Watch your back, Joe Biden

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.