Authors Posts by David Freddoso

David Freddoso


The Briefing Vol. III, Issue 39-

This week:

  • Vitter goes down to a crushing defeat in LAGOV
  • Issues shaping up in Republicans’ favor
  • Obama created his own Syrian refugee problem

Election 2015

Louisiana: The election of a Democrat, John Bel Edwards, as governor of Louisiana, went off just as we expected. He defeated Sen. David Vitter by an approximate 12-point margin. It wasn’t very close, and it wasn’t much of a surprise — although it would have seemed like one about three months ago. It almost seems like a first in Louisiana politics, but Vitter’s scandals finally caught up with him and that was the end. He remains in the U.S. Senate, but he announced he will not be running for re-election, setting off a scramble among Republicans to replace him.

It’s important to recognize that this isn’t really much of a sign of life for the Pelican State’s newly moribund Democratic Party. It does give them one more electable public official, but Edwards won only by running away from his party on a number of major issues.

More importantly, Vitter’s defeat did not prevent Republicans from coming away with large majorities in both houses of the state legislature and control of all other statewide offices. Even as Vitter was going down to defeat, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, R, was easily winning for lieutenant governor. Other offices were either won outright in the first round of voting in October or else featured runoffs between two Republicans. The state education board, vital to the future of education reform in Louisiana, remains solidly in the control of the reformers.

The deeper lesson for Republicans comes from what happened in October. How did events conspire that allowed Vitter to make the runoff? It was the result of two other semi-credible GOP candidates staying in. Had there been only one, he would surely be the governor-elect today.

That closes the book on elections for 2015.

Election 2016

Issue set: Imagine for a moment that you have a magical superpower — a political superpower. You have the ability to put the whole nation into a trance and shape its thinking in one specific way.

There are limits to how it works. For example, you can’t tell anyone how to vote. But what you can do is to focus voters on whatever issues you choose. That could at least affect how they vote.

Want to get them all hot and bothered about income inequality or the minimum wage? Voila, it becomes the top issue on everyone’s mind. Want to make them care about global warming or campaign finance reform? Done.

That’s probably what Democrats would do with that power, if they had it. If Republicans had this power, they’d probably want to make the voters think about their own set of traditionally strong issues.

They would want people to think about Obamacare, which in recent months has quieted down, but which helped Republicans significantly at the ballot box a lot in the last two midterms. They might look back to the successes of the early 2000s, when national security and terrorism were the big issues. And if they really wanted to jump in the time machine, maybe they’d reach back to the issues of an earlier era — urban riots and campus unrest.

Well, welcome to November 2015. Without the help from any magic or superpowers, voters are now thinking and talking about precisely the issues Republicans would like them to be thinking and talking about.

  1. First, terrorism. Two months ago, the last time Gallup sounded out the voters on the question of which party they trusted more on “international terrorism and military threats,” Republicans had the advantage, 52 to 36 percent. This despite the fact that Americans had a modestly more positive impression of the Democratic Party than the GOP (43 percent to 38 percent).
    The Paris attacks have put ISIS at the center of everyone’s attention. In the new FOX News poll released over the weekend, terrorism had jumped from being the most important issue for just 11 percent of voters in August to 24 percent today — the number one issue, trumping even jobs and the economy for the first time in recent memory.FOXISSUES
    The same FOX poll mentioned above shows that 65 percent believe Obama is not being aggressive enough with ISIS, and, that 67 percent oppose his plan for Syrian refugees (more on this below).
    Meanwhile, Democratic candidates for president are talking about socialism as foreign policy and how ISIS is caused by climate change. That’s a bit of a wake-up call.
  1. Although it is an issue seldom considered by pollsters as a political issue in this day and age, the college and city unrest of 2014 and 2015 hearken back to another era. In the late 1960s, this factor left an impression and motivated voters to put Richard Nixon into the White House. White voters especially (and more than a quarter of black voters) viewed the Baltimore rioting as opportunistic thieving and violence rather than an expression of legitimate grievances.
    There is no good polling available at the moment to clarify the political effect of this or the safe-space protests on college campuses. These latter especially seem to be drawing little sympathy even as they highlight left-wing political correctness as a major modern problem. The radicals’ destruction of institutions once had a profound effect in preparing Americans for what eventually became the conservative movement. Could it help do so again, even just a little bit?
  1. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, there’s Obamacare. Perhaps you thought it was over — and surely the politicians who supported it and thought it would work thought so as well. But it’s coming back from the dead as a political issue. Events are in motion that will make Obamacare the same kind of large, looming issue it was in 2010 (immediately after its passage) and in 2014 (after its disastrous opening).

Over the summer, insurers participating in the Obamacare exchanges announced surprisingly high premium increases for 2016. That’s bad, and it reinforces the public’s somewhat negative impression of the law. But it isn’t anything like the fireworks of 2010 or late 2013.

That part is only starting now.

Last week, the nation’s largest insurer, UnitedHealth, announced that it expects to lose $425 million in revenue from its participation in the Obamacare exchanges for the 2015 and 2016 plan years. The company will likely pull out of Obamacare because, as its CEO noted in a conference call with investors, the exchange market is not capable of sustaining itself for the very reasons Obamacare’s critics predicted. It is full of disproportionately sick people pulling out of the pool, with not enough young and healthy types paying in. Unless healthy people start getting interested, and fast, it is possible that the system will enter what is known as a “death spiral.”

But even more politically damaging, the Obama administration may have to begin reminding the uninsured that they will be punished with a fine if they fail to sign up. Just imagine the reaction that will elicit.

The exit of UnitedHealth would throw more than half a million customers out of their health plans in early 2016. This comes after several smaller companies have withdrawn from other states, and 12 of Obamacare’s 23 non-profit insurance co-ops have gone broke and closed. But those are minor problems compared to what’s coming. The inability of insurers — even experienced ones — to make money under the Obamacare system is a sign of the program’s deeper problems, and it will have consequences.

The first one is already taking shape. The insurance industry is ramping up a lobbying effort to seek a bailout for the massive losses being incurred. They would like to see this bailout attached to an appropriations bill next month, because the Obamacare law itself won’t allow it. It is essential that Republicans refuse to grant this bailout — if they let it happen, they will not only be throwing Obamacare and their Democratic rivals a lifeline.

The next stage will come in the spring, when insurers, still losing money, ask for massive premium increases once again for the 2017 plan year. In late summer, those increases will be approved by the various state regulators.

At the very least, there will be lots of bad Obamacare news in the presidential election year, throwing Obama’s most important domestic policy achievement into question. In the worst case, a widespread perception will emerge that the program is failing.

In short, although the candidate field and the national mood cannot be predicted at this early stage, the issue set for 2016 is starting to look very favorable for the GOP. It’s not enough to guarantee any victory, let alone at the presidential level, but it’s a good start.


Syria refugee crisis: President Obama’s plan to take in 10,000 refugees from war-torn Syria does not pose nearly as much danger as the public seems to fear. But in the wake of the Paris attacks the public is quite afraid, and it isn’t hard to see why. So afraid, in fact, that 67 percent now oppose it, and those in opposition represent a broad cross-section of nearly every demographic in American life — young, old, rich, poor, black, white, Republican, independent, Democrat.

From that same FOX News poll, released over the weekend:


What’s more, about 50 House Democrats voted with nearly all Republicans to pause the refugee program until the safety of Americans can be better guaranteed. There is a simple reason why this happened — Obama has hung them out to dry.

On an occasion when strong presidential leadership could have put the risks into context and explained the vetting process (which is actually more robust than people think), Obama chose instead to make two public appearances at foreign venues taking cheap shots at his political opposition.

Without any cover in the media, and without the dissemination of facts that a president can bring about with a timely and non-combative speech, House Democrats had no choice but to abandon Obama. He is now on the verge of seeing his policy cut off by bipartisan supermajorities in both houses of Congress. This didn’t have to happen, but it illustrates how leadership really does matter.

The House vote doesn’t necessarily bar refugees, but it might force the introduction of a more rigorous screening process. Obama might have to propose it himself in order to save his own policy from a bipartisan mutiny. If he’d thought of this sooner — or if he’d even explained the facts in a manner that didn’t condescend to his fellow citizens — he wouldn’t face this kind of danger now.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 38-

Nov. 16, 2015

This week:

  • Trump invites backlash, savaging the campaign’s most-liked candidate
  • Dem debate lags in viewers, interest
  • Things look grim for Vitter in LA.

President 2016

Trump’s downfall? Last week, Reuters came out with the latest installment of its rolling poll. It’s latest sample of 254 likely GOP voters nationwide (7-point margin of error) showed Donald Trump suddenly leaping to 42 percent, apparently on the heels of his Saturday Night Live appearance. And yes, that would make it an extreme outlier, nearly doubling up the support that Trump still maintains in most other polls.

Naturally, Trump has been quick to tout this poll. His lead in the polls often seems to be his best argument for his candidacy.

We recommend instead that you sell your stock in him now, for a number of reasons. The primary reason is the Paris attacks. We believe they will harden some of his supporters who view his anti-immigrant message as the answer, but it is more likely to set off a flight to quality (or seriousness) in the GOP nomination process. When Islamic terrorists murder more than a hundred people, it serves as a reminder that the American presidency is not a joking matter.

But the main reason we expect Trump to continue his stagnation in the more reliable polling is that before those attacks occurred, Trump did something more amazing and more Trumpian than he had done at any point before, once again showing his fondness for ignoring the conventional rules of the campaign trail.

As often as predictions of his demise have proven wrong, we view Trump as having already reached his peak, and believe that despite his seeming invincibility until recently, it will probably come back to bite him, at least ending his rise permanently and perhaps even causing him to lose support. You can watch it if you like — nine solid minutes of Trump riffing on Ben Carson‘s recollections in his own memoir of his anger problems in his youth (which he later overcame to become a world-class brain surgeon).

“How stupid are the people of Iowa?” Trump asked. “How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?” It was

Carson has led in some recent polls, and at one point led in the RealClearPolitics average. He has led more consistently in polls some crucial states. But it’s worth pointing out that even those Republican primary voters who do not plan to support him have a highly favorable view of him. So does the public at large. The fav/unfav numbers from the most recent Quinnipiac poll are typical of what you’ll find in recent surveys– Carson has the highest net favorability among Republicans (an astounding +76) and the highest among all registered voters (+24) as well:

Screenshot 2015-11-15 at 3.13.41 PM

Carson’s numbers are only likely to improve after the recent attempt to chop him down with a botched story asserting his memoir is filled with fabrications. Consider this as you think about Trump’s nine-minute tirade about Carson. It was baffling to watch, not only because it was so characteristic of Trump, but also because it was so obviously not in Trump’s interest.

Negative campaigning works, but there are important caveats associated with it.

Rule number one is that negativity always redounds on the attacker in at least some small way. Negative attacks hurt not only the target but the attacker as well. This is the reason you will notice, in many races, that more desperate candidates with less to lose are the most likely to run negative ads themselves. Winning campaigns tend to stay positive as much as possible and let others — SuperPACs or party committees usually — take care of the negative advertising for them so that it doesn’t directly tarnish their candidate.

Rule number two is that the self-harm from a negative attack is directly proportional to the popularity of its target. If you attack Mother Teresa, you only hurt yourself. By the same token, a public figure or candidate with high unfavorables (say, Jeb Bush) is an easy target. To cite a non-Trump example, Matt Bevin recently won his Kentucky governor’s race in part by attacking President Obama and repeatedly tying Obama to his opponent, Jack Conway. Smart move — Obama’ fav/unfav percentages in the Bluegrass State were 35/60 in the last poll taken before the election. Bevin did minimal damage to himself despite all the negativity, and he drove up his opponent’s unfavorables.

Rule number three is that the self-harm from a negative attack is also directly proportional to the level of the attack’s negativity. When you go nuclear, you risk dying in the blast. There are several classic examples of this from recent years. The Aqua Buddha ad is more famous, but this one from Tennessee in 2010 is better because the charges it made — even against a not-super-popular opponent — were just so over-the-top. (Even though they were mostly true!)

Trump’s attack last week broke all of these rules. First, Trump launched it himself, in person, from his own mouth. It wasn’t just an allusion or reference disparaging of Carson, but a lengthy and sneering monologue about him. Second,  Carson is the most favorably viewed candidate in the GOP field, as noted above. Third, the charges of psychopathy, the references to child molestation, the mocking assertions that Carson is an unhinged lunatic and/or liar — well, it just doesn’t get any more nuclear than that.

So far, the attack seems to have made Trump seem petty and ugly, whereas Carson’s calm and patient response has made him seem more attractive. In CarsonWorld, they’re pretty sure Trump is setting himself on fire and they don’t want to do anything to stop him. Meanwhile, there are good reasons to doubt that attacks on Carson can help Trump much. His less devoted followers — the lowest hanging fruit to be picked — are probably the ones that will go on to back conventional candidates rather than Trump.

There haven’t been any new conventional polls released since last week. Perhaps Trump will somehow defy gravity once again and this mean-spirited attack on a beloved figure will cause him to skyrocket. What is more likely to happen, though, is that Trump will lose a small amount of support and linger in the low 20s, perhaps behind Carson, until more conventional politicians drop out and he is overtaken by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or both.

Meanwhile, the question remains whether Carson will continue to pose a threat to Trump or whether his supporters will move on. If they move on, Trump has probably ensured they will be less likely to move in his direction.

Dem Debate: Democrats successfully hid their second debate, a milestone on the road to Hillary Clinton‘s nomination, by holding it opposite fifth-ranked Iowa’s barn-burner against the University of Minnesota. The debate attracted only 8.5 million viewers on broadcast CBS television — a bit more than half as many viewers as the Republicans’ recent Fox Business debate, which was on an obscure cable channel.

Part of this is surely a reflection of how uncompetitive the Democratic primary was already, but part of this was by design from the beginning. Nine months ago, when it seemed Clinton was on her way to a coronation and no one was talking about her honesty, there was never any desire at the DNC to give her any black eyes before she won the nomination.

Along those lines, the next Democratic debate will be on the Saturday night before Christmas, which also happens to be the first weekend after the release of the new Star Wars movie.

Not that it matters much, because Clinton’s only credible opponent — Bernie Sanders — showed once again that he just isn’t in it to win it. Instead of using Clinton’s scandals against her and pointing out the enormous distraction they will likely cause next year for Democrats, Sanders chickened out once again.

Nice knowing you, Bernie.

There were a couple of interesting answers given in this debate. One that caused immediate consternation was Clinton’s defense of all of her Wall Street donations. She noted that it was a reflection of gratitude for her excellent representation of that area in the Senate when 9/11 happened. Really.

The other noteworthy segment of the debate came as a result of the 11/13 terrorist attacks in Paris. Clinton was able to take the non-controversial position that the U.S. should not shoulder the main burden in fighting ISIS. But she was hit with a sharp question on Libya. Her answer about Libya, as in the first debate, consisted of slightly less bombastic boasting about how well things have gone there. “The Libyans turned out for one of the most successful Arab elections that any Arab country has had,” she said. “They elected moderate leaders.” She then just barely acknowledged there has been “turmoil” since then. (Libya is, of course, in total anarchy today.)

Bernie Sanders gave the most amusing answer of the night when he said that climate change is America’s greatest national security threat.

Meanwhile, moderators failed to ask questions that probably would have come to them easily, had they been quizzing Republicans. Given that single-payer health care was discussed, it seems like a glaring omission that Sanders was not asked about why his state abandoned its ambitious plan for single-payer (basically because the state’s Democratic leaders realized it would require a 100 percent tax increase).

And given that the Department of Veterans Affairs was mentioned during the event, it’s hard to imagine why Clinton was not asked about her recent remark that the VA scandal (which implicated officials at more than 100 VA facilities) was “not widespread” and basically nothing more than an overblown partisan witch-hunt by Republicans.

But only Republican debates are supposed to be cage-matches, so, of course.

Governor 2015

Louisiana: If you’re looking for a silver lining for David Vitter in next Saturday’s runoff, we certainly haven’t found it yet. Various polls have him trailing by double digits. Perhaps there is a mysterious polling effect going on here and it’s just that no one wants to admit they’re voting for him. But one cannot make optimistic predictions based on such remote possibilities. Likely Democratic Takeover.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 37-

This week:

  • Big odd-year election win for GOP
  • A hint of more to come for Dems after Obama?
  • Kentucky at the tail end of Southern realignment

Election 2015

Obama-less ballot: In last Tuesday’s off-year election, Republicans won several crucial victories.

Not all the news was good. In an off-year with low turnout, unions were out in force in Pennsylvania to protect issues critical to their continued survival. With better funding and organization, Democrats won the Supreme Court races soundly in Pennsylvania, which will have an effect later in the next round of state legislative redistricting there.

But in general, Republicans had the upper hand, even in contested legislative by-elections in the Keystone State. What’s more, conservative ideas and issues won the day — even some of the less popular ones, and even in places not known for conservatism. Portland, Maine, rejected a $15 minimum wage at the behest of local business owners. Houston rejected a transgender equality bill that would have created a de jure right of men who personally identify as women to use women’s restrooms. San Francisco voters overwhelmingly voted to fire a sheriff closely identified with a policy of protecting illegal immigrants convicted of felonies from federal deportation proceedings.

But the big-ticket party wins came in Virginia and Kentucky, which hold their elections in even-numbered years. In Virginia, the GOP held the state Senate against a well-funded push by gun control groups to help give Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, a stronger foothold in Richmond. That was impressive, but not entirely unexpected.

In contrast, Republican businessman Matt Bevin was widely expected (including by us) to lose, trailing in non-partisan polls by about five percent across the board. We said Bevin was likely to lose, but we also pointed to how wrong the polls had been in 2014, and added that a win by Bevin would signal that Kentucky was finally turning red in earnest. (More on that below.)

Not only did Bevin win by a truly shocking nine-point margin, but the entire statewide Democratic ticket just barely avoided a clean sweep against a historically weak crop of GOP candidates. The Democratic State Auditor, Adam Edelen, was defeated after an embarrassing amount of fawning punditry setting him up as a rising Democratic star and the presumptive challenger to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R, in 2016. Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes, D, only narrowly escaped defeat, as did Andy Beshear, D, the son of the retiring Democratic governor, who won the race for attorney general by the skin of his teeth. Republicans elected Kentucky’s first black and first black female lieutenant governor, and hold five of the seven constitutional executive offices.

To be sure, part of the explanation is Kentucky’s glacial and often halting realignment to the GOP. But there’s a bigger question here that underscores Democrats’ loss of elected positions under President Obama.

Since 2008, there has been a surge in punditry about a permanent Democratic majority, based mostly on demographic considerations. But for three years now, we have been asking a different question here: What if this was all just about Obama, and what happens to the Democratic Party after Obama is history?

Obama expanded the electorate at the margins in the two races where he appeared on the ballot. He brought out many new voters in 2008. He brought fewer of them out in 2012, and this suggested that the tide of enthusiasm was receding already. In all the other elections since he came to power — the ones where he was not personally on the ballot — his voter coalition has repeatedly failed to show up and save the day.

In 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015, Obama was not on the ballot, and Democrats lost badly. In 2013, the results were less one-sided — Democrats did narrowly win in Virginia amid very special circumstances. Yet even before leaving office, Obama has left behind a party in tatters. Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislative seats since he was sworn in in 2009, 12 governorships, 13 Senate seats, and 69 House seats. Republicans now control 69 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers. Most of the damage — but not all — occurred in elections where he was not on the ballot. And Obama will never be on a ballot again.

On the other hand, the Democrats’ poor performances came in non-presidential election years. Democrats are supposedly poised to do better in 2016. But what if they don’t do better enough? The bottom line for Democrats is what the political landscape looks like when Obama is gone. The signs are there — especially in Hillary Clinton’s poor poll numbers — that they will not simply coast to power through demographic change and data mining.

Kentucky Realignment: In addition to this national theme, the Kentucky race echoes an age-old story of Southern realignment that predates Obama certainly and most of today’s political players. This trend has struck only in this century in several southern states.

We have been pointing out for two years now (dating back to the early days of Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign) that despite many pundits’ preconceptions, Kentucky has long been a Democratic state, and in many ways it remains so — or at least it did before 2014. The Bluegrass State has long been susceptible to a sort of populist liberalism, which smart Democratic politicians like the retiring Gov. Steve Beshear have managed to harness.

This did not immediately change when the state began electing Republicans to federal offices. The GOP became more competitive in federal races beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. It went on to dominate those contests after Jim Bunning’s narrow 1998 victory and into the new century. Republicans currently hold all but one House seat and both Senate seats, even if (as in 2004, 2008 and 2010) it hasn’t always been easy to hold them. No Democratic presidential candidate is likely to win Kentucky any time soon.

Yet Democrats have managed to keep a strong grip on the state government, holding the state House steadfastly and controlling most of the constitutional statewide offices consistently. Kentucky seemed prepared for a full realignment in 2003, when Ernie Fletcher became governor, but he went on to lose the voters’ faith in scandals.

Bevin will be only the third Republican governor elected in Kentucky since the end of World War II. As recently as 1995, the state had more than twice as many registered Democratic as Republican voters. Today, Republicans have closed that gap significantly, such that there are only four registered Democrats for every three Republicans. And 2015 marked the first time in state history that more Republicans than Democrats voted in a gubernatorial primary.

Screenshot 2015-11-08 at 11.07.55 PM

To be sure, many of Kentucky’s registered Democrats haven’t voted Democratic very often in recent elections — but most have, and all still felt at least a very weak affinity with the party of their fathers. That is finally starting to change.

This follows a common pattern for Southern States, whose political history is more subtle than many want to believe or understand. (Kentucky isn’t technically a Southern State, but it has many similar fundamentals at work.)

The simple story goes like this: Southern states have typically started voting for Republicans first at the presidential level, then for Congress, then for governor, then finally for state legislature. This process has taken five decades, and even longer if you look at the gradual rise of the GOP in the urban New South before they started winning.

But the pace has been glacial, and even then the story is too simplistic. Even at the presidential level, Richard Nixon in 1968 failed to break 41 percent in 10 of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, and carried Virginia with just 43 percent. He won Kentucky with just 44 percent, because George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey split the ancestral Democratic vote in many states. Even Ronald Reagan only barely won in the Deep South states he carried against President Jimmy Carter.

For generations after Reconstruction, the Democratic Party of the South had stood for populism, segregation, and wounded Southern pride. But then the courts made racial equality a settled question of constitutional law. Republicans and northern liberal Democrats in Congress finally overcame Southern Democrats’ opposition to civil rights laws. And then…Southern voters eventually got over it and finally began to cast their ballots based on other issues.

This process took decades. Among other things, it required an entire generation of yellow-dog Democratic voters to die off. It wasn’t until the 1990s (more than a full generation after Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act) that Republicans suddenly became competitive in the South in federal races. They began winning state races only this century. Only in the last 15 years have the state legislatures of Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas flipped to the GOP. Many of these have gone Red in the last five or six years. Today, every single one has a Republican governor, in sharp contrast to the situation in 2000.

Kentucky is among the last holdouts. If it is like its peers, it will go Red and not look back for some time. But as Fletcher’s example shows, it isn’t enough to win once. A lot depends on the performance of Bevin in office, the continued growth of the state GOP’s voter rolls, and the ability to pry Kentucky’s state House from Democratic hands. Tuesday’s election indicates that at the very least, the conditions are favorable for such a transformation.

Louisiana-Governor: There is a dark lining to this silver cloud for the GOP. With the endorsement of one of the losing GOP candidates from the first round, Democrat John Bel Edwards is now expected to win the gubernatorial runoff later this month against Sen. David Vitter, R, as we began to suspect and hinted two weeks ago.

Vitter’s name has quickly turned to mud in the polls, eight years after the embarrassing details of his solicitation of prostitutes were made public. A Vitter win would be an even bigger miracle than Bevin’s was, and it’s probably too much for even the most optimistic Republicans to expect. The GOP will, however, easily win all other constitutional elected offices, and maintain a near two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature.


The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 36- Debate Winners & Losers

This week:

  • Jeb has a miserable debate
  • Rubio and Cruz soar; Trump forgettable
  • Bernie Sanders the sexist?

The format was poorly designed, the questions were mostly tendentious (and still not necessarily tough), and some terms agreed to in advance were simply not respected. The CNBC debate last week was bad enough that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus responded to it with a letter canceling NBC’s participation in a later debate.

But of course, 14 million people still watched, and the candidates gave them quite a show. This debate will prove to be a huge turning point for several of them. Naturally, we will look at the losers first.


House070215-BushJeb Bush: The biggest loser, hands down. It wasn’t even close.

Bush was under a lot of pressure to turn in a great performance in this debate. And his advisors wanted to see him bludgeon Marco Rubio, even though his donors have “little appetite” for such an attack.

And so Bush showed up at the debate hoping to do both. Unfortunately, he showed up with a pretty lame and tendentious attack on Rubio’s senate attendance, even though he has missed fewer votes than Sens. Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, John McCain, or Hillary Clinton have missed or did miss in their respective campaigns. Rubio, who had already been fielding this criticism for a few weeks, was predictably well prepared, and dispatched with him pretty well while keeping the high ground and appearing to remain above the fray.

Things didn’t improve after that for Bush, who took up less debate time than nearly all the others on the stage. He came off looking a bit petty and definitely outwitted in that exchange. Bush’s call to regulate fantasy football but not at the federal level was somewhat absurd — given that he said he’s in favor of regulation, where else would he regulate an interstate business except through the federal government?

On its own, the debate performance would probably have been enough to doom Bush, just because his campaign has been so underachieving so far. But he has a few additional problems that relate to his and his campaign team’s effectiveness and good judgment.

  • Costly and ineffective in Iowa: Team Bush has found little excitement for its candidate in the Hawkeye State. It has made over 70,000 calls there so far, and identified just 1,260 caucusgoers who will be supporting Bush. It has also found only four volunteers.
    Bear in mind, this comes after a substantial television buy in Iowa by his SuperPAC — $6 million has been booked, although only part of it has been spent so far. No wonder Bush is retrenching and focusing on New Hampshire.
  • Suicide attack on Rubio: We’ve noted the little dust-up between Bush and Rubio on stage, but it gets much worse than that. A leaked Bush campaign memo implied that Rubio has far worse skeletons in his closet than a few missed votes. When asked about this by a reporter, a Bush aide spread the rumor that Marco Rubio had failed his vetting by Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012, when he was considered as Romney’s running-mate.
    Only problem is, that’s not so — and the Romney aide who did the vetting of Rubio has gone public to debunk the rumors.  Unless the ominous hints become revelations soon, Bush is really crossing a lot of lines with this sort of rumor-mongering, and he’d better watch it if he has hopes of running again in the future.

Bush has the money to stay in this race for quite some time, but it’s looking pretty hopeless for the moment. Unless, of course, he really does have something that can end Rubio, in which case he’d have a small chance anyway.

030214-Paul-600x266Rand Paul:  Although we stopped watching when the debate ended, we are told that one of the CNBC commentators said in the post-mortem that the two senators in the debate — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — had done pretty well. Yes, it was that kind of night for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was nearly invisible on stage. He spoke less than anyone else, and we had to go back and look at the debate transcript just to remember at least one thing he had said.

Nothing has gone Paul’s way in this race. There are many reasons, but Trump might actually be his biggest problem, because the billionaire has attracted a large swathe of the traditional Ron Paul base.

Time to get that re-election campaign rolling, senator.

Donald Trump5Donald Trump: You can say good things about Donald Trump, or you can say bad things about him. It doesn’t matter — it all helps him.  But when people stop talking about him or find him dull and unremarkable, that’s when he starts to turn back into a pumpkin.

And nobody was talking about Trump last week because his performance was utterly unmemorable. He spoke less than three other candidates, which is not very Trumpy. He could have had more time if he’d tried, but he didn’t seem to have much to say except about the rules of the debate itself. He bragged in his closing statement about his involvement in getting CNBC to reduce its length, and that was probably his best moment of the evening. For those who backing Trump over his single-issue immigration stance, it’s also worth noting that he forgot his own position on immigration at one point while discussing the H1B program and high-skill immigration in general.

The most important thing is that Trump got where he is now by dominating the field and making all of those politicians look like fools. People liked that, back when he was doing it. He isn’t doing it anymore, and he didn’t do it in that debate. (Our theory is that he doesn’t know enough about the subject matter when substantive issues come up, but there’s also the possibility that the schtick just gets old at some point.) The fact that he seemed unaware of what was in his own immigration position paper — praised by many of his biggest fans — seems to confirm that.

Either way, Trump seems to have lost the shine that made him the frontrunner. Just because everyone predicting his demise has been wrong for so long doesn’t mean they won’t start being right. The polls in Iowa are just beginning to hint that Trump’s moment is almost gone.

CIB061515-CarsonBen Carson: Carson’s new status as the Iowa (and perhaps national) frontrunner didn’t make him any less low-key in this debate. He didn’t do horribly, but he didn’t seem to understand questions about his own tax plan and that’s never good. He took up less speaking speaking time than all but Paul and Bush, and he was a non-entity throughout.


House042015-1-rubioMarco Rubio: Not only did he stop Bush in his tracks, but he also dealt deftly with criticisms about his personal financial acumen and an inaccurate characterization of his tax plan. No, he did not quite address these things head-on, but no good candidate does. Rubio showed how good he is at redirecting tendentious questions and accusations. He does so effortlessly, just as when he dealt with Bush. He’ll have to do more than that to reassure people in the long run — and but this is good enough for now.

This guy is good on his feet — really good. He has a positive message, he’s young and attractive. Team Bush has tried to frame him as a Republican Obama for his assumed lack of experience. One could say he fits that bill in some ways, but don’t forget that Obama won two presidential elections and was considered the ideal candidate when he ran.

Ted Cruz1Ted Cruz: Sometimes, when Cruz speaks, he says the right things but doesn’t sound very convincing. That was not the case last Wednesday night. He displayed perfect timing in deciding when to go after the CNBC moderators, right when he was given a tendentious but not terribly hard-hitting question, much like the others before him.

Cruz earned a lot of good will just with that little riff. And overall, he made a realimpression and had a good debate. His discussion of the problem with the Federal Reserve Bank’s dual mandate (price stability and maximum employment) is one that needs to be had and rarely is — there is, in fact, little-known legislation to go back to the single mandate of price stability. His reference to the gold standard (to which he wisely did not entirely commit) is surely a means of fishing for the old Ron Paul base — the part of it accessible to Cruz at this point is mostly attached to Trump.

Cruz shows potential to become one of the contenders after Trump and Carson fade away — assuming they do. That’s clearly been his plan all along.

CIB041515-ChristieChris Christie: A surprisingly strong debate performance from Christie doesn’t mean he has the slightest chance of winning the GOP nomination. But you had to enjoy watching him, much like conservatives did in his YouTube confrontations of the old days.

Carly Fiorina 4Carly Fiorina: She wasn’t exactly a clear “winner,” but she broke even and she didn’t hurt herself at all. Her problem is that she’s been slowly fading ever since that spectacular performance in the last debate. She didn’t do anything in the debate to stand out too much, but she smartly took the initiative to consume more debate time than anyone else.

CIB061315-ClintonDemocrats: If Hillary Clinton is elected, Americans face eight years of being called sexist for criticizing her about anything. It’s worth laying down this flag now, because if Bernie Sanders is a sexist, then every human being alive is a sexist.

Republicans would do well to mark this one down for the future, because when the inevitable “war on women” theme crops up again, it will be worth bringing up the example of Sanders to show how empty the rhetoric really is. “Just ten months ago, her campaign was accusing Bernie Sanders — a lifelong progressive democratic socialist, of being a sexist, of waging a war on women. It just goes to show that they’ll really say anything…”

Election 2015

Virginia State Senate: Republicans face a risk of losing their narrow 21-19 majority in the State Senate. Tie goes to the Democrats, who control the lieutenant governorship. Keep an eye out for this result on Tuesday.

Kentucky-Governor:  There is a late GOP poll showing a tie, but Matt Bevin, R, remains the underdog and trails by five points in the more-trusted Bluegrass Poll. A major factor in the outcome will be the performance of the third-party candidate, Drew Curtis. If he does worse than the polls suggest, Bevin at least has a chance.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 35 –

This week:

  • It ain’t happening for Jeb
  • Hillary’s best week in ages
  • Vitter barely survives first round of voting in #LAGOV

President 2016

Jeb! The exclamation point, he once deadpanned, denotes excitement. Unfortunately for Jeb Bush, there isn’t a lot of that surrounding his candidacy at the moment.

Despite his strongly conservative record in Florida, his last name speaks volumes about his current problems. To conservatives, he has become the archetypal example of the squishy establishment RINO — as if he were Mitt Romney or something. Bush has become the favorite foil of Donald Trump and is, more often than not, the name on the lips of Trump’s supporters when they try to justify Trumpism.

The worst news for Jeb is that his poll performance is lousy, despite his having far and away outspent all other GOP candidates. One could hardly tell that he is the second-biggest spender in Iowa (just behind Bobby Jindal) from his current sixth-place showing there.

Hence the sudden campaign shakeup. When candidates lay people off and cut the pay of their staff, the intention is similar to that of a corporate shakeup — it’s intended to reassure investors (in this case donors) that the management understands things are going poorly and the current modus operandi is inadequate. It is telling that Bush’s campaign payroll up to now was more than four times that of rivals who are racking up similar poll numbers. It is also telling that his small-dollar fundraising is almost non-existent.

In the long run, however, Bush has an even bigger problem. Marco Rubio checks nearly all of the same boxes as Bush, but has much higher net favorables, enjoys a much better reputation with conservatives, and brings a few extra assets to the table that Bush doesn’t.

Bush is now putting all of his eggs in the New Hampshire basket. With the primaries drawing closer and closer and no sign of a Jeb! groundswell on the horizon, this looks more like a Hail Mary pass than a retrenchment.

Hillary Clinton: As we noted last week, Joe Biden’s road to the nomination went straight through the briar patch. Either unload on Hillary Clinton’s lack of ethics, or go home. He opted for the latter last week.

This is obviously very good news for Clinton, whose other opponents continue to be spineless about doing what they need to do in order to win. Clinton is once again headed to a coronation, albeit one in which she is not nearly as strong a candidate as she appeared in February.

Bernie Sanders will be an annoying obstacle for her, to be sure. But until he starts talking about her lack of honesty and the risk this holds of handing the presidency over to a Republican, he’s just a gadfly, not a contender.

Clinton’s probably in for an easy race in which, at worst, she loses one or both of the two earliest states, then crushes Sanders on Super Tuesday.

Meanwhile, last week’s Benghazi hearing did little to dim her hopes, and her campaign is pushing the idea that it helped her immensely. That’s doubtful, but Republicans definitely miscalculated in scheduling a hearing that went eleven hours, just to illustrate a couple of (admittedly important) points:

(1) Clinton knew, on the day of the Benghazi attack, that it was both a terrorist action and not in any way related to the YouTube video she would later cite as its cause, even when talking to the father of one of the victims.

(2) Clinton and the entire Obama administration lost interest in Libya after they got what looked like a political win there. As a result the country has turned into a complete disaster, something akin to Syria or Somalia.

Clinton was quick to take a victory lap, but she also added to her list of potential liabilities even in doing that. On Maddow, she defended the bureaucracy of the Veterans’ Administration against a supposed Republican witch-hunt — you know, the big story CNN broke that led to hundreds of thousands of veterans dying while waiting for appointments. It’s unlikely that a defense of such bureaucratic malfeasance against veterans can be tamped down so easily. Watch for this little-noticed comment to have a second life in TV ads later on. Assuming, of course, that Republicans nominate someone viable.

Congress 2015

Rise of Ryan: Despite many doubts, Paul Ryan sewed up the support he needed to become the next Speaker last week. That included winning over more than 70 percent of the 40-member Freedom Caucus, the conservative group that seemed to present the biggest obstacle.

In the end, conservatives were ready to say “yes” and accept the gains they had made. They are getting a substantially more conservative speaker than they would have had otherwise, and in fact someone who has shown he can move the ball on important issues like entitlement reform.

Ryan’s promise not to bring immigration reform to the floor under Obama seems to have been enough to satisfy the House’s conservative hard-core. The remaining issue, regarding the motion to vacate the chair, has been overblown by the press and will not be an obstacle for Ryan.

The question going forward is whether Ryan has truly gained the support he needs to do the job. It’s one thing to wield the gavel — it’s entirely another thing to do so with the certainty (once common, but nowadays rare) that your member-constituents will follow you after having elected you to lead. This is the problem we outlined last week. If, in his private conversations, Ryan has gotten the whole conference on the same page, he will succeed. If not, he will fail.

Given court-ordered redistricting and retirements, House Republicans are facing a difficult 2016 election in which they will lose several seats, even if their majority is not necessarily in danger. But they will have to pull things together quickly and start acting as a team. Aside from the immediate priorities — like getting appropriations and the debt ceiling in order so that there are fewer crises in the coming months — the House’s Republican members need an agenda to run on — a positive platform, and a series of votes that will embarrass the opposition on key issues.

The Republicans succeeded in creating that in 2014 after the government shutdown, but tensions seem even greater now than they were then.

Governor 2015

Kentucky: A last-minute seven-figure ad campaign by the Republican Governor’s Association puts to bed any doubts that the national party views victory here as still being on the cards. But Matt Bevin, R, remains the underdog against Attorney General Jack Conway and needs a miracle — albeit a minor one — to prevail. Leaning Democratic Retention.

Louisiana: As we anticipated, Saturday’s election came down to a very close finish. But the most likely outcome did indeed come to pass. Sen. David Vitter, R, made it to the Nov. 21 runoff against John Bel Edwards, D, but only after just barely edging out Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, R, by just 30,000 votes.

Together, the three main Republican candidates in the jungle primary came out with 57 percent and Edwards got only 40 percent. But Vitter’s polling for the runoff has been horrendous lately. Lieutenant Gov. Jay Dardenne, R, has already ruled out endorsing Vitter, and his communications director just endorsed Edwards on Sunday. Angelle left it unclear in his concession how he will proceed.

Republicans seem as institutionally strong as ever in the state, which has only recently gone red. They are heavily favored to keep the lieutenant governorship in the runoff, and they are guaranteed to keep all other statewide constitutional offices.

The GOP also gained one seat in the state Senate and two in the state House in the first round of voting. That means they will probably expand their two-thirds majority in the Senate and, depending on a few outcomes, they could net just enough House seats make veto-overrides a serious possibility (although these are historically quite rare in the Pelican State).

Despite growing GOP strength in the state, Vitter really has his work cut out for him. He is known as a hard worker on the campaign trail, but he has little time to recover and rally to unite a disunited GOP.

And he has to do it after watching his support disintegrate over the past few months amid new attack ads over his eight-year-old prostitution scandal. It is kind of bizarre that something like that, which didn’t hurt him too much at the time, would catch up with him only now. But Louisiana is a bizarre state politically.

On the other hand, Edwards’ path to victory — which requires an enormous crossover vote from Round One — is almost as difficult to see as Vitter’s. Don’t count the conservative senator out. Democratic Takeover Slightly Favored.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 34-

This week:

  • Who won the Democratic debate?
  • Can anyone beat Hillary — and if so, how?
  • Potentially wild election in Louisiana this Saturday.

President 2016

Dem Debate: There has been some controversy about who won the Democrats’ first presidential debate. In reality, the outcome was uncontroversial.

The debate’s verdict: Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley don’t really want it enough to become the Democratic nominee for president. And Lincoln Chafee might want it enough, but he’s too hapless to have any hope of pulling it off.

This is the most important lesson from last Tuesday’s Democratic debate. Yes, Hillary Clinton won, but it’s important to understand why she won. She dominates the Democratic presidential field because Democratic voters have deluded themselves about her chances in a general election, and no viable Democratic candidate (at least so far) is willing to cure their delusions. Not one of them is willing to go all the way by making her ethical baggage, high unfavorables, and consequent unelectability the main issue in the Democratic primary.

It’s the Democrats’ loss, and quite possibly the Republicans’ enormous gain. Consider for a moment how poorly she polls against Republicans in comparison to Vice President Joe Biden.

Example: The latest FOX News poll has her trailing Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, whereas Biden leads them all. PPP Has her trailing every Republican in Pennsylvania except Bush. Another poll has her trailing every Republican but Trump in the all-important state of Virginia, and Biden leading all comers. Another has her trailing Bush and Rubio in Florida, and Biden leading both. Another has her trailing All Republicans except Trump in Ohio, and Biden beating all of them except Carson.

Quinnipiac has Clinton with negative net favorable ratings in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Biden’s ratings, on the other hand, are positive in all three. Clinton is overwhelmingly (between 59 and 61 percent) perceived as dishonest and untrustworthy in all three of these swing states. Biden is overwhelmingly viewed as honest and trustworthy in all three.

But even Biden cannot benefit from this dose of reality unless he is willing to administer it to a Democratic electorate that has bought its own propaganda on Clinton’s chances. Unless he is willing to turn the screws as hard as possible on Hillary with this issue of integrity and honesty, he might as well not waste his time by running, because he won’t get past the primary.

The point here is not that Hillary Clinton cannot win. Republicans assume that Donald Trump will not receive the GOP nomination. If he does, then perhaps she can win.

But for a Democratic candidate running against Clinton, the fact of Clinton’s weakness — borne out in so many polls — is an indispensable weapon. Lincoln Chafee offered a weak version of the argument that must be made by the successful anti-Clinton. It happened well into the debate, when Anderson Cooper pointed out that in contrast the other candidates, Chafee had said that Clinton’s scandals were “a huge issue.” He asked Chafee to defend the statement, and the bumbling former Rhode Island governor replied:

Absolutely. We have to repair American credibility after we told the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which he didn’t. So there’s an issue of American credibility out there. So any time someone is running to be our leader, and a world leader, which the American president is, credibility is an issue out there with the world. And we have repair work to be done. I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president. That’s how I feel.

That’s the basic idea: Character counts — or at least, perceived character counts — for the person who serves as president.

To build on this idea, the successful anti-Clinton Democrat must say something like the following:

“Yes, we are tired of hearing about her damned emails. But you know what? If we nominate her, that’s all we’re going to be talking about until next November. That’s because she showed poor judgment and now she and her aides are under investigation not just by Congress, but by the FBI.

“If Secretary Clinton gets the nomination, we won’t be talking about income inequality, or raising the minimum wage, or the gender pay gap, or climate change, or any of those other things over the next year. Thanks to her poor decisions, we’ll be talking about Clinton scandals right up until election day. Our party shouldn’t have to suffer through that, and it doesn’t have to. Nominate someone who has shown character and won’t be burdened by such distractions.”

That’s the winning formula, but Clinton’s Democratic rivals don’t have to stones to invoke it. For them, it’s a shame. For Republicans, it’s a lifeline. A candidate perceived as untrustworthy by 60 percent of the electorate (as multiple polls suggest) could conceivably win, but the odds are not in her favor. And she’s certainly not likely to get the benefit of the doubt from voters at crucial moments.

Clinton’s disingenuous behavior on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — she flagrantly lied about her new position (against it) during the debate, then backtracked on that position after she had “won” the debate — just reinforces her problem. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper put it in a question to her, Clinton will quite literally say anything to win. This perception of her dishonesty is out there, and it isn’t going to serve her well during a long campaign.

Jeb: Jeb Bush has money, and a surname that helps but also serves as a double-edged sword. But this head-to-head poll between him and Marco Rubio, conducted by YouGov, should make him lose sleep.


Bush shares several things with Rubio in terms of his base of support. Floridians and Hispanic Republicans are supposed to be fans of both, as are all Republicans not completely incensed by the whiff of “the establishment.” In a head to head between the two, Rubio seems to check the boxes for more than twice as many Republican voters.

This is something to keep in mind as Jeb and Rubio pick minor fights with one another. Rubio may lag in fundraising and overall prominence, but Republican voters would much sooner nominate him than Jeb Bush.

Governor 2015

Kentucky: A bit odd for Matt Bevin, R, to tout a poll that shows himself slightly behind Democrat Jack Conway, D, just before the election. Typically, this is a sign of an impending loss, and Bevin’s lackadaisical approach to the race adds credence to that view.

But of course, the polls were so dramatically wrong in Kentucky last November that one could justifiably wonder whether they don’t at least slightly underestimate Republican chances in the Bluegrass State this time around as well. All Bevin would need to win is a small boost ahead of where he’s polling now. Leaning Democratic retention.

Louisiana: Everyone went to sleep on this race for about a year. Then suddenly this month, three different polls show Sen. David Vitter, R, trailing in an expected runoff against Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Given that primaries are far more likely to defy polling, the finish to this race ought to be an exciting one. It takes place Saturday, October 24.

If you want the most likely outcome, it is still a late November runoff between Vitter and Edwards, D. But frankly, it’s hard to feel much certainty in a four-man field where undecided voters and late jitters about Vitter abound.

The first round of voting could produce almost anything, especially given that primaries tend to defy the polls much more easily than general elections. A crazy near-tie with three or four top candidates finishing in the low-to-mid-20s is not out of the question. Nor is a runoff between two Republicans, though it is quite unlikely.

The latest Baton Rouge Advocate poll showed Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, both Republicans, at 14 and 15 percent, respectively, behind Vitter and Edwards who were tied at 24. Leaning Vitter-Edwards runoff.


The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 33-

This week:

  • What Ryan should demand in exchange for taking the speakership
  • Biden needs to hurry up
  • What’s behind Trump’s apparent continued lead?

Congress 2015

Speaker’s race: The media were full of hot takes after Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., abruptly and unexpectedly dropped out of the race for Speaker.

Can the GOP still function as a party?

Um, yes. How many Americans do you suppose have even heard of Kevin McCarthy or could pick him out of a photo lineup? Five percent? His withdrawal, as surprising as it was (Dick Cheney had just announced the night before that he was endorsing McCarthy) has very few implications for the party. This might be chaos, but it’s a healthy, democratic chaos.

Yet the Republicans certainly do have a problem they must address goiing forward. It has little to do with McCarthy’s exit — which may or may not have had much to do with the state of play in the caucus, in any event. The continued problem is the lack of trust between the party leadership and the conservative wing, and the voters in the Republican base. They’ve heard so much of this limited government Reagan-era rhetoric, and what they see is a bunch of people intent on reauthorizing the Export-Import bank and returning to the higher levels of spending that preceded sequestration.

Even the decision to halt the closed-door caucus election upon McCarthy’s exit reflects an aspect of that distrust. After all, there were two candidates running, and if either of them had dropped out, the election still would have gone forward. Boehner wanted to leave the House in hands other than those of Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, or of  Dan Webster, R-Fla., the latter  being the choice of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

The clamor now — from Boehner, from conservatives, and from nearly everyone else is to get Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to run for Speaker. So far, at least, Ryan has had other ideas.

In The Republic, Plato puts into Socrates’ mouth the following explanation of what motivates good men to rule:

[T]he good are not willing to rule either for the sake of money or of honor….But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse, if a man will not himself hold office and rule. It is from fear of this, as it appears to me, that the better sort hold office when they do…as a necessary evil and because they are unable to turn it over to better men than themselves.

Ryan has been very reluctant to take the Speaker’s gavel. Not in the usual sense of the politician who feigns reluctance in order to seem endearing, but in the very sincere sense that he doesn’t want the job at all.

If Ryan does choose to place himself in the running, this very fear of suffering under an inferior leader might be what motivates him. That, or the attempts by nearly everyone (including his old running mate, Mitt Romney) to persuade him.

For his own part, he genuinely seems to prefer the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. Nearly every House Republican has other ideas. Ryan is perceived to be the perfect consensus Speaker, even if he isn’t part of the consensus. (Based on a literal reading of the rules of the House Republican Conference, there is no requirement that he consent to his own nomination, although he could refuse to serve if elected.)

Ryan commands respect from enough conservatives and from the party’s establishment wing that everyone wants him to step up. But his dream all along has been to be the chairman who finally gets tax reform through the House. Others’ ambitions for him seem to put that dream at risk.

Should he do it, from his own self-interested perspective? Probably not, under the current conditions. If he does, it will be a real sacrifice on his part, and he risks becoming a political human sacrifice within the first few months. The fact that some conservatives (although not most House conservatives) are already denouncing him as an establishment moderate is evidence enough of that. This is Paul Ryan we’re talking about — the young congressman who, starting from zero support, convinced House leadership to pass a budget that included an entitlement reform plan.

The job of Speaker is currently as thankless as it ever has been. Party discipline is non-existent on the Republican side, which means the next Speaker will be in an impossible position from Day One. About one-fifth of his (or her) caucus will be demanding a government shutdown for one symbolic vote or another. About one-fifth will be working with Democrats to surrender the small conservative gains of the Boehner era, such as the sequestration-level spending and the expiration of the Export-Import bank (42 Republicans signed a discharge petition this month to that end).

In both cases, that’s enough votes at each end of the 247-member caucus to undermine whomever holds the Speaker’s gavel in the coming months. Moreover, in the midst of dealing with this double-headed threat, the new Speaker will be expected to play the important role of top House fundraiser and architect of the agenda that helps the caucus maintain its majority in 2016.

The only way for Ryan (or any other Speaker) to avert disaster is to demand, as a condition of taking the post, that Republicans reach a consensus about the set of goals they want to pursue during the remainder of the Obama presidency. It will have to be a short list, and a list that doesn’t please everyone, but it has to be a list they can all reluctantly accept. Ryan is one candidate for Speaker who is universally wanted, such that he would have leverage to demand concessions from everyone. As someone who genuinely doesn’t want the job, he has the unusual luxury of threatening not to take it unless it’s on his terms. He would be very unwise to take it without doing so.

As we have noted here in the past, what Congress does this year is largely symbolic and unimportant. No grand plans can be passed into law.

But no matter how it seems now, the emergence of a rebellious conservative wing since 2011 will ultimately be a positive thing for the GOP. Conservatives have finally acquired a counterweight to the small moderate GOP segment that once dictated the agenda in both houses of Congress by holding the margin that gave the party its majorities in the Bush era.

The problem for conservatives is that they have to be a lot more patient than they seem willing so far. Their newly acquired clout won’t be terribly useful until there’s a Republican president for them to keep in line. That’s when they gain credibility and start making demands that might actually amount to something.

Conservatives missed the boat when Obama was reelected in 2012. But if they find themselves in a unified party government situation in 2017, they can grab their longstanding legislative agenda off the shelf and start making demands and passing bills that will matter.

President 2016

Hillary_Rodham_Clinton_at_Center_for_Global_DevelopmentHillary Clinton: According to the new CBS News poll, Clinton remains the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, at least on a national level. In a head-to-head, she leads Bernie Sanders, 56 to 32 percent. In a three-way race, she leads Sanders and Joe Biden, with each receiving 48, 27, and 16 percent respectively.

Yet at the same time, her favorables among the broader electorate are in terrible shape — much worse than they were eight years ago. In mid-October 2007, her fav/unfav was positive at 43/41. Today, she’s at an astounding 33/53 — twenty points underwater.

This week, it was reported that Clinton burned a CIA asset in Libya. Democrats have been having their fun watching the unelectable Donald Trump dominate the GOP race, but it seems they might have an even worse problem.

Joe Biden 2Joe Biden: If they can somehow shake off Clinton, this leaves Biden as the Democrats’ great hope. The CBS poll suggests he wouldn’t start off in a great position at just 16 percent among Democrats, but perhaps that will change.

At least for now, Bernie Sanders seems to be sucking up most of the oxygen in the anti-Hillary Democratic space, and he’ll have still another chance to show her up (perhaps over her newfound and transparently opportunistic opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal) in this week’s Democratic debate.

Ryan Lizza broke the news in the New Yorker that staffers for Vice President Joe Biden have met with DNC staff about what a presidential run would involve — a service the DNC reportedly provides to all potential Democratic candidates. That might sound like it means he’s running for sure. And he probably is. But this graf also really jumps out:

The D.N.C. source, who was briefed on the meeting, said that the information conveyed seemed eye-opening for Biden’s aides. “They probably thought they had a lot longer,” the source said. “The deadlines for qualifying on the ballots for key states haven’t passed yet, but are fast approaching.”

What are those filing deadlines? The earliest one is Arkansas on Nov. 9, and several other states follow closely. The deadline for Texas — a delegate-rich state — is Dec. 14. In some states, ballot access is relatively easy (like New Hampshire, where there’s a simple $1,000 filing fee). In others, a complex signature-gathering operation might be required. And of course, there’s a lot more to it than just getting on the ballot — you need a team in place if you want to win.

As we’ve noted here several times before, this is a very late date to start assembling a presidential campaign. Biden has more wiggle-room than the average candidate because he isn’t starting from scratch. President Obama’s donors will back him if he runs, and in fact there’s already a SuperPAC there, aspiring to run obnoxious ads about his personal tragedies (Biden asked them to stop) on his behalf.

But the last time a presidential candidate joined the race in October of the off-year and went on to be president, it was Bill Clinton. He jumped into a 1992 field that didn’t contain a clear frontrunner or really anyone terribly formidable who would be analogous to his wife in this year’s contest.

What’s more, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s presence in that race made the contest in Iowa meaningless. That effectively gave Clinton one extra week before meaningful contests began. And the caucuses that year were an additional week later than they will be in 2016, so make that two weeks. Assuming he would succeed and become president, Biden is near the point of being the latest announced successful candidate in history.

Which is just to say, if Biden really wants to run, he’d better hurry up.

Donald Trump: Yes, he leads the polls, but which ones?

Here is the average of all recent polls:


Here is the average of non-Internet polls.


Here is the average of non-Internet polls of likely and registered voters (not just “adults”):

CaptureThis is a short way of pointing out that Trump’s nominal lead seems to depend suspiciously upon the least reliable forms of polling — the kind that include low-propensity voters and use untested methods. The more traditional and historically reliable (although still certainly imperfect) kinds of polls point to a sharp and sustained Trump drop-off right after the second GOP debate — and perhaps also to a Rubio surge behind Ben Carson’s rise.

At the same time, note that Jeb Bush does better in the low-reliability polls as well.

Again, the smart money is on Rubio, although we are not the gambling types.

Senate 2016

New Hampshire NewsNew Hampshire: The recruitment of Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, to run against Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R, represents a real coup for Democrats. It puts another race on the table, in addition to Florida (open), Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and (just barely) Pennsylvania. That puts Democrats in a position where a Senate takeover is very much on the cards, even if it can’t be considered likely at this point.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 32-

This week:

  • Still Biden his time, but not much longer.
  • Trump fever begins to break
  • Chaffetz’s challenge for Speaker.

President 2016

Over the weekend, Team Joe Biden let leak that he will be making up his mind very soon about a presidential run. He has reportedly set a fuzzy mid-October deadline for himself, but he might make the decision as soon as this week.


Either way, he would be entering at a very late date, and whether he runs or not he is definitely skipping the first Democratic debate. Although that debate has been scheduled for a time when it is unlikely to be watched by anyone, Biden’s timing has the convenient side-effect of making him loom over the proceedings no matter what. 

Hillary Clinton cannot allow this. For her, Biden is a pain. He is costing her early union endorsements. He is drawing her donors away. But most importantly, he is helping Democrats dream of a world in which they can avoid nominating her and still have a chance of winning a general election — a world in which they nominate someone without her baggage who doesn’t proudly call himself a socialist.

Hillary Clinton 9Last week, Clinton was working hard to lock down uncommitted Democrats and wavering superdelegates for her cause. David Brock, her media-world attack dog, was issuing the veiled threat that Biden should opt out of the race now because “at this point in his career, he can go out with everyone’s respect and esteem.”

If Biden joins the race, get ready for one of the ugliest campaigns you’ve ever seen — one in which, unlike in 2008, Clinton will not be constrained or hindered at all by thorny racial politics.

In any event, Clinton is now polling weaker against Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire than Bernie Sanders. As she fights this ugly fight, Republicans are quietly hoping she will win.

Trump Fever:  It hasn’t broken, but it’s breaking, as this graph demonstrates:


The big question now is who is well-positioned to capitalize on the demise of both Trump and Carson. Carly Fiorina won the last debate, but the smart money here is probably on Marco Rubio, even if he polls fourth at the moment.

To be sure, Carson and Fiorina continue to outpoll Rubio. But theoretically, Republicans come home to someone with experience. They haven’t nominated a true outsider — someone completely outside the political establishment — since Wendell Wilkie got their nod in 1940. (Even Barry Goldwater was a sitting senator.)

Over the next few months, as Trump continues to wane, the GOP race for the nomination could well become a race between Rubio and his supposed mentor, Jeb Bush. And in that race, Rubio should probably be considered the stronger candidate.

Congress 2015

House Speaker Race: On Sunday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, officially announced his candidacy for Speaker. He will probably be the most formidable challenger to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., with all other serious candidates having opted out.

Photo by Don LaVange
Photo by Don LaVange

As of last week, McCarthy appeared to be next in line and capable of winning enough support from conservatives to seal the deal. But with conservatives increasingly willing to vote against the party in Speaker elections on the House floor, it’s especially important for him to make sure he has 218 votes. 

Chaffetz’s candidacy is a slightly risky gamble. His aim is to dissuade Republicans from choosing McCarthy in their caucus vote, where he would need a majority of the 247 Republicans, on the grounds that McCarthy cannot get backing from 218 out of 247 Republicans on the House floor.

First, it isn’t entirely clear that this is true. It is not impossible to imagine McCarthy reaching that milestone — and his endorsement by Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., won’t hurt. Second, a candidate who wields this threat in public as Chaffetz is doing — and in fact makes it the central argument for his candidacy — had better win. Although it has become more common in recent years, a vote against the party’s choice on the House floor is considered a betrayal, and members are frequently punished for it. In the event McCarthy wins, the threat of this outcome could be punished as an incitement toward it.

Chaffetz’s announcement coincided with two pieces of news that could help in his uphill climb against McCarthy. The first was the revelation that top Secret Service bosses had resorted to a blackmail scheme and violated several federal laws in an effort to make Chaffetz back down in his investigation of their agency.

The second was that McCarthy was caught making a very ill-considered comment about the purpose of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, implying that it had been established to embarrass Hillary Clinton and drag down her poll numbers.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., speaks with the media on the East Front of the Capitol after a vote in the House, July 31, 2014. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., speaks with the media on the East Front of the Capitol after a vote in the House, July 31, 2014. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Chaffetz’s bid comes as something of a surprise, as his previous well-known plans were quite different. Having dropped hints about a potential primary bid for Sen. Orrin Hatch’s, R-Utah, seat in 2012, he seemed certain to run for that seat when it opened up in 2018. A speakership bid puts him on a very different path, and puts his chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee at risk. But it also makes perfect sense if Chaffetz feels he has little to lose here because he won’t be in the House too much longer.

Chaffetz has to be considered the underdog. McCarthy has been working to find the votes he needs for some time already. But Chaffetz represents what was missing from the race previously — someone substantially more conservative than McCarthy, but also serious.

The first vote for Speaker — among the party faithful — takes place by secret ballot and behind closed doors, and the voting continues until someone wins a majority. This means that those who have pledged their support to McCarthy need not honor their promises, and face no consequences for failing to do so. It also means that if he falls even just a bit short of an absolute majority on the first ballot (there will be at least three candidates), he could well lose on the second ballot.

The key, of course is to force that second ballot — it’s something that Rep. Tom Rooney, a supporter of McCarthy, believes Chaffetz could do. But McCarthy is popular, even with conservatives, because he has been an integral part of what the next Speaker will be expected to do — helping members raise money and get elected. 

Everything can change on that second ballot, as Republicans were reminded in 2006 when Roy Blunt ran against Boehner for House Republican Leader. Blunt won the first ballot with 110 votes out of 231, just six votes short of a majority. The fact that Blunt had come so close led some of the journalists assembled outside the conference meeting to assume that he would win on the second ballot. But in the second round, with Republican Reps. John Shadegg and Jim Ryun dropping out, Boehner shot up from 79 votes to a majority of 122. Blunt lost one vote, finishing with only 109.

The outcome may not matter as much as people think, for reasons we discussed here previously. The next Speaker is going to be stuck with a lot of the same impossible situations as Boehner, and he is likely to make many of the same decisions, regardless of his ideology.

But there is a strong desire on the part of grassroots conservatives to have one of their own as Speaker. Chaffetz makes the strongest case to them when he characterizes a McCarthy win as “an automatic promotion for the existing leadership team. That doesn’t signal change.”

Governor 2015

Kentucky: Republican Matt Bevin is still very much in this race, even though he has to be considered an underdog at this point.

The Bluegrass Poll released last week shows Attorney General Jack Conway leading Bevin 42 to 37 percent. An independent candidate gets 7 points.

But the poll, no matter how good its methods, should not be taken as a terribly discouraging sign for the Republican businessman. Such a strong third-party performance seems improbable, for one thing. What’s more, a poll that has the leader, an incumbent officeholder, in the low 40s at this point is hard to take too seriously as a sign of his strength.

As Bevin works to tie Conway to President Obama in the final weeks, the real question that will be settled as to whether Kentucky has become a truly Red State yet, or remains a place where Democrats can dominate on the local level.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 31-

This week:

  • Danger in Boehner’s lame-duck
  • Conservatives are doomed to be disappointed with his replacement
  • Speaking of disappointment….Scott Walker.

House 2015

Boehner lame-duck: Conservatives mostly celebrated the announcement from Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that he was retiring as Speaker of the House (and from Congress) at the end of October. More on what that means in a moment.

But if conservatives are going to be expressing emotion at the moment, it should probably instead be concern — especially about what Boehner could do before his term is over.

There is much talk now about who will succeed Boehner. But at this moment, there is no announced or likely candidate for Speaker who supports reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. Even Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Boehner’s next-in-line and the putative establishment candidate for speaker, has already come out against it, and any prospective conservative challenger will surely oppose it as well.

Conservatives have complained a lot about Boehner’s speakership, often about things that he had little or no control over. But they should be positively alarmed to hear of Boehner’s aspirations to move Ex-Im reauthorization as part of his swan song. The other things Boehner hopes to move include a transportation bill and a budget deal that changes the current budget cap arrangements.

Ideology aside, it stands to reason that the guy who’s quitting next month should not be setting the agenda for years to come. But the spending caps and the expiration of Ex-Im are also among the biggest accomplishments conservatives can claim from the Boehner era.

The next Speaker: So far, only Rep. Dan Webster, R-Fla., a real longshot, has rushed forward to declare his paul ryancandidacy for Speaker. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has ruled himself out. So has House Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who has said he will run for Majority Leader if Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., becomes Speaker. McCarthy will probably seek the position (he hasn’t announced yet), and there will probably be others as well — perhaps Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, or Pete Sessions, R-Texas.

Party members are expected, on the House floor, to back whomever the party chooses in advance in a closed-door vote. In that closed-door vote, as many ballots will be held as is necessary to produce a majority winner.

It’s too early to say how that battle will turn out, but it’s never too early to point out that it probably doesn’t matter as much as you think who replaces Boehner. What really matters is not who leads, but what the caucus will tolerate from him. The caucus is not going to change overnight, and so Boehner’s exit probably won’t have the effects that some conservatives seem to expect.

All other things being equal, it’s probably better to have someone in the slot who is ideologically reliable. But a more conservative Speaker or majority leader does not necessarily make for a more conservative House agenda.

Changes in party leadership matter mostly from a technical perspective rather than an ideological one. New leaders may be stronger or worse fundraisers — an important thing to remember, since that’s a huge part of the party leader’s job. They might be more or less competent at specific things, such as whipping votes or outmaneuvering the opposition. They may have broader visions (think Newt Gingrich) or narrower ones (think Dennis Hastert).

But party leaders cannot be counted on to change the people who elect them., i.e. the members of their caucus. The idea that a stronger, more conservative Speaker gets you a whole new House Republican caucus is widespread, but incorrect. All it really guarantees is a new set of House leaders that conservatives can be disappointed by later on.

A great leader can change the political character of a nation and its population. Presidents Reagan and Clinton can both be viewed in hindsight as leaders who successfully persuaded millions of people to change their politics. But the electors of a party leader are all seasoned politicians and members of a legislative body. They are less susceptible to a leader’s transformative charms and more precise about their own self-interest. Unlike the broader electorate, they can also dump their leader at any moment they wish — there’s no fixed term.

Parties adopted the caucus system and selected legislative leaders for purposes of efficiency. A group of 240 congressmen, left to act independently, will accomplish far less and find itself thwarted more often if its members do not mutually agree to entrust major decisions about tactics and legislative agenda to a smaller group. Members’ opinions will always vary and often clash, but when they move to the floor, everyone has to be on the same page. This is why members of both parties are always expected to vote with their party leadership on floor rules, even if they sometimes vote against them on legislation and amendments.

This all means that a legislative leader’s personal ideology matters less than one might expect. A more conservative Speaker or Majority Leader does not necessarily mean a more conservative House. In fact, a relatively moderate leader could steer his caucus in a far less moderate direction (take Harry Reid as an example of this for the Democrats). A relatively conservative leader can defang his party’s conservatives (take Tom DeLay as an example of this).

The methods and results of leadership are effects, not causes, of a caucus’s ideology. There is only one way to make leaders think and behave differently, and that is to elect more members who will prompt them to think differently.

To understand why this is so, consider it from the leaders’ perspective: They spend their every waking hour raising money for their members, and listening to complaints from each one that their priorities are being neglected or that their seats are in danger if they follow the party’s plan to vote for this or that. A leader who fails in keeping his constituents (his members) happy and getting them re-elected will not last long, and so he is always looking for ways to accommodate everyone as he can, and then demanding from them from when he has to.

Conservatives want one of their own as speaker now, but that is not a sufficient condition to bring about change in the House. Whoever becomes Speaker will have to face the same challenges and lead the same group of congressmen as Boehner, and as a result, his (or her) decisions will probably look a lot like the ones Boehner has been making.

This implies that most of Boehner’s decisions as Speaker since 2011 have been predetermined for him in the House. The great danger at this moment, as noted above, is what Boehner could try to do now that he has nothing to lose.

The bottom line: If you want a more conservative leader, it won’t do to choose a different guy with a better voting record or even a more confrontational disposition. Rather, you need to elect a larger and more conservative crop of congressmen, or otherwise change the calculation for everyone (for example, by electing a Republican president or a Senate supermajority).

This is the work of multiple consecutive elections — something Democrats accomplished when the elections of 2006 and 2008 empowered their liberal wing. Republicans, for all of the success they enjoyed in the Obama era, never managed to pull off two in a row, and so the desire for change remains pent-up and frustrated.

Ideally, the next Speaker will be a conservative who is eventually willing at times to do what Speaker Dennis Hastert never would — to work against a Republican president. Part of the reason public approval of Congress has been so low for so long is that congressional leaders have been institutional failures. Instead of working for what their voters believe in, they tend to play goalkeeper and protect a president of their own party from any embarrassment. This cost Harry Reid dearly in 2014 — it cost Republicans dearly in 2006.

Which is to say, the Republican congressional leadership is probably despised for all the wrong reasons. The problem has never been a failure to symbolically defy President Obama. The great crime against conservatism in the Bush era, and the movement’s greatest modern obstacle, was a Republican Congress content to play a subservient role to a Republican president’s agenda.

More than merely finding a conservative replacement for Boehner, conservatives need to think about the long term. The real goal is one that’s much more difficult than simply replacing a Speaker or even ousting one. The focus must be on finding and electing dozens of new Republican candidates to Congress who will back up any Speaker who is willing to defy a straying President Bush, Fiorina or Rubio.


President 2016

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Scott Walker: He was once the on-paper frontrunner. But at the end of last week — amid all the other news — Walker was already an afterthought.

He was probably wise to drop out of the race before it became absolutely necessary, because that was where things were headed. But the big question is how everything went so terribly wrong for him.

The immediate cause of Walker’s demise was his decision to spend big on staff and run a campaign that wasn’t sufficiently focused on Iowa. But the reason this strategy could never work was his decision to pull out the weather vane on a number of key issues. Walker might have been able to overcome his relatively poor grasp of foreign policy or his weakness in dealing with the press, but his truly fatal decision was the one he made when he began pandering on issues like ethanol (he went from against to for) and immigration reform (for to against).

Walker’s advantage as a candidate had been that he had the record to prove his bonafides. No one could credibly claim he wasn’t a conservative, because he had walked the walk. He had done the hard part already. Republican primary voters would respect him for the battles he’d fought, even if they didn’t agree with him on every issue.

But that sort of respect evaporates when a candidate shows that he will say almost anything to get more people to like him. As Yogi Berra might have put it, people don’t always want to be told what they want to hear. The Walker who held off Wisconsin’s unions — the one who stuck to his guns and bravely suffered the consequences until achieving victory — just never showed up in the 2016 presidential race.  

HillaryClintonHillary Clinton: Clinton is now at the point where she performs worse in a general election among female voters than Joe Biden would against any of the leading GOP candidates. And women, of course, are the great hope of her campaign — they are supposed to provide that extra oomph next November, her replacement for Obama’s unprecedented (and probably unrepeatable) support among black voters.

Democratic voters are beginning to worry, and accordingly Clinton’s nationwide primary lead has sagged to just seven points in what essentially looks like a three-way contest between her, Biden, and Bernie Sanders.

Biden will probably have the money he needs, having locked down many Obama donors. But he has to make up his mind soon. As we have noted previously, Bill Clinton was the last successful Democratic candidate to wait until October of the off-year to announce. Biden faces much more formidable obstacles this year than Clinton did in 1991 — to be precise, Biden faces Team Clinton. Perhaps Obama overcame her, but can this old white man do it?

Biden also needs to make sure that when he enters the race, he does so at Clinton’s expense. It’s no good for him just to split an anti-Clinton vote with Sanders — he has to erode her support and tough it out as Sanders wins the first few primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, as he might well do in a three-way race.

Clinton continues to look like a general election loser, at least assuming Donald Trump doesn’t win the GOP nomination. But don’t underestimate Team Clinton’s willingness to draw Biden blood in a fight to the bitter end. This is probably her last shot.

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 30-

This week:

  • Fiorina wins the big debate
  • Trump humbled
  • What Trump has contributed to this year’s race

President 2016

GOP debate: There is a great deal of skepticism about whether debates matter at all. But no matter how much this skepticism is justified for the average debate, last Wednesday’s debate was an exception. It mattered quite a bit.

Normally, it isn’t easy to get anyone to tune in to a presidential debate at this stage. On Wednesday, a record 23 million people tuned in to watch. That’s a boon for Republicans, something sure to broaden interest in the party and the candidates. And no one benefited from this as much as the debate’s clear winner, Carly Fiorina.

More on that in a second. But first…why so many viewers? You can surely attribute some part of it to public weariness with the Obama era and widespread concerns about Hillary Clinton’s fitness for office. That sort of thing motivates voters to tune in and see what the alternatives are.

But then, of course, there’s The Donald. This is Trump’s biggest contribution to the race to date. It is not true, as many say, that he has brought up issues no one else would discuss otherwise. Immigration has been an issue in every recent election since 2006. What he has done, though, is generate much more interest in the Republican primaries than anyone is used to seeing. The previous record for a CNN primary debate audience was just 8.3 million, in 2008.

A buzz-driven and widely watched nomination process is good for the Republican Party, just as the 2008 primary duel between Clinton and Barack Obama was good for Democratic Party. Even better, what those viewers saw was quite good. No one made the debate into a circus, and most of the candidates came off pretty well, even the ones that didn’t perform best.

So, how did they perform?

Donald Trump: According to Sunday’s CNN poll, a 31 percent plurality believed that Trump did the worst of anyone in the debate, and he dropped 8 points in the polls as a result (falling to 24 percent support from the CNN poll taken in early September). In reality, others had worse debate performances, but none of theirs was so consequential.

One thing unique about Wednesday’s debate was its length. In order to give some justice to the large number of candidates on stage, CNN made it three hours long — a real marathon, for viewers and debaters alike.

But such great length has an effect on the dynamic of a debate. In this case, it worked against Trump. He is accustomed to getting in a few quick insults and leaving the impression that he’s in control.

But over the course of three hours, such a debating strategy is unsustainable. Gradually, a candidate’s lack of basic knowledge becomes evident, and all that extra time on the clock gives multiple other candidates time to point that out explicitly. Given Trump’s dominance in the polls, the other candidates (except Ben Carson and Ted Cruz) really had it in for him. What’s more, his schtick started to wear thin before the first hour was even up. As other candidates discussed issues with a detailed level of knowledge, the contrast with Trump became sharper and clearer.

The most dramatic moment of the debate came when Fiorina smacked Trump over his previous remarks about her personal appearance. But the most important moment came much earlier, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pointed out of Trump: Just because he says something, doesn’t mean it’s true. Trump had just said that Wisconsin’s budget is a mess (it isn’t) and that Walker had “lost” $2.2 billion, which was both wrong and incoherent.

Walker’s comeback set the tone for the rest of the debate. Up to that point, Trump had lobbed personal insults at two other candidates. From there on, Trump was everyone’s piñata. Larger-than-life persona aside, he was in over his head.

Carly Fiorina: The debate’s best performer, she delivered the sharpest jab of the night to Trump. But that wasn’t all she did. In fact, she resisted the temptation to attack the polling frontrunner right out of the gate, choosing an opportune time later in the debate. It was a smart way of handling things.

The new CNN poll shows Fiorina jumping from asterisk to 15 percent as a result of the debate, leapfrogging Ben Carson and seizing second place. She showed herself knowledgeable on several important issuses and capable of defending herself. She offered a plausible explanation for her tenure at Hewlett Packard, but it is also clear she will have more questions to answer on that topic. Perhaps a lot more.

Even so, this is progress. It is important to remember that Fiorina might well have been relegated to the kiddie-table debate, had she not fought to be included in the main event.

Ben Carson: Carson, beloved as he is, was simply soporific in this debate. He has clearly been advised not to attack other candidates, and in general this principle has worked for him, but some slow pitches just shouldn’t be passed up.

Carson had one opportunity, on the issue of vaccinations, to attack Trump for his vaccine trutherism. Had he gone ferocious here, it would have been the main highlight of the debate in the newsreels. But the accomplished surgeon simply went limp. He did at least contradict Trump’s belief that vaccines cause autism, but he did it so gently — even crediting Trump with having a point about how vaccines are delivered– that it was clear afterward he had simply dropped the ball.

Marco RubioMaybe he was a bit over-prepared. Rubio did really well, but he came off a bit too scripted — even if he completely owned, believed in, and wrote for himself the script he was performing. There wasn’t much of the gentle charm for which he is usually known, but his firm grasp of policy was on display, and that counts for something. Rubio gave the best answer on Global Warming (and Walker did well to echo him): The solutions proposed by Obama and other liberals will do almost nothing to curb it, but they will do quite a bit to harm the economy.

Rubio’s answer on his sparse attendance in the Senate during his presidential run could really cut either way. It was certainly bold — he argued that debates in the Senate hardly matter at this point because the body’s members are so out of touch with Americans. He is not, as he noted, running for re-election. Does this make him seem more like an outsider, or does it make it seem like he’s deserted his post in the Senate?

Chris Christie: From a purely figurative perspective, he punched way above his weight. Christie showed a lot of that passion he likes to talk about, and it was at least enough to make people wonder whether maybe he will be relevant again at some future date. But Christie has a lot of work to do — he is contending with very high negatives compared to other low-ranking Republican candidates.

Jeb Bush: He did well enough to remain relevant and within the top tier, but not well enough to improve his standing substantially. Bush’s best moment came when he pointed out that he’d beaten Trump on the issue of casino gambling in Florida. He also didn’t let Trump embarrass him. He could have done a lot better had he pressed harder with his demand that Trump apologize to his wife for a jab at her ethnic origin.

Scott Walker: He didn’t necessarily distinguish himself in this debate, but he actually got in some of the hardest punches against Trump. His confrontation of Trump for making up numbers set the tone for the whole rest of the debate.

But getting back to the main point: Walker is vastly underperforming his potential in this race, and nothing he did in the debate was sufficient to fix that.

John Kasich: What do you do with the Republican candidate at the Republican debate who tells the Republican voters they’re wrong? You write him off. We liked him better the first time when he was Jon Huntsman.

Ted Cruz: The Texas senator was described elsewhere before the debate as the pilot fish to Trump’s shark, and he certainly performed up to that expectation. He looked a bit strange deferring to Trump when all of the other candidates were strenuously working to take him down a peg. As with the 2013 government shutdown that he led, this campaign looks like an exercise in fundraising list-building that has little hope of accomplishing much more.

Mike Huckabee: Is the 2008 Iowa caucus winner for real in this race? Maybe not, and he didn’t attack anyone else with sufficient vigor to make the highlight reel. But he still has the preacher’s way with words at times. Like most of the candidates in this debate, he acquitted himself honorably, and it won’t be enough on its own to make him stand out.

Rand PaulHe was the first victim of a Trump insult (not just about his poll numbers, but his appearance as well). For all that, he has to look at Trump with some envy. When he announced for president, he was surely expecting that by now he would be expanding his father Ron Paul’s base in this primary by preaching the libertarian gospel to a broader conservative constituency. Instead, he’s clinging to the most libertarian elements of his father’s base — the less libertarian elements (homeless paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians) have mostly gone to Trump.

Paul isn’t completely out of it yet, but he simply cannot be in the running unless Trump utterly implodes — and soon.