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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. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington after a meeting with UN Ambassador Susan Rice in November. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

Why is Sen. Lindsey Graham now Obama's antagonist in chief?

By Correspondent / 01.09.13

Amid all the controversy over President Obama's cabinet picks, it's been hard not to notice that the face of Republican opposition has lately seemed to be embodied more and more by one man in particular: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Senator Graham has been one of the administration's most vocal critics on the Benghazi matter, helping torpedo UN Ambassador Susan Rice's chances to become secretary of State as a near-ubiquitous presence on cable news and the Sunday shows. Just this week, he suggested he might place a hold on the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director until the administration stops what he calls its "stonewalling" on the matter. 

Graham is also among those leading the charge against the nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary, calling it an "in your face" pick, and "incredibly controversial." He reluctantly voted for the recent "fiscal cliff" deal, but has vowed to oppose raising the debt ceiling next month unless Congress agrees to significant entitlement reforms. He says he will oppose any efforts to pass a new assault-weapons ban.

None of this would be particularly eyebrow-raising – except that in many ways it's a sharp change of direction for Graham. Like his closest Senate ally, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Graham was until fairly recently most often seen as one of those "independent" Republicans who could give his own party more trouble than the opposition. As recently as 2010, a profile in The New York Times magazine described Graham as "contentedly discussing the various fellow South Carolina conservatives who dislike him – Tea Partiers, Constitutionalists, immigration hardliners," and noted that he had apparently logged more White House visits than any other Republican senator (other than, perhaps, Maine's Susan Collins).

Back then, Graham was known for working with Democrats on issues like comprehensive immigration reform and climate change. He voted for both of President Obama's Supreme Court picks, and has been a proponent of closing Guantánamo Bay

He also received the lowest rating of all Republican senators from the anti-tax Club for Growth – whose president, Chris Chocola, suggested at a Monitor breakfast in September that they may support a primary challenge against Graham when he goes up for reelection in 2014.

Which may help explain Graham's recent morphing into the Obama administration's antagonist in chief. If anything, Graham seems to be taking a page out of the playbook of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was initially a top target for tea party groups in 2012, but wound up winning reelection easily after a full-court press to win back support from the right.

Last month, political scientist Jordan Ragusa of the College of Charleston charted Graham's move to the right during his time in the Senate on the blog Rule22, writing: "I suspect this movement is especially pronounced in the current Senate (we don’t have the data yet) and will only accelerate in the coming 113th." He added: "the reality is that Graham has carefully prepared for a conservative challenge in 2014." 

And so far, it seems to be working. A Public Policy Polling survey last month found that Graham had significantly improved his standing among Republican voters in South Carolina, going from just 37 percent saying they'd support him in a primary back in 2011 to 66 percent saying they'd support him now.    

The US Capitol is seen amid reflections from inside the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 2. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Congress more unpopular than Donald Trump, head lice

By Correspondent / 01.09.13

It may be a cheap shot. But we couldn't resist commenting on the latest Public Policy Polling survey measuring just how deeply, down-there-with-sewer-rats-and-root-canals unpopular Congress is these days with the American people. 

To wit: When given the opportunity to choose which they held in higher regard, voters actually picked all of the following over Congress:

Donald Trump

Genghis Khan

Used car salesmen

NFL replacement refs

Head lice

As the PPP press release commented: "It's gross to have lice, but at least they can be removed in a way that, given the recent reelection rates, members of Congress evidently can't." For the record, lice were favored over Congress by 67 to 19 percent.

Sure, it's a funny poll. And in lawmakers' defense, they actually did score higher than the Kardashians, playground bullies, North Korea, and Gonorrhea. (Although in a way, those results simply validate the overall poll – showing that respondents actually gave their rankings some thought, rather than simply giving Congress the lowest possible rating to make a point.)  

But we also find it a little disturbing that Congress is now so widely seen as a laughingstock or worse. Congressional approval ratings have been at historic lows for some time now, and Congress-bashing has become a national pastime. The sentiment stems from a number of trends –including a growing lack of trust in institutions in general. But above all, it's a clear reflection of the public's frustration with legislators' inability to come together and resolve the nation's most pressing fiscal problems.

It's worth noting that a significantly less funny version of the PPP poll also came out this week. On Monday, Gallup released a survey showing that 77 percent of Americans believe that the way politics works in Washington is causing "serious harm" to the nation. Let's repeat that: In the eyes of most Americans, Congress is not just inept, but is causing serious harm. And the sentiment was pretty bipartisan, including 87 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of independents, and 68 percent of Democrats.

As Gallup noted, those numbers track pretty closely with the current, paltry 18-percent job approval rating for Congress. Likewise, confidence in Congress as an institution is down to a pathetic 13 percent. 

Maybe it's the mom in us, but we've come to learn that expectations matter. If the public wants their representatives to make tough decisions, they have to have some confidence that they can do it.

Perhaps more to the point, they have to want them to do it – and there's the rub, since there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that in fact, voters may not really want Congress step up to the plate when it comes to tough budget decisions. Sure, they say they want lawmakers to reduce the debt. But poll after poll shows there's very little public support for most of the specific, painful spending cuts and/or higher taxes that would have to happen to really get the nation's fiscal house in order.

As a McClatchy-Marist poll last month documented, voters by wide margins were opposed to: cutting spending on Medicare, raising the Medicare eligibility age, cutting spending on Medicaid, eliminating the home mortgage tax deduction, or eliminating the charitable contribution deduction. When voters are sending such mixed signals, is it any wonder that Congress winds up stalemated?

It's easy for the public to make members of Congress the bad guys. But we wonder if all this ridicule – along with the cynical expectation that lawmakers will probably fail to resolve the really serious budget issues they face – doesn't on some level just let Congress off the hook? Until Americans are really willing to back the kinds of decisions they say they want Congress to make – well, the joke's on us.

The Capitol is seen at sunrise in Washington, D.C., Monday. Republicans are talking about a possible government shutdown to get real spending cuts. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Republicans talk up a 'government shutdown.' Do they mean it?

By Correspondent / 01.07.13

With one short-term deal to avert the fiscal cliff behind them, Republicans have already moved on to Round Two, and are making it clear that this time, they believe they have a lot more leverage – including the threat of a government shutdown.

Yes, you heard us correctly. The same party that shut down the federal government twice back in 1995 – only to suffer a massive public backlash, paving the way for a sweeping reelection victory for President Bill Clinton – is now openly suggesting that they'd walk that same plank again. In fact, listening to the rhetoric coming from many GOP members recently, it's sounding like a possibility they'd not only accept, but would actually embrace.

To give just one example: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, told CNBC last week: "I think we have to be prepared to go so far as to shut the government down if we don’t get some serious policies to stop the out-of-control spending, to tackle the debt, and to get economic growth."

There's been some interesting revisionism of late when it comes to the 1995 shutdowns. Republicans have been suggesting that those episodes, far from being a political disaster for their party, were actually positive, because they pushed President Clinton to embrace smaller government and led to the eventual accomplishment of things like a balanced budget and welfare reform.

On NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday, former shutdown-architect Newt Gingrich himself made the case that the events of 1995 could provide a good model for action today, saying: "I helped close the government twice. It actually worked. Bill Clinton came in and said 'the era of big government is over' after two closures, not before."

That view was echoed by Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon, who was in the House for the 1995 shutdowns, and said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that they "actually gave us the impetus, as we went forward, to push toward some real serious compromise." When asked if he thought a shutdown now would be a good idea, Salmon said, "Yes, I do."

Now, not surprisingly, the Republican leadership in Congress has been far more circumspect on this point. On "Meet The Press," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly dodged the question when asked if he would "rule out" a government shutdown.

And even many of those suggesting that a shutdown may be necessary seem to be deliberately tempering their language, making it clear it would only be a "partial" or "temporary" measure.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told MSNBC last week that his party should be prepared to "tolerate a temporary, partial government shutdown." And Texas Sen. John Cornyn wrote in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle: "It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country, rather than plod along the path of Greece, Italy, and Spain."

Republicans are also not making it clear how, exactly, they'd choose to pursue such a "partial," "temporary" government shutdown. In coming months, Congress will face three separate fiscal deadlines: the debt-ceiling limit, the postponed spending cuts known as the sequester, and the expiration of the stopgap measure currently funding the federal government.

Some have suggested they might use the debt-ceiling fight to force a shutdown – Senator Cruz, for example, told radio host Mark Levin: "What would happen if the debt ceiling isn’t raised is it would be a partial government shutdown. We’ve seen this before, we saw this in 1995, when Republicans in the House shut down the government. What happened was it was a partial shutdown, there was some political cost to be paid, but at the end of the day, because Republicans stood strong in 1995, we saw year after year of balanced budgets and some of the most fiscally-responsible policies Congress has produced in the modern era. If we hold strong we can do that again."

But as Slate's Matthew Yglasias pointed out last week, shutting down the government by refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a far cry from previous government shutdowns. He writes: "If the debt ceiling isn't raised, the Treasury won't have the money to pay the bills it has to pay. The result won't be a "shutdown" of government functions; it'll be a deadbeat federal government. Some people won't get money they're legally entitled to."

On the other hand, shutting down the government by failing to agree on new appropriations would be more like 1995. But according to some reports, it's also the least likely outcome. The Hill's Erik Wasson calls the behind-the-scenes talks over the spending bills a rare "bright spot" in an otherwise "gloomy congressional outlook," and quotes several members as saying that those negotiations – which have been quietly underway for months – have already been largely worked out.

Then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska speaks during an appearance at Bellevue University in Nebraska in this February 2007 file photo. President Obama will nominate Hagel as his next Defense secretary, a senior administration official said Sunday. (Nati Harnik/AP/File)

Hagel, Brennan, and history: How often does Senate reject cabinet nominees?

By Staff writer / 01.07.13

How often does the US Senate reject presidential cabinet nominations? That question comes up because President Obama on Monday announced two somewhat controversial picks for top executive-branch posts.

Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, a maverick former GOP senator from Nebraska, will face tough questions over his positions on Israel and Iran during confirmation proceedings. Mr. Obama’s choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency, current counterterrorism adviser and former CIA official John Brennan, will be grilled by some senators over the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques during his tenure.

It’s certainly possible that one or both of these nominations could stall on Capitol Hill. Mr. Hagel, in particular, looks headed for a tough fight. But both nominees can take some comfort in historical numbers. Traditionally, the Senate gives presidents more leeway on executive-branch appointments than it does on Supreme Court picks, on the theory that they are not lifetime appointments and that the president needs to work with people he can trust. Senators block cabinet nominees about 2 percent of the time.

Since World War II, the Senate has actually voted down only two such picks, according to the Senate Historical Office.

The first of these was President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1959 choice to lead the Department of Commerce, Lewis Strauss. A former admiral, Strauss had accumulated many enemies as the outspoken head of the Atomic Energy Commission. His confirmation hearing did not go well, as he gave what some senators considered evasive answers while demanding to cross-examine hostile witnesses. In addition, Democrats had made big gains in both House and Senate in the 1958 mid-term elections, and held a 64-to-34 Senate majority.

“Appearing to question the Senate’s constitutional prerogatives, the imperious Strauss personified the worst elements of executive-branch domination at precisely the time that the Senate sought to cast off such control and had acquired the Democratic majorities to do so,” writes the Senate Historical Office.

The second Senate nomination-vote loser was Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, who was nominated as secretary of Defense by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. A recognized defense expert and one of the Senate’s own, Senator Tower at first seemed a safe choice. But allegations of alcohol abuse, plus questions about his role as a consultant to defense contractors, sank his bid following a contentious debate.

“The rejection of Tower’s nomination was surprising because the Senate allows presidents great latitude in selecting top-level members of their administrations,” writes James King, chairman of the University of Wyoming political science department, in a study of the Senate nomination process.

Of course, it’s more common for nominees to withdraw their names from consideration than it is for them to go down in flaming defeat on the Senate floor. Since 1993, six cabinet nominees have faced reality and pulled out rather than suffer a Senate rejection.

Zoe Baird ended her bid to serve as President Clinton’s attorney general in 1993 due to controversy over her hiring of illegal immigrants to serve as a chauffeur and nanny to her children. Linda Chavez was picked by President George W. Bush in 2001 to serve as Labor Secretary, but withdrew after reports that she had also paid an illegal immigrant to perform household chores. Former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew his name from consideration as Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services due to charges of conflict of interest and tax evasion.

Both Hagel and Mr. Brennan are probably well aware that, given the contentious state of modern US politics, even winning cabinet nominees now suffer bruises along the way. Whereas the Senate once generally opposed nominees only for nonpolicy reasons, now nomination hearings are yet another forum in which to argue over matters of state.

“The appointments process has become a policy battleground in recent times. Senators may oppose a candidate because they disagree with the policy preferences of the candidate,” writes Wyoming’s Dr. King.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio leaves after a photo session with members of the new 113th Congress that convened Thursday in the Capitol in Washington. Republicans have promised a fight over the debt limit in the new Congress. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Debt-limit fight takes shape: Will Mitch McConnell ever be satisfied?

By Staff writer / 01.06.13

[Editor's note: Updated at 1:07 Eastern time.] Remember the "fiscal cliff" – that Armageddon of spending cuts and tax hikes that threatened the send the US economy back to the age of stone tools and woolly mammoth pelts? Well, if Washington is to be believed, that was just a warmup act.

The latest word from inside the Beltway is that Republicans are girding themselves for a fight on what might be called the Fiery Chasm of Fiscal Doom:

  • America will bump up against the debt ceiling, which allows the federal government to borrow more money, next month.
  • The "sequester" spending cuts to defense and domestic spending outlined in the 2011 debt-ceiling deal – and postponed by the fiscal cliff deal – come due on Feb. 28.
  • The stopgap bill that allows the federal government to function despite still not having a 2013 budget expires March 27.

Republicans say they will not raise the debt limit unless the increase is offset by spending cuts. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky hinted at their strategy when he told CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that if the government has to pare back services to deal with an unchanged debt limit, it would be the president's fault.

For his part, President Obama says he won't allow Republicans to hold the debt limit hostage and won't play ball. Behind the scenes, there are rumors of a "grand bargain" that could tie up all the outstanding issues in a nice bow. 

Stop us when this sounds familiar.

So why does Congress lurch from crisis to crisis, seemingly propelled by the Republicans' demand to take a pound (or more) of spending flesh at every turn?

Actually, the answer is quite simple – and, at its core, it is not a matter of political posturing or point-winning, however often it devolves into that. The cause is Congress's continued unwillingness to deal with Medicare, Social Security, and the Pentagon.

The fact is, despite all the hubbub of the past two years, the federal government has still not made any meaningful spending cuts. And that is mostly because meaningful spending cuts are virtually impossible without addressing entitlements or the Department of Defense.

Congress and the president tried to do just that in the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, yet the fiscal cliff deal shows that Washington, when faced with such cuts, apparently doesn't have the stomach to let them take effect.

So Republicans sent to Washington specifically to rein in government spending have next to nothing to show for it. And the mounting fear is that they might never have anything to show for it – that the classic Washington inertia to do nothing is slowly consuming the energy of the 2010 tea party revolution.

Senator McConnell added Sunday: "Now it's time to pivot to the single biggest threat to our country, both in the short term and the long term ... and that's reducing spending."

Indeed, some Republicans are growing increasingly desperate. They believe that Congress will never get serious about bringing its spending into line unless it is in crisis. So better to manufacture one now, and solve the problem, they say, than to let things linger and eventually become Greece.

At the same time, Washington knows that responsible, long-term fiscal planning cannot move forward until spending is brought under control – it's just that the prospect of entitlement reform or Pentagon cuts are so politically unsavory that the day of reckoning is postponed again and again.

But signs are that it is coming. Credit-rating agency Moody’s has said that “the US's credit rating could be affected ‘negatively’ if Washington fails to take further steps to rein in the deficit.” All parties know the US cannot risk further downgrades to its credit rating.

Moreover, a recent Politico poll found that 75 percent of Americans wanted to rein in deficits by cutting government spending "across the board" (though other polls have shown Americans unsupportive of changes to Medicare and Social Security).

Of course, the Republicans' kamikaze approach to entitlement cuts (with little scrutiny of the Pentagon budget) is not the only option. Reportedly, fiscal-cliff talks brought Mr. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio close to a grand bargain that would have included $900 billion in spending cuts – including $600 billion in entitlement reform. But Obama wanted a significant amount of tax revenue in addition to these cuts – more than Mr. Boehner could countenance.  

And that appears to be the issue going forward. Obama wants more tax revenue to accompany any entitlement reform, probably in the form of limiting tax breaks. Boehner and Republicans say they gave Obama tax revenue in the fiscal-cliff deal but got no spending cuts, meaning now is the time for cuts alone.   

McConnell said as much Sunday. The debate over taxes on Capitol Hill "is over," he told "Face the Nation," adding that Democrats' desire to keep them on the table "underscores the voracious appetite for more taxes on the other side."

But the deeper point is that, with health-care expenses rising and America's baby boomer population putting stresses on Medicare and Social Security, entitlement reform appears inevitable. Congress's current cycle of crisis, then, appears merely to be the way that Washington comes a difficult decision in an age of red state bloggers, blue state pundits, and disgruntled Americans in the middle. 

Retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts talks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, prior to the start of the 113th Congress. Frank said he'd like the Massachusetts governor to appoint him as an interim senator. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Barney Frank wants to be a senator. Is that a good thing or bad? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.04.13

Barney Frank says he wants to be a US senator. Is that a good thing or bad?

Let’s back up and fill in the background here, shall we? Representative Frank (D) of Massachusetts just retired after 16 terms in the House. For 32 years, he’s been pretty much the sharpest-tongued person on Capitol Hill, as well as cantankerous, intelligent, irritating, effective, and outrageous, often all at the same time. He once summed himself up this way: “I’m a left-handed gay Jew. I’ve never felt automatically a member of any majority."

He’s had low moments. In 1990, the House voted to reprimand him for fixing parking tickets for a live-in aide who was also a male prostitute. Republicans consider him the definition of a tax-and-spend liberal.

He’s also had highs. As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he helped write the 2010 Dodd-Frank act of financial-institution reforms. The left wing of the Democratic Party considers him a hero.

In the past, he insisted he was leaving Congress for good. He demurred even after President Obama tapped Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts as the nominee for secretary of State, opening up an interim Senate seat. Frank said he was just too bone tired for the job.

That’s now a nonoperative position. In a number of media interviews Friday, Frank said he’d like Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to appoint him to Senator Kerry’s seat as interim senator until the Bay State could hold a special election later this year.

The reason for this change of heart? The first months of the Senate session will be chock-full o' nuts with interesting issues, what with the debt-limit fight, the sequester fight, and so on, all occurring at once. Frank said it might be “immodest,” but he believes his experience would help the Democratic Party at a crucial time. (He said he wouldn’t run for a full term. But who knows?)

“I think there are progressive ways to work on Social Security and Medicare. I think making the case against them [tea party Republicans] on the debt limit is important,” he told The Boston Globe on Friday. “A split emerged in the Republican Party over the fiscal cliff, with mainstream Republicans splitting with the radical right. I think it’s important for us to continue to exploit that. We need to reach out to conservative Republicans who nonetheless are willing to compromise and find a way to reach a deal.”

Hmm. We’ve got a few thoughts on this matter, unsurprisingly. The first is obvious: This is going to drive conservatives bonkers. Most interim senators are worthy placeholders who don’t engage much in partisan politics. (See “Sen. Paul Kirk (D) of Massachusetts, 2009-2010”). Sen. Barney Frank, on the other hand, would not be there just to keep the office lights on.

“The narcissism of the Beltway barnacle, it burns,” wrote right-leaning pundit Michelle Malkin after the news broke.

(Frank would be the first to point out that Ms. Malkin is mixing metaphors like she’s making soup.)

Second, has anybody heard from Governor Patrick about this? Frank has kind of put him on the spot. Maybe he (Patrick) has somebody else in mind. Can he afford to peeve the liberal wing of the state party? What would a Senate delegation composed of Frank and newly elected Elizabeth Warren try to do? If Republican Scott Brown wants to try to regain his just-lost Senate seat, he might benefit from being able to campaign against the dynamic duo of liberals.

Third, they're probably not holding a party in the White House mess to celebrate “Barney’s Back Day.” Frank is a committed opponent of possible Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel, because of the latter’s past impolitic statements about Jews and gays. (Mr. Hagel has since apologized for those words.)

Plus, as a progressive icon, Frank would be unlikely to applaud any deal the White House might try to strike with the GOP over Medicare or Social Security reforms. He might make any “grand bargain” harder to strike, from Mr. Obama’s point of view.

The debates would be more fun, though. This is a legislator who told a constituent at a 2009 town-hall meeting on health care that “trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to have an argument with a dining-room table.”

And that was a voter! Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell might need to work on developing a thicker skin if Frank’s appointment comes through.

This photo combination shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) of Ohio. Christie, a Republican who has praised President Obama's handling of Superstorm Sandy, on Wednesday blasted Boehner for delaying a vote for federal storm relief. (AP)

Chris Christie: Did primal scream help or hurt his presidential prospects? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 01.03.13

Did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie help or hurt himself on Wednesday by blasting his own political party? In case you haven’t heard, after House Speaker John Boehner delayed a vote on a $60 billion superstorm Sandy recovery bill, Governor Christie lit up Mr. Boehner and Republican House members like they were sparklers.

The Sandy legislation “could not overcome the toxic internal politics of the House majority,” Christie said at a brutal Trenton news conference.

Adding that “palace intrigue” had helped scuttle a bill important to New Jersey, New York, and other areas hard hit by the Oct. 29 storm, Christie heaped disdain on you-know-who for something he (Christie) considered a debacle.

“There’s only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims, the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner,” said Christie.

“It’s why the American people hate Congress,” he added, getting in another kick on the way out the door.

Christie’s bravura performance of a governor scorned is probably a big help for him in his current job, of course. For one thing, it worked, or at least appeared to. Under the pressure of negative comments from Christie, New York Rep. Peter King, and other northeastern Republicans, Boehner scheduled an initial vote Friday on a $9 billion Sandy flood insurance package, and promised that a vote on a further $51 billion in aid will take place on the first full legislative day of the next Congress, Jan. 15.

Christie is running for reelection, and his constituents are unlikely to be offended by his blunt, successful tirade. It could enter New Jersey lore, maybe as the subject of a Bruce Springsteen song. (Hey, Springsteen fan Christie can dream, can’t he? The Boss wrote a rocker about the prosaic subject of tearing down Giants Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, after all.)

But if Christie wants to run for president someday his primal scream may not help.

Yes, many voters will agree with him and admire a politician who’s willing to cross his own party to get things done. In a general election Christie would probably benefit from a press conference that looks like leadership – if you’re not John Boehner or a House GOP member.

But remember the primaries? That’s a gantlet that any 2016 contender will have to run. For the most part, Democrats and independents don’t get to vote in GOP primaries. Christie would have to appeal only to Republicans, and many of them are likely to have lingering resentments about Christie’s 2012 role.

We’re not just talking about tea party adherents who view Christie as a closet northeastern liberal – Massachusetts' Mitt Romney without the hair. Many mainstream Republicans remain unhappy with the enthusiastic way Christie embraced President Obama in the wake of Sandy’s devastation.

The right-leaning Weekly Standard, for instance, championed a possible Christie 2012 run prior to primary season. But on Wednesday their post on his Trenton press conference was headlined “Christie Craving Pork-filled Sandy Bill.”

The legislation Christie wanted passed is full of financial favors tacked on by Senate Democrats, wrote the Standard’s Daniel Halper.

“After yesterday’s fight over the ‘fiscal cliff’ deal it seems reasonable that Congress might not have been up for another battle just yet,” wrote Halper.

The National Review added that the Sandy bill is about the second wave of federal aid to the area, not the first. FEMA’s emergency funds cover initial recovery efforts. The legislation in question provides cash for rebuilding, which is a less time-sensitive requirement, wrote Daniel Foster.

“The cataclysmic tone struck by northeastern Republicans like Peter King (who is implying he could leave the party) and Chris Christie ... strikes me as unnecessary,” wrote Foster just prior to Christie’s rant.

Given that, it would sure be interesting to see how 2016 opponents (Jeb Bush, anyone?) handle Christie’s occasional anti-House GOP comments, if the New Jersey governor decides to try his hand at the national political game.

In this September 2012 file photo, Donald Trump arrives for the opening ceremony at the Ryder Cup PGA golf tournament at the Medinah Country Club in Medinah, Ill. Trump slammed the GOP on Wednesday in tweets, saying they'd caved in to Democrats and agreed to a 'terrible' deal on the 'fiscal cliff.' (David J. Phillip/AP/File)

Donald Trump slams GOP: How would he have struck 'fiscal cliff' deal?

By Staff writer / 01.02.13

Donald Trump slammed Republicans on Wednesday, saying they’d caved in to Democrats and agreed to a “terrible” deal on the "fiscal cliff."

“Does any Republican have the ability to negotiate?” tweeted the apparently exasperated real estate mogul/reality-show star after the House passed the cliff compromise and sent it to President Obama.

“Obama and the Democrats are laughing at the deal they just made ... the Republicans got nothing!” Mr. Trump judged.

FISCAL CLIFF 101: 5 basic questions answered

OK then. Perhaps the former front-runner for the GOP nomination – albeit one who never actually flung his hair into the ring – could have done better. What principles would someone who wrote a book called “The Art of the Deal” have followed in pursuing cliff-avoidance legislation?

First, he’d have thought big. “Think big” is one of the “Trump cards” he listed in his 1987 book, after all.

Presumably that means he would have preferred the grand-bargain approach – one in which both looming tax hikes and budget cuts would have been avoided; Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlements reformed; the tax code scrubbed of loopholes, and the nation generally put on a fiscal path toward deficit elimination.

“[O]nly the big deal should be approved!” he tweeted back on Dec. 28.

Good luck with that. The problem here is that running the country is different from designing hotel lobbies. There are so many political participants with so many different points of view that lately, it’s amazing if they can agree what day it is. Mr. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have tried twice now to strike a grand bargain, and they failed. Perhaps President Trump would have done better in that regard; we doubt it.

Second, Trump would have “used his leverage,” in another Trump card phrase. “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” Trump wrote back in 1987.

Of course, that means he might have urged Speaker Boehner to pretend that he’d be just fine with going over the cliff. The problem with that is it would have been difficult for the GOP to shrug off raising taxes on all Americans, right? Also, Republicans aren't going to be able to pretend they are OK with deep cuts in the Pentagon budget. Move along.

In other words, the GOP had little leverage to use in this instance. That was one of Boehner’s fundamental problems.

A third 1987 Trump card he might have invoked: “have fun.” Gather everybody in the cabinet room for pizza and a screening of “The Hobbit.” Play charades and make Sen. Mitch McConnell act out the word “sequester.” Stuff like that.

OK, maybe that would have helped. But given an atmosphere in which Boehner was accosting Senate majority leader Harry Reid in the White House and using very bad language because Senator Reid had publicly criticized the GOP leadership – well, having fun wasn’t in the cards.

Perhaps Trump was just angry because he’s one of those billionaires whose taxes have just gone up. But if this deal is so bad, why is Wall Street so happy? The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped more than 200 points at the opening bell Wednesday. Presumably Trump owns a few stocks. So far, this deal is making him money.

Actor Ben Affleck appeared on Face the Nation last week; some are wondering if he is contemplating a run for the Senate seat that will become open if John Kerry is confirmed as Secretary of State. (CBS News/Handout)

Might Ben Affleck try leap from Hollywood to US Senate? So far, he's cagey.

By Staff writer / 12.24.12

Could Ben Affleck head to Washington?

It seems like a long shot, but the actor and director's name has come up recently amid speculation over who will run for John Kerry's US Senate seat if the Massachusetts senator slides over to the State Department to serve as President Obama's foreign affairs chief. 

Mr. Affleck didn't start up the rumor mill, but when given an opportunity to say he isn't interested, he demurred – a move guaranteed to keep the rumors flying in Washington and, of course, Massachusetts. In an interview aired Dec. 23 on CBS's "Face the Nation," Affleck said "I'm not one to get into conjecture," when host Bob Schieffer asked him directly about any US Senate aspirations.

"I do have great fondness and admiration for the political process in this country," Affleck told Mr. Schieffer, "but I'm not going to get into speculation about my political future."

"Right now," he added, "I'm really happy being involved from the outside in government, advocating for the Congolese [and] taking this movie that I made, 'Argo' – it's really become a springboard for a dialogue about our relationship with Iran."

Affleck, founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, was in Washington to raise awareness about violence in Congo. He testified before Congress on Wednesday about the conflict and said he will make his 10th trip there next year. He also met with Senator Kerry, along with other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

CBS Boston's Jon Keller was among the first to mention the star's name in connection with the Senate seat, saying he'd heard Affleck's name "tossed around" among the possibilities to replace Kerry.

Interest in the seat is high. GOP Sen. Scott Brown in November narrowly lost his reelection bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren, and he is widely presumed to be interested in running for Kerry's vacated seat, should Kerry win Senate confirmation to be secretary of State. Affleck is just one of many Democrats whose names have come up to run against him. Others include US Reps. Edward Markey, Steven Lynch, and Michael Capuano; former Congressman Marty Meehan; state senator Ben Downing; and Victoria Kennedy, widow of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy Jr., eldest son of the late senator, has decided against running for the seat, according to a Boston Globe report Monday.

Affleck, who has long campaigned for Democratic candidates and who majored in Middle Eastern studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, would face significant challenges: a lack of any previous political experience running for office; the need to raise cash quickly (or use his own); and a crowded Democratic field. He grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and currently owns a home in the Bay State, but under state law he also wouldn't need to establish legal residency until Election Day.

And it's unclear whether Affleck, a filmmaker who seems to be reaching a new career peak behind the camera, would have an interest in trying for elected office.

But he would also not be the first actor to do so.

Surprisingly, despite the stereotype of Hollywood being full of liberals, most high-profile thespians and entertainers who have moved into politics have been Republicans.

Ronald Reagan, arguably the most successful and well-known actor-turned-politician, springs to mind. But there's also Arnold Schwarzenegger – who, now that he's finished two terms as California governor, has returned to acting.

There's Sonny Bono, the musician and actor who was elected mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., before twice being elected a US congressman. And Fred Thompson, best known for his role on TV's "Law & Order," and who played a US president three times in his acting career. Thompson served in the US Senate for eight years and later ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. Clint Eastwood's career as an elected official has been confined to two terms as mayor of Carmel, Calif. But he made bigger political news this year when, during the GOP convention to nominate Mitt Romney, he gave an odd – and widely criticized – speech to an empty chair.

Jesse Ventura, the actor and professional wrestler who became Minnesota's governor, eschewed both Democrats and Republicans, running first as the candidate of the Reform Party of Minnesota (he later switched to the state's Independence Party).

Democratic actors who make the move from entertainment to political office are fewer, with Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota as the most prominent. A former SNL comedian and talk-show host, Senator Franken barely eked out a Senate win in 2008 in a hotly contested election.

Talk of Affleck as a candidate may be simply a combination of wishful thinking by media pundits and Democrats worried that Senator Brown needs a high-profile opponent.

Among other hurdles, it's unclear why Affleck would want to leave a successful career as both a filmmaker and actor. Having directed three critically acclaimed movies – and considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination this winter – Affleck finally seems to have laid to rest the embarrassment of past films like "Gigli" and "Surviving Christmas."

A move to Congress – where approval ratings haven't hit 25 percent in three years, and more often are stuck below 20 percent – would hardly be a reputation-builder. 

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio departs, with reporters nearby after a meeting of House Republicans on Capitol Hill Thursday in Washington. Confronted with a revolt among the rank and file, House Republicans abruptly put off a vote Thursday night on legislation allowing tax rates to rise for households earning $1 million and up. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Boehner 'Plan B' flop: Good or bad for President Obama? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 12.21.12

So House Speaker John Boehner whiffed with "Plan B." He couldn’t get the Republican caucus to pass his own bill extending Bush-era tax cuts for all but those with incomes over $1 million. If you’re President Obama, sitting in the Oval Office thinking about the chaos on Capitol Hill, are you happy or sad? Is this good or bad for the administration’s negotiating position?

At first glance it appears to be a happy event for Democrats, politically speaking. Mr. Boehner’s leverage in negotiations might have been increased by House passage of Plan B. He’d have shown that the GOP had a plan of its own to avoid the "fiscal cliff" and blame from voters. Mr. Obama might have had to edge closer to Boehner’s position, giving up more revenue enhancement and promising larger reductions in spending, to produce any kind of grand fiscal deal.

“Obama already had the upper hand in these negotiations – he was reelected just over a month ago – and Boehner knew it. What happened on the House floor Thursday night made a bad bargaining situation for Boehner that much worse,” writes analyst Chris Cillizza on The Fix Washington Post political blog.

With many House conservatives balking at Boehner’s tax plan, the Republican Party appears split and confused. The speaker is the party’s highest ranking elected leader, but he can’t control his own caucus or chamber. It’s hard to see who would replace him, but if a serious candidate emerges it is possible Boehner’s position is in doubt.

“It’s hard to see how Speaker Boehner continues from here – or why he would want to,” writes David Kurtz, managing editor of the generally left-leaning Talking Points Memo web site.

But politics (outside of elections) isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. It’s possible that Obama this morning is grimly contemplating a rockier road ahead.

For one thing, who is Obama now negotiating with? The speaker? House conservatives? Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell? The White House had hoped for a debt reduction package of $4 trillion or so, spread out over a decade. It now appears there is no general on the other side who can order his troops to rally around such a deal.

Second, what’s the process? Prior to the failure of Plan B, things had been proceeding according in a typical Washington fashion, which is to say, with the predictable conflict and stilted mannerisms of kabuki. Now all is chaos. The House has gone home for Christmas. There might not be enough time remaining to cobble together even a short-term deal to keep deep spending cuts and tax increases from occurring in a fiscal cliff scenario.

Sure, polls show more voters would blame the GOP than the White House if the nation plunges over the cliff. But the post-cliff scenario is unpredictable. Who knows how voters would actually react, especially if the standoff lingers for weeks? Plus, the economy is likely to suffer from even a short cliff plunge. Just wait to see what happens to stock prices.

“The grim reality in Washington is that nobody really knows whether or where there’s a path to avoid the fiscal cliff, in the aftermath of House Republicans’ stunning failure to pass Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B,” writes long-time Wall Street Journal Washington columnist Gerald Seib this morning.

There may be two likely scenarios going forward. In one, Boehner works with the White House to craft a solution that can pass with the support of perhaps half of his caucus, plus House Democrats. Some liberals are happy about the possibility of this coming to pass. Shorn of the need to placate the conservatives, Boehner could tack to the left to get a deal done, in this view.

The other scenario is simply the absence of the first one. Perhaps Boehner will decline to bring forward a plan his own caucus does not support – he remains the most powerful lawmaker in the House, after all. Perhaps he is deposed and replaced by a more ideological GOP leader. Perhaps he planned for Plan B to fail, to demonstrate to Obama where House Republicans really stand.

“Despite all the overheated rhetoric, Obama and Boehner aren’t that far apart on the actual numbers.... The path to a deal remains. The only question is whether the speaker and the president can walk down it together,” writes Chris Frates of the National Journal this morning.

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