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Image: John Hickenlooper

The big flaws in the case against 'big government'

06/10/19 10:44AM

Given the enormous size of the Democratic presidential field, every candidate faces a straightforward practical question: how to stand out in a crowd. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) joined 18 other contenders in Iowa over the weekend, and differentiated himself by running to his rivals' right.

As he did last weekend in San Francisco, Hickenlooper urged Democrats to repudiate socialism. "Trump is the worst president our country has ever had, but defeating him is far from guaranteed," he said. "I'm the only person running who has actually done what everyone else is talking about, so I can tell you that you don't do big things with big government."

Before considering the substance of comments like these, it's worth appreciating the curious political strategy the former governor is implementing.

I tend to think the importance of "lanes" is overstated, but the general idea is that presidential candidates can be grouped together in ways that appeal to specific constituencies: some voters might be looking for a fresh face, others might want someone more experienced, others still might prefer a D.C. outsider, and so on.

Hickenlooper may very well look at his intra-party rivals and notice that he can run to the middle and have the "centrist" lane largely to himself, locking up the Democratic voters who are looking for a presidential candidate hostile to "big government."

As a tactical matter, this would probably be more effective if there were lots of voters in this camp. In reality, however, there's little to suggest this contingent exists. The Coloradan has a lane to himself, but that's largely because no one else wants to be there.

But as important as this is to Hickenlooper's future, it's also important to appreciate the simple fact that he's mistaken about his governing philosophy.

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Mitch McConnell

Did Chao make special arrangements for McConnell's home state?

06/10/19 10:06AM

About a year ago, Donald Trump seemed aware of the fact that his "drain the swamp" rhetoric had become the punch-line to a sad joke, but he defended the line anyway.

"From the day I took the oath of office, I've been fighting to drain the swamp," the president claimed, before conceding that "sometimes it may not look like it."

It was those last seven words that stood out for a reason. All kinds of scandals have unfolded in recent years involving Trump and his team, leading to, among other things, a series of ethics controversies surrounding the White House cabinet. Each of them makes Trump's "drain the swamp" assurance that much more difficult to take seriously.

Some of the controversies, however, are more striking than others. Take this amazing new report from Politico, for example.

The Transportation Department under Secretary Elaine Chao designated a special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell's state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.

Chao's aide Todd Inman, who stated in an email to McConnell's Senate office that Chao had personally asked him to serve as an intermediary, helped advise the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance for McConnell -- including a highway-improvement project in a McConnell political stronghold that had been twice rejected for previous grant applications.

The details are a little tough to summarize -- you'll want to read the full report -- but the article describes a dynamic in which the Transportation secretary hired one of her husband's former campaign aides. That aide soon took on a unique role in the cabinet agency, overseeing projects that would benefit Chao's powerful husband's home state ahead of his re-election campaign.

The article added, "Chao's designation of Inman as a special intermediary for Kentucky -- a privilege other states did not enjoy -- gave a special advantage to projects favored by her husband, which could in turn benefit his political interests. In such situations, ethicists say, each member of a couple benefits personally from the success of the other."

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Image: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Haneda Airport, in Tokyo

Pompeo: People may need to relocate in response to climate crisis

06/10/19 09:20AM

A couple of years ago, during the debate over Republican efforts to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, then-Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) raised an unusual argument: his party's approach may require American families to relocate.

If the ACA were scrapped, and conservative states began punishing those with pre-existing conditions, people could simply "go to the state that they want to live in," Pittenger argued.

As we discussed at the time, it was an awkward pitch. Perhaps you have a heart condition? Under the Republican plan, you should be prepared to leave your job, sell your home, and move to a blue state.

All of this came to mind when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reflected on the effects of the climate crisis and suggested that populations can simply relocate to somewhere unaffected.

"The climate's been changing a long time. There's always changes that take place," Pompeo said during an interview with the Washington Times published Friday, when asked whether he thought climate change was man-made and how best to address it. He did not mention anything about man-made pollution in his remarks.

"Societies reorganize, we move to different places, we develop technology and innovation," he added. "I am convinced, I am convinced that we will do the things necessary as the climate changes."

It's worth taking a moment to appreciate just how breathtakingly misguided this posture is.

For example, whether the Kansas Republican has thought about this or not, relocating tens of millions of environmental refugees "to different places" is a bit more difficult than Pompeo seems to appreciate.

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Voting booths await voters in Red Oak, Iowa, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, ahead of the Iowa primary elections.

Latest Iowa poll points to a Democratic top tier for 2020 race

06/10/19 08:40AM

We've reached an interesting point in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The largest field in U.S. history is (probably) set; the debates are poised to begin; and there's some helpful polling to give us a sense of who's in the top tier -- at least for now.

The field of Democratic presidential candidates is starting to settle into tiers: Joe Biden leads the pack, and Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are in close competition for second place, a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll shows. [...]

"We're starting to see the people who are planning to caucus start to solidify," said J. Ann Selzer, president of the Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. "There's a lot more commitment than we normally see this early. And some of these candidates who've been under the radar start to surface and compete with Joe Biden."

Selzer & Co., widely seen as producing the best and most reliable polling in the Hawkeye State, last surveyed Iowa Democrats in March, and for most of the field, there's been quite a bit of movement over the last three months:

Joe Biden: 24% (down from 27% in March)
Bernie Sanders: 16% (down from 25%)
Elizabeth Warren: 15% (up from 9%)
Pete Buttigieg: 14% (up from 1%)
Kamala Harris: 7% (unchanged)

Everyone else was at 2% support or lower.

So, as the race enters a new phase, what can we take away from these results? A few things stood out for me:

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump participates in a health care discussion with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady

Trump's breakthrough deal with Mexico turns into a mirage

06/10/19 08:00AM

Donald Trump made an audacious threat a couple of weeks ago, declaring his intention to impose harsh trade sanctions on Mexico unless our southern neighbors "substantially stopped the illegal inflow of aliens coming through its territory." Those new taxes were scheduled to take effect today.

At least for now, that policy is on indefinite hold: the American president announced late Friday that his administration and Mexico "reached a signed agreement." At first blush, this may look like a clear victory for Trump's controversial strategy.

After all, the president took a gamble by threatening an ally and risking the health of his own country's economy, but as a result of Trump's tactics, the White House says Mexico is taking new steps to stem immigration, including deploying national guard troops.

Doesn't this count as a presidential tantrum getting results? Do Republican loyalists touting this as a success story have a point? Alas, no. The New York Times reported on a nagging detail: Mexico had already promised to take these actions before Trump issued his threat.

Friday's joint declaration says Mexico agreed to the "deployment of its National Guard throughout Mexico, giving priority to its southern border." But the Mexican government had already pledged to do that in March during secret talks in Miami between Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of homeland security, and Olga Sanchez, the Mexican secretary of the interior, the officials said.

The centerpiece of Mr. Trump's deal was an expansion of a program to allow asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their legal cases proceed. But that arrangement was reached in December in a pair of painstakingly negotiated diplomatic notes that the two countries exchanged. Ms. Nielsen announced the Migrant Protection Protocols during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee five days before Christmas.

A Politico report added, "A person familiar with the negotiations under former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed New York Times reporting that much of what Mexico agreed to do this week was already on track months ago."

Oh. So, Trump wants us to believe he extracted historic concessions through his hardball negotiating tactics, which, as it turns out, isn't at all what happened.

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Friday's Mini-Report, 6.7.19

06/07/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* This was not the first incident of its kind: "A Russian destroyer accelerated toward a U.S. warship in the Philippine Sea and almost collided with it, putting the safety of the crew at risk, the Navy said Friday."

* Stay tuned: "After a week of threats, President Donald Trump declared Friday that now 'there is a good chance' the U.S. will strike a deal with Mexico to avert the tariffs he had scheduled for Monday to force the U.S. ally to stem the flow of Central American migrants into the United States."

* Remember when Trump was a candidate vowing to fight for the LGBTQ community? That was then; this is now: "The Trump administration is rejecting requests from U.S. embassies to fly the rainbow pride flag on embassy flagpoles during June, LGBTQ Pride Month, three American diplomats told NBC News."

* Republican officials often talk about punishing abortion doctors, but they occasionally shift their focus to women seeking abortions: "Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX) said Thursday that 'of course' women who perform their own abortions should be punished since 'they committed murder.'"

* Seems a little embarrassing: "Larry Kudlow, the President's chief economic adviser, once said Donald Trump's proposed policies on trade would lead to a bad recession, cause 'incalculable damage' to the economy and kill consumers and businesses alike."

* Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks "it's strategically unwise to antagonize every country in the world simultaneously." That seems fairly reasonable, though I get the sense the White House disagrees.

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American astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walking on the moon on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong's reflection in the visor of the helmet. (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Why Trump suggested the Moon 'is a part' of Mars

06/07/19 03:09PM

Three weeks ago, Donald Trump was so eager to send Americans to the moon, the president updated the White House budget, requesting an additional $1.6 billion for NASA's budget for a lunar mission.

It's one of the reasons Trump raised a few eyebrows with a new tweet this afternoon.

"For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon - We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!"

Oh my.

The part of this that seems to be generating the most attention is the presidential assertion that Earth's moon "is a part" of Mars. Having a little fun at the Republican's expense, the DNC issued an official statement that read, "The moon is not part of Mars."

In fairness, I think I know what Trump was clumsily trying to say: the mission to the moon and the mission to Mars may eventually be related. Administration officials have argued on multiple occasions that they envision an exploration model in which the United States -- at some point in the future -- uses Earth's moon as a launch site for other space missions.

What I found weirder was Trump's assertion that moon missions are somehow a passe goal -- "We did that 50 years ago," he wrote -- and therefore NASA "should NOT be talking about going" there.

To put it mildly, this is a radical departure from everything the White House has said on the subject for quite a while.

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Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels

Trump forgets an important rule: don't make up quotes from real people

06/07/19 02:17PM

Earlier this year, Donald Trump told reporters that "some" of his presidential predecessors had told him they wish they'd built a wall along the United States' southern border. It was, of course, an impossible claim to take seriously, which was made worse when each of the living former presidents issued statements debunking Trump's claim.

There was a moral to the story: when Trump describes made-up conversations -- something he does with alarming frequency -- he needs to avoid references to real people who can expose his nonsense.

As we discussed at the time, the president tends to understand this fairly well, which is why he frequently quotes "anonymous validators": mysterious unnamed people, whom the president swears exist, who we're supposed to believe secretly tell Trump how right he is about the major issues of the day. It's impossible to definitely prove that all of these people are fictional, which creates a rhetorical safe harbor for the Republican.

Occasionally, however, Trump forgets the rule. Take, for example, his comments to Fox News yesterday about NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

"Secretary Stoltenberg has been maybe Trump's biggest fan, to be honest with you. He goes around -- he made a speech the other day, he said, 'Without Donald Trump maybe there would be no NATO.'"

If Trump had said, "A prominent international said the other day, 'Without Donald Trump maybe there would be no NATO,'" there might at least be some wiggle room. We'd know it was false, but it'd be difficult to prove.

But in this case, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg actually exists.

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Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Auto industry to Trump: You're going the wrong way on emissions

06/07/19 12:59PM

In Barack Obama's first term, the administration came to a fairly obvious conclusion: to address the climate crisis, we're going to need to reduce emissions, and in the United States, the #1 source of carbon pollution is transportation. With that in mind, the Democratic White House created tough fuel-efficiency standards for the auto industry, to be phased in gradually.

Manufacturers, not surprisingly, weren't thrilled, but there was a broad realization that the policy, in conjunction with a series of related efforts, would make a positive difference.

Then Donald Trump got elected. Last summer, the Republican White House announced plans to roll back the tougher standards, making it easier for the automotive industry to sell less efficient vehicles that pollute more.

By way of a defense, the Trump administration said the new policy would improve auto safety -- which as we discussed at the time, makes about as much sense as it sounds.

Nevertheless, the Republican president assumed he was helping the industry at the expense of the environment -- a trade-off Trump was happy to make since he rejects climate science anyway. But the New York Times reports today on an unexpected twist: auto manufacturers believe the White House's anti-climate plans have gone too far.

The world's largest automakers warned President Trump on Thursday that one of his most sweeping deregulatory efforts -- his plan to weaken tailpipe pollution standards -- threatens to cut their profits and produce "untenable" instability in a crucial manufacturing sector.

In a letter signed by 17 companies including Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Volvo, the automakers asked Mr. Trump to go back to the negotiating table on the planned rollback of one of President Barack Obama's signature policies to fight climate change.

The problem for the industry has become a practical one: Trump intends to go so far in gutting pollution safeguards that many states intend to enforce stricter emissions standards on their own.

That includes, naturally, California -- home to the nation's largest consumer base.

The result is an exceedingly messy economic dynamic, in which car manufacturers in the United States -- which had already begun taking steps to comply with the Obama-era policy -- will have to make different vehicles to sell in different parts of the country.

Not surprisingly, no one sees that as a sustainable business model.

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Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 6.7.19

06/07/19 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* One day after Joe Biden's campaign said the Democrat hadn't changed his position on the Hyde Amendment, the former vice president announced last night that he now opposes the law that prevents federal funding for abortion.

* Common Cause, pointing to newly uncovered files from deceased Republican operative Thomas Hofeller, raised provocative allegations yesterday: Republicans in North Carolina, the group claimed, "misled a federal court in 2017 to extend the life of their state legislative district map."

* As expected, Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) filed the paperwork yesterday to run for governor in Montana next year, following his defeat for the same office in 2016. Gianforte is perhaps best known for assaulting a journalist during a congressional campaign and misleading the police about the incident.

* Though it looked as if Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) had made the cut for the upcoming Democratic presidential debates, the DNC isn't counting one of the polls that apparently made him eligible to participate. Barring some 11th-hour good news for his campaign, the governor won't qualify.

* In Texas, former state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), whose gubernatorial campaign fell short in 2014, is now moving forward with plans to run against Rep. Chip Roy (R) next year. Roy currently represents Texas' 21st congressional district, which is an R+10 district, suggesting Davis will face an uphill climb.

* Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has pushed for Democratic presidential hopefuls to participate in a debate focused exclusively on the climate crisis. The DNC doesn't want to depart from the agreed upon debate schedule, though Inslee is apparently prepared to defy the party and organize an unsanctioned event on his own.

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Image: U.S. President Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington

Ignoring scandals, Trump says he's assembled 'one of the finest cabinets'

06/07/19 11:20AM

For his book on Donald Trump's cabinet, author Alexander Nazaryan spoke to the president about the team he'd assembled. Yahoo News ran an item yesterday adapted from "The Best People: Trump's Cabinet and the Siege on Washington."

"There are those that say we have one of the finest Cabinets," Trump claimed. That is not a commonly held view. In fact, it is difficult to think of anyone even halfway credible -- Republican or Democrat -- who has said anything approaching that. Even some of Trump's most ardent supporters have expressed dismay at the people he has hired.

Trump was willing to concede that some of his cabinet members were "clunkers," though he apparently didn't elaborate or name names. In a way, that's unfortunate, because I'd love to know to whom he was referring. Did he see James Mattis as a "clunker" because the former Pentagon chief didn't consistently play ball with the White House political agenda? Would he make the same assessment about former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the same reason?

Or was Trump referring to some members of his team who departed under a cloud of scandal and suspected corruption?

I have no idea whether the president genuinely believes there are some unnamed observers who claim his cabinet is "one of the finest," but I'd love to hear from such a person. Because by most measures, Trump's cabinet is actually one of the more embarrassing.

We recently learned, for example, that David Bernhardt, a former corporate lobbyist for the oil industry, became the subject of an ethics investigation immediately after becoming the nation's new Interior secretary. Federal prosecutors recently presented evidence to a grand jury on Ryan Zinke, Bernhardt's predecessor.

As regular readers may recall, it was around the same time that we learned new details about Alex Acosta, Trump's Labor secretary, who allegedly broke the law while shielding a politically connected sex trafficker.

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