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Electoral Politics | The Nation

At Aspen GOP Governors Forum, It’s Still Your Grandfather’s Republican Party

You never know what might happen when a bunch of Republican governors get together to discuss policy and politics. Well, actually you do kinda know: that they’ll make asses out of themselves, and at great length. So it was with some trepidation and some glee that your faithful Christie Watchers took a look at the discussion at the Aspen Institute bringing together five GOP governors: Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Scott of Florida, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Two of them, Christie and Walker, are potential GOP candidates in 2016, and Haley might be positioning herself as a vice presidential candidate.

What’s interesting about the discussion is that not a single one of the five panelists tried to pick up on anything that has emerged so far from the hubbub over “reform conservatism” (see Part I, Part II and Part III of Christie Watch’s recent examination of the reformicons) and Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan’s recent, errant foray into poverty and “opportunity,” even though the moderator asked the panel specifically about Ryan’s proposal. Maybe it’s too early to draw any conclusions, but it sure looks like the Republican party hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s supposed to be “kinder and gentler” (as George H.W. Bush might say) or more “compassionately conservative” (as George W. Bush might say). It’s still your grandfather’s GOP.

Brownback went first, asked about Ryan’s ideas, and he launched into a long defense of his own program in Kansas, which centered on austerity, tax cuts and other GOP touchstones. Brownback, running for re-election, and about to get a visit from Christie, put into place a wide range of cuts after the GOP solidified its majority in Kansas, but oops!—as Rick Perry might say—it all backfired, causing huge economic problems in the Sunflower State and leading more than a hundred Republican moderates to endorse Brownback’s Democratic opponent. But none of that stopped the ultra-right Brownback from claiming that Ryan is trying to lead the “pro-growth wing of the party”—“you’ve got to cut taxes in a way that creates growth”—raising his hand and saying with a goofy grin, “I’m in that wing of the party!” No, governor, you’re not. You’re in the wing of the party that even your fellow Kansas Republicans say wrecked your state. When the panel’s moderator noted that Brownback’s policy had led to a $300 million shortfall, Brownback’s response was: “We cut taxes in order to put that money back into private business.” For good measure, Brownback attacked the “vast-left wing conspiracy” for its criticism of his efforts to dismantle Kansas’ entire public sector. But the moderator persisted, saying that Kansas’ employment is lagging behind its neighbors, and that growth is slow, asking Brownback if he planned any adjustments. “I don’t see it,” said Brownback.

Walker went next. He is, of course, the governor who provoked a statewide revolt, mass demonstrations by union members and others, and an impeachment-style recall election over his brutal assault on state workers. Walker, too, like Paul Ryan’s plan. “We’re ahead of the curve,” he bragged. Well, yes, if the curve involves triggering statewide protests unprecedented in recent American history. And Walker essentially argued that he’s making Wisconsin job-friendly, and investment-friendly, by driving down wages. Which, of course, makes Wisconsin the would-be “China” of American states.

Next came Rick Scott, the much-reviled governor of Florida who used to run a gigantic, nationwide hospital system, then called Columbia/HCA, which paid $1.7 billion in what was then the biggest fine in US history for bilking Medicare out of billions of dollars. Scott, too, bragged about vast tax cuts. “We’ve cut taxes every year,” said Scott. “It actually works really well.” And if you’re in the 1 percent, it does. Higher taxes, Scott said, drive people to leave the state—the bogus argument made against New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio over his proposed tax hikes on the rich. He was followed by Haley, who slammed “both Republicans and Democrats” in Congress for the gridlock in Washington—except for Paul Ryan, of course. She described South Carolina’s recent efforts to undermine the state’s welfare program.

Then came Christie. “First off, I agree with everything that’s been said by my four colleagues,” he said. Now, the problem that Christie has is that the can’t tout New Jersey’s economic progress, because there is none—and that’s a terrible selling point for a presidential candidate. Things are a mess in New Jersey, and thanks to Christie its public pension system is spiraling downwards once again, caused by his proposed cuts on pension spending, even as the state’s bond ratings have been continually downgraded by bond agencies. Thus, as The Wall Street Journal’s Heather Haddon reports, in a piece entitled “New Jersey’s Weak Economy Opens Christie Up to Political Attacks on the Road,” Christie is under fire across the country even from Republicans over New Jersey’s poor economic performance. Reports the Journal:

The state’s bond rating is among the worst in the nation. More than 8% of the state’s home loans are in foreclosure, according to a May report by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Job growth has lagged behind neighboring states, even as Mr. Christie has pushed aggressive tax and business incentives. And after catapulting to national renown in 2011 by promising to fix his state’s pension system, the governor said earlier this spring he would forgo about $2.4 billion in promised payments over two years, citing a weak economy. Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the state’s debt twice, rating it as the country’s second lowest, after Illinois’s. More downgrades could be on the horizon, said Baye Larsen, the firm’s lead New Jersey analyst, citing the state’s weighty pension obligations and slower growth.

The discussion veered off into education policy—and Christie Watch will report more extensively on Christie’s education policy, including attacks on teachers and support for Wall Street–backed charter schools later this week—the panel moved on to healthcare. The moderator, to his credit, noted that in all five states represented by the panelists there were no state-run health insurance exchanges, under the terms of the hated Affordable Care Act, which in turn might jeopardize Medicaid in those states. Scott noted proudly that he “built a large hospital company” (that would be the crooked one that paid that $1.7 billion fine for wrongdoing), adding, “Obamacare is a disaster”—and then actually had the nerve to say that “Medicare Advantage is being raided,” which is ironic, at least, coming from someone who’s own firm gleefully “raided” Medicare to the tune of billions of dollars in overbilling.

No, thank you, said Scott, Florida won’t be setting up any insurance exchanges. Added Walker, “We’ve gotta repeal it.”

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Near the end of the session, in response to a Republican questioner who said he was tired of Republicans being too extreme on social issues, Christie—who began by saying that he’s “pro-life”—delivered a long riff on how the GOP ought not to change any of its positions on social issues but can win simply by presenting its views differently and pretending to be “listening” to people who disagree: “I don’t think we’re being pounded because of the social issues. We’re getting pounded because of the way we present ourselves. People want folks who are authentic and who believe what they say is true, but also are willing to be tolerant and listen to others’ points of view. You’ll get some folks who’ll say that if you’re willing to listen that somehow you’re weak on your own principles. That’s absolutely garbage. I have plenty of people in my state who vote for me who have significantly different opinions than mine on some of these issues.… The reason is that they think I’m listening to them.… We’ve lost for a whole bunch of reasons over the last two cycles, and I think that the social issues is an absolutely minor one. Some folks will say that we lose the women’s vote because of that. Well I got 56 percent of the women’s vote and I didn’t change my positions one iota. Did they forget? No. They made a holistic evaluation.”

 

Read Next: Paul Ryan has some big—mostly bad—ideas for America’s working poor.

Paul Ryan Has Some Big (Mostly Bad) Ideas for America’s Working Poor

Like Marco Rubio—who, earlier this year, put forward a much-criticized “anti-poverty plan”—Paul Ryan doesn’t like poverty, either. (And neither does Rand Paul, as explained in a Wall Street Journal analysis of Ryan’s, Rubio’s, and Paul’s poverty ideas.) And like Rubio and Paul, Ryan might like to run for president in 2016, in a Republican candidate field that so far lacks anything like a front-runner. So that’s the context for Ryan’s speech on July 24 at the American Enterprise Institute to release a 73-page plan called “Expanding Opportunity in America.” Among progressives, the left, most Democrats, and people who actually know something about poverty and inequality, Ryan’s plan has been widely panned, too, and for good reason.

The release of Ryan’s plan, clearly an opening salvo in what Ryan hopes will be his 2016 presidential bid, comes amid a growing realization among Republicans that the GOP has utterly lost any ability to appeal to poor, working-class and lower-middle-class voters, in part thanks to the lasting impression left by Mitt Romney’s elitist, country-club, 47 percent-bashing 2012 campaign. In that context, as Christie Watch detailed last week in a special, three-part series on “reform conservatism” (see Part I, Part II and Part III), Ryan’s plan ought to be seen as part of the GOP’s fits-and-starts effort to recast its appeal to people who don’t own businesses or clip investment coupons. As the Christie Watch series detailed, however, the “reformicons” of the GOP—like George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”—don’t really signal a break with Republican orthodoxy, nor is Ryan’s repackaging of traditional Republican views on the social safety net. But he’s already won major plaudits from one of the leading lights of the reform-conservative movement, Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who says that Ryan’s blueprint “synthesizes ‘reformicon’ ideas with proposals that fit pretty easily under the other possible rubric for a renovated conservative domestic policy.”

We’ll get to the details of Ryan’s plan in a minute, but at first it’s useful to point out that Douthat is absolutely right when he contrasts Ryan’s allegedly “big” ideas with the fact that among Democrats—and that would include President Obama—there is virtually no sign that they’re planning to put forward anything that remotely resembles a big idea. There is, says Douthat, a “growing contrast between the policy ferment on the Republican side of the aisle and the staleness and or small-ball quality of the Democratic Party’s ‘what comes after Obama?’ agenda,” such as “an expansion of Social Security to a guaranteed income.” True, that.

Amid the widespread disparagement of Ryan’s plans by even moderate liberals, who recognize that it’s mostly yet another Republican plan to wrap any and all anti-poverty program into one big, unregulated block-grant ball of wax for the states, there is at least some grudging respect for one part of Ryan’s plan, namely, his scheme to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC, which had its origins as a conservative, Milton Friedman-backed idea, has since earned strong support on both sides of the aisle. The Washington Post says in an editorial:

Mr. Ryan’s best idea is a substantial expansion of the earned-income tax credit, a wage supplement for low-income workers administered through the tax code. Currently the third-largest federal poverty-fighting program at $59 billion per year, the EITC has a proven track record of lifting families out of poverty and stimulating work effort. But it offers only skimpy assistance to childless adult workers, which Mr. Ryan would remedy by doubling the maximum annual credit for such workers to $1,005 and lowering the eligibility age from 25 to 21. It’s nearly identical to a proposal in President Obama’s 2015 budget that would have cost roughly $60 billion over 10 years.

And there’s something to be said about what the Ryan plan signals as a change in tone in what has been a long-running GOP message. That message, which reached an ear-splitting crescendo in 2012, was that a huge cross-section of America’s working poor and working and middle classes don’t pay any federal income taxes. As Neil Irwin points out in an analysis in The New York Times, conservatives and outlets such as The Wall Street Journal have long argued that forcing low-income workers to pay taxes would cause them to have some “skin in the game” and make them resistant to increased government spending. As Irwin writes:

“Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else,” wrote The Wall Street Journal in 2002, in an editorial notable for calling those low-income Americans “lucky duckies” for their low tax bills. “They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government.” This is also the nub of Mr. Romney’s polarizing comments to donors in advance of the 2012 election. “These are people who pay no income tax,” he said, referring to people who were set to vote for President Obama. “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.”

So at least give Ryan credit for refusing to refer to the poor as “lucky duckies.” But his proposal to block-grant money to the states is an old, worn-out GOP idea, and a piece in The New York Times succinctly describes why the block grant idea isn’t anything new:

But the lack of seriousness in the plan is demonstrated by its supposedly big idea: It would combine 11 of the most important federal poverty programs into something called an “opportunity grant” that would be given to the states to spend as they see fit. The eliminated programs would include food stamps, what remains of the welfare system (known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), Section 8 housing vouchers, and low-income heating assistance, among others. This technique should sound familiar. Members of Mr. Ryan’s party have spent years promoting the idea that states can do things better than Washington. As Rick Santorum repeated endlessly in 2012, “Cap it, cut it, freeze it, and block-grant it to the states.”

Writing for Reuters, and via Wonkblog, David Lawder describes how Ryan’s plan would (and wouldn’t) work:

A 24-year-old single mother of two…could go to a local social services provider for help. Instead of applying for food stamps, housing vouchers and welfare checks, she would meet with a case manager and draft an ‘opportunity plan’ to achieve her goals, targeting money where it is needed most…. The catch: she would have to sign a contract and meet certain benchmarks for success…. Failure would mean a cut in aid while exceeding expectations would earn her a bonus. There would be a time limit on assistance, and Ryan said the plan would need to show strong evidence of positive outcomes and poverty reduction.

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Flaws aside, clearly Ryan hopes that his plan will catapult him into the ranks of the serious, and seriously wonky, 2016 contenders. It won’t win the Ayn Rand–loving Wisconsin any support on the left, but Ryan—who’s often not considered in presidential polls that focus on Rubio, Paul, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and others—is starting to get presidential traction. As Hot Air tells us:

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Republican Party’s bookish former vice presidential nominee, is starting to look like a candidate for the presidency in 2016. In August, Ryan will publish a book with a distinctly campaign-themed title, The Way Forward. On Tuesday, the Federal Election Commission approved of a nationwide book tour sponsored by Ryan’s publisher and the Political Action Committee the Wisconsin congressman founded, Prosperity Action PAC.

Back in May, as Politico reports, Ryan met with some big-money Republicans:

Rep. Paul Ryan told a group of business elites and donors at a New York City fundraiser that he’s asking friends and supporters “to keep their powder dry” as he mulls a 2016 presidential bid, two attendees told POLITICO.

And a recent Gallup Poll found Ryan clustered with Paul, Huckabee and Rick Perry as the would-be candidates with the highest “favorability” rating.

 

Read Next: Rick Perry uses immigrant-bashing as path to 2016.

Rick Perry Uses Immigrant-Bashing as Path to 2016

The last time, on June 23, that Christie Watch paid attention to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential hopes (“Will Rick Perry’s Comedy Show Be Renewed for Another Season?”), it was pretty hard to take the gaffe-prone, oops!-inducing, goofy Texan seriously. A month later, nothing’s changed, except that Perry has moved from circling around another national run to diving right in. And, although the competition is stiff, Perry seems to be angling to be the GOP’s most conservative, hawkish, in-your-face anti-Obama partisan in the race—which takes some doing. So why is it important to keep track of Perry, who’s mired in the low single digits in most polls? Because the views that he’s been expressing lately are downright dangerous, and he could succeed in pushing the GOP field even further to the right.

That’s especially true in connection with immigration, where Perry is separating himself from the more establishment-leaning Republicans who might look for a compromise with President Obama on the issue—at least, if they weren’t under pressure from the Tea Party and from those espousing radical, anti-immigration views. Perry is scrambling to lead those forces now.

On July 20, during his most recent foray north to Iowa—his third visit to Iowa already in 2014, and he’ll be back again in August for a Christian-right powwow—Perry announced his latest gambit, telling an Iowa crowd that if President Obama doesn’t crack down hard on people coming across the Mexico-Texas border, he’ll do it himself, according to The Des Moines Register. Said Perry:

We’ve sent the message that if we don’t get the satisfaction that the federal government’s going to move and move quickly, then the state of Texas will in fact fill that void.

In a dramatic, grandstanding gesture on returning to Texas, Perry proclaimed that he’s dispatching a thousand members of the Texas National Guard south to the Rio Grande Valley (“As governor of Texas, I’m activating the Texas National Guard”), a move that Texas Democrats said will cost the state at least $12 million a month and do no good. But Perry, like many of Europe’s far-right parties, is appealing to nativist, anti-immigrant fervor among the Tea Party and the GOP ultra right, contrasting his harsh anti-immigrant stance with President Obama’s pro-reform stand. And he blamed Obama, who recently paid a visit to Texas—and met with Perry to discuss the growing problem of unaccompanied young children entering the United States—for the fact that Latin American workers and their families want to come to America. It’s a sharp tilt to the right for Perry: Back in 2012, of course, Perry expressed views that were far less hostile to undocumented immigrants, especially children, than what he’s saying now, and he was pilloried for it by other candidates; so, it appears, Perry isn’t going to make that mistake again.

At the same time, in an effort to outflank his Tea Party competitors such as Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Perry has decided to take the lead in demonizing the foreign policy views of libertarian/isolationist Senator Rand Paul. He kicked off the assault with an op-ed in The Washington Post on July 11, in which the Texas governor blasted the Kentucky senator for advocating “a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world.” Instead, Perry called for US airstrikes in Iraq plus “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing.” Paul hit back at Perry in a Politico op-ed, calling Perry “stuck in the past,” but Perry was widely praised by the dominant hawkish and neoconservative wing of the GOP, and it touched off a battle, becoming increasingly nasty, within the Republican party that promises to intensify. And despite Paul’s principled stand against American interventionism, he’s likely to execute a tactical retreat on foreign policy and national security issues under pressure from Perry, Rubio and Cruz, along with Chris Christie, who’s opted to adopt a mostly neoconservative, pro-Likud foreign policy, too.

So, as Perry goes back and forth from Texas to Iowa, he’s drawing positive attention from neoconservative outlets such as The Weekly Standard and other conservative publications and writers. (Even Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s sharp-tongued blogger who was implacably hostile to Perry in 2012, has been saying nice things lately.) The Weekly Standard recently touted a new Gallup survey showing that Perry is one of four potential 2016 candidates with 40-percent-plus ratings for “favorability,” the others being Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan. In a Weekly Standard column called “Rick Perry, Version 2.0,” Fred Barnes writes:

Rick Perry is no longer dead. He is alive, well, and hyperactive as a national political figure. He’s now a leading candidate to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, assuming he runs. He has admirers in the media. Jennifer Rubin, the hard-to-please blogger for the Washington Post, wrote recently: “The media and voters are seeing a Rick Perry largely absent in the 2012 race—shrewd, self-possessed, competent and calm.” He has fostered ties to the community of conservative experts and intellectuals. For seven hours this spring, four prominent foreign policy experts met with Perry at the governor’s mansion in Austin. As they walked to their hotel afterwards, one of them said, “Is that really the same guy we saw in 2012?”

And it’s not just The Weekly Standard that’s taking the clownish Perry seriously. Everyone, it seems, is taking note of Perry’s immigrant-bashing Iowa speech for its ability to bring Republicans to their feet. In a long feature on July 22, entitled “Seeking redemption in 2016, Rick Perry finds power in immigration standoff,” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker interviewed Perry during his most recent Iowa visit, stressing his thundering call to stop people from coming to the United States illegally:

“I will tell you this,” [Perry] added, his voice growing louder. “If the federal government does not do its constitutional duty to secure the southern border of the United States, the state of Texas will do it!” The activists rose to their feet and cheered. Perry had scored a touchdown.

Noting that Perry had abandoned wearing cowboy boots, adopted “hipster” glasses and is now “more bookish than buckaroo,” the Post cited Perry’s ongoing effort at “intellectual reinvention”:

What he lacks in sizzle from 2011 he’s making up for with newfound substance on issues such as the economy and turmoil in the Middle East. … He sat on a panel in January with former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Next month, he flies to China for his second World Economic Forum and is planning a fall trip to England, Poland, Croatia, Romania and the Baltics.

Charlie Cook, the veteran political prognosticator, writing in National Journal, is paying serious attention to Perry, too. Citing coverage from The Des Moines Register, Cook writes:

A piece this Sunday on Texas Gov. Rick Perry in The Des Moines Register by the paper’s top political reporter, Jennifer Jacobs, caught my eye. Jacobs’s observations about seeing Perry on the stump in Iowa in recent days matched my impressions from a meeting with him last month. Jacobs observed that “a guy who in the past didn’t seem like he could run for a governor’s office much less the Oval Office seemed like a different candidate, Iowans said, after Perry talked about ‘prosperity and hope and freedom,’ as well as a favorite topic of his lately, immigration reform.” Jacobs went on: “‘We know how to secure the border,’ said Perry, the governor of Texas, his voice rising from quiet solemnity to a loud command, ‘and if the federal government will not do its duty, then I will suggest to you that the state of Texas will.’ ” Jacobs then noted, “That remark brought the audience of about 200 northwest Iowa Republicans to their feet for an extended standing ovation. And the room was buzzing after the 16-minute speech at the dinner, a fundraiser for nine county Republican parties.”

And Cook concludes:

Since Perry’s 2012 debacle, many observers have tended to write off his chances. But whether one agrees with him or not, he seems to have enough raw talent, combined with the benefit of past experience, that blowing him off might be premature.

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Yet in all the reporting from Iowa, most reporters had trouble finding voters ready to take Perry seriously. As the Chicago Tribune/Bloomberg reported, typically, one Iowa GOPer put it this way:

“I don’t think he is a serious candidate,” said Jim Cownie, a prominent Des Moines businessman and Republican. “I don’t think he can get going again. I think he’s perceived as being a little lacking in intelligence and he played into that when he lost his train of thought at the debate.”

Oops.

 

Read Next: Despite scandals, Christie gets good press in Iowa.

Is ‘Reform Conservatism’ Anything New? Or Just More of W.’s ‘Compassionate Conservatism’?

The following is the first of a three-part piece by Christie Watch on the debate over “reform conservatism” and the so-called “reformicons.” Part II will appear Thursday, July 17, and Part III on Friday, July 18.

Amid the tumultuous debate, in advance of 2016, between “Tea Party Republicans” and “establishment Republicans,” it’s fair to ask: What does either side believe? Generally speaking, it’s easy to categorize this or that potential 2016 challenger as belonging to the “Tea Party wing” or the “establishment,” with Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio lumped among the Tea Partiers and Chris Christie and Jeb Bush firmly ensconced among the establishmentarians. But when it comes to policy and ideas, how different are they, really? Do they have any ideas? And if so, who shapes those ideas, beyond rote beliefs: low taxes, less regulation, small government? Which brings us to the latest buzz, namely, “reform conservatism.”

In 1999–2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush put himself forward as what he called a “compassionate conservative.” The term fooled a lot of people, including many independents and some liberals, who overlooked Bush’s Texas record, which focused on cutting regulations, enacting tort reform and tax cuts. Is today’s reform conservatism an updated version of compassionate conservatism? Or is it something else? Back in 2000, “compassionate conservatism” managed to mobilize a phalanx of neoconservative ideologues, who took up dozens of key posts in the Bush administration, under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney, resulting in both the war in Iraq and massive, unsustainable tax cuts. At the very least, as we shall see, the reform conservatives include quite a number of unrepentant neoconservatives among their ranks, and their thinktanks and their flagship publication, National Affairs, is lavishly funded by old-fashioned, Wall Street– and hedge fund–backed neocons and American Enterprise Institute–like conservative crusaders.

The current fuss over reform conservatives (“reformicons”) was kicked off on July 2 by a fairly credulous article in The New York Times by Sam Tanenhaus, titled “Can the G.O.P. Be the Party of Ideas?” The article leads with a story about a gathering of the Republican faithful at AEI, in which Eric Cantor—the soon-to-exit House majority leader, just defeated in his central Virginia primary—as the standard-bearer for the reformicons’ notion that the GOP has to recast its appeal with outreach to, as Cantor puts it (somewhat reminiscently of the walrus in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”) “the working family or maybe the single mom who at the end of a hard day has put her kids to bed and then has to face how she is going to make ends meet and pay the bills at the end of the month.”

The idea-generating folks behind Cantor’s newfound belief that the GOP has to broaden its appeal beyond Chamber of Commerce entrepreneurs and the Christian right to include the middle and working classes writ large include two reformicons highlighted in Tanenhaus’ story: Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and, especially, Yuval Levin of National Affairs. Says Tanenhaus:

Together they have become the leaders of a small band of reform conservatives, sometimes called reformicons, who believe the health of the G.O.P. hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine—orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street— and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.

As Tanenhaus notes, since that AEI gathering the reformicons have been praised and/or taken seriously by The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and Politico. But should they be? Or are they, to use some much-overused metaphors, old wine in new bottles or Wall Street pigs wearing lipstick?

Not all reformicons agree with one another, of course, and no doubt they’re all struggling with the idea of how to rebuild the badly tarnished Republican (and “conservative”) brand, now that the country has skewed ethnically diverse, younger, less religious and more populated with empowered women. But the fact is that reform conservatism is really just a repackaging of old-fashioned GOP ideas masquerading as somehow being in sympathy with the plight of struggling workers and single moms. For example, writing in National Affairs, in a piece called “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” Daniel DiSalvo lavishly praises Christie’s attempt to eviscerate teachers and other public-sector unions, without much seeming regard for the working-class and single-mom members of those unions. In the piece, DiSalvo writes:

The firestorm that these proposals have sparked demonstrates the political clout of state-workers’ unions. … Yet confront them policymakers must. As Christie said about the duel with the [New Jersey Education Association[, “If we don’t win this fight, there’s no other fight left.” Melodramatic as this may sound, for many states, it is simply reality.

Well. If that’s reform conservatism, not too many workers and single moms will be buying into it.

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So who’s backing the reformicons? As one might expect, National Affairs was set up by the same billionaires and conservative foundations who’ve been funding conservative think tanks and media outlets for decades in an effort to shape popular thinking and economic policies, and the current team includes financiers and wheeler-dealers such as Roger Hertog, Paul Singer and Bruce Kovner. And as expected, the movement is run by the intellectual heirs of the key “original” neocons including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, the folks who founded National Affairs’s godfather magazine, The Public Interest. Today, the wealthy backers of the reformicons are single-mindedly promoting their iconic belief in the need to eliminate government programs and encourage the spread of unfettered free enterprise. They founded National Affairs for the same reason that The Public Interest was founded in 1965, by Irving Kristol and his collaborators, namely, to counter progressive thinking. In the earlier period it had led to the Great Society and its social programs and in 2009, when National Affairs was launched, there was strong support for more government regulation of Wall Street and healthcare reform.

To be continued. Part II will appear tomorrow.

Read Next: Christie accelerates 2016 travels, and GOP fundraising

Christie Accelerates 2016 Travels, GOP Fundraising

Bridgegate, Schmidgegate. That seems to be the view of an increasing number of Republican voters, and more and more GOP establishment types, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tries to put the Bridgegate scandal behind him. In New Hampshire—which is critical to Christie’s political future if he decides to run in 2016 because the Granite State has lots of moderate and centrist, non–Tea Party voters and allows independents to vote in the GOP primary—Christie is surging ahead of other challengers, according to a just-released WMUR poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire:

National media pundits and major Republican donors may still be wary of the Bridgegate controversy dogging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but potential Republican primary voters, it seems, have forgiven him. The latest WMUR Granite State Poll put Christie on top of all other potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016, but with a higher percentage of support than he had prior to Bridgegate. Christie’s 19 percent lead is up 10 percentage points from where he was in January when Bridgegate was leading the national news. In October, prior to the attention, he was at 16 percent. There appears to also be room to grow. When asked who their second choice was, Christie lead that group with 10 percent.

But the vast majority of Republicans in New Hampshire are undecided, and in any case none of this means that Christie is out of the Bridgegate woods. On Thursday, yet another top Christie aide will appear before the New Jersey legislative committee investigating Bridgegate, and the ongoing inquiries by the US Attorney and the Manhattan district attorney continue apace. But Christie, who apparently believes that he can’t wait for all of that to conclude, is stepping up his Hillary Clinton–like unannounced 2016 bid.

In his capacity as head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is accelerating his travel schedule. (Since February, Christie Watch has closely followed Christie’s persistence in various polls and his recent travels, to Sheldon Adelson’s dog-and-pony show, to the Conservative Political Action Conference, to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom event, to various establishment gatherings such as Mitt Romney’s get-together, and his record-setting fundraising pace.) Indeed, Christie’s RGA fundraising has reached more than $60 million since January.

According to The Record, the newspaper in Bergen, Christie’s travels are becoming more frenetic, especially to early 2016 primary states:

The media-savvy Christie, who won 61 percent of the vote in Democratic New Jersey, has already been to 20 states and the District of Columbia since becoming chairman of the governors group in November. By the end of the summer, he’ll have covered the four key early voting states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—with more than two dozen trips this year.… Since becoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie has also been to Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Illinois—all of which have their primaries or caucuses by mid-March.

And during July and August, reports The Record, Christie will visit fourteen more states. This week he’ll spend three days touring Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register, where the first caucus in the 2016 campaign will be held:

Potential 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie’s trip to Iowa later this month will be a three-city swing, with three fundraisers. On Thursday, July 17, the outspoken New Jersey governor will be the star guest at a fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association at Kyle and Sharon Krause’s River House in Waukee from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Entrance requires a $25,000 minimum donation. Christie will do an afternoon fundraiser for Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen in Cedar Rapids. And at 6:15 p.m., he’ll speak at a fundraising dinner for Gov. Terry Branstad at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport. This event will be open to the public with the purchase of a $25 ticket.

Needless to add, in each state he visits while campaigning for various GOP gubernatorial candidates, Christie can pocket contacts with big Republican donors and key activists and politicians that he’ll need when and if he runs.

Other Christie trips this past week included a stop in Idaho for a meeting with tech billionaires and financiers, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and to Nashville, Tennessee, for a meeting of the National Governors Association and the RGA.

In Idaho, where Christie attended a meeting sponsored by Allen & Co., those present included Brian Rogers of T. Rowe Price, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, AOL’s Tim Armstrong, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Twitter’s Dick Costolo, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Others invited included Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Walt Disney Chairman Robert Iger, along with Michael Bloomberg. These people are otherwise known as Christie’s “base.” And, according to Bloomberg News, many in the GOP establishment are scrambling to get behind an establishment candidate in order to blunt Rand Paul’s rise.

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The Star-Ledger, covering Christie’s Nashville stop, reports that America’s Democratic governors singled out Christie for sharp criticism, signaling perhaps their concern that Christie might be in the process of reviving his 2016 ambitions:

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, the RGA didn’t hold a news conference during the session and Christie was largely expected to stay out of the limelight. Political observers said ahead of the meeting that Christie’s performance and attention to detail beyond the purview of reporters and cameras is what would really matter for a governor working to rebuild his image after taking a hit with the bridge scandal. And if evidence was needed to show Christie may be successfully moving away from controversy, conference-goers needed to look no further than the statements of leading Democratic governors. Members of the Democratic Governors Association, during a news conference held a day before Christie arrived, all but targeted Christie as the poster child for what they described as the Republicans’ failed policies in statehouses across the country. It seemed as if the Democrats had set their sights on Christie even before he arrived in Nashville for the conference.

Read Next: The Hillary Clinton juggernaut courts Wall Street and neocons.

The Hillary Clinton Juggernaut Courts Wall Street and Neocons

She’s sailing, pretty much unopposed, to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and, if current polls are any indication, to the White House in 2017. The latest poll, from Quinnipiac, finds that Clinton leads Elizabeth Warren by 58-11 percent, with Joe Biden at 9 percent. And matched against would-be challengers on the Republican side, including Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan, Clinton leads each by seven to nine points, and her favorability rating (“likable enough”?) is 48-43 percent positive.

The Clinton-vs.-GOP numbers are likely to tighten as a candidate emerges from the pack, and as the Republican party’s avalanche of negative ads gains momentum: Benghazi! That 1975 rape case! Umm, and what about that Whitewater/Vince Foster thing? But none of that is likely to stick, and she’s by far the strongest candidate as the presidential season gets underway. But, as a series of recent articles underscores, Clinton is the quintessential über-establishment candidate, with close ties to Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, and a passel of neoconservatives. So, just as the Tea Party is going to face the unpalatable choice in 2016 of (1) holding its nose and voting for whatever GOP establishment figure gets the nomination, (b) staying home on election day and handing a lopsided victory to Clinton or (c) bolting the party for an independent or third-party standard-bearer, liberals, the left, and progressives have the same difficult choice to make, in the other direction.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, even before the race gets started Clinton is distancing herself from an increasingly unpopular President Obama on both foreign policy and economic policy. For anyone who’s paid attention to Clinton’s political arc since 1992, however, it’s clear that she won’t run either as an Elizabeth Warren–style populist or as a peace candidate. Though her rhetoric might veer back and forth, she’s almost certain to run as one more hawkish than Obama on world affairs and as a candidate who won’t challenge Wall Street’s egregious record of criminality, reckless speculation and staunch defense of the privileges of the 1 percent.

In its important July 5 piece by Jacob Heilbrunn—called “The Next Act of the Neocons: Are Neocons Getting Ready to Ally with Hillary Clinton?”—The New York Times described how an important faction of the neoconservative movement, led by Robert Kagan and Max Boot, and including Michael McFaul, are edging their way into Clinton’s camp, where they’re likely to get a cautious welcome. (Clinton and Kagan have been close in the past, and in 2011 she appointed him to her Foreign Affairs Policy Board when she was secretary of state.) Especially if the GOP’s anti-interventionist, libertarian wing gets traction in 2016, neoconservatives are likely to flock toward Clinton. In the beginning—that is, back in the 1970s—the neoconservatives were almost all Democrats, working in the offices of right-wing Democratic senators such as Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and working for liberal, hawkishly pro-Israel media outlets. So, in a sense, they could be returning to their roots.

Parallel with its exploration of Clinton’s relationship with the neoconservatives, two days later The New York Times also examined Clinton’s ties to Wall Street. The article opens:

As its relationship with Democrats hits a historic low, Wall Street sees a solution on the horizon: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Under pressure to sound off as a populist, Clinton, Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation all maintain intimate ties to Wall Street’s biggest players, and while her spokesman told the Times that she’s committed to “reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility,” she’s hasn’t seemed willing to confront Wall Street. One Clinton backer, Bill Daley, the pro-business ex-mayor of Chicago who served as President Clinton’s secretary of commerce and then as President Obama’s White House chief of staff, told the Times:

I think there’s a potential window for Democrats to come back, but if it is one wing of the party pushing the populist line—anti-big banks, punishing people whether or not they had anything to do with the crisis—they’ll lock this crowd into a Republican alternative.

By “this crowd,” Daley—now a hedge fund manager—meant the people Obama in 2009 called “fat cats.”

Lately, of course, Clinton has rightly drawn heavy fire for claiming in an interview that she and Bill Clinton were “dead broke” in 2001, even as they reaped many tens of millions of dollars on lucrative speeches and other ventures. Way back in April 2008, The Washington Post reported that the Clintons earned $109 million between 2001 and 2008, including $30 million from best-selling books and $15 million from “an investment partnership with one of her top presidential campaign fundraisers.” More recently, on June 26, the Post reported that Bill Clinton alone earned $104.9 million for 542 paid speeches between 2001 and 2014, including nearly $20 million from Wall Street. (According to the article, Bill Clinton has earned $1.35 million from Goldman Sachs alone, speaking eight times.) Regarding Hillary Clinton, the Post reported:

Since leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton has followed her husband and a roster of recent presidents and secretaries of state in this profitable line of work, addressing dozens of industry groups, banks and other organizations for pay. Records of her earnings are not publicly available, but executives familiar with the engagements said her standard fee is $200,000 and up, and that she has been in higher demand than her husband.

The Clintons, it must be admitted, are not “Romney rich.” They’re not rich like the Koch brothers, George Soros, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers or the Internet-era billionaires such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. (Hillary Clinton’s own, rather inelegant way of making this point is to say that she and Bill are not “truly well off” and that they pay ordinary income taxes, not capital gains taxes.) But that’s not the point, really: in the end, the truly wealthy are independent and not beholden to anyone, while the Clintons are essentially 1 percent’s hired guns, well-paid servants of the ultra elite.

If Clinton runs against, say, Jeb Bush, in a dynasty vs. dynasty clash of the rich, her Wall Street ties and enormous wealth might be neutered. But if her challenger is someone like Christie or, less likely, Rand Paul, she’ll find herself having a difficult time posing as the friend of the middle class, the workers and the poor, since she’ll be by far the wealthier, better-off one. And, as the National Post reported, that ought to worry Democrats. The Washington Post, reporting on Clinton’s 1 percent status, ran a piece on June 22 titled: “Some Democrats fear Clinton’s wealth and ‘imperial image’ could be damaging in 2016.” In it, Philip Rucker reported that her “$5 million Washington home” is “appointed like an ambassador’s mansion”:

Mahogany antiques, vibrant paintings and Oriental rugs fill the rooms. French doors open onto an expertly manicured garden and a turquoise swimming pool, where Clinton recently posed for the cover of People magazine.

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And the Post added:

On her current book tour, the former secretary of state has travelled the country by private jet as she has for many of her speaking engagements since stepping down as secretary of state last year. Her fee is said to be upwards of $200,000 per speech; the exceptions tend to be black-tie charity galas, where she collects awards and catches up with friends such as designer Oscar de la Renta and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

 

Read Next: Christie’s gun control veto sparks anger in New Jersey.

Christie’s Gun Control Veto Sparks Anger in NJ, but May Not Win Over the Tea Party

Since the Democrats have pretty much avoided mentioning gun control since 1994, when the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives was largely (though mistakenly) credited to the National Rifle Association, the party can’t complain too much about Chris Christie’s veto last week of legislation that would have cut the number of bullets allowed in a magazine from fifteen to ten. Hardly a radical goal, but one calculated to win Christie support from Republican voters in 2016 primaries.

In New Jersey at least, the Democrats and local opinion makers are letting Christie know that they’re unhappy, including the Newark Star-Ledger, which in an editorial called the veto a “self-serving political stunt.”

But when Christie gets his questionnaire in the mail from Mike Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, he can safely answer it in such a way that warms the hearts of NRA supporters and their government-hating, gun-totin’ friends in the Tea Party.

That doesn’t mean that the Tea Party is ready, just yet, to endorse Christie in 2016. As the Tea Party News Network says, they’re happy that Christie vetoed the bill from New Jersey “gun-grabbing tyrants,” but they urge the governor to stay right where he is:

As America geared up for celebrating our Independence Day, New Jersey governor Chris Christie did something very American: he stood up to gun-grabbing tyrants. While the Tea Party has soured on Chris Christie (for some very good and obvious reasons), let’s give credit where credit is due: this was the right call from Christie. Of course, this is not enough to earn him any true Tea Party support for a presidential bid (not by a long shot), but Christie’s actions prove what many Tea Partiers have long contended: that Chris Christie is the right Republican for New Jersey…and he should stay there.

In New Jersey, state legislative leaders are blasting Christie, needless to say. A lead sponsor of the legislation, Assembly majority leader Louis Greenwald, released a statement noting that Christie’s veto “came only minutes after the families of children who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School visited the New Jersey Statehouse to deliver petitions urging the governor to support the measure.” Greenwald’s statement said:

The governor’s action today can best be described with the words used in his own veto statement, “difficult choices are brushed aside [and] uncomfortable topics are left unexplored.” I would imagine this is a very uncomfortable topic to [discuss] with conservative voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Added Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg:

High-capacity magazines have no purpose other than to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. They do not belong on our streets. The governor’s veto is an insult to the families of gun violence victims who have fought to make sure that others did not have to suffer as they have. His veto is an insult to our residents who deserve additional protections.

The Star-Ledger reported that in New Hampshire, whose electorate is essential to Christie’s presidential hopes—the New Jersey governor is heading to Iowa next week, but he isn’t strong in the state, which is dominated by conservative Christians—gun control opponents warned Christie last year that they are watching him closely:

“I think it’s a step in the right direction for Governor Christie,” said Sam Cohen, vice president and CEO of Pro-Gun New Hampshire, whose state holds the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Cohen’s group last year warned Christie that it was watching him closely, and advised him to veto four gun control bills Democrats sent him. Ultimately, Christie vetoed the two most strongly opposed by gun rights groups, and signed the other two.

There don’t appear to be any Republicans willing to challenge the NRA, at least not among the possible candidates in 2016. Christie, as a governor from the blue state where support for gun control is strong, may have once thought fleetingly about being the odd man out on gun control, but clearly no longer—if ever. So he’s decided to cash in on his pro-NRA stand as something courageous, and the same can’t be said for candidates from Kentucky, Texas or, well, Florida, where Jeb Bush hasn’t crossed the NRA. In Florida, of course, it isn’t often that anti-gun measures get to the governor’s desk, so it will be hard to find evidence of Bush vetoing a bill that the NRA didn’t like during his term as governor there. As On the Issues reports, Bush supports Florida’s pro-gun Stand Your Ground law, and while he supports the idea of instant background checks Bush favored Florida’s NRA-backed “concealed carry” laws. (The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that a new Quinnipiac Poll found “that 92 percent of American voters, including 92 percent of gun owners, support requiring background checks on all gun purchases,” including 86 percent of Republicans. So that’s hardly a courageous stand by ex-Governor Bush.)

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Fox News, reporting on the Bloomberg Everytown campaign, quotes an NRA leader saying that Bloomberg is “just the latest incarnation of a long line of anti-freedom billionaires who’ve tried to take on the National Rifle Association.” Actually, there haven’t been that many billionaires, anti-freedom or not, who’ve done anything at all about guns, so Bloomberg deserves credit for what he’s doing. Sadly, if the Everytown effort has any success at all, it may come in the form of eliminating a few Democratic incumbents here and there, in rural, pro-gun states and districts, who decide to challenge the NRA and create an opening for their Republican challenger.

 

Read Next: The Saga of Christie, Samson, and the American Dream Megamall, Part II

Will the Tea Party Actually Ditch the GOP?

There’s talk, all of a sudden (and not-so all of a sudden) about whether or not the Tea Party can or will break with the Republicans and set up its own, third party. Fearful of another Mitt Romney—or, heaven forfend, Jeb Bush or Chris Christie—and sullen and angry over the well-funded establishment GOP’s ability to outfox their Senate primary candidates so far in 2014, the Tea Party is (or, rather, tea parties are) being touted as having the ability to set up a national third party that represents an anti-establishment, anti-Washington agenda. Don’t believe it for a second.

There’s one strain of thought, expressed last night on MSNBC and last year by David Frum, that the departure of the Tea Party faction from the GOP would be a “blessing” for the Republicans. In Frum’s view, expressed via CNN, the exit of the Tea Partiers would free the Republicans to appeal to centrist and moderate voters (and presumably Hispanics):

Right now, tea party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand. It’s a very interesting question whether a tea party bolt from the GOP might not just liberate the party to slide back to the political center—and liberate Republicans from identification with the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles. … Maybe the right answer to the threat, “Shut down the government or we quit” is: “So sad you feel that way. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Yesterday, on Fox News, a sputtering, nearly incoherent Sarah Palin, reacting to the defeat of the Tea Party’s extremist standard-bearer in Mississippi—and let’s face it, if the Tea Party can’t win in ultra-reactionary, Bible-thumping Mississippi, it doesn’t have much of a future—said:

Well if Republicans are going to act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung-ho about getting more Republicans in there? We need people who understand the beauty of…. the value of…allowing free market to thrive. Otherwise our country is going to be continued to be over-regulated, driving industry away, driving jobs away. We’re going to be a bankrupt, fundamentally transformed country unless those who know what they’re doing, and aren’t going along just to get along with those in power, it being today the Democrats. That does no good. So yeah if Republicans aren’t going to stand strong on the planks in our platform then it does no good to get all enthused about them anymore.

But even Rush Limbaugh thinks it’s a dumb idea to create a third party or to abandon the GOP:

I have never advocated for a third party, and I’m not advocating for one now. It’s never been the objective, and it’s just not the way to go. They don’t win. It’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction.

Of course, Rush is right, and Sarah’s off-base, though Democrats and liberals can be forgiven for crossing their fingers and hoping that the civil war in the GOP collapses the party into splinters. For Republicans, their problem is that the activist base of the GOP virtually coincides with the Tea Party, and if that faction leaves, the Republicans will be left with a handful of well-behaved evangelicals and some flag-waving, local Chamber of Commerce types.

Senator Thad Cochran’s defeat of a right-wing kook, Chris McDaniel, in Mississippi’s primary is only that latest in a series of bitter defeats for the Tea Partiers, who’ve now placed their bets on unlikely wins in Tennessee and Kansas. And it’s only heightened the anger and resentment inside the GOP over the establishment’s blitzkrieg against the Tea Party, to the point that in Mississippi some radical-right activists are talking about the unlikely prospect of running McDaniel as a write-in candidate:

Wayne Allyn Root, a libertarian commentator and onetime third-party candidate for vice president who is aligned with the Tea Party, wrote on Twitter that if Mr. McDaniel campaigned as a write-in candidate, “I’ll be in Mississippi campaigning by my friend’s side. Take Cochran down in general election.”

McDaniel, who delivered a fiery, “non-concession” speech after the vote, may encourage such foolishness, which might help elect a Democratic senator from Mississippi for the first time in decades. “There are millions of people who feel like strangers in their own party. And there is something strange, something unusual, about a Republican primary that is decided by liberal Democrats,” he said, angrily. “So much for principle!… This is not the party of Reagan! But we’re not done fighting.”

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Over at U.S. News and World Report, there’s this:

Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation echoed the former Alaska governor, saying that the tactics used by the establishment candidate proves that the “Republican In Name Only”—or RINO—wing of the party is “willing to do anything to hold on to power,” he wrote in a blog post declaring “war” against the establishment wing of the GOP. “The RINO establishment thinks they can use all kinds of underhanded tricks to win. They also think that conservatives will simply accept the results and fall in line,” he wrote. “The Republican Establishment thinks they have fought back an insurrection from conservatives and now we will meekly fall in line in November and support a RINO who needs Democrats to win? Never.”

 

Read Next: Can Rick Perry make a comeback?

MSNBC’s Scarborough Unfairly Blames the Media for Chris Christie’s Problems

The real bridge scandal that may lose Christie the chance to be a GOP contender in 2016—not the G.W. Bridge lane closure fiasco of last September but an earlier one related to a different span, the Pulaski Skyway—just isn’t news, according to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. The TV motormouth, who rose to prominence in 1994 as part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract-on-America right-wing revolt that took control of the US House of Representatives, is annoyed over the fact that the media are paying attention to the panoply of scandals surrounding Christie, including the GWB; the tangle of conflict-of-interest scandals around the Port Authority and its disgraced chairman, David Samson; and a series of Christie money grabs that looted the PA to pay for New Jersey road projects.

But Scarborough’s annoyance is misplaced. In his MSNBC rant, Scarborough called The New York Times’ coverage of the Pulaski Skyway a “scam” and something that “outrages conservatives.” In fact, however, the Times, which reported yesterday on its front page about the Pulaski Skyway story, is late to the party, since that story has been reported extensively by investigations from the Bergen Record and by Main Justice, and, earlier this month and, back in May, by Christie Watch, too.

So Scarborough ought to be criticizing the Times for being slow to report what is, in fact, the issue that might bring Christie down: namely, that both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Manhattan district attorney are investigating the legality of Christie’s apparently illegal diversion of Port Authority funds to rebuild the Pulaski.

Back in 2011 Christie cancelled a long-planned tunnel project linking New York and New Jersey, and he was determined to use the $1.8 billion that the PA had allocated for the tunnel to pay for internal New Jersey road and bridge projects, including the Pulaski Skyway. The alternative was a gas tax increase—and raising taxes, any taxes, is the kiss of death for a Republican presidential hopeful.

But, as the Times notes, Christie ran into opposition from PA lawyers:

Again and again, Port Authority lawyers warned against the move: The Pulaski Skyway, they noted, is owned and operated by the state, putting it outside the agency’s purview, according to dozens of memos and emails reviewed by investigators and obtained by The New York Times. But the Christie administration relentlessly lobbied to use the money for the Skyway, with Mr. Christie announcing publicly that the state planned to rely on Port Authority funds even before an agreement was reached. Eventually, the authority justified the Skyway repairs by casting the bridge as an access road to the Lincoln Tunnel, even though they are not directly connected…The accuracy of this characterization is now a major focus of the investigations, according to several people briefed on the matter.

As already noted, much of what the Times reported—the objections by PA lawyers, the pressure from Christie administration officials on them to find some basis to approve the funding, the decision of the SEC and the Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance to investigate—has already been reported by the Bergen Record, Main Justice, and Christie Watch.

The Bergen Record, in March, first printed excerpts of numerous memos and emails between PA lawyers and Christie administration officials in which PA lawyers warned that the Pulaski Skyway was not part of the PA’s jurisdiction. It was in fact an access roadway for the Holland Tunnel, which was built before the PA and roads leading to it are not entitled to PA repair funds. Christie’s point man at the PA, deputy executive director Bill Baroni, put the screws to PA lawyers, as the Record noted:

Chris Hartwyk, former deputy general counsel at the Port Authority, wrote that justifying the projects by claiming the roadways were connections to the Holland Tunnel, as the governor previously stated, would be “difficult if not impossible” because of the wording of existing laws. The Holland Tunnel was already built when the Port Authority inherited it in 1931, so the law didn’t permit the Port Authority to build approaches. “It’s evident to say, but we gotta figure this out,” Baroni, who was looped into the discussion, wrote the same day.”

So, as the Record noted, PA lawyers christened the Pulaski Skyway and related roads as access highways to the Lincoln Tunnel, which was entitled to PA funds, even though that tunnel is miles from the Skyway. In an editorial on the subject yesterday, the Newark Star-Ledger notes that one of its reporters asked cab drivers at Newark’s airport if they’d use the Skyway to get to the Lincoln Tunnel, with hilarious results.)

The Times article does expand on the quotes and excerpts from e-mails between PA lawyers and Christie administration officials showing the pressure exerted to get the PA to provide a justification for the funding, adding new details on the role of two other officials:

In meetings, emails and letters between November 2010 and February 2011, administration officials including James Simpson, the New Jersey transportation commissioner, and Richard Bagger, the governor’s chief of staff, continued to press the Port Authority for funding. Mr. Baroni wrote that Port Authority lawyers could find “absolutely no support” for repairing the Skyway.

The Times reports that among those subpoenaed by Vance was Jeffrey Chiesa, who was Christie’s chief counsel, when the PA lawyers were being pressed to find a legal reason to fund the Skyway. But the Times doesn’t mention that later as Attorney General he signed off on other papers making clear that the PA was the sole funder of the Pulaski repairs.

And while the Times notes that the PA memos questioning the legality of the PA-Pulaski deal were given to Deborah Gramiccioni, then the director of the governor’s authorities unit, they didn’t report that she too has been subpoenaed. Gramiccioni is now deputy executive director of the PA, picked by Christie to replace Bill Baroni, after he was forced to resign for his role in the GW Bridge lane closures. She told the Times that “the administration ‘did everything in our power’ to avoid placing pressure on the Port Authority by asking the attorney general’s office to work directly with agency lawyers.”

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However, as Christie Watch detailed earlier, the Authorities Unit she headed operated as the governor’s eyes and ears at the various independent agencies, implementing his agenda, and we noted that “a feature on Gramiccioni in The Philadelphia Inquirer when she headed the Authorities Unit made clear she was an enforcer for the governor.” Said the Inquirer:

“We’re asking more questions than ever before, and that is taking a number of these authorities by surprise,” said Gramiccioni, who talks in rapid-fire bursts punctuated by wide smiles. The result? “Angry defiance has become the norm in my world…” Gramiccioni is most like her boss in one way: She relishes a good rumble. “I have very thick skin, I’m prepared for a fight, and I know how to go on offense when necessary,” she said. “I go to sleep at night knowing the next day is going to be another battle. And I look forward to it.”

In its editorial, the Star-Ledger concludes:

But Christie was following his own road map. This was all part of a grand plan to make him into a major player in Republican politics. Yet once again, his big ambition may have led to a big mistake.

 

Read Next: Christie panders to the Christian right at Faith and Freedom” event.

Will Mary Landrieu Engage the ‘War on Women’ in the Louisiana Senate Race?

There isn’t much to see driving south on Evangeline Throughway through Lafayette, Louisiana, besides a few dilapidated houses and, at the intersection with 10th Street, a bright red billboard. A photo of Senator Mary Landrieu in a red jacket, her blond hair swept across her forehead, fills its right side. “100% pro-abortion voting record,” the billboard reads, and directs passerby to a website titled “Too Extreme for Louisiana.”

Landrieu’s campaign is one of the closest and most closely watched contests of the midterm elections, as it could decide which party controls the Senate. Louisiana has no primaries, so Landrieu is in a four-way scrum to avoid a runoff. Her main competition is Bill Cassidy, a Republican congressman and doctor. Conventional wisdom says that Obamacare and energy are the key issues for voters in Louisiana, where Barack Obama is deeply unpopular and petrochemical interests have a stranglehold on state politics.

There’s little daylight between Landrieu and Cassidy in their stance on energy and business—so little that many of the industry groups known for supporting establishment Republicans are betting on Landrieu and the weight she pulls as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The politics around Obamacare are shifting in Landrieu’s favor, too. Just last week the state’s Republican senator David Vitter passed on an opportunity to hit for Cassidy—whom he supports—when he said he might be open to expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.

In this heavily Catholic state, women’s health could prove a more meaningful point of divergence between the candidates. Cassidy is deeply conservative when it comes to abortion; he opposes it even in cases of rape and incest. On Sunday, members of his staff attended an annual breakfast in Baton Rouge sponsored by Right to Life, the group responsible for the anti-Landrieu billboard in Lafayette as well as several others in Shreveport and on the interstate that runs through Southern Louisiana. The Susan B. Anthony List plans to spend more than $1 million against Landrieu on a ground campaign and its own ads, which describe Landrieu’s vote for the Affordable Care Act as a vote for “taxpayer-funded abortion.”

Access to abortion has become increasingly restricted in Louisiana, as it has in other midterm battlegrounds like North Carolina. In early June, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stood in front of a Baptist church in the city of Monroe and signed a bill that could shutter most of the state’s abortion clinics, in an echo of provisions passed in Texas, Mississippi and Alabama in recent years. The law, which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, emerged in a legislative session that failed to advance several measures intended to support women’s health and economic security, including the Medicaid expansion, a minimum-wage increase and an equal pay act.

Democrats in other swing states are highlighting these kinds of attacks on women as an illustration of the GOP’s extremism, but so far Landrieu has not made gender an issue in her campaign. In North Carolina, Kay Hagan is targeting female voters in her race against Tom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House whose accomplishments include the infamous “motorcycle abortion bill.” Colorado senator Mark Udall has a new ad out highlighting his opponent’s anti-choice record. In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes hammered Mitch McConnell for being “on the wrong side of every woman’s issue out there.” In turn, the Democrats’ bid to keep the Senate is getting a boost from liberal women’s groups like Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s LIST, who are putting millions behind female candidates, Hagan in particular.

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The political landscape is very different for Landrieu. “In other circumstances, she could make inroads with conservative women who care about women’s issues. But if she can be construed as part of establishment that is pro-choice, that trumps everything,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

Cross credits Louisiana’s sharp rightward turn in the last decade not only to anti-Obama sentiment but also to the GOP’s leveraging of religion to flip voters in the heavily Catholic south- and central-western parishes known as French Acadiana, formerly a blue stronghold.

“The Republican Party picked that lock by appealing to voters on the basis of abortion,” said Cross. “Catholics [in Louisiana] are now voting in majorities for Republicans, which is something they had never done before.” That switch was evident in the 2008 presidential election, in which 70 percent of Louisiana Catholics voted for John McCain.

In this context, it makes sense that Landrieu would try to avoid a conversation about abortion. She describes her own stance as centrist; she supported a late-term abortion ban, but otherwise has defended abortion rights on the principle of separation of church and state. It was on that basis that she called the new restrictions signed by Jindal “very troubling,” arguing that “the last place the government needs to be is in the church, in the doctor’s office or in the bedroom.”

Still, given that Democrats see women as being key to the control of the Senate, it’s notable that Landrieu isn’t yet aggressively courting female voters via her record on less controversial issues like equal pay legislation, which she has pushed for. So far she’s chosen instead to paint herself strictly as a gender-neutral champion of the oil and gas industry, and the black sheep of the Democratic Party. As a result, she is not drawing on the support of the liberal groups playing heavily in other states. She is the only female Democratic incumbent in the Senate who has not been endorsed by EMILY’s list. Planned Parenthood Action is also not supporting her campaign at this point, though a spokesperson said the group is “keeping an eye” on the race.

Meanwhile, conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity are trying to speak to Louisiana’s women via targeted ads, and Cassidy has indicated that he’ll put abortion front and center. One recent poll showed Landrieu losing ground among white female Democrats. As the race picks up, it will be interesting to see whether Landrieu engages in a fiercer fight for this constituency.

 

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