Americans claim to want their politicians to be “authentic.” Even if the authenticity comes by way of Hollywood (like Ronald Reagan’s aw-shucks, cowboy hero persona) or Madison Avenue (Bill Clinton’s rural roots in “a place called Hope”).
That’s one of the things I’ve heard over and over from Donald Trump supporters. Some concede he’s a bigot, others admit he’s a bully and a blowhard, many acknowledge he’s a narcissist of the first order. But they like how he’s willing to “stick it” to “them.” The “them” is elites (however you choose to define them), minorities, foreigners, Muslims, the “politically correct,” even his fellow Republicans.
Hillary Clinton has a problem with this concept of being “real.” Many voters remain uncertain of who she is at her core, what she believes in, who she trusts, or if she can be trusted. Only 30 percent of Americans consider her honest and trustworthy, according to a pre-convention CNN poll. It’s imperative for Clinton to use her week in the national media spotlight to shift public perceptions of her, if she is to win what is now a close race with Trump.
On the first day of the convention, Team Clinton may have tried too hard. Message: she cares. Message: She’s passionate about people’s problems. Most of the speeches were too smooth and too predictable. (Exceptions: Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders. More on that later.)
“Every speech here feels vetted to death,” Adam Nagourney, Los Angeles bureau chief of the New York Times, wrote during a convention liveblog. “I’m sure they have an extensive speech reviewing-shop.”
The action on the convention podium was disciplined and carefully scripted, even if the crowd was raucous and often off-script. Somehow, the DNC managed to squeeze the intelligent ridicule out of Al Franken. Instead of coming off as clever, he came off as somebody reading a speech written by someone else, which it undoubtedly was.
The most unscripted moment of the event came when Franken and comedian Sarah Silverman were directed to waste time so that ’60s music legend Paul Simon could get comfortable at his piano. She filled the “dead time” with a pointed message to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd: “You’re being ridiculous.”
Franken, who became famous as a political commentator by roasting Rush Limbaugh as “a big, fat idiot,” looked momentarily stunned. Then the convention returned to script.
The most effective scripted moments came during First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech. In a speech praised by political analysts from both parties, she described her life in the White House and its impact on her family. In a gentle reminder that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, she noted that the 2016 election will determine “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” She also noted politely that you can’t solve complex policy problems in 140 characters.
“Michelle Obama tonight delivered one of the best speeches I have ever seen in my career in politics,” former George W. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon wrote on his Facebook page.
Obama was followed by a keynote address by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was predictable in her attacks on Trump and her “proud” support of Hillary.
(The password of the night was “proud.” Democrats are proud of Hillary.)
Warren’s address, which did not receive nearly the applause of Obama’s, served as a bridge to Bernie Sanders’ gracious speech endorsing Clinton. The Vermont senator spent 30 minutes making the case both for Clinton and against Trump, all the while thanking his supporters in the Democrats’ socialist, populist revolution. It was no concession speech. He conceded no ground. But he did advance the cause of party unity.
One Sanders speech is unlikely to mollify his hard-core supporters. Acrimony was evident everywhere on Monday. In state delegation meetings. On the steamy streets of Philadelphia. And in a convention hall that was packed (unlike Cleveland), but abnormally unresponsive to speakers’ calls for unity — at least until Obama and Sanders came along late in prime time.
“It was a rough day earlier on,” Senate Democratic Leader-in-Waiting Chuck Schumer admitted on NBC. But it could have been worse, he quickly added: “Compare this to Ted Cruz”
If this was your first time watching a national convention, you might think these public displays of division are bad news for Democrats’ hopes of winning. But for those of us who’ve seen Democratic schisms in the past, this was relatively mild. Past divisions have been deeper and far more fundamental. Take it from this Republican activist:
Let’s be honest. This is a hot mess, but they’re Democrats. They care about winning. They’re like that. By then end it’ll be a lovefest.
— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) July 26, 2016
Team Hillary hopes that’s the case.
Flashback: My 2013 profile of Ted Cruz, when he was first being compared to Ronald Reagan and Joe McCarthyPosted: January 12, 2016
Thanks to the wonders of social media, Ted Cruz supporters and detractors are still circulating a profile I wrote of him that appeared on Texas on the Potomac on Feb. 21, 2013, six wild weeks into his Senate tenure. I’m glad to say it still holds up today. The most interesting quote in it may come from then-Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas, when he discusses the futures of Cruz and freshman Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Here’s the story:
Ted Cruz’s blazing start in the U.S. Senate has proven to be the political equivalent of a Rorschach test.
Cruz is a political Rorschach Test. Everybody sees the same thing — and everybody sees something different.
Cruz’s fans, and there are many, compare him to Ronald Reagan, who happens to be the 42-year-old senator’s boyhood hero. Cruz’s detractors, and there are many, compare him to Joe McCarthy, the controversial Wisconsin senator known for smearing his foes by innuendo and questioning their patriotism. And there are not many in between.
“It’s going to be in the eye of the beholder,” said Timothy M. Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
To Cruz, the first Latino senator in Texas history, the swirling controversies of the past two months stem from his credo to “speak the truth,” whatever the consequences.
The Houston Republican’s first legislative proposal, as promised during his campaign, was a complete repeal of the 2010 health-care law widely known as Obamacare. He was the only senator on the losing side of every key vote in his first month in office. He was one of only three senators to oppose the confirmation of Secretary of State John Kerry, and was one of just 22 to vote against the Violence Against Women Act.
But it’s Cruz’s hard-charging style — and not just his hard-line conservatism — that has attracted national attention.
Texas’ junior senator made a name for himself on Capitol Hill with his hostile grilling of Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense. Showing no deference to his elders, the newcomer also had a tense encounter with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer on a usually sedate Sunday talk show.
Liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni dismissed him as “an ornery, swaggering piece of work” full of “too much quackery, belligerence and misplaced moralism.” NBC Latino commentator Raul Reyes declared that “Cruz knows no shame” and “it’s time the GOP presses the Cruz-control button.”
At the same time, Cruz has been welcomed as a conquering hero by the grassroots conservatives who fueled his upset victory over establishment Republican favorite David Dewhurst in the 2012 Republican runoff contest. The new senator was picked to deliver the closing address at next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the nation’s largest annual gathering of right-thinking activists.
“Ted Cruz has not sacrificed his values and beliefs on the altar of political correctness or to become part of the Washington, D.C., circuit,” said Harris County Republican Party chair Jared Woodfill. “Like Ronald Reagan, he can take our conservative values and beliefs and articulate them for the world. He has made a huge mark at the national level in just a few months.”
Republican strategists are particularly pleased that Cruz brings a fresh face — as well as much-needed diversity — to the GOP message machine.
“He’s not a grumpy old white guy like so many of our spokesmen have been,” said Fergus Cullen, a communications consultant and former New Hampshire Republican Party chair. “He comes from the policy/ideas/intellectual wing of the conservative movement, like (2012 vice presidential nominee) Paul Ryan, and we need more of them.”
While assessments of Cruz’s job performance vary widely, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: The former Texas solicitor general is willfully ignoring the age-old adage that in the Senate, freshman are seen but not heard.
“Sen. Ted Cruz came to Washington to advance conservative policies, not play by the same old rules that have relegated conservatives — and their ideas — to the backbench,” said Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, the political committee of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It should come as absolutely no surprise the Washington establishment — be it the liberal media, entrenched special interests or even wayward Republicans — is now attacking him in the press for following through on his promises.”
Some Republicans say that Cruz — as well as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are being targeted for tough criticism from the left because of his Hispanic heritage.
“Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are an existential threat to the liberal status quo,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, Cruz’s boss for more than five years. “For a long time, liberals assumed that if you were Hispanic and went to Harvard, you’d be a Democrat, not a conservative Republican. Not only that, he embodies the conservative principles that exist in a majority of the Hispanic community.”
Cruz, a champion debater in college and a former law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is undaunted by the criticism.
“Washington has a long tradition of trying to hurl insults to silence those who they don’t like what they’re saying,” Cruz said Tuesday as he toured the LaRue Tactical gun-manufacturing plant near Austin. “I have to admit I find it amusing that those in Washington are puzzled when someone actually does what they said they would do.”
Democrats, however, are decidedly not amused by his introduction to the national stage.
“He’s part of this right-wing, extreme group in the Republican Party,” said Gilbert Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman. “He was elected to do the business of all the people of Texas, not just the business of a small group of Tea Party right-wingers. He makes (conservative former Sen.) Phil Gramm look like a progressive.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal from California, went so far as to summon the ghost of Joe McCarthy during a discussion of Cruz on the Senate floor. MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews added former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Charles E. Coughlin, anti-Semitic radio broadcaster and fiery New Deal critic.
“He’s a potent combination of intellect and demagoguery that really has the potential to light a fire under the freshman Republicans to burn the place down,” said Jim Manley, a long-time Senate staffer who worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “But if you go down that path, you end up as nothing but roadkill in the Senate. If he continues down this path, his base may feel good about it, but he may just become isolated and irrelevant.”
A few Republicans have privately counseled Cruz to tone down his approach. One GOP colleague, Sen. John McCain, went so far as to rebuke him publicly after the Texas senator asked Hagel whether the former Nebraska senator had received payments from Saudi Arabia or North Korea.
“Sen. Hagel is an honorable man who served his country and no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character of his integrity,” McCain said as Cruz sat quietly by.
The two men shared another uncomfortable moment at the State of the Union speech, when McCain responded to Obama’s praise for bipartisan immigration reform with a quick jig while Cruz, two seats away, sat frowning.
Conservative activists are thrilled that Cruz has roiled both Democrats and old-line Republicans.
“We are encouraged that he is standing up to the establishment as a U.S. senator,” said David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United. “Fighting the tough fights for conservative principles is why Ted Cruz was elected to the U.S. Senate.”
L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica, blamed fellow Republicans for undercutting Cruz.
“The GOP establishment is at it again,” he said. ‘After capitulating to President Obama in negotiations over the fiscal cliff and promising to kneecap conservatives in the 2014 primaries, these moderates are attacking Sen. Ted Cruz for sticking to his conservative principles.”
Cruz’s brand of uncompromising conservatism gives Texas two of the most conservative members of the Senate. New ratings released Wednesday by National Journal indicated that the Lone Star State’s senior senator, John Cornyn of San Antonio, was the Senate’s second most conservative member in 2012.
Cornyn says he looks forward to “working closely” with Cruz “as we fight for a conservative agenda.”
“Ted has quickly proven himself to be among the next generation of leaders of Texas and the Republican Party,” Cornyn said.
It may be a bit early to declare Cruz a leader, but there’s little doubt Cruz is having an impact disproportionate to his seven-week Senate tenure. An editor of the conservative website The Daily Caller recently likened Cruz’s ability to shape the debate over Hagel to the liberal grassroots group MoveOn.org’s impact at the height of the Iraq War.
He’s certainly the most visible freshman senator, appearing on more national TV programs than any of his first-year colleagues, including the much-hyped liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and conservative Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, the first African American senator from the Deep South since Reconstruction.
With the hype, of course, come the jibes.
“Washington is a rough-and-tumble place, and I certainly don’t mind if some will take shots at me,” Cruz said. “What I do think is unfortunate is if the coverage of the political game overshadows the substance.”
“Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are an existential threat to the liberal status quo.”
— Greg Abbott
It’s a New Year, and everybody can dream big. In politics, every governor and senator, every Clinton and Bush, can dream of getting elected president next year. In sports, every team can dream of winning the championship. (Well, maybe not the Philadelphia 76ers.) In Hollywood, every crappy moviemaker can dream of hitting the jackpot with a smutty pseudo-farce involving a controversial world figure.
So many dreams. So little time.
To save time, here are 20 quests that, like Don Quixote de la Mancha, are not likely to end in success.
1. House Speaker Louie Gohmert
Not gonna happen. Only on Planet Colbert.
2. Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Perry
Too many Texans — or brothers of Texans … or blood brothers of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — in the race. Plus there are those precious memories of the 2012 campaign.
3. Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles
It’s never happened. Why should this upcoming season be any different? (Even though it will be 2016 before we know for sure.)
4. Respected sports owner Dan Snyder
Only one hope for redemption: Replace that racist football team nickname with the Washington Generals to honor the Great American War Machine — and to commemorate the only team to lose thousands of times to the Harlem Globetrotters.
5. Academy Award winning film “The Interview”
Let’s be more realistic: A Razzy for worst movie, worst director, worst actor, worst supporting actor, worst idea for a movie.
6. Popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
For a man who got re-elected by an overwhelming majority in a Democratic state, the Joisey guvn’r has managed to alienate almost everybody outside of the Dallas Cowboys owners’ box. Eagles, Giants and Lions fans top the long, long list, followed by George Washington Bridge commuters, Republican conservatives and citizens who believe in civil discourse. At least he isn’t running for anything in the future.
7. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
The New York Democrat has been waiting and waiting and waiting for Majority Leader Harry Reid to depart the Senate, either voluntarily or not. Then the voters messed everything up by putting the Republicans in the majority.
8. Authoritative magazine Rolling Stone
It gathers no moss, but it gathers lots of other smelly stuff as a result of the UVa rape story debacle. Some click-bait web site could do a Rolling Stone “top ten ways to destroy what’s left of your reputation.”
9. An all-Southeast Conference national championship game
We got the mini-playoff that the for-profit college football conferences wanted and then two non-SEC teams ruined it all. Proving that even the most powerful interests can’t always control everything.
10. Penn State professor Tom Corbett
Pennsylvania’s ex-governor could use a job, but it’s not going to be in Happy Valley, where everybody is mad at him for his ham-fisted role in the Joe Paterno affair. Paterno’s friends and family despise the man — and did whatever they could to defeat him. Paterno’s critics marvel at his incompetence. No Ph.D. here.
I’ve been reading the invaluable journalism handbook “The Bloomberg Way” as I prepare to start my new life as a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. One of the many must-remember pieces of advice for journalists (whether seasoned or student) is author Matt Winkler’s suggestion to draw up a “top ten” list of influential people on your beat.
In his chapter on preparation, Winkler instructs the reader to get to know those influential figures on her or his beat.
Since I have covered the U.S. Congress for the past 29 years, I have put together my own list of ten most influential members of the U.S. Senate — as an example for my students and as a discussion topic for my friends in Washington:
1. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
The Kentucky senator has proven time after time that a minority senator able to command 41 votes can have more influence over the Senate’s agenda than the leader of its majority.
2. Arizona Sen. John McCain
President Obama’s favorite frenemy in the Senate is a key player in almost all legislation to emerge from the Senate — even if his maverick ways rankle colleagues.
3. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
The feisty Nevada senator controls the Senate’s calendar but not necessarily the outcome.
4. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer
He’s a liberal Democrat able to build partnerships with conservative Republicans. Effective and relentless.
5. Texas Sen. John Cornyn
The second-ranking Senate Republican, an articulate and telegenic lawmaker, is more likely than McConnell to be the public face of the not-so-loyal opposition.
6. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul
it’s rare for a freshman senator to be one of the chamber’s most influential, but the first-term firebrand (and potential 2016 presidential candidate) is a key figure in both the Tea Party and Libertarian wings of the Republican Party.
7. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin
Like Cornyn, the number two Senate Democrat is a smoother spokesman for his party than the top guy. He’s also a key player on immigration issues.
8. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker
The former Chattanooga mayor has emerged as a pragmatic conservative and a get-it-done legislator in the mold of legendary Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker.
9. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham
He might denounce Barack Obama and meet with the president on different issues on the same day. John McCain’s sidekick is a power in his own right.
10. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz
It is exceptionally rare that a first-year senator ranks in the upper echelon in the upper chamber (Hillary Clinton and Phil Gramm are the exceptions that prove the rule). The hard-line Houston conservative has made his mark with an unceasing assault on the Obama administration and a skillful alliance with conservative opinion leaders.