Jun. 20

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Supreme Court Will Take a Gerrymandering Case

The Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymanders violate the Constitution, but it has never said that partisan gerrymanders are forbidden, in part because it is very hard to define what a gerrymander is. Former Justice Potter Stewart once famously said he couldn't define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. Nobody has ever said: "I can't define gerrymandering, but I know it when I see it." That may change now.

Yesterday, the High Court agreed to take a Wisconsin gerrymandering case in which the plaintiffs have presented a mathematical formula that produces a higher number the more gerrymandered the districts are. It is based on how many votes are wasted. In a typically gerrymandering situation, the party doing the gerrymandering creates many districts in which it has a small (but solid) majority and then stuffs the other party's voters into a small number of districts where it has massive majorities. By comparing districts where the vote is fairly close to those with huge majorities, the Wisconsin formula produces a number telling how gerrymandered the state is.

The importance of this case is that the Court could now rule that any state in which the "efficiency gap" was more than x is gerrymandered and not allowed. Of course, it could also rule that gerrymandering by a democratically elected legislature is fine and dandy. We will soon know. (V)

Today Georgians in GA-06 Can Send a Message

The special House election in GA-06 to fill HHS Sec. Tom Price's seat is today. It has had an enormous amount of attention for a House special election. The race has been nationalized, so in effect, the voters can say whether they approve or disapprove of Donald Trump. A lot depends on what they say.

If the Democrat, Jon Ossoff, beats the Republican, Karen Handel, some Democrats will immediately start wondering if they can clone Ossoff to run in similar affluent, well-educated suburban districts in red states. The problem is the other Democrats, who don't think this way. Ossoff didn't run an anti-Trump campaign. He ran a centrist campaign emphasizing things he wants to do to help the district. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party raised tens of millions of dollars for him, just to embarrass Trump, but Ossoff himself is no Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

If Ossoff wins, or even if he loses by a point or two, the message the DCCC will take away is that if they run centrist—not progressive—candidates in well-educated Republican districts, they can win. The base isn't going to like this, and may put up progressive candidates to primary the DCCC choices. In San Francisco, Westwood, Chicago, and New York, that will work fine, but probably not in districts full of Mitt Romney Republicans. Thus, ironically, an Ossoff victory could trigger a civil war within the Democratic Party. (V)

South Carolina Votes Today, Too

Tom Price isn't the only member of the Trump administration who will be replaced in Congress today by voters. SC-05, the seat vacated by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, is also going to be filled. The Republican in the race is Ralph Norman, a real estate developer, former member of the South Carolina legislature, and failed candidate for the House in 2006. He's run a very tea party-like campaign, focusing on budget austerity and reduced taxes. The Democrat is Archie Parnell, who served in the U.S. Department of Justice and also worked for Goldman Sachs. He's pitched himself as a moderate Democrat who will fight for jobs and healthcare.

The South Carolina race hasn't gotten a fraction of the attention or money that GA-06 has, despite the fact that South Carolina is only moderately redder than Georgia (Trump won by 13% and 7%, respectively), and SC-05 is only a tad more Republican than GA-06 (R+9 vs. R+8). Norman is favored to win, although polling has been scarce, and has been done almost entirely by partisan firms. If Parnell pulls it out, which is unlikely but not impossible, it will frighten congressional Republicans far more than an Ossoff victory. Ossoff could be explained away due to the idiosyncrasies of his district and the phenomenal amount of money he's had available to spend. Parnell, not so much. So this one is well worth watching. (Z)

Trump Demands Frequent Personal Meetings with Certain Officials

Poor Mike Pompeo. The CIA director has to spend 3 hours almost every day driving from the CIA's headquarters in Langley, VA, to the White House and personally briefing Donald Trump on world affairs. The CIA is no doubt capable of setting up a secure video link between Langley and the White House, which would shave a couple of hours off the process, but Trump wants to be briefed in person. None of this videoconferencing stuff for him, even if that means the CIA director wastes nearly half of his workweek traveling and talking rather than doing his job.

Other selected officials also brief Trump personally and frequently. These include Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. One staffer quipped: "Wilbur practically lives here." Commerce is not a terribly important department, there is no pending legislation affecting the department, and Ross is a billionaire businessman who can mind the store on his own, so why Trump needs to talk to him all the time is a mystery.

The reason Trump wants to talk to his own appointees rather than the people lower down on the various totem poles, however, is no mystery at all: Trump doesn't trust anyone except the people he personally appointed. Staffers are already worried that these (mostly pointless) meetings are wasting the time of both the heads of the executive departments and Trump himself. Needless to say, each of them could write up a one-page report every day and have it delivered securely, the way previous presidents got much of their information, but Trump doesn't like to read. Barack Obama, for example, regarded face-to-face meetings with cabinet officers as a waste of their time and asked for them only when he had something important to discuss with them.

Trump can't talk to the deputy cabinet officers (which he gets to appoint), because only four of them have been confirmed. In fact, six of them haven't even been appointed, so Trump has to talk to #1 in most cases. (V)

Spicer Is "Kind of Useless"

Yet again, rumors are rampant that Sean Spicer is about to lose his job. Maybe he'll be kicked upstairs, to the position of communications director. Or maybe sideways, to some other job, or perhaps even out of the White House entirely. Only Donald Trump knows, and he's not tweeting. Whatever may happen, Spicer insisted that Monday's briefing could not be recorded by the press corps—no audio and no video. This had the journalists fuming, and led CNN's Jim Acosta to declare that, "The White House press secretary is getting to a point where he's just kind of useless."

Acosta has a valid point here. When it comes to many questions, Spicer and his deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders punt with an "I don't know" or an "I'll have to ask the president." We still don't have a clear answer, for example, as to the President's views on global warming because neither of his spokespeople has found time to discuss this apparently low-priority issue with him. Even when they do answer, there's no particular guarantee that their words actually reflect the president's actual views. Did he fire James Comey because of e-mails, or because of Russiagate? Is RyanCare a great achievement or is it mean? Is Trump being investigated by Robert Mueller or isn't he? When it comes to the President's real answers to those questions, your guess is as good as theirs.

At this point, given these issues, the primary purpose of the press briefings is to create some semblance of accountability. What Spicer or Huckabee Sanders says might not actually be accurate, but at least it's on the record, and gives something to which the administration can be held liable. Without recordings, however, even that purpose is lost. This is an administration that is willing to tell us that photos of the president's inauguration, which we can see with our own eyes, have more people than they actually do. An administration that is willing to deny the existence of tweets that are still publicly visible. If reporters are not allowed to create an incontrovertible record of the White House's statements, then it is clear exactly what will happen. Any time the administration doesn't like anything that comes out of the briefings, then Spicer or Huckabee Sanders or Trump will claim that the journalists screwed up, or misunderstood, or lied.

Whether Spicer survives or doesn't, it is hard to imagine that the "no recordings" policy will continue. It's just too obviously dishonest, and is borderline authoritarian. If the policy is retained, then the journalists might well respond by boycotting the briefings until the decision is reversed. Of course, that may be exactly what the administration is hoping for. (Z)

When Trump Doesn't Tweet

Given the state of the White House Press Office, the American public is largely forced to wait for information to come straight from the horse's mouth. Fortunately, perhaps, the horse's...er, mouth is happy to oblige, generally via his Twitter account. At least, on some issues. On others, as CNN's Z. Byron Wolf observes, Donald Trump's Twitter silence speaks volumes. He pointedly avoids subjects that are embarrassing to him, or that would force him to contradict his stated positions, or that would upset his base.

There is a case in point unfolding at this very moment. We recall that just two weeks ago, when several Muslims targeted Londoners for a terrorist attack, Trump was immediately on the social media platform talking about how, "We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people." He slammed London mayor Sadiq Khan, and also tried to score some pro-gun points by observing that the attackers used knives. On Sunday, however, the script was reversed. We now know that the latest London attack involved a caucasian man named Darren Osbourne, who shouted "I want to kill all Muslims" while trying to wreak vengeance on a mosque by driving a van into it. One person died and 11 were injured. Prime Minister Theresa May promptly denounced Sunday's attack, describing it as, "every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life" as the incidents of June 4. Trump's response? Silence on all fronts, thus far.

The June 4 and June 18 attacks are virtually identical. Deliberately so, since Osbourne was being governed by some version of "an eye for an eye," and so tried to replicate the earlier attack as closely as he could. And yet Trump has nothing to say about the more recent incident. Does he believe Muslims are not people, and so are not worthy of comment? Does he think that only Muslims can commit terrorist attacks? Does he fear blowback from the base, even when his ally May does not? Did Osbourne's actions strike a little too close to home, since it is not impossible to imagine a Trump supporter, fueled by Trump rhetoric, doing the same thing (as already happened in Portland)? It's possible that the answer to any or all of these questions is "yes." And, at very least, these questions speak to some of the messages that Trump is sending—whether he means to or not—when he speaks out on some issues, but says nothing about others. (Z)

Trump Doesn't Have the Populist Thing Down Pat

Donald Trump is by no means the world's first populist. South American and European countries have had them from time to time going back centuries. The others understood the routine better: They did things that were popular. Juan Perón, who was dictator of Argentina in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1970s, created a universal public pension, universal healthcare, and many public works projects. Rafael Correa, who was president of Ecuador for a decade starting in 2007, spent public money on schools, alleviating poverty, creating health clinics, and building highways. Needless to say, all these things were, well, popular.

What is Donald Trump doing? So far he hasn't done much of anything, but one of his priorities is a healthcare bill that will take away health insurance from 23 million people in order to cut the taxes of a very small number of wealthy people. That's not popular at all, especially not with older people, who predominantly voted for Trump. The budget Trump produced earlier this year slashes funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority, both of which help large numbers of his voters in Appalachia and the South. That's not popular there. In short, Trump is a different kind of populist, one who is doing things that are not popular at all. (V)

Republicans Are Considering Canceling Their Vacation

Normally, Congress shuts down in August and the members take vacations, or in normal years, go talk to their constituents. This year, so little progress has been made on legislation that Republicans are increasingly willing to consider staying in session to pass a healthcare bill, tax reform, and other bills. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to pass the healthcare legislation by July 4th, but unless the GOP caucus can agree on a bill very soon, that won't happen.

An additional complication is the way the Senate's arcane budget reconciliation process works. A budget resolution for fiscal year 2018 is needed before Sept. 30, but as soon as that passes, the window for passing a healthcare bill using the 2017 budget resolution closes. And if healthcare is not done before tax cuts, the latter becomes much harder, because the savings from healthcare are needed to reduce the baseline for doing tax cuts using budget reconciliation. In short, a lot of stuff has to happen quickly, so taking off all of August could mean the end of all the proposed legislation.

Canceling the August break won't be easy, though. Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) estimates that at least 15 Republicans are strongly opposed to canceling their vacations just to do their jobs. On the other hand, leaving town in August with no legislative achievements won't be easy to sell to constituents, many of whom will say: "You promised that if we gave you total control, you would repeal Obamacare. We gave you total control and you did nothing. Please explain." (V)

Why Incumbent Democratic Senators Don't Have Many Challengers Yet

Ten Democratic senators in states Donald Trump won are up for reelection in 2018. Few of them have opponents, as yet. There are two reasons. First, the most logical candidates are sitting representatives. Many of them know that Trump or no Trump, the reelection rate for incumbent senators is about 90% and the president's party normally gets whacked badly in the midterms. In reality, despite the fact that Trump carried Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, senators Debbie Stabenow (MI), Tammy Baldwin (WI), and Bob Casey (PA), to name just three, are going to be next to impossible to beat.

The second reason few representatives have taken the bait is that old favorite: money. Members with enough House seniority to have a good shot at upsetting an incumbent senator often sit on key committees and have a lot of influence on legislation. Companies whose businesses are affected by what those committees do tend to shower money on committee members. As soon as a member of one of the key committees announces his retirement to make a longshot bid for a Senate seat, poof, the money spigot is turned off. PACs generally don't like to fund someone challenging an incumbent, especially an incumbent likely to win, because incumbents—and their parties—tend to remember that.

So House members planning to make Senate runs tend to wait a long time to keep the money flowing, but this means less time to campaign outside their districts, leaving the incumbent unchallenged and able to raise money statewide for much of the cycle. (V)

Forget Trump vs. Mueller, the Big Battle Is Baquet vs. Baron

Every day, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times wakes up fearing that Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, is going to find more scoops about Donald Trump than the staff of the Times. Baron has the reverse fear, though he may sleep a little better, since the Post has won the last three Pulitzers for National Reporting.

The two editors are actually good friends, dating back to the 1990s, when they both worked for the Times, but the rivalry is real. The two papers are the leading outlets for political information in the country, but no longer the only ones. Politico has become a real player in the past year. So has Axios, a new kid on the block. It was founded by Politico founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei. It covers everything political and has lots of scoops, but its specialty is covering every story in no more than a couple of paragraphs. Politico, in contrast, has a magazine section with very long and detailed reporting on important topics. The Hill is also a player, with special coverage of Congress. And so is the Wall Street Journal, though that paper's impact is blunted by its high subscription price and website paywall.

However many scoops Mike Allen gets, Baquet and Baron are still kings of the hill (and the Hill). Baquet is a warm and cuddly guy who is much loved by his reporters and editors. One of them said: "I never left a meeting with Dean where I didn't feel happy." Baron is no teddy bear. The same source for the quote about Baquet had this to say about Baron: "I never left a meeting with Marty in which I didn't feel a little intimidated." Their publishing styles are also different. With Baron, if a reporter finds some news and it's true, they publish it immediately. Baquet is willing to let reporters work for months to get to the bottom of something very complicated. A source said: "Marty is all about urgency, productivity. He's a much harder-driving guy."

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013, using $250 million of his own money, the paper was cratering. If Mitt Romney had bought it, he would have sucked it dry and let it crash. Bezos did the opposite. He pumped large amounts of cash into it and beefed up its digital operation enormously. He basically turned it into a national media company rather than a D.C. newspaper. The number of employees is way up, readership is way up, and the engineering team rivals anything in Silicon Valley. It now publishes 1,200 articles a day, in large part due to Baron's hand on the throttle. The Post now has more unique visitors per day than the Times. One thing Bezos has not done is interfere with the content of the Post. Bezos runs the business, on a day to day basis, but Marty Baron decides what will be published. The story of Bezos' impact is itself an interesting story, but one the Post hasn't covered. Fortunately, others have. (V)

GOP's Voter Data Left Exposed

Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to see the value in "big data," and since he led the way in 2008, both parties have jumped aboard the train, collecting all kinds of very valuable information about voters, their preferences, their tendencies when it comes to donating money, the frequency with which they vote, and so forth. This data is very expensive to compile, and so is enormously valuable.

On Monday, it was revealed that an enormous amount of the information collected by the Republican Party was left exposed by data firm Deep Root Analytics and two other GOP contractors. The 1.1 terabytes of data covered 198 million people, which is about 97% of all registered voters. It was available to download and not password protected, so anyone who happened to discover the cache could have helped themselves to a copy. The breach appears to have been the result of carelessness, and not nefarious activity on the part of a hostile outsider.

That said, even if hostile outsiders did not cause the breach, it does not mean that hostile outsiders did not access the data. Someone friendly to the Democrats might well have a copy now, which would be the equivalent of playing poker while knowing the other player's hole cards. The Russians might have it, too, and might find creative ways to use it. Meanwhile, this incident makes clear that Republicans are no better at protecting their data than Democrats are. (Z)

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