat” uproar, actually seems fairly mild. Mr. Sperling says Woodward might “regret” his statements, but does so in a context which makes it appear that it refers to a possible future regret on the part of Woodward that he was factually wrong.

Woodward himself now plays this down. “I never said this was a threat,” he said this morning on “Today." He pointed out that it was Politico that used the word “threat” in its lead on a long story reporting his dispute with the White House.

The whole “threat” meme is a sideshow, Woodward said. “This is the old trick in the book of making the press or some confrontation with the press the issue rather than what the White House has done here,” he told host Matt Lauer.

(But is it the White House that’s pushing this “sideshow”? Or is the press, always desperate for conflict to cover? We’d say the latter.)

Woodward is vulnerable on substance. We’ve covered the guts of the substance here more substantially elsewhere, but we’ll just say that Woodward, while mostly technically accurate, may not be telling the full story.

One of his points is that sequestration was the Obama administration’s idea. That’s true. But as the White House says, it was an idea floated in response to the GOP refusal to raise the debt ceiling, and was never supposed to go into effect.

Another of Woodward’s main contentions is that the White House has “moved the goalposts” by insisting on new tax revenue as part of any sequester-fixing deal. This is debatable – the administration has been clear for years that it wants tax contributions from the rich as part of pretty much every fiscal deal it tries to strike. Plus, the sequester is a new problem for a new year. The way we’d describe it is that both sides have moved the goalposts, and they’re playing a new game on a new field.

One last thing: If you’d like to relive the glorious days of Watergate, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, at his “A plain blog about politics,” has updates reflecting day-to-day developments in the scandal 40 years ago.

On Feb. 28, 1973, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened L. Patrick Gray’s confirmation hearing to be director of the FBI. He mentioned that he’d let a White House aide named John Dean see FBI files on the bureau’s Watergate investigation. It was the beginning of the end of the coverup.

[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated how long ago the Watergate scandal occurred.]

Author and Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward shown on CNN's "Larry King Live," from the CNN studio in Washington in this file photo. (Chris Kleponis, CNN/AP/File)

Bob Woodward vs. the White House: Who's right in 'sequester' smackdown? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.28.13

Bob Woodward and the White House have suddenly become embroiled in a very public shoving match over stuff the legendary Washington Post reporter has said about the origin and nature of the "sequester."

Mr. Woodward says the administration is being touchy and aggressive and trying to intimidate him. “They have to be willing to live in the world where they’re challenged,” he told Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei on Wednesday.

President Obama’s supporters in essence say Woodward is a has-been who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Ex-Obama senior adviser David Plouffe on Twitter Wednesday night wrote, “Watching Woodward last 2 days is like my imagining my idol [Phillies 3rd baseman] Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Perfection gained once is rarely repeated.”

Who’s right here? This is a squabble for which official Washington is buying popcorn, pulling up a chair, and taking sides, after all.

Both sides have points but we’ll try to sort some things out. Woodward’s basic substantive charges about the sequester are that it was the administration’s idea to begin with, and that the White House has “moved the goal posts” by now insisting on new tax revenue as well as spending cuts to reach further deficit-reduction goals.

The former is true. Administration officials did come up with the sequester idea as a way to try to force Congress to agree to those deficit-reduction figures. The White House pretty much acknowledges this but adds that it is kind of irrelevant, because it was House Republicans who were holding the debt-ceiling increase hostage at the time. If Speaker John Boehner et al had not been doing that there would have been no need for sequestration, Q.E.D. Plus, it wasn’t supposed to ever go into effect.

The latter Woodward charge is more open to debate. Speaker Boehner may have thought that the “grand bargain” deficit-reduction package he nearly struck with the White House back in 2011 was all about budget cuts. But the administration pretty clearly thought more tax revenue would be included as well.

Slate’s Moneybox columnist Matthew Yglesias writes Thursday that the deficit-reduction effort that might hold off sequestration has always been an undefined rough beast that both sides want to shape to their own preferences.

“Either everyone’s moving the goalposts (which I think is tendentious but even-handed) or no one is moving them,” writes Mr. Yglesias.

Now for the shoving part. Politico revealed Wednesday that Gene Sperling, economic adviser to Mr. Obama, e-mailed Woodward last week suggesting that the journalist would “regret” his comments.

“I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today ... but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest ... as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim,” wrote Mr. Sperling.

Was Sperling being too pushy here? The word “regret” is used in a context that is open to several interpretations. At first glance, it just seems as if Sperling is saying Woodward will regret his statements because he (Sperling) thinks they will later be proved wrong. But e-mail strips out emotion and nuance. We don’t know what that raised-voice conversation was like.

We’ll say this: If nothing else, it’s spectacularly bad press management by Sperling.

First of all, Bob Woodward is all about trees, as opposed to forests. Nobody is better on trees than he is. Usually, if he says it’s an ash, it’s an ash, even if it’s got needles. It will turn out to be a rare Siberian pointy-leaf variant of an ash. That is how Woodward got to be who he is: picking up details and following their trail. If you want to talk forests, get somebody else. That's why he's a much better reporter than analyst.

So don’t pick at him about details. Try to convince him that you’ve got another detail he needs to add.

Second, he does not respond well to yelling of any sort. If he did he would have left Washington long ago. When was the last time you heard about Carl Bernstein? Woodward thrives on opposition. It makes him, as it does many veteran reporters, feel as if he’s on the right track. Years ago he wrote a book on John Belushi called “Wired,” with the cooperation of many of the actor’s family members and friends. But then Belushi’s widow realized Woodward was set to depict her late husband’s extensive drug use. She campaigned against the book, to no avail. Woodward was adamant and all she managed to do was bring more attention to Belushi’s habits.

That’s the third point here: The White House quite likely will come out on the short end of this, public-relations-wise, especially if it continues to deal with Woodward just by trying to talk louder than he does.

Arguing with a famous reporter about the process that led us into this mess is not going to help the administration push Congress to act. And it gives gleeful conservatives a chance to link Obama with another president who tangled with Woodward.

“Barack Obama is becoming the Democrats’ Richard Nixon,” writes conservative commentator Erick Erickson Thursday on Redstate.

New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to service members and civilian employees at the Pentagon, Wednesday, after being sworn-in. Hagel took charge of the Defense Department Wednesday after a bruising confirmation fight, and two days before billions in budget cuts are scheduled to hit the military. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Chuck Hagel sworn in as Defense secretary. Will he be sorry? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.27.13

Chuck Hagel on Wednesday morning was sworn in as secretary of Defense. He took the oath of office in a private ceremony at the Pentagon and immediately set to work at his new and challenging cabinet-level job, preparing an address to department employees.

After a bitter seven-week confirmation fight, will this be an occasion that the Republican former senator from Nebraska treasures the rest of his life? Or will he rue the day he walked into the bureaucratic snake pit that is the E-ring?

To a certain extent, this question is rhetorical, of course. No matter how this turns out, Secretary Hagel will always have the memory of holding one of America’s most coveted political jobs. His office is palatial, his responsibilities extraordinary, his staff vast. When we covered the Pentagon, a friend who worked there would occasionally drag us out to the helipad. We’d stand there and watch the secretary of the time stride out with his military escort and then disappear in a roaring, gleaming US Marine helicopter.

“Now that,” our friend would say as the dust settled, “is American power.”

But for all the glory, it’s also probably the second most difficult job in the executive branch after the presidency itself.

As of now, Hagel is CEO of a $700 billion company. He’s just taken office, yet all his division heads, otherwise known as the “Joint Chiefs of Staff,” have spent their whole adult lives working up through the company’s ranks. He’ll never match their institutional knowledge.

He’ll immediately confront crucial billion-dollar decisions. (“Chief, what should we do about the F-35”?) The Joint Chiefs will have their own opinions on these, which they’ve had lots of time to hone. Oh, and these decisions affect thousands of jobs in congressional districts across the United States, so Congress will weigh in as well. Often.

Did we say these decisions also involve the nation’s very security? And that Hagel is in the nation’s chain of command, meaning he’s also got some responsibility for formulating policy and directing the operations of US troops now in harm’s way, wherever they are?

All this is why some SecDefs appear happy to spend time on morale-boosting visits to foreign bases, while underlings run things back in Washington.

In addition to the weight of the job, Hagel will face a number of problems particular to him.

The 'sequester.' The big automatic budget cuts known as sequestration look almost certain to take effect Friday. That means Hagel could be grappling with a semi-crisis within days as he loses $46 billion of his budget.

The Senate. Part of the job of secretary of Defense is dealing with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and military appropriations subcommittees. Right now, Hagel’s got problems with the Senate part of this equation. His nomination passed SASC by only 14 to 11, and his performance at his confirmation hearing was unimpressive, at best.

“He will take office with the weakest support of any Defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective [in] his job,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP’s minority whip.

Of course, a revenge-minded SecDef might find opportunity in the fact that he’s supposed to rebuild relations with people who came after him in the first place. As former Pentagon official Lawrence J. Korb writes in Foreign Policy, there are lots of ways he can get back at his GOP foes if he chooses.

He could draw up lists of bases in his adversaries' states for possible closure, cancel weapons systems that senators support, move military units out of his foes' states, and so forth.

“His choices could hurt the constituents of the very officials who have done the most to hurt him,” Mr. Korb writes.

The press. Finally, Hagel may face a media primed to cover any misstep. During his confirmation hearing, he hemmed, hawed, and occasionally misstated administration policy. Any similar mistake he makes now will be picked up and magnified.

He doesn’t even have to make them now; it might be enough to newly unearth stuff he said in the past. Witness the latest flap: A 2011 Hagel speech, in which he said India has over the years financed trouble for Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan, has riled the Indian government.

The remark was published by the Washington Free Beacon, a muckraking conservative journal.

“Such comments attributed to Sen. Hagel ... are contrary to the reality of India’s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people,” said a statement issued in response by the Indian Embassy in Washington.

Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. A deeply divided Senate is moving toward a vote on President Obama’s contentious choice. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

Chuck Hagel will be secretary of Defense. What did GOP opposition accomplish?

By Staff Writer / 02.26.13

The embattled Chuck Hagel will be America’s next secretary of Defense, after all.

Following weeks of bitter partisan fighting over Mr. Hagel’s nomination for the Pentagon post, he won Senate confirmation with surprising ease, passing a key Tuesday cloture vote by 71 to 27. Among those voting “yea” were Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona – two lawmakers who’d battered Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska, over his past statements on Israel, Iran, Libya, and various other national security issues.

The final vote on Hagel's confirmation came Tuesday evening, with the Senate voting 58 to 41. Four Republicans backed Hagel, but Graham and McCain voted "no."

So what did the GOP opposition to Hagel produce? If nothing else, it’s likely to prevent the administration from pointing to Hagel as evidence that President Obama’s Cabinet is bipartisan. It’s possible that was one reason Obama chose Hagel in the first place, but the fierce GOP opposition to his nomination made clear that his former colleagues consider him a turncoat due to his criticism of the Bush-era troop surge in Iraq, and other issues. Democrat John Kerry’s path to confirmation as secretary of State was all flowers and lollipops by comparison.

And Hagel emerges politically weaker. His fumbling answers during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing surely caught the notice of all the high-ranking generals and admirals he’ll be dealing with. To them, he’ll have to prove he’s got the stuff to handle a very tough job at a time when sequester cuts are about to whack their budgets. Plus, he’ll have to come back and appear before the very same Armed Services panel for further budget and authorization hearings.

“Hagel has been stripped of the patina of competence and will go into his job with zero credibility even on his own side,” wrote Washington Post "Right Turn" blogger Jennifer Rubin, who’s helped lead the rhetorical charge against Hagel’s nomination.

But the fact is the Republican opposition lost. Hagel gets the big paneled office on the Pentagon’s outside E ring. And the opposition lost because in the end it was not cohesive. Some lawmakers truly wished to prevent Hagel from getting the job, and appeared willing to go to the barricades to that end. Others did not want to continue what was in essence a filibuster of the nomination.

Eighteen Republicans voted for cloture. If 12 of these GOP Senators had gone the other way Hagel would have been blocked and remained in nominee limbo, short of the 60 votes needed to proceed to a final, majority-rules vote on the nomination.

McCain, for instance, voted for cloture despite having called Hagel “unqualified” for the Senate post.

“Hard to overstate the courage of the Senate Republicans who delayed Chuck Hagel’s confirmation by a few days. Think Thermopylae,” tweeted National Review Online news editor Daniel Foster, sarcastically.

McCain and others weren’t willing to continue to block Hagel in large part because the Senate has traditionally given presidents deference in regards to picking cabinet members. No secretary of Defense nominee has ever previously been filibustered. Now that Hagel has been semi-kind-of-filibustered, will that precedent continue to hold? The next Republican president will have to get his picks past Democratic senators, after all. In that sense the cabinet confirmation battles may be just beginning.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sits next to first lady Michelle Obama at the National Governors Association dinner at the White House Sunday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Chris Christie dissed by CPAC. Is that good or bad for him?

By Staff writer / 02.26.13

New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie is not going to get an invite to speak at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, according to The Washington Post and lots of other media outlets. Looks like the CPAC organizers still consider Governor Christie an apostate for praising President Obama’s superstorm Sandy recovery efforts near the end of the 2012 campaign.

And they’re not the only ones. Lots of conservatives look at Christie’s every action with suspicion. A couple of days ago, they noticed that he sat next to first lady Michelle Obama at a National Governors Association dinner at the White House. Never mind that Christie wasn’t the person in charge of place cards.

“The slobbering love affair between GOP Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Team Obama continues to blossom,” wrote the conservative news site Twitchy on Sunday. “Smoochie, smoochie.”

Hmm. Is this a political problem for Christie? Looks like he’s now the Nelson Rockefeller of the 21st century – the moderate Republican whom the right most loves to hate.

In the short run, it’s good for him. He’s running for reelection in New Jersey this fall, and given the state’s Democratic proclivity, every insult he gets from the right builds his Independent Republican brand. There are some 700,000 more Garden State Democrats than Republicans, after all. The math there is easy to do. If we were more cynical than we are, we might even say that Christie asked CPAC to stiff him, at least until next year.

Yes, he’s already wildly popular in-state. That doesn’t mean he isn’t still working on shoring up his vote. Are you writing this down, potential-GOP-Senate-candidate Geraldo Rivera?

The CPAC snub might benefit Christie in the longer run, as well. As commentator Allahpundit notes on the conservative Hot Air website, the conservative group might as well be tossing the plus-size New Jersey gov into the briar patch. (Close your eyes and envision that for a moment.)

“Christie was never going to run as the conservative choice in 2016 and lord knows he’s not going to run as a conservative to get reelected in New Jersey.... CPAC’s unwittingly helping him burnish his brand as the country’s most formidable centrist Republican. Expect him to get lots of mileage out of it in interviews over the next month,” Allahpundit writes.

Yes, but that only helps him if he can win the GOP nomination, right? To do that, he has to run well in Republican primaries, many of them closed to independents and other swing voters. That’s one reason that Mitt Romney swung right, away from his policies as governor of Massachusetts, in his own run. Remember when Mitt called himself “severely conservative”? That was at CPAC. They’ve invited him to speak, by the way. That should be, uh, interesting.

So look for Christie to start sounding more conservative and declining the seat next to the first lady beginning in, oh, late 2014. That’s if he wants to run for the Oval Office of course – and he may not.

Unlike Mr. Romney, Christie may not have to become “severe” in his adherence to conservative doctrine. A little bow in the direction of the right might do. Given that the GOP has lost four of the past six presidential elections, including a 2012 race that many Republicans thought they would win, electability might rank higher on the list of qualities esteemed by conservatives the closer 2016 approaches. 

President Obama addresses the National Governors Association Monday at the White House. Mr. Obama encouraged the governors to tell their congressional counterparts how painful the sequester spending cuts will be in their particular states. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Obama looks for new allies in 'sequester' fight: Republican governors

By Correspondent / 02.25.13

President Obama is trying to get some new allies in his effort to pressure Congress to avert the "sequester": the nation's governors – in particular, Republicans.

Speaking Monday morning to the National Association of Governors, assembled in Washington for their annual conference, Mr. Obama urged the governors to lobby their congressional counterparts directly and tell them just how painful the across-the-board spending cuts will be in their particular states.

To help them make their case, the White House also provided the governors with some specific data points showing just what the impact of the cuts will be, in a series of fact sheets detailing exactly how the cuts will affect each state individually. For example, according to the White House analysis, Arkansas stands to lose $5.9 million in funding for primary and secondary education. In Maryland, 46,000 Defense employees would be furloughed. In Florida, more than 7,000 children won't get vaccines. 

Obama then drove the point home: "While you are in town, I hope you will speak with your congressional delegation and remind them in no uncertain terms exactly what is at stake and exactly who is at risk. Because here's the thing: These cuts do not have to happen. Congress can turn them off anytime with just a little bit of compromise."

It's another attempt by the president to pressure congressional Republicans from the outside, rather than engage in direct negotiations with them. Republicans have been criticizing the White House for this tactic, even though direct negotiations haven't proved particularly fruitful in the past. 

And there's reason to believe that at least some Republican governors – who will be forced to grapple directly with the impact of the cuts, and in some cases, perhaps, make up the difference from their own cash-starved budgets – may indeed prove compelling lobbyists. As Politico reported Sunday: "[Republican] governors have publicly signed on to letters bashing Obama and praising House Republicans' efforts, but privately their offices have been urging lawmakers to work harder to avoid potentially devastating cuts – particularly those that could hit local programs."

On CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) – a conservative Republican at the helm of a state where some 90,000 Defense workers stand to be furloughed – was asked what his "message" to fellow Republicans in the Senate and the House would be. He replied they needed to "find another way to do it, and get it done now."

Notably, when asked specifically if he would accept new tax increases as part of a compromise to avoid the cuts – in other words, the White House's preferred solution – Governor McDonnell didn't say no. "The solution is up to Congress," he said. "I'm just saying don't put all the burden on the states and the military. You guys figure out how to get it done."

Similarly, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) – who has publicly clashed with the president in the past – also wouldn't rule out tax increases as part of an eventual solution to avoid the sequester. Speaking on "Face the Nation," Governor Brewer noted that her state would be hit particularly hard by the cuts to border patrol agents. "We don't like increases in taxes," she said. "But … we know we have to be pragmatic. We know that there has to be some type of compromise."

That's exactly the argument Obama is hoping these governors will make to members of Congress directly.

Of course, not all GOP governors are taking an avoid-it-at-all-costs line when it comes to the sequester. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, on "Fox News Sunday," said that while he hopes Congress will come up with some "better alternatives" to the across-the-board cuts, he'd be just as worried about the impact of tax increases. "I think all of us as governors have a real concern about the impact [of the cuts] but also, in terms of what some of the alternatives might be," he said, noting that the hike in the payroll tax passed as a part of the deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" is already taking money "out of the economy" in his state.

On the other hand, Governor Walker has also admitted that his state wouldn't be hit as hard as many others – recently telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "If I was the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I'd probably be freaked out" by the sequester.

The next few days will make clear if such a gubernatorial "freakout" takes place – and if it's sufficient to move Congress. 

First lady Michelle Obama, appearing on screen from Washington, during the Oscars on Sunday Feb. 24, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Michelle Obama announces 'Best Picture' at Oscars. Was that appropriate? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.25.13

First lady Michelle Obama announced the Best Picture winner at the end of Sunday night’s Oscar telecast, in case you went to bed early and missed it. It was a remote satellite feed from the White House, with Mrs. Obama stepping out of a National Governors Association dinner to open the fabled envelope and tell the world “Argo” had won the Academy Award.

In retrospect her appearance makes sense, given that so many Best Picture contenders had political themes. There was “Lincoln” of course, which wasn’t about Lincoln cars, and the search-for-Osama bin Laden movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” as well as “Argo”, about the escape of US hostages from Iran. (Yes, you know all that, but editors make us fill in the back story, all right?)

But here’s the question of the day: Was this an appropriate mix of real and pretend politics? Or was this a step too far on the part of the White House and the academy?

Lots of people loved it, if Twitter is any guide. Many gushed about the first lady’s gown and her new bangs and the dignity of her little speech.

The nominated movies “made us laugh,” she said. “They made us weep and made us grip our armrests just a little tighter. They taught us that love can endure against all odds and transform our minds in the most surprising ways.”

The first lady has much higher approval ratings than her husband, and there’s a reason for that. She’s great at this kind of stuff and has appeared on everything from "Dr. Oz" to "The View" to "Sesame Street" and now the Oscars. Leading up to the 2012 election, the Obama campaign was much more adroit than the Romney camp at getting its candidate and and his spouse on popular shows and websites. That’s just one aspect of a perceived Democratic lead in dealing with technology that was the subject of a long piece in a recent New York Times Magazine.

However, it’s 2013 and the election is over. Mrs. Obama’s Oscar turn did not get universal hosannas. Critics on the right pointed out that nearly half the United States did not vote for President Obama and thus might not be happy about the insertion of presidential-level politics into their evening’s recreation. Nor were they pleased that it appeared members of the military in dress uniforms stood behind the first lady as she talked.

“I’m sure the left will holler that once again conservatives are being grouchy and have it in for the Obamas,” writes conservative Jennifer Rubin Monday morning on her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post. “Seriously, if they really had their president’s interests at heart, they’d steer away from encouraging these celebrity appearances. It makes both the president and the first lady seem small and grasping.”

It wasn’t only conservatives who were displeased. At The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody writes that while he greatly admires Mrs. Obama, he found her appearance to be out of line.

It was “wildly inappropriate in its affirmation of the hard power behind the soft power – the connection of real politics to the representational politics of the movies, of the peculiar and long-standing symbiosis of Washington and Hollywood – all the more so when the matter of access to inside-government information is a key issue with the making of ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ” Mr. Brody writes Monday.

As he notes, the Washington-Hollywood connection is well established. The Motion Picture Association of America has long been one of D.C.’s smoothest lobbying operations, in part due to its ability to hold private screenings of hot films for small, elite audiences, including small, elite audiences at the White House. Its current chief is Chris Dodd, the former Connecticut senator who was a power on the Senate Finance Committee for years. Prior to that, the association was run for 38 years by the legendary Jack Valenti, a longtime LBJ aide and skilled inside-Washington operator.

Given that, the real question might be why more first ladies haven’t appeared on the Oscar stage.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers his concession speech at his election night rally in Boston, last November. The American Conservative Union announced Thursday that the former Republican presidential candidate will speak at next month's Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C. (Charles Dharapak/AP/File)

Mitt Romney to speak at CPAC. Why?

By Staff writer / 02.22.13

Mitt Romney is reemerging, sort of. The American Conservative Union announced Thursday that the former Republican presidential candidate will speak at next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C. This will mark Mr. Romney’s first real public appearance since the election, and the former Massachusetts governor himself says it’s a simple chance to close the loop and pay his respects.

“I look forward to saying thank you to the many friends and supporters who were instrumental in helping my campaign,” said Romney in ACU’s press statement.

Why is he really doing this? One possibility is that he’ll announce what he’s going to do next. Lots of political types figure that’s the real point of the address, at least for the Romney camp. All reports are that he has been bored puttering around his new home in La Jolla, Calif. – no car elevator jokes, please – and CPAC would be a decent forum for him to outline how he’s going to keep a hand in politics. Or if not a full hand, at least a finger, OK? He’s said in the past that he wasn’t going to completely ride off into a lucrative private-sector sunset.

The rumor du jour is that he’s going to become a Fox News contributor. Mediaite has that story, based on an exchange between Fox News anchor Chris Wallace and "Fox & Friends" host Brian Kilmeade. On the latter’s radio show, Mr. Wallace said he knows what’s up next for the Mittster. Mr. Kilmeade then guessed “Fox News contributor,” causing Wallace to get flustered and clam up.

“After a short pause and exactly one hem and one haw, Wallace [replied], ‘We’re not playing 20 questions here my friend!,” Mediate’s Tommy Christopher reports.

Romney could also announce some sort of foundation/fundraising group that will keep a national office in D.C. and give him a platform from which to plot a comeback. Not for himself, necessarily. (Can somebody fan Mr. Rove? He looks faint.) But the Romney name could use a little political refurbishment if his son Tagg wants to run for office. Remember, Tagg Romney was briefly mentioned as a possible GOP entry in the upcoming Senate special election in Massachusetts. Tagg didn’t shut the door on a political career when he said “no,” and at least one other Romney son, Josh, has expressed an interest in entering politics in Utah.

Finally, Romney could just be tired of being a punching bag. CPAC has always been a good forum for him – he won its presidential straw poll numerous times – but at the moment his name gives lots of Republicans the vapors. He lost a race they thought he should win. Lots of party members blame him personally, for essentially allowing the Obama campaign to paint him as a rich plutocrat who wanted all the nation’s illegal immigrants to self-deport.

Have you noticed that potential 2016 GOP candidates have already begun emphasizing their working-class cred? It’s no accident that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida talks a lot about the working-class neighborhood where he grew up.

So Mitt might just get up and say he was sorry, the “47 percent” tape was a disaster, but he didn’t create the party’s problems with Hispanics, and the economy recovered just enough so that US voters decided they’d stick with the president they had and see what happened. Deal with it, folks. You can’t run a Ronald Reagan hologram in 2016.

At the Hot Air! blog, conservative commentator Allahpundit says the speech will be awkward, but adds that he believes nobody disagrees that the GOP has problems that are bigger than Romney.

“That’s not to excuse his screw-ups during the campaign, just to say that I think that awareness will inform the audience’s reception of him at CPAC,” he writes.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire confer during a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting this month. Looming cuts to the defense budget are pitting GOP defense hawks against its antitax crusaders. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

What sequester says about who's controlling the Republican Party

By Correspondent / 02.21.13

Since losing the White House in November, the Republican Party has been going through a very public period of "soul searching," wrestling with what the party stands for and how to broaden its appeal in future elections. Mostly, that struggle has been cast as a fight between the tea party and what's loosely referred to as "the establishment." 

In reality, it's more complicated than that, of course. The GOP, just like its Democratic counterpart, is a messy compilation of a variety of factions – social conservatives, antitax and small-government crusaders, defense hawks, and a hodgepodge of single-issue voters (gun enthusiasts, for example) – all of whom have different, and sometimes conflicting, priorities.

Now, the battle over the “sequester” – the automatic cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending scheduled to hit at the end of next week – is highlighting one of those intraparty fights in a big way, by pitting the GOP's defense hawks directly against its antitax crusaders.

And so far, it's pretty clear who's winning.

As Time's Michael Crowley writes: "With the sequester scheduled to inflict $46 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget, President Obama has offered an alternative that would mitigate the cuts, in part, by raising taxes on the wealthy. But Republican leaders won’t swallow any new taxes or accept smaller cuts to the federal budget. And so, defense will get the budget ax. And national security conservatives, long accustomed to being granted virtually every wish by their party, find themselves appalled."

The GOP's national security conservatives have made it clear they believe the sequester is not just bad policy, but extremely dangerous. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona recently called it "outrageous and shameful," saying it "impairs the ability to defend our nation in these very tense times with great challenges to our national security."

By contrast, the antitax wing of the party has lately been arguing that the sequester will be no big deal – and, in fact, doesn't go nearly far enough. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a tea party conservative who tends to be skeptical when it comes to foreign intervention, told CNN this week that the sequester was a mere "pittance," pointing out that it will only slow the rate of growth of spending, while spending overall will continue to increase. The likely impact of the cuts, according to Senator Paul, "will be in some ways a yawn." 

Now, it's true that the antitax wing of the party suffered a defeat of its own a few months back when Republicans agreed to raise taxes as part of a deal to resolve the "fiscal cliff" (putting the sequester off for three more months). But it seems that battle has made them even more determined to win this time around. 

At the same time, the relative diminution of the pro-defense wing of the party may have been inevitable – in part, because of the legacy of the Bush years. The GOP's defense hawks are now primarily associated with the unpopular war in Iraq and unpopular public figures like former Vice President Dick Cheney. In fact, frustration with the Bush administration's willingness to spend huge sums of public money on wars and other foreign interventions (as well as on new domestic spending, like the Medicare prescription drug plan) was a primary factor in the creation of the tea party.

The sequester itself may still be resolved at some point – if not before it officially hits next week, then perhaps in subsequent weeks as its effects begin to play out. But the impact of this particular battle on the internal dynamics of the Republican Party – particularly if it establishes the antitax wing as dominant above all others going forward – could be much longer-lasting. 

Actress Ashley Judd (c.) gives a pep talk to volunteers for the Obama for President campaign at the Fredericksburg, Va. office last year. (Robert A. Martin/The Free Lance-Star/AP/File)

Ashley Judd: Is she starting to act like a real Senate candidate? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.21.13

OK, Ashley Judd is starting to act like an actual possible candidate for the Senate in Kentucky, as opposed to a coy celebrity who’s flattered that reporters are asking her about politics instead of her film career.

Either that, or she’s conducing hands-on research for a part in next season’s “House of Cards.”

We say that because in recent days the actress/activist met privately with officials from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to a report in Politico. That’s a Station of the Cross for Senate candidate wannabes.

The DSCC is a contribution clearing house for Democratic candidates. It also recruits candidates and advises them on strategy, all in the name of keeping, or capturing, chamber control.

The GOP has a similar organization, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. There are also Democratic and Republican campaign committees for the House.

For what it’s worth, the DSCC’s chairman this cycle is Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado, who knows a thing or do about winning a tough election in a state that’s not deep blue. Maybe he feels a kinship with Ms. Judd, who’d be taking on a tough opponent in incumbent minority leader Mitch McConnell.

Judd has yet to set up any political committees of her own for fundraising or just plain exploratory action. But she’s also met recently with top state Dems in Louisville, Ky., presumably to test the waters and engage in a little prefundraising survey of potential wallets, according to another report in the Atlantic.

As we wrote the other day, Senator McConnell is acting as if he’s wary of running against Judd. He’s included her in a preemptive ad he’s issued mocking potential opponents. A GOP polling firm found him 9 points up on Judd in a survey it released last week, which is OK, except that we’d think an incumbent senator might do better matched up against a co-star of “Dolphin Tale.”

Look over at New Jersey to see what we mean. Geraldo Rivera’s been talking about running for the Senate there as a Republican, and a new Quinnipiac poll finds the mustachioed action journalist trailing Democrat Cory Booker by a whopping 54 to 23 percent. That’s the kind of margin McConnell’s probably been hoping for.

Of course, it’s also possible that the DSCC met with Judd, not to talk about giving her money, but to talk about her giving money to them. Wealthy contributors are always useful, even if a quick perusal of contribution data finds that Judd gave but $350 to one Democratic candidate in the 2012 cycle. (The form listed her address as Los Angeles, by the way.)

And that candidate was Rep. Steven Cohen, who represents the Ninth Congressional District in ... Tennessee! She’s already vulnerable on the Volunteer State front: she was a Democratic National Convention delegate last year from Tennessee, and that’s where she’s actually been living. McConnell’s attack ad replays a clip of her saying “Tennessee is home” a number of times. We think the Tennessee issue is maybe her biggest vulnerability. That, and her own grandmother calling her a “Hollywood liberal.”

So that’s how we’ll know Judd is really serious. She’ll make a big deal about actually living in Kentucky, either by buying a property or moving back in to an old family home. After all, what happened to that carpetbagger female Senate candidate who was born in Illinois, lived her adult life in Arkansas, and then ran in New York?

Three words: Senator Hillary Clinton.

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