Friday Talking Points -- The Dog That Didn't Bark at the GOP Debate

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Friday, March 11, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Friday, March 11, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Another week of presidential primary season has slouched by, which means we personally have been watching way too many debates and staying up way too late watching election results come in, once again. Well, actually, that last one was really just a taunt, since living on the Left Coast means we don't have to stay up nearly as late to find out what happened in Hawai'i as everyone to our east. Heh. Every once in a while, being three hours behind works to our advantage!

We had two Democratic debates and one Republican debate last week. The GOP one was shocking -- because nobody said anything shocking! Yes, that's truly how far the Republicans have sunk -- to the Sherlockian level of the dog not snarling in the night being the big news. When "nobody called anyone a playground name" or "no penis-measuring contest took place" are valid headlines the next day, perhaps all the other debates are at fault? As a snarky Washington Post debate wrapup put it: "it is never a good sign when the chairman of the Republican National Committee has to go out before a debate and assure voters everything is going to be just fine, no need to worry, the situation is under control, please move along, nothing to see here."

What was really bizarre about the polite debate which followed is that it was truly the absolute last chance for two of the candidates on the stage. Now, John Kasich has been attempting to run a positive campaign all along, so it was in character for him to refrain from attacks, but Marco Rubio seemed to relish being a (yappy little) attack dog in previous debates. Who knows, perhaps the rumors of a non-aggression pact between Cruz and Rubio are true? This election cycle, anything could happen, that's for sure. Rubio is openly urging his supporters in Ohio to just go ahead and vote for Kasich, and there were reports that a Cruz ad slated for Florida's airwaves has been yanked. So maybe some wheeling and dealing is taking place behind the scenes. It probably won't work, because it falls into the category of "too little, too late" -- where the entire Republican establishment has set up camp, it should be noted.

Donald Trump picked up three states in Tuesday's voting, putting him even closer to victory, so he didn't feel the need to attack anyone. He's up in all the polling for next Tuesday's gaggle of states, as well. We really hate to agree with The Donald on anything, but he is quite right when he says that if he wins Florida next week, then it's over -- and if he wins Florida and Ohio, then it's really over.

Carly Fiorina jumped on the "Stop Trump!" bandwagon this week, throwing her non-existent base of voters to Ted Cruz. Ben Carson, this morning, answered back and endorsed Trump. Incidents of violence seem to be increasing at Trump rallies, so hopefully having Ben Carson introduce him will calm everyone down a bit (if not put them to sleep).

In non-presidential GOP campaign news, the Republican group which is in charge of winning Senate elections sent out a tweet attacking Tammy Duckworth, who is challenging the vulnerable Republican Mark Kirk in Illinois. It read: "Tammy Duckworth has a sad record of not standing up for our veterans."

There's just one teensy problem with this. Tammy Duckworth actually is a veteran -- one who lost both her legs in combat. Get it? She doesn't "stand up" for vets? Stay classy, National Republican Senatorial Committee! Way to support veterans!

In related news, the respected Stu Rothenberg sent out a warning this week under the headline: "Democratic Senate Takeover Probable, If Cruz Or Trump Nominee."

In other bright news for Democrats, Michael Bloomberg officially announced he will not be making a third-party bid for the presidency. Bloomberg always said he wouldn't run if either he thought he had no chance or if he thought Hillary Clinton would beat Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. He gave the former reason when he declined to run this week, but we wonder if the latter reason might have been the real one. Either way, a Bloomberg run would have likely hurt Democrats more than Republicans, so it's a relief that he'll be sitting this one out.

Democrats held two of their own presidential debates last week, but the biggest bone of contention from either of them was the fact that apparently some people went bonkers trying to figure out what color suit Bernie Sanders was wearing. Bernie otherwise had a good week, which we'll get to in a moment.

President Obama hit a milestone this week that he hasn't seen since the summer of 2013, right after he began his second term. His poll numbers are now "above water" once again -- more people approve of the job he's doing than disapprove. Again, this is the first time it has happened in almost three years, so it's worth noting (we scooped everyone else this week, noticing the milestone about a day before the rest of the punditocracy, we hasten to point out in a spasm of journalistic self-congratulation). Perhaps Obama's improving poll numbers have something to do with the public considering the likely Republican nominee to replace him? Gee, just a thought....

The Senate (of all places) actually did something good this week as well -- they passed a bill almost unanimously (94-1) to move the federal government away from an incarceration mode towards a health care mode on the opioid crisis. The War On (Some) Drugs may finally be collapsing of its own weight, folks -- this is good news indeed, and is fitting in the same week that saw the death of Nancy "Just Say No!" Reagan.

And finally, the Supreme Court gave gay rights a big boost this week, when it unanimously overturned a state decision that denied the rights of gay parents to adopt children. That's a pretty good way to end out weekly wrapup.


There was one impressive legislative effort last week which, while it ultimately failed, may have at least extracted a political price from Republicans. The state senate was voting on another one of those "we won't punish you if you discriminate against gay folks" laws, when Democrats launched the longest (40 hours!) filibuster in Missouri's history. An Honorable Mention is due, at the very least, for such dedication and stamina.

But the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week last week was Senator Bernie Sanders, for his stunning upset in the Michigan primary. Nobody saw this one coming, as Sanders beat all expectations in defiance of polling which had put Clinton as much as 20 points ahead. It was obvious very early on, Tuesday night, that Sanders was doing a lot better than expected. Hour after hour, the Michigan map showed Sanders winning upwards of 90 percent of all counties. When the race was finally called, it stunned the political establishment -- including one influential wonk (who shall remain nameless, out of mercy) who had predicted a "better than 99 percent chance" that Hillary would win the state.

The same people who got it wrong immediately offered up their explanations for what was "really going on" in Michigan. What is really going on is Bernie's campaign is a lot more mainstream than the media likes to admit. Also what is really going on is the sense of betrayal from many Democrats over the issue of trade. For the past 25 years, the one issue Democratic politicians felt free to reliably support what used to be a Republican position was on "free trade." From NAFTA to the TPP, there are a lot of Democratic fingerprints all over America's trade policies.

Some Democrats have figured this out. Some haven't. Heck, some Republicans have even figured it out -- Donald Trump is also quite critical of all of these trade deals. The entire contest for president might just boil down to the "Rust Belt" being the deciding states in November, which is something which all Democrats need to face, and soon.

Bernie's win in Michigan pointed this out in a way nothing else yet has. For both his victory and for driving this point home, Bernie Sanders is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

We do need to add a codicil here, because we almost always see comments accusing this column of favoritism in the Democratic race. While we may express opinions about the race, we think we're pretty fair in our awards section. Hillary Clinton won the MIDOTW two weeks ago, and if the polls are right she is a prime candidate to win next week's, as well. Bernie had a good week, Hillary fans. We calls 'em as we sees 'em, in other words.

[Congratulate Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Speaking of Hillary Clinton... (dodges flaming comments hurled in anger).

Wait, wait, let us finish! Speaking of Hillary Clinton, she made a gaffe last week but quickly recovered, meaning she only really deserves a (Dis-)Honorable Mention.

Now, we understand the political impulse which goes back centuries (indeed, the original is often quoted in Latin: De mortuis nil nisi bonum) not to say mean things about a member of the opposition on the occasion of their death, but even so it's best to stick to the facts when offering up such lip service to the dead.

Nancy Reagan died this week. That's all we're going to say about that, because we believe more in the "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything" school of thought. Although we certainly can't pretend we don't applaud when others point out the true legacy of the recently-departed.

Hillary Clinton was forced to do both. She began by -- again, this is standard stuff after a political death -- trying to say something nice about Nancy Reagan. Here is her statement:

It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan -- in particular Mrs. Reagan -- we started a national conversation. When before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective, low key advocacy but it penetrated the public conscious and people began to say, "Hey, we have to do something about this too."

Unfortunately for Clinton, this is precisely the opposite of the actual history. Nancy and Ron were most decidedly not pioneers in any way when it came to AIDS, unless you count "pioneers in sticking our heads in the sand" over the issue. Clinton, to her credit, quickly acknowledged this reality, and tweeted:

While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I'm sorry.

That apology seemed honest enough, and should be accepted. But Clinton's mixup doesn't rise to the level of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. In fact, no other Democrat truly disappointed us last week, meaning we're not going to hand out the MDDOTW at all.

Instead, we've got a followup from the MDDOTW award we gave out last week, which went to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, for crossing the aisle and supporting Republican efforts to gut federal regulations on payday lenders in another effort to kneecap the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

It seems we're not the only ones upset at D.W.S. (as some people affectionately call her). A group called the "National Peoples Action" held a protest outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters (Debbie chairs the organization, of course) and called on her to resign over the issue. Protesters created a truly hilarious movie poster for the occasion, starring Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the upcoming Sharknado 4.

So while we can't say D.W.S. deserves a second MDDOTW in a row, we did want to provide that link, since the movie poster is pretty funny. It's a pretty easy-to-understand message: Democrats shouldn't be defending loan sharks. Period.


Volume 382 (3/11/16)

President Obama had Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over for dinner this week, and he framed two very important issues during the joint press conference they held. Obama made these points at length, and we think they're important enough to quote in full. So instead of seven talking points this week, we have two extended examples of how Democrats should correctly frame important issues from President Obama.

There were lighthearted moments to the visit, of course, and even a wonky tidbit that really should merit whatever aide dug it up a fat bonus or raise. Obama opened his dinner toast with:

So tonight, history comes full circle. Forty-four years ago, President Nixon made a visit to Ottawa. And he was hosted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. At a private dinner, there was a toast. "Tonight, we'll dispense with the formalities," President Nixon said, "I'd like to propose a toast to the future Prime Minister of Canada -- Justin Pierre Trudeau." He was four months [old] at the time.

Obama followed this up with a Justin Bieber joke, just for fun:

All these years later, the prediction has come to pass. Mr. Prime Minister, after today, I think it's fair to say that, here in America, you may well be the most popular Canadian named Justin.

Trudeau later made his own Bieber joke, which bordered on life imitating art -- specifically, the South Park movie (Canadian Minister: "Now, now, the Canadian Government has apologized for Bryan Adams on several occasions!"). Think that's overstating it? You decide:

And one of our most popular exports to the United States, and I need you to stop teasing him, has been another Justin. Now, no, no, that kid has had a great year. And of course, leave it to a Canadian to reach international fame with a song called "Sorry."

We have to say, Trudeau's quip sounded funnier than Obama's. But Obama did get people laughing when he spoke of the current state of American politics:

This visit has been a celebration of the values that we share. We, as a peoples [sic], are committed to the principles of equality and opportunity -- the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make it if you try, no matter what the circumstances of your birth, in both of our countries. And we see this in our current presidential campaign. After all, where else could a boy born in Calgary grow up to run for President of the United States? Where else would we see a community like Cape Breton, Nova Scotia welcoming Americans if the election does not go their way? And to the great credit of their people, Canadians from British Columbia to New Brunswick have, so far, rejected the idea of building a wall to keep out your southern neighbors. We appreciate that. We can be unruly, I know.

But the jokes were all made at the dinner. During the press conference, more serious matters were discussed. While the questions (some in French) that Prime Minister Trudeau got asked all related to U.S.-Canadian relations, the questions President Obama got were broader. On two subjects in particular, Obama presented his case so well that we're running them as extended excerpts. Neither of these statements made much news, because both subjects look towards the future -- towards the Republican presidential nominee and towards the upcoming fight over a Supreme Court nomination. We should mention that all text is from the White House's official transcript, with only crowd reactions ("Applause" or "Laughter") edited out.

The Supreme Court question came first. Obama answered by reminding everyone of a basic fact: the Constitution lays out the process, and anyone who would delay that process is the one interjecting politics into the fight. Even Lindsey Graham admits that to do so would set a new precedent, because it has never happened before. The American people are not supposed to have a direct say in judicial nominations -- that's the way the Founders laid it out. Deal with it.

With respect to the Supreme Court, I've told you, Julie, what I'm looking for. I want somebody who is an outstanding jurist, who has impeccable legal credentials, who, by historical standards, would not even be questioned as qualified for the Court.

Obviously, it's somebody who I want to make sure follows the Constitution; cares about things like stare decisis and precedent; understands the necessary humility of a judge at any level in looking at statute, looking at what the elected branches are doing; is not viewing themselves as making law or, in some ways, standing above elected representatives, but also recognizes the critical role that that branch plays in protecting minorities to ensuring that the political system doesn't skew in ways that systematically leave people out, that are mindful of the traditions that are embedded in our cherished documents like the Bill of Rights.

So in terms of who I select, I'm going to do my job. And then my expectation is going to be that the Senate do its job as outlined in the Constitution. I've said this before -- I find it ironic that people who are constantly citing the Constitution would suddenly read into the Constitution requirements, norms, procedures that are nowhere to be found there. That's precisely the kinds of interpretive approach that they have vehemently rejected and that they accused liberals of engaging in all the time. Well, you can't abandon your principles -- if, in fact, these are your principles -- simply for the sake of political expedience.

So we'll see how they operate once a nomination has been made. I'm confident that whoever I select, among fair-minded people will be viewed as an eminently qualified person. And it will then be up to Senate Republicans to decide whether they want to follow the Constitution and abide by the rules of fair play that ultimately undergird our democracy and that ensure that the Supreme Court does not just become one more extension of our polarized politics.

If and when that happens, our system is not going to work. It's not that the Supreme Court or any of our courts can be hermetically sealed from the rest of our society. These are human beings. They read the newspapers; they've got opinions; they've got values. But our goal is to have them be objective and be able to execute their duties in a way that gives everybody -- both the winning party and the losing party in any given case -- a sense that they were treated fairly. That depends on a process of selecting and confirming judges that is perceived as fair. And my hope is, is that cooler heads will prevail and people will reflect on what's at stake here once a nomination is made.

This is a solid shot across the bow of Republicans in the Senate who think that they will be able to ignore their duties just because it's an election year and then pay no political price for doing so. Obama welcomes this fight, and all Democrats (especially those running for vulnerable Republican Senate seats) should welcome it as well.

The second question was about the presidential campaign, and the bizarre conspiracy theory that Barack Obama is somehow responsible for Donald Trump winning Republican primaries. Even back in the days when all Democrats were blaming George W. Bush for everything, we don't recall the subject of Barack Obama's rise in the polls as being somehow Bush's fault, by way of comparison. The notion is downright delusional, in fact, but that didn't stop the question from being asked:

Some of your critics have pointed to the incredibly polarized political climate under your administration as contributing to the rise of someone as provocative as Donald Trump. Do you feel responsibility for that, or even some of the protectionist rhetoric from some Democratic candidates?

President Obama's answer made some news (more than his Supreme Court answer), but most organizations edited it down to a few sentences or a soundbite. This is a shame, because Obama's answer was a pretty sweeping indictment of the Republican Party's behavior during his entire term in office, and as such, deserves to be read in full. Obama not only smacks down what needed to be smacked down, he points out that Republicans are the ones who fed this monster, and that even if Trump weren't running, the GOP platform would remain essentially the same.

So here is President Obama's answer in full. It's long, but it's definitely worth the time it takes to read.

With respect to your first question, I've actually heard this argument a number of times. I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things, but being blamed for their primaries and who they're selecting for their party is novel.

Look, I've said -- I said it at the State of the Union that one of my regrets is the degree to which polarization and the nasty tone of our politics has accelerated rather than waned over the course of the last seven and a half years. And I do all kinds of soul-searching in terms of are there things I can do better to make sure that we're unifying the country. But I also have to say, Margaret, that, objectively, it's fair to say that the Republican political elites and many of the information outlets -- social media, news outlets, talk radio, television stations -- have been feeding the Republican base for the last seven years a notion that everything I do is to be opposed; that cooperation or compromise somehow is a betrayal; that maximalist, absolutist positions on issues are politically advantageous; that there is a "them" out there and an "us," and "them" are the folks who are causing whatever problems you're experiencing.

And the tone of that politics -- which I certainly have not contributed to -- I don't think that I was the one to prompt questions about my birth certificate, for example. I don't remember saying, hey, why don't you ask me about that. Or why don't you question whether I'm American, or whether I'm loyal, or whether I have America's best interests at heart -- those aren't things that were prompted by any actions of mine.

And so what you're seeing within the Republican Party is, to some degree, all those efforts over a course of time creating an environment where somebody like a Donald Trump can thrive. He's just doing more of what has been done for the last seven and a half years.

And, in fact, in terms of his positions on a whole range of issues, they're not very different from any of the other candidates. It's not as if there's a massive difference between Mr. Trump's position on immigration and Mr. Cruz's position on immigration. Mr. Trump might just be more provocative in terms of how he says it, but the actual positions aren't that different. For that matter, they're not that different from Mr. Rubio's positions on immigration -- despite the fact that both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio, their own families are the products of immigration and the openness of our society.

So I am more than happy to own the responsibility as President, as the only office holder who was elected by all the American people, to continue to make efforts to bridge divides and help us find common ground. As I've said before, I think that common ground exists all across the country. You see it every day in how people work together and live together and play together and raise their kids together. But what I'm not going to do is to validate some notion that the Republican crack-up that's been taking place is a consequence of actions that I've taken.

And what's interesting -- I'll just say one last thing about this -- there are thoughtful conservatives who are troubled by this, who are troubled by the direction of their party. I think it is very important for them to reflect on what it is about the politics they've engaged in that allows the circus we've been seeing to transpire, and to do some introspection.

Because, ultimately, I want an effective Republican Party. I think this country has to have responsible parties that can govern, and that are prepared to lead and govern whether they're in the minority or in the majority, whether they occupy the White House or they do not. And I've often said I want a serious, effective Republican Party -- in part to challenge some of the blind spots and dogmas in the Democratic Party. I think that's useful.

You mentioned trade, for example. I believe that there have been bad trade deals on occasion in the past that oftentimes they have served the interests of global corporations but not necessarily served the interests of workers. But I'm absolutely persuaded that we cannot put up walls around a global economy, and that to sell a bill of goods to the American people and workers that if you just shut down trade somehow your problems will go away prevents us from actually solving some of these big problems about inequality and the decline of our manufacturing base and so on.

And that's an area where some traditional conservatives and economists have had some important insights. But they can't be presented effectively if it's combined with no interest in helping workers, and busting up unions, and providing tax breaks to the wealthy rather than providing help to folks who are working hard and trying to pay the bills. And it certainly is not going to be heard if it's coupled with vehement, anti-immigrant sentiment that betrays our values.


Okay, Mister President. That was indeed pretty downright okay.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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