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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. 

President Obama gestures as he speaks in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, in Washington, about helping the long-term unemployed. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly interviewed President Obama prior to the Super Bowl on Sunday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Bill O'Reilly interviews Obama: too tough ... or too easy? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.03.14

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly interviewed President Obama prior to the Super Bowl on Sunday, and it was a tough, contentious 15 minutes. Mr. O’Reilly interrupted Mr. Obama a number of times, while Obama blamed some of his problems on Fox.

So who won?

Well, it’s tough to “win” or “lose” in a presidential interview, given that there’s no easy way to keep score. But we’d say both men accomplished what they set out to do. O’Reilly got clips he can use on his show for weeks. Obama got to challenge the veracity of the conservative news worldview – something that will play well with his own supporters.

First, the host. O’Reilly sounded tough and focused on the three subjects his network has been pounding on for months: the botched "Obamacare" rollout, the Benghazi attack in 2012 that killed the US ambassador in Libya, and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

On Obamacare, O’Reilly asked when the president knew there would be problems. Obama replied that everyone knew it wouldn’t go perfectly, and so forth, and then the host jumped in and asked why Obama hadn’t fired Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

This seemed to put the president back on his heels a bit. He said, “When we’re in midstream, Bill, we want to make sure that our main focus is how do we make this thing work so that people are able to sign up?”

O’Reilly then asked if Obama felt his biggest mistake had been telling people they could keep their health insurance, if they liked their insurance.

“Oh Bill, you’ve got a long list of my mistakes of my presidency,” replied Obama, turning the question around.

He added, as he has when asked in the past, that this was a matter he “regretted.”

Perhaps because he felt pressed for time, O’Reilly didn’t follow up here. He just moved on. Next subject up: Benghazi.

For the most part here O’Reilly looked backwards. He dwelt on why administration officials didn’t use the word “terror” in their initial reports about the attack.

Obama said that initial reports were confusing but that “people understood at the time that something dangerous was happening.”

“We’ve got to make sure that not only have we implemented all the reforms that were recommended by the independent agencies, but we also have to make sure that we understand our folks out there are in a hazardous, dangerous situation,” said Obama.

Then there was some back and forth as to whether the administration had not described Benghazi as a terrorist attack because Obama’s campaign team did not want that word used prior to the November 2012 election, lest Al Qaeda appear resurgent.

Detractors believe this, said O’Reilly.

That’s when Obama turned around and put the blame on Fox.

“They believe it because folks like you are telling them that,” he said. He also noted that many congressional hearings have spent hours looking at all these questions.

Then O’Reilly moved on to the IRS. He noted that a former IRS chief, Douglas Shulman, was cleared to visit the Obama White House 157 times. The implication, which he did not address directly, is that top administration officials were aware of the extra scrutiny the IRS gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

Obama noted that Mr. Shulman was involved in the Obamacare rollout and thus had lots of White House meetings to attend. (As other journalists have pointed out, most of those meetings were in the Old Executive Office Building, not the White House itself, and three-quarters of them were regularly scheduled health-care meetings.)

“I do not recall meeting with him in any of these meetings, which are pretty routine meetings,” said Obama.

That was about it. They ended on a positive note with O’Reilly saying he felt Obama’s “heart was in the right place,” and Obama making a wildly inaccurate prediction for the score of the upcoming game.

Was O’Reilly insulting? Or was he too easy? In fact, some critics of the president were annoyed that the Fox host focused on asking questions that Obama has been asked many times before, on subjects that have chalked up hours of congressional scrutiny, as the president himself said.

O’Reilly conducted a “faux-tough interview made up of questions that were virtually guaranteed to elicit nothing of value,” wrote the Atlantic’s Conor Freidersdorf, who has been critical of the administration’s drone and surveillance policies.

“Those who want Obama to face tough questions saw an opportunity squandered, and were bored to tears by stuff we’ve already heard,” Mr. Freidersdorf added.

He was not the only journalist who said O’Reilly’s tough demeanor actually concealed the fact that the questions were framed in such a manner as to make them easily deflectable.

“It’s a shame. O’Reilly had 15 minutes and an audience of millions to ask the president hard questions. Instead he lobbed lumpy softballs,” wrote Marc Ambinder, editor-at-large of the news magazine The Week.

To some conservatives, however, the interview revealed that Obama is persisting in explanations that they hold to be implausible.

“Obama DOUBLES DOWN on IRS targeting denial” was part of the headline on the right-leaning Daily Caller story about the interview, for instance.

Canadian musician Justin Bieber is swarmed by media and police officers as he turns himself into city police for an expected assault charge, in Toronto, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. A police official said the charge has to do with an alleged assault on a limo driver in December. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/AP)

Justin Bieber: Would US actually deport pop prince? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.30.14

Can the US government deport Justin Bieber? We’re pretty sure that is not an agenda item for the next National Security Council Deputies Committee meeting. But there’s a request to deport the Canadian pop prince on the White House “We the People” online petition site, and it’s got almost 200,000 signatures. When an appeal gets that much support, the administration is supposed to officially respond.

What that response will be, we don’t yet know. The world holds its breath, apparently.

First, for all you Beliebers out there, don’t be too worried. The “We the People” site is not some sort of citizen vigilante Supreme Court. It’s a PR thing by the White House to make people feel they have an influence, however small, on the course of our great nation. Mr. Bieber will not be deported just because hundreds of thousands of Americans wish it. He’ll be deported because his music is terrible.

Ha, ha, just kidding kids! Can I have my Twitter feed back now?

Anyway, the White House (may) respond to this petition when it gets around to it. But that “response” may be just some sort of generic statement that it's heard the will of the people, or that this raises some serious issues, or that we should all calm down and listen to some Nickelback. It doesn’t have to involve action at all.

Second, as things stand now, there’s no way Bieber gets booted out of the country. He’s here on a valid visa, and last we looked, he has been convicted of no crime. Sure, he was arrested in Miami on suspicion of drunken driving, resisting arrest, and other bad stuff. He could face vandalism charges for that egg-throwing incident back in the L.A. area, where a neighbor claims Bieber-launched yolks caused extensive damage to his house.

But Bieber hasn’t gone to trial, and good lawyers ought to be able to plea-bargain and otherwise maneuver their client’s way through this thicket.

“We will see how Bieber’s legal proceedings play out. Criminal convictions would seem necessary to ever deport him, especially given his ability to secure immigration counsel,” writes Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California at Davis School of Law, at the “ImmigrationProf Blog.”

Third – and here’s the “but” moment – Bieber may be safe for now, but he can see deportation from where he’s standing. In fact, advocates for immigration reform are pointing to Bieber’s case as a moment to try to teach Americans about what the advocates say are the excesses and arbitrary nature of the deportation system.

If Bieber were poor or Hispanic, it is much more likely that his actions would result in a one-way ticket to his homeland, they say.

“[W]e are watching with interest to see issues Bieber’s situation will shine on the United States’ dysfunctional immigration enforcement system, which doesn’t offer due process to those caught up in its web,” writes Diana Scholl of the American Civil Liberties Union in a post on the case.

Bieber is a legal resident. He is in the US on an “O-1” visa, which is given to people in science, business, athletics, education, and the arts who exhibit “extraordinary ability.”

Sometimes the best jokes write themselves.

Long story short, an O-1 visa holder generally has to be convicted of an aggravated felony or crimes of “moral turpitude” to be deported under US law. But that’s not quite as difficult as it sounds. Some misdemeanors can be defined as “aggravated felonies” for the purposes of deportation, according to immigration lawyers. The American Immigration Council points to the case of Kellyann Jeanette Charles, a native of Trinidad and Tobago and green-card holder who is facing deportation on a shoplifting conviction that has been classified an aggravated felony.

“[F]or immigrants ... 'aggravated felony' covers more than thirty offenses, including simple battery, theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court,” writes Matthew Kolodziej, a legislative fellow at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Drug crimes can also lead to deportation – and Bieber allegedly has copped to having smoked marijuana and popped some pills prior to his Miami arrest, though he hasn’t been charged with drug-related offenses in either Florida or California.

Again, Bieber’s been charged with nothing so far that a good lawyer probably can’t handle. (But he’s also fortunate to be able to afford lawyers. Unlike in criminal court, in immigration court defendants are not guaranteed right to counsel, according to the ACLU.) Unless his notorious activities escalate, Bieber should remain a US resident.

But a few more blowups, and Bieber may be saying, “Hello, Toronto.” Where he faces separate legal charges for allegedly assaulting a limousine driver, by the way.

“Of course, one could face worse fates than being deported to Canada. But, depending how all this plays out, Bieber could face a bar on returning to the U.S. for a long time after deportation – long enough to lose those baby cheeks,” writes Ilona Bray, an immigration lawyer and author of “Becoming a U.S. Citizen.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., meets with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, the day after President Obama's State of the Union address. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Should Democrats abandon House to defend Senate? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.30.14

Should Democrats give up on retaking the House in 2014 and shift campaign dollars to the battle for the Senate? That’s the theme of a piece in Politico on Wednesday that says Democratic Party operatives and big donors are talking about such a strategy among themselves.

“It’s a delicate decision for Democrats and one not taken lightly,” Politico’s Alex Isenstadt writes.

Well, the decision may be delicate, but the numbers involved here are anything but. The election is still months away, and a lot can happen. But if current polls hold, continued Republican control of the House is a foregone conclusion. Democrats would need a net gain of 17 seats to retake the chamber, and if you go down the list and look at it race by race, a gain of that size seems highly unlikely.

“Although individual skirmishes will provide plenty of drama, the end result – a Republican hold in the House – is almost a certainty,” write University of Virginia political scientists Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley in their latest Center for Politics “Crystal Ball” forecast.

For Democrats to regain the speaker’s chair for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, three things would have had to occur, wrote prognosticator David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report late last year. Republican budget intransigence would have had to continue. More GOP members from marginal districts would have had to retire. Democrats would have had to recruit five or 10 additional top-tier candidates to run in districts currently held by the other party.

None of that happened. Instead, Democrats got the drip-drip of the troubled Obamacare rollout. The big-name retirements all seem to be Democrats, with Rep. Henry Waxman of California just the latest example.

As a result, Cook Political Report’s forecast is that Republicans will gain between zero and 10 seats.

The Senate is a different country. Right now it has 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and two independents that caucus with the Democrats. The GOP needs a net gain of six to switch chamber control.

Given that midterms generally aren’t favorable to the president’s party, as well as the current general electoral environment, such a Republican jump is possible, maybe even probable.

Crunching the numbers, Andrew Gelman, a Columbia University professor of statistics and political science, currently forecasts the Democratic Party’s chances of losing the Senate at 56 percent, more or less. Right now the margin of uncertainty there is five points or so either way, he adds.

“We’ll learn more as the election gets closer,” he writes on the “Monkey Cage” political science blog.

One big factor here may be President Obama’s low favorability rating. State-by-state outcomes in House and Senate races correlate fairly closely with presidential job ratings, according to RealClearPolitics polling and political analyst Sean Trende.

Right now, about 43 percent of Americans give Mr. Obama a favorable job-approval rating, according to RealClearPolitics' rolling average of major polls. If that figure does not go up, the question won’t be whether the GOP retakes the Senate, Mr. Trende says. It will be whether Republicans end up with 54 or 55 seats.

“If the president is unpopular, it is going to make it really tough for these red state Democrats who are up in 2014,” Trende said in a video interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Given all this, why wouldn’t Democrats shift resources to Senate defense? The real question is whether such a move would make much difference. Dollars can do only so much at the federal campaign level. The national political environment, quality of the candidates, and the state of the economy are all important parts of Senate electoral results.

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber, Jan. 28, in Washington. (Larry Downing/AP/File)

State of the Union: How are voters reacting to Obama's speech? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.29.14

So President Obama’s big State of the Union moment has come and gone. How did voters react to the speech?

Well, the first poll numbers are rolling in, and they look OK for the White House. According to a snap CNN/ORC survey, 44 percent of viewers who’d watched Mr. Obama said they had a “very positive” response to his SOTU address. Thirty-two percent said they had a “somewhat positive” response, and 22 percent disliked it.

That’s about the same level of overall positive response as Obama got last year in a similar poll, although the percentage of people in the top “very positive” category was higher in 2013.

Similarly, a just-released CBS poll shows 83 percent of responding viewers said they approved of the proposals outlined in the speech. Only 17 percent disapproved.

There are a couple of mitigating factors to keep in mind here, however. The first is that SOTUs are often well-received by voters, no matter how much David Brooks on PBS (or any other pundit) gripes in its aftermath.

In a 2002 CBS poll, 85 percent of viewers said they approved of then-President George W. Bush’s State of the Union, for instance.

In part this is because voters who choose to watch the speech in the first place tend to be predisposed to like it. The audience for a Democratic president’s SOTU will be disproportionately made up of Democrats; that for a Republican president will be more heavily GOP.

The other point of context for this year’s State of the Union is that the overall audience shrank. Bloomberg has added up the numbers, and it figures Obama’s total audience was about 31 million viewers. That’s down from about 33 million in 2013, and is the smallest SOTU audience of Obama’s term in office.

It’s very unlikely that Tuesday night’s address will boost Obama’s favorability ratings in the long term. That’s because a chief executive’s words, by themselves, generally don’t affect polls, according to John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University who specializes in public opinion and elections.

“Speeches, no matter how eloquent or well-received, rarely make a president more popular,” writes Mr. Sides on the “Monkey Cage” political science blog hosted by the Washington Post.

But that does not mean the public ignores the content of presidential speeches entirely, Sides adds. Voters learn from SOTUs and other addresses. They tend to rate issues identified in presidential speeches as more important.

This could have some political effect down the road.

Democracy Group, a Democratic-leaning firm founded by Clinton strategist James Carville and pollster Stanley Greenburg, ran a dial testing survey during Tuesday’s speech. That’s where participants turn a dial up or down to rate what they’re hearing at the moment.

They added results from a focus group of 44 Colorado swing voters. Among their overall findings: Participants rated Obama’s economic plans much more highly after the speech was over.

“Voters gave him high marks on his push for [gender] paycheck fairness, minimum wage, education, student loans, and job training. Even Republicans in our audience responded positively to Obama’s plan for paycheck fairness,” wrote Greenberg, Carville, et al.

That could be dismissed as wishful thinking from a left-leaning organization. But the conservative journalist Byron York notes in the Washington Examiner that Democracy Group has not hesitated to criticize Democrats in the past.

The GOP should pay attention to their findings, Mr. York writes Wednesday.

“The bottom line is that the [focus] group in Colorado – swing voters in a swing state – responded much more positively to the substance of Obama’s speech than the horde of lawmakers, aides, tweeters and talkers in Washington. That is something Republicans in particular should note as they shape their agenda for 2014,” according to York.

Representative Michael Grimm (R) of New York talks to the media at the US Capitol in Washington January 2, 2013. Grimm, who agreed to be interviewed by a reporter following President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, got very angry. (Gary Cameron/Reuters/File)

Rep. Michael Grimm rips reporter. Why so angry? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.29.14

Rep. Michael Grimm (R) of New York got very, very mad at a reporter following President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night. How mad? Mad enough to physically threaten NY1 cable news journalist Michael Scotto.

“I’ll break you in half. Like a boy,” Representative Grimm told Mr. Scotto after the latter asked him about a federal investigation into his campaign finances.

Grimm was initially unrepentant Wednesday morning. He said that he was doing Scotto a favor by agreeing to be interviewed about Mr. Obama’s speech and that to ask him about the federal investigation as part of that interview was a “cheap shot.”

“I doubt that I am the first member of Congress to tell off a reporter, and I am sure I won’t be the last,” Grimm said in a statement.

On Wednesday he apologized for his actions, telling reporters he had "lost his cool."

It’s true he won’t be the last lawmaker to tell a reporter to shove it. But Grimm may also be touchy about this subject because the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe is a serious one that could send people to jail and end others’ careers.

Grimm himself has been charged with no crime. Diana Durand, a woman described in press reports as Grimm’s former girlfriend, has been arraigned in federal court on charges that she used so-called straw donors to funnel illegal contributions to two members of Congress.

Neither lawmaker is named in the federal complaint. But press reports say they are Grimm and Rep. Aaron Schock (R) of Illinois.

Ms. Durand may not be the final target of this FBI probe, according to Roll Call political money specialist Kent Cooper. The charges against her “may be part of a strategic plan to bring pressure on someone under investigation,” he wrote earlier this month.

Grimm himself was an FBI agent at one point in his colorful past. He can put these dots together without the media’s help.

“Straw donors” are donors used to evade federal limits on campaign contributions to individual candidates. They work like this: Say you’re a friend of a member of Congress, and you want to give him or her more than the $4,800 you can legally give a campaign. You enlist another friend to give $4,800 – and then, in turn, you pay that friend back for his or her largess.

This is what the Feds have charged conservative author-filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza with doing. They charge he funneled $10,000 to the campaign of New York Republican Senate candidate Wendy Long in 2012.

Mr. D’Souza has pleaded not guilty to those charges. Prosecutors have told the federal judge handling the matter that Ms. Long, who attended Dartmouth with D’Souza, will testify against him.

As for Durand, she is a Houston resident who was a friend of Grimm’s, according to the complaint filed against her. News reports say the pair became acquainted in 2008, when Grimm had business dealings in Texas.

The FBI complaint says that Durand recruited two co-workers to serve as straw donors to “Congressman A” in 2010.

The complaint quotes an e-mail that Durand wrote thanking them for their help, which she called “priceless.”

“I still have to make the deposit but I can write you both a check, or I can get your account numbers and do a transfer, whatever works for you,” Durand wrote, in an apparent reference to reimbursing the co-workers for their expense.

The New York Times has identified “Congressman A” as Grimm and said the details of the contributions match the disclosed records of Grimm’s campaign contributions.

In a separate matter, the FBI is also probing whether Ofer Biton, an associate of a charismatic Orthodox rabbi, collected questionable money for Grimm’s campaign from the rabbi’s congregation.

Many of the rabbi’s followers are Israeli citizens. Foreign donations are barred from US campaigns.

It is not illegal for a candidate to accept straw donor money if the candidate does not know the scheme behind the contribution. As noted above, Grimm has not been charged with any campaign finance violation.

But among lawmakers, he is not seen as a phlegmatic colleague. Quite the contrary. A former member of the US Army and an 11-year FBI agent, Grimm is an avid weight lifter known to the New York tabloids as “Mikey Suits.” He’s threatened other NY1 journalists in the past, according to NY1 political director Bob Hardt.

“Rep. Michael Grimm’s bizarre and scary rant against our Michael Scotto last night is not an isolated incident; it’s part of a pattern in which the congressman has tried to avoid questions from NY1 about an ongoing probe into his campaign finances – and then become enraged when we’ve dared to ask him about a legitimate story,” Mr. Hardt writes.

Senator John McCain, seen here at a 2011 Monitor Breakfast event in Washington, DC, has been censured by Arizona GOP leaders. On Saturday, they adopted a resolution saying that unless his attitude changes, the state party won’t work or campaign for him. (Michael Bonfigli / The Christian Science Monitor / File)

John McCain censured by Arizona GOP. Too liberal for his state? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.28.14

Is John McCain too liberal for Arizona? Yes, that question may sound a bit weird, given that he’s the state’s senior Republican and has won reelection as a senator four times. But the 2008 GOP presidential nominee has gotten crosswise with the Arizona Republican Party, apparently. On Saturday, a party meeting in Tempe censured Senator McCain for working too closely with Democrats on immigration and the federal budget, among things.

McCain “has abandoned our values and has been eerily silent against Liberals, yet publicly reprimands Conservatives in his own Party,” read a resolution adopted by party leaders on a voice vote.

McCain’s caustic criticism of Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and other tea party conservatives whose push to defund Obamacare led to last year’s government shutdown was another strike against him, in the eyes of Arizona critics. The resolution says that unless his attitude changes, the state party won’t work or campaign for McCain.

“Our complaint is that John McCain is always working on the other side of the aisle and he never lands on our side of the aisle,” said Timothy Schwartz, an Arizona GOP district chairman, on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Monday night.

What’s going on here? It’s possible state conservatives are trying to wave McCain off a try for a sixth term in 2016. He hasn’t yet said whether he’s going to run for reelection.

But McCain handily defeated a conservative primary challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, in 2010, so grumblings from that side of the party may not bother him. And anybody who’s met the man can figure out that poking him just might persuade him to run again out of irritation.

“If anything, it fires me up,” McCain said on Monday.

McCain said he’s got polling showing he’s an overwhelming favorite in Arizona. And he may be right, not just because of his long service, but because Arizona is not as conservative a state as some pundits might realize.

Sure, Arizona has Joe Arpaio, the self-described “Toughest Sheriff in America.” (He’s just put some prisoners on a bread and water diet for desecrating the American flag.) It has GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, who got some attention for maybe waving her finger in President Obama’s face during his visit to Arizona in 2012.

In 2012, GOP candidate Mitt Romney handily defeated Mr. Obama in Arizona, 53 to 44 percent.

But last year, Gallup rated the relative conservative-liberal balance in all 50 states, by asking residents how they would describe their own political values. And Arizona came out ... almost exactly in the middle.

That’s right. Arizona is not in America’s top 10 conservative states, according to Gallup. It is not even in the top 20. It is just a tick more red state than Colorado and Virginia, both of which are former red states trending purpler with each passing electoral cycle.

Did we mention that almost 30 percent of Arizona's population is Hispanic? That’s not a GOP-leaning demographic group to put it mildly.

Perhaps that is why Arizona is one of only six Republican-controlled states to agree to expand Medicaid, as called for in the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

McCain is no Democrat’s idea of a liberal. He fought against passage of Obamacare and is an enthusiastic voice pushing a muscular, interventionist US foreign policy around the world.

But it’s likely he’s more in tune with Arizona voters than his party leadership.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington speaks at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 14, 2012. Rodgers, the highest-ranking House GOP female, will be the official party speaker after the State of the Union address Tuesday night. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

State of the Union: Why so many GOP responders? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.28.14

There will be multiple Republican responses to President Obama’s State of the Union address – so many that voters might need a scorecard to keep them all straight.

The official party speaker will be Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington. She was chosen in part to counter Democratic charges that the GOP wages a “war on women.” As the head of the House Republican Conference, Representative Rodgers is the highest-ranking House GOP female. She’s also the mother of three young kids and the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Then there is the official Spanish-speaking party responder. That will be Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida. She’ll essentially read a translation of Rodgers’s words, with personal anecdotes and references changed or edited out.

In recent years, the tea party wing of the GOP has proffered its own SOTU comments, and that’s continuing this year. Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah gets the nod here. Plus, this year Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is offering his personal response. We’re sure it’s just a coincidence that he’s a possible 2016 presidential contender.

There will also be somewhat less formal Republican Party comments from a host of tweeters and designated surrogates around the country. The National Republican Congressional Committee, for instance, is running a “SOTU Rapid Response” page on Twitter.

The obvious question about all this is “why"? Responding to a State of the Union speech isn’t easy: The president gets a grand setting with a large audience, and the responder gets a small room and static camera angles. Nor do the responders usually get much time to practice, which can lead to awkward moments. Last year, a thirsty Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida made an ill-advised duck and grab for a water bottle, leading to endless mockery on social media.

There’s also little evidence that a responder gets a political boost. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin gave the response in 2011, and that worked out well for him, at least in terms of boosting him onto a (losing) national ticket. But 2010? Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia. Yes, that’s the same Bob McDonnell who was just indicted on charges of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of illegal gifts.

When it comes to SOTU response, “The star of the moment rarely lasts as a star,” writes conservative-leaning Jennifer Rubin on her “Right Turn” Washington Post blog.

But the context for the opposition party response in this forum may be changing. That’s the quick answer to “why now”? The rise of social media and Web-based broadcasting means that even unofficial responders can reach a much larger, and more like-minded, audience than before. For instance, Senator Paul plans to blast out clips of his remarks on Twitter and Facebook to supporters around the country.

The Republican Party’s current internal divisions also play a role in the multiple responses. Tea party conservatives are competing with establishment Republicans for a bigger say in party policies. The libertarian hero Paul is trying to cut his own path to presidential contention.

Of course, the multiplicity of voices may make the GOP look divided. But that should not matter too much, according to Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, unless the tea party faction bolts and fields its own candidate for 2016.

“[T]hat’s highly unlikely, and we’ve seen plenty of instances of intra-party squabbling among Republicans in recent years even while they rally around their presidential nominee,” Dr. Masket writes on the “Mischiefs of Faction” political science blog.

The excitement quotient of these responses remains to be seen. But in general, the politicians given the job of SOTU follow-up could do a much better job of kicking things up a notch.

That would be good for the nation as a whole, according to Arthur Lupia, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That’s because a SOTU response is a rare opportunity for opposition parties to deliver an unfiltered message on all major networks in prime time.

He offers three suggestions. First, responding parties should remember that they are participating in a television program and marry their message with modern production techniques, instead of droning on while facing a camera. Second, they could add an audience to perk things up. Third, they should mix in lots of energetic young people to provide a contrast to the largely older audience that the president addresses on Capitol Hill.

“Because most citizens experience the SOTU response as a television program, we shouldn’t be surprised when they judge it harshly as such. The parties can do better,” Dr. Lupia writes on "The Monkey Cage” political science blog.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky (not pictured) said Sunday on NBC’s 'Meet the Press' that Democrats should remember President Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky before turning their criticism to GOP attitudes toward women. (AP/File)

Monica Lewinsky: Will Rand Paul benefit from raising old scandal? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.27.14

Will the Monica Lewinsky scandal play a role in presidential politics for 2016? That’s possible, given that likely GOP contender Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky raised this issue on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Senator Paul referenced Ms. Lewinsky when talking about past Democratic charges that the Republican Party wages a “war on women."

When making that rhetorical attack, Democrats should remember that their now-beloved ex-President Bill Clinton had an affair in office with a woman who was much, much younger than he, said Paul.

“He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office,” Paul told host David Gregory. “There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior.”

President Clinton’s lies about this relationship led to his impeachment by the House in 1998. The Senate subsequently voted to acquit him, and he served out the remainder of his second term.

“Someone who takes advantage of a young girl in their office? I mean, really. And then they have the gall to stand up and say, ‘Republicans are having a war on women?’ ” said Paul on NBC.

When Gregory asked if the Lewinsky matter should play a role in a possible Hillary Clinton presidential run, Paul said that the ex-secretary of State should be judged on her own merits. But he then connected her to her husband anyway, saying “sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other."

This marked the second time in recent days that a possible 2016 Republican candidate brought up a toughly worded response to the “war on women” charge. Last week ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that Democrats try to make women believe there are “helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government."

Given the context of the remark, Paul’s Lewinsky reference does seem pre-planned. That’s because in a recent profile in Vogue, Paul’s wife, Kelley Ashby, practically leaped into a conversation between herself, her husband, and the writer to make the charge.

“I would say his behavior was predatory, offensive to women,” she said of Bill Clinton.

With that reference out there, Paul must have known it was possible Mr. Gregory would ask him about it. And he did – Gregory referenced the Vogue piece and asked if Paul shared that opinion.

He did. Will that help him win the GOP nomination? It might. If Republican primary voters want a combative candidate, bringing up Clinton’s infidelities is one way for Paul to qualify. It also subtly – OK, maybe not-so-subtly – links Mrs. Clinton to the past and brings up her long and complicated history with both her husband and US public life. And Bill Clinton is much less popular among Republicans today than among Democrats, surprise, surprise.

But it’s also possible that the Lewinsky reference could hurt Paul, both in Republican primaries and in a general election. For one thing, it occurred a long time ago, and the past is a foreign country. It’s now 16 years since the Lewinsky scandal broke. That means 18-year-old voters in the next presidential election will have been newborns when it was fresh news.

For another, Bill Clinton is now quite popular. As noted above, GOP voters are less approving, but even among Republicans, his historical assessment is positive. That’s made clear by a recent Gallup poll. If you take the percentage of Republican respondents to the survey that rate Clinton’s presidency as poor or below average, and subtract that number from the percentage that rate it outstanding or above average, you get a net assessment of plus-14. That’s pretty good.

And Democrats love him. In that same Gallup survey, Clinton’s historical assessment score is plus-68 among Democrats. That’s almost as good as John F. Kennedy’s.

Nor is that popularity simply due to nostalgia for a more prosperous time. Remember, despite his personal misbehavior, Clinton remained broadly popular while the Lewinsky scandal was in the news.

“Clinton weathered the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 with fairly high personal ratings – averaging 58 percent that year – and ended his presidency on a positive note, with a 57 percent rating in December, 2000,” wrote Gallup’s Lydia Saad in July 2012.

It’s true that his last-minute pardons had a residual effect, driving down his ratings shortly thereafter. But given his enduring popularity, it may not make electoral sense for Paul to revive the Monica Lewinsky controversy for 2016.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky talks to media after an event hosted by President Obama at White House in Washington earlier this month. On Sunday, Senator Paul fired back at Democratic claims of a Republican 'war on women.' (Carolyn Kaster/AP/File)

Why is Rand Paul going after Bill Clinton? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.26.14

On Sunday, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate once again tried to to turn the tables on the Democrats' contention that the Republicans are waging a "war on women." And once again, he showed just how hard it is for Republicans to fight back against the claim without hurting themselves.

True, the comments by Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" barely registered on the Huckabee scale. In attempting to quash the idea of a Republican war on women earlier this week, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee merely reinforced the perception with folksy comments about women's "libidos" and the federal government as their "Uncle Sugar." To many, he came across as condescending and wildly off tone.

Senator Paul, meanwhile, merely insinuated (heavily) that there is no small hypocrisy in accusing Republicans of waging a war on women when a leading Democratic figure (Bill Clinton) once seduced a young intern.

"He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior," Paul said. "Then they [Democrats] have the gall to stand up and say, 'Republicans are having a war on women.' "

The comments, of course, have a ring of validity. Mr. Clinton's actions with Monica Lewinsky are not the narrative of a women's rights pioneer.

Yet the comments also have a ring of Huckabeean condescension, too.

Paul said "the media have given President Clinton a pass on this." Yet two-thirds of registered voters view Clinton favorably, according to a September 2012 New York Times/CBS News poll. It's hard to pass off that level of popularity as the product of a media conspiracy, especially when Clinton's greatest foible was no secret – was, in fact, discussed endlessly by the nation and actually resulted in his impeachment by the House.

In that way, Paul risks sounding like someone trying to rekindle the embers of old controversies solely to score political points. Moreover, he also risks sounding like a scold, telling American women that they've been hoodwinked into giving this "predatory" president a pass.

The fact is, Republicans know they have a problem. The gender gap reached a historic high in 2012, with men favoring Republican Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points and women favoring President Obama by 12 – a total gap of 20 points. The Republican post-mortem after the 2012 election said Republicans need to be more responsive to "war on women" attacks from Democrats.

Paul, it would seem, is just following the script.

But what can he and other Republicans really say?

"War on women" is just a proxy for one view of the battle over abortion and reproductive rights, and Republicans haven't signaled any shift in their stance. If anything, they appear to be closer to doubling down.

So perhaps it's no surprise that a October 2013 United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll found that women are hardly warming to the Republican Party since 2012.

"Only 14 percent of women said the Republican Party had moved closer to their perspective. More than twice as many women, 33 percent, said the party had drifted further from them. A plurality, 46 percent, saw no change," writes Shane Goldmacher in the National Journal.

Which leaves Paul to talk about Bill Clinton.

On the other hand, it's possible his comments weren't really about Bill Clinton at all. After all, Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is at this point seen as a shoo-in for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Speaking of Clinton's presidential scandal, "Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked: "Is it something Hillary Clinton should be judged on if she were a candidate in 2016?"

Paul demurred, then added about Mr. and Mrs. Clinton: "Sometimes it's hard to separate one from the other."

A man uses his cell phone to read updates about former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden answering users' questions on Twitter in this photo illustration, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Thursday. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Does Edward Snowden deserve mercy?

By Staff Writer / 01.24.14

Does Edward Snowden deserve mercy? That's the issue raised by calls for the US government to give the man who leaked National Security Agency (NSA) secrets some degree of clemency so that he can return to his homeland.

The New York Times and the British newspaper The Guardian have editorialized that the public value of the information Mr. Snowden has revealed means that he deserves better than a life of permanent exile. On Jan. 5, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky said Snowden should face the possibility of a "few years in prison" for his leaks about NSA activities – not life in prison or the death penalty.

On Jan. 23 the US government opened the door a crack to some sort of Snowden deal. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said that if Snowden “wanted to come back to the United States and enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers.”

Mr. Holder said the Justice Department would do the same for any defendant who wanted to plead guilty. But he did not specify what charges Snowden would need to accept guilt for under such circumstances.

In general, Snowden's proponents argue that he had little recourse but leaking to make his points. He told his superiors of his concerns about some agency overreaching, but they did nothing. As a contractor, he wasn't covered by federal whistle-blower protection laws.

By revealing NSA programs to The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and other journalists, Snowden showed that the agency broke privacy laws and exceeded its authority thousands of times a year, according to The New York Times. "When someone reveals that government officials have routinely and deliberately broken the law, that person should not face life in prison at the hands of the same government," the Times editorial board wrote.

Snowden's critics argue that it is not clear that the NSA's activities are as nefarious as the Times makes out. There's a legal process to determine whether the NSA broke the law, and it is far from finished. So far, federal judges have ruled on both sides of that issue.

Plus, not all of Snowden's leaks dealt with possible invasions of US privacy. He revealed the extent and methods of US eavesdropping in China, British surveillance of South African and Turkish officials, NSA snooping aimed at various foreign leaders, and so forth. "He has, by individual fiat, leaked very extensive information," former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said Jan. 5.

As a practical matter, it is hard to see the Obama administration backing down and offering Snowden a deal – just as it is hard to see Snowden accepting any prison time at the moment. The possibility of clemency may not be clear until challenges to certain NSA activities play out in the courts.

Meanwhile, it appears that Russia may continue to host Snowden for the foreseeable future. Though his current asylum deal is limited to a year, a key Russian lawmaker hinted at an extension during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“He will not be sent out of Russia,” said Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament. “It will be up to Snowden.”

Snowden himself says there is no way he can return to the US, given that under current laws he would not be able to get a fair trial. In an online chat Thursday organized by a group raising money for his defense, Snowden said that in legal proceedings he would be barred from arguing that he acted in the public interest by revealing the NSA’s mass surveillance activities.

While returning to the US might be “the best resolution for all parties” said Snowden in the chat, “it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws.”

“My case clearly demonstrates the need for comprehensive whistleblower protection act reform,” Snowden argued.

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