Day 1 Analysis: Heavily scripted convention tries to make Clinton seem more authentic

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Hillary Clinton has the nomination, but Bernie Sanders had the passion on the first day of the Democratic National Convention.

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.

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Hillary Clinton’s image has been damaged during the 2016 campaign, as seen in HuffPost Pollster graphic.

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:

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 McCarthy

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Presidential campaign bumper sticker: His supporters think Ted Cruz is always right

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.

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Official family portrait

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.

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Conquering hero or dangerous demagogue? (Texas Tribune photo)

“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.”

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Critics speak: Another McCarthy?

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


66 questions about the future of 16 potential 2016 presidential candidates

The midterms are over. As Maurice Sendak wrote so eloquently, “Let the wild rumpus begin.”

The 2016 presidential race could well be a wild thing. More than a dozen White House wannabes have been campaigning across the country this year, ostensibly for local candidates for state and federal offices. Hillary Clinton is tanned, rested and ready, and Jeb Bush is being pressured to undertake a second restoration of the Bush Dynasty. There are future dark horses, wild cards and future comedians’ punchlines who tonight are dreaming big dreams.

So many candidates. So many questions. Here are 66 questions for 16 of the potential contenders.

We won’t know all the answers until November 2016.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz:

  • Is Ted Cruz the Phil Gramm of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Barry Goldwater of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the B-1 Bob Dornan of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Pat Buchanan of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Ronald Reagan (1980 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Ted Cruz the Barack Obama (2008 vintage) of this election cycle?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

  • Is Hillary Clinton the Bill Clinton of this election cycle?
  • Is Hillary Clinton the Hillary Clinton of this election cycle?
  • Is Hillary Clinton the George H.W. Bush of this election cycle?
  • Is Hillary Clinton the Al Gore of this election cycle?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie:

  • Is Chris Christie the Rudy Giuliani of this election cycle?
  • Is Chris Christie the Rick Perry of this election cycle?
  • Is Chris Christie the Pete Wilson of this election cycle?
  • Is Chris Christie the Ronald Reagan of this election cycle?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul:

  • Is Rand Paul the Ron Paul of this election cycle?
  • Is Rand Paul the Barry Goldwater of this election cycle?
  • Is Rand Paul the Bob Taft (1952 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Rand Paul the Warren Harding (1920 vintage) of this election cycle?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry:

  • Is Rick Perry the Rick Perry of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the John McCain (2008 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the Mitt Romney (2012 vintage)of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the Richard Nixon (1968 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Perry the Pat Paulsen of this election cycle?

>Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney:

  • Is Mitt Romney the Mitt Romney of this election cycle?
  • Is Mitt Romney the Adlai Stevenson (1960 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mitt Romney the William Jennings Bryan (1908 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mitt Romney the Dwight Eisenhower of this election cycle?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush:

  • Is Jeb Bush the George W. Bush (2000 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Bill Clinton of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Bill Bradley of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Bill Scranton (1964 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Nelson Rockefeller of this election cycle?
  • Is Jeb Bush the Mario Cuomo of this election cycle?

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum:

  • Is Rick Santorum the Gary Bauer of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Santorum the Alan Keyes of this election cycle?
  • Is Rick Santorum the Harold Stassen of this election cycle?

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

  • Is Elizabeth Warren the Barack Obama of this election cycle?
  • Is Elizabeth Warren the George McGovern of this election cycle?
  • Is Elizabeth Warren the Gene McCarthy of this election cycle?
  • Is Elizabeth Warren the Dennis Kucinich of this election cycle?

>Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley:

  • Is Martin O’Malley the Tom Vilsack of this election cycle?
  • Is Martin O’Malley the Bruce Babbitt of this election cycle?
  • Is Martin O’Malley the Adlai Stevenson of this election cycle?
  • Is Martin O’Malley the Rutherford B. Hayes of this election cycle?

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio:

  • Is Marco Rubio the John F. Kennedy of this election cycle?
  • Is Marco Rubio the Ted Kennedy of this election cycle?
  • Is Marco Rubio the Colin Powell of this election cycle?

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee:

  • Is Mike Huckabee the Mitt Romney (2012 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mike Huckabee the Pat Robertson of this election cycle?
  • Is Mike Huckabee the Bill Clinton (the man from Hope) of this election cycle?
  • Is Mike Huckabee the Huey Long of this election cycle?

>Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker:

  • Is Scott Walker the Mike Dukakis of this election cycle?
  • Is Scott Walker the Phil Crane (1980 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • Is Scott Walker the Phil Gramm of this election cycle?
  • Is Scott Walker the Calvin Coolidge (1924 vintage) of this election cycle?
  • </ul>Dr. Ben Carson:

    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Dr. Spock of this election cycle?
    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Mr. Spock of this election cycle?
    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Herman Cain of this election cycle?
    • Is Dr. Ben Carson the Wendell Willkie of this election cycle?
    • </ul>Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb:

      • Is Jim Webb the Gary Hart of this election cycle?
      • Is Jim Webb the Pat Buchanan of this election cycle?
      • Is Jim Webb the John McCain (2000 vintage) of this election cycle?
      • </ul>Vice President Joe Biden:

        • Is Joe Biden the Alben Barkley (1952 vintage) of this election cycle?
        • Is Joe Biden the John Nance Garner (1940 vintage) of this election cycle?
        • Is Joe Biden the Hubert Humphrey (1968 vintage) of this election cycle?
        • Is Joe Biden the George H.W. Bush (1988 vintage) of this election cycle?