Political Wire Conversations








May 2017
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I just finished talking with Sidney Blumenthal, and I know, depending on which cable network you prefer, he’s someone you already likely either love or hate.

But I’m telling you, regardless of where you fall, you’re really going to like this conversation.

We spoke because Sidney has a new book, and it’s excellent – It’s “Wrestling With His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. II, 1849-1856.” He has two more volumes to go, and wait until you hear about his process. It was not what I thought it would be.

The book isn’t just a fascinating look back at our President to be living in one of the most compelling, dangerous times in our history The book also is incredibly, almost scarily, relevant today. A divided country. Intense fights over “popular sovereignty,” also known as states’ rights. Incredibly charged personalities – some of the most influential and divisive we’ve seen – people like Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglas, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster.

And then there is Lincoln himself. Blumenthal describes this as Lincoln’s time in the wilderness, where he reads and thinks and, yes, follows politics intensely. This is the time when the coming American icon develops an extraordinary level of self-discipline. You can hardly hear that description of a future U.S. President without thinking about today.

And as for Trump… yes, we talked about him, too. And about Hillary Clinton. And confidential information.

I came away from this book and conversation with an overwhelming thought. One for which we should not need reminding, but in case we do, here it is: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

As for Sidney Blumenthal’s biography. He’s been on the political scene for so long, that you might not know the details. He is or has been:

• Assistant & Senior Advisor to the President Bill Clinton
• Senior Advisor to Hillary Clinton
• Writer, journalist, editor at Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic
• Author of 11 books
• Executive producer of Academy Award and Emmy award winning Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary that explored the American military's use of torture by focusing on the unsolved murder of an Afhgani taxi driver.

But we started the conversation by talking about his book. Let’s get to it:


Direct download: PWC20Sidney20Blumnenthal.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:14pm EDT

Today Tom Walker is going to set you straight on politics, liberalism, free speech, and more.

Who’s Tom Walker? You might know him better as Jonathan Pie, the liberal British “newscaster” – and that’s in quotes – who keeps getting surreptitiously filmed talking off-camera to his producer Tim, who’s back at the studio.
Here’s the YouTube video he posted 2 days after the Trump election. By Walker’s count it’s been shown in various formats more than 100MM times. A quick warning: This Jonathan Pie loves to curse:


As you clearly can tell from that clip, Walker is a classically trained actor whose sights were always set on Shakespeare rather than political satire. Truly.
Here’s the backstory: For years, Walker was a struggling actor right out of central casting. He waited tables. Worked odd jobs. Took the acting roles he could. Then about two years ago, it happened. A character, a fast-talking, foul-mouthed, frequently-frustrated newscaster named Jonathan Pie was born.

Pie – or Tom – takes on the right and the left, but generally the left. He comes at them as one of their own, as you’ll hear in our conversation. Pie – or Tom – is disappointed and angry at the hypocrisies he sees – such as, liberals who should fully support free speech, but instead try to shut down so-called offensive ideas and look to safe spaces for shelter.
For example, here was Pie on university students and the censoring of free speech:


So what makes Jonathan Pie work? We’re clearly in a new age of political satire. From Pie to John Oliver to Samantha Bee and beyond, this generation combines research, insight and cutting humor with the Internet and digital distribution to build huge audiences while revealing social ills and political truths.

It’s really good work, and really popular. Walker’s audiences are growing exponentially, and he just finished a big UK tour with a show at the Palladium. You can check it all out at jonathanpie.com or follow him on Twitter @jonathanpienews.

I caught up with Tom the other day as he was about to check out of his Los Angeles hotel room – his first trip to the states. You’re really going to like this conversation – a wonderful journey by a previously non-political actor from the English countryside who’s become the one thing he never imagined: One of the top political satirists around. 


Direct download: PWC20Tom20Walker.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:04pm EDT

What went on – and is going on – with Russia and the U.S., or more specifically, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump?

DNC hacking; the President’s continually positive characterizations of Putin; former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; new questions around Attorney General Jeff Sessions – and calls for him to recuse himself from any investigations… the list goes on.

And while the facts continue to trickle out, the overall context becomes increasingly relevant – including Russia’s apparent goals to create chaos in various democracies around the world. And few people in the world are better positioned to analyze the context than Garry Kasparov.

Most of us know Kasparov, with Bobby Fischer of course – as the most famous, most significant person in chess history. Indeed, Kasparov broke Fischer’s rating record in 1990. Kasparov retired from chess in 2005 and moved into a new and certainly more dangerous arena – Russian politics.

He ran for president of his home country in 2008, and later was named chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, succeeding Vaclav Havel, a role he continues to hold.

Kasparov writes and speaks frequently on Russia, its internal dealings, and its relations with the West and indeed the rest of the world.

I don’t want to give away the heart of the conversation, because I think you’ll find it most powerful hearing Garry himself. But one of the most surprising insights: Kasparov’s explanation of why President Trump is good for democracy.

It was a fascinating, thoughtful discussion, exactly what one might expect from a chess grandmaster. I think you’ll like it.

Direct download: PWC20Garry20Kasparov203_320revised.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:34am EDT

It feels like every day we reach a new point of “well, this has never happened before” in American politics.

And I’m not just talking about the Tweets. Ok, the tweets are something. Incredible, really. We can and will have a conversation on when to ignore and when to react to them.

But let’s get past the Tweetstorms for a moment. I’m talking about actual questions about democracy and the Constitution and even America itself. Questions that take more than 140 characters to answer. Like this one:

Is the President above the law?

Ok, I guess that doesn’t take 140 characters to answer. It should only take two characters – three if you count the period.

Truly, this question had never previously occurred to me. Most of us thought it was asked and answered, initially in the Constitution, and subsequently through 240 years of democracy.

But in a time where things have never happened before, even that simple belief has come into question, most recently during that unbelievable first post-election press conference when Donald Trump said: “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.”

Could that possibly be true? In America? Could the President truly be above the law?

Say what you will about the Trump election – and regardless of where you sit, there’s plenty to say – if nothing else, he’s generated a national discussion on government ethics unlike anything we’ve seen in decades. Somehow it seems, we’ve all been transported back to high school civics class.

And if it’s a class on government we’ve been taking, there’s no doubt that one of the lead professors – indeed, one of our country’s leading experts – is Ambassador Norm Eisen.

Ambassador Eisen is a bit like the Emoluments clause – many of us were not aware of him a few months ago, and now we wonder why we haven’t been following him for years.

Indeed, if you turn on the television or read any of our leading newspapers or journals or, yes, go on Twitter lately, you can’t miss Ambassador Eisen or his sometime partner Richard Painter. Eisen and Painter have become the bi-partisan truth squad of government ethics – a human Google search providing not only facts, but also analysis, interpretation, and precedent.

Now, as I discuss with Ambassador Eisen, even with the laws and clauses we have, there is plenty of gray area. He gets into that. But if you want to understand what issues President Trump could find himself addressing – and what that might mean for our politics, policy, and even democracy – you’re really going to like this conversation.

Some background: Eisen is a Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Previously, Eisen worked in the Office of the White House Counsel under President Obama. He was Special Assistant to the President and Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform.

Importantly, and particularly timely for where we are today: Eisen worked on the Obama-Biden Transition Project in the Office of the President-Elect. In this role, according to his bio, he “provided ethics training for President-Elect, Vice-President Elect, their spouses and other senior officials, as well as all members of transition teams. [He] also trained and vetted Cabinet members and other nominees and appointees, and assisted with administration’s policy development process regarding ethics, transparency and reform issues, translating campaign promises into action.”

Sounds pretty relevant, doesn’t it?

Ambassador Eisen is also Co-Founder and Chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

But perhaps his most important title: He’s an optimist. This really comes across in what he says and how he says it. We talked about that, too.

Ambassador Eisen brings energy and humor and personality to an area that cynics may previously have called an oxymoron and even non-cynics may have thought was not particularly urgent.

That’s all changed, of course. Here’s my conversation with Ambassador Eisen.

Direct download: PWC20Norm20Eisen20good20ending.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:35pm EDT

The Electoral College has voted. The next cabinet is essentially filled. And with the holiday season here, and our focus is turning to the little things like peace on earth and good will towards men.

And yet, even with the time passing, even with the new challenges – Russia hacking our democracy, Congress promising to hack healthcare, Navy drones in the South China Sea – nearly every Democrat I talk with still has the same singular question: What happened?

We know all the theories: The Democrats forgot to reinforce their blue wall. Fake news and foreign hacking combined to rig the system. Angry white males. The email server.

Celinda Lake has another theory: It’s the economy, stupid. And Democrats forgot about that.

Celinda is one of the one of the Democratic Party's leading political strategists – a senior advisor to the national party committees, dozens of Democratic incumbents, and challengers at all levels

Celinda also has shown that she can work across party lines. She’s author of What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live. Her co-author back in 2005? Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

I asked Celinda about Kellyanne Conway. I asked her about what she sees in her polls and hears from Democrats since the election.

I, too, have been curious about this question of what happened. Not so much from a political horse race point of view. And not so much from the question of Russian hacking. Yes, I’m hugely offended by that. It was an attack on our democracy. But here’s what’s really been on my mind:

·      How do we sustain as a country with our massive geographic split – the two coasts vs. the Heartland?

·      How do we fight a sense of disenfranchisement when the popular vote runs so counter to the Electoral vote?

·      What about the disenfranchisement that clearly existed before – why did we not hear that stronger? Say what you want about him, but Trump definitely did.

I asked Celinda about all of this. I really enjoyed the conversation. I’m intent on using these podcasts to have meaningful conversations about where we are and where we are going next. There’s intense debate even within each party over what’s the best next step:

For Republicans, every day now is Christmas. Apparently, Santa really does exist, and he delivered on November 8. Now, some Republicans wonder, did we get what we bargained for? How do we act when so many of Trumps policies run counter to Conservative principles over the last decades.

For Democrats, they’re repeating the old Admiral Stockdale question: Who are we and what do we stand for? Should they find common ground where they can – or should they obstruct and block, essentially treat Trump they way Obama was treated?

And for people who just want to see the country move forward… well, where can they find inspiration?

I aim to find thoughtful responses to these questions. I started with Celinda Lake, and here’s what she said…

Direct download: PWC20Celinda20Lake.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:51pm EDT

We’re down to the numbers game, folks. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll still have the name calling, threats, promises, rallies, commercials and more – I didn’t say the campaign is over – but all focus now turns to a single number: 270.

What’s the best path for both candidates to get there? And what’s it like inside the campaigns in the final days.

Few would know better than Neil Newhouse; because he’s been there. Neil was lead pollster four years ago for Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign. He is partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, which the New York Times once described as the country’s “leading Republican polling company.” Neil himself is 3-Time winner of “Pollster of the Year” by the American Association of Political Consultants. He has seen and done a lot.

And yet, as you might imagine, he’s never seen anything like this campaign. I know it’s naïve, but I keep getting amazed at how many political professionals I talk with who’ve been doing this for years – dozens of campaigns and so many Presidential elections – and yet to a person, they’ve never seen anything like this one.

Neil didn’t hold back. He outlines the path to 270 for each candidate – which states must they win. Which ones we should watch on Tuesday.

But he also calls this the Nose-Holder election. Trump and Clinton have some of the highest unfavorable ratings of any candidates in history. Among his really interesting points: Most of the time, you want your candidate in the news – you want the headlines. This go round, the only time Trump or Clinton gets attention is when something negative is happening. No news really might be good news in this campaign.

The other thing he says we should watch for? Enthusiasm. Turnout will be key in a vote where supporters aren’t so much enthusiastic for their candidate as they are disgusted with the other.

We talked as well about what’s next – no matter who wins, what will the political, social, and economic divides in our country look like. There’s no sugar-coating: While Neil sees a way out, he shares the view of so many others that we likely have dark days ahead – for the Republican and Democratic parties, and even for the country.

What I liked most about this conversation: Neil has given much – maybe all – of his professional life to politics and governing. This guy cares, and that comes through loud and clear in his ideas and his tone. Whichever side you’re on, I think you’ll appreciate his concern, and I think you’ll really like this conversation.

Direct download: PWC20Neil20Newhouse.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:05pm EDT

It’s so hard to talk politics and not have the whole conversation be about Donald Trump. And with all of the coverage – even ours – seemingly centered on the Presidential race, it might be hard to remember that there’s another branch of government where the November 8 vote matters as well.

We didn’t forget, though. So today, let’s talk about the House.

You know the basics – the Republicans control it. And most people think Democrats would have to run a clean sweep of the so-called contested races to take back control. It seems unlikely. But what about this election season has been likely? Exactly.

Among the key issues: If the Presidential race becomes seen as a blowout, will Republicans stay away from the voting booth on Nov. 8, depressing turnout and votes for the House races?

Even if Republicans keep control of the House, what will that control look like? Will moderate Republicans fall in November, setting up a 115th Congress where sitting Republicans are dominated by the so-called Freedom Caucus?

And what about Paul Ryan? What kind of juice does he have left? Will Nov. 8 be a referendum on his leadership?

We knew the right person to ask about all of this. The hard part is tracking David Wasserman down.

What’s life like for someone covering 435 House races? Well, let’s just say you better like airplanes.

We caught up with David on a cell phone in Palm Springs, California. He just arrived from Washington, DC, and was to be on the ground for only a few hours before leaving for Chicago then Alabama then New York followed by who knows where? Apologies that the sound quality is our best, but at least David wasn’t literally running to a plane when we got him.

In case you don’t know, David is U.S. House editor of ‪Cook Political Report and a contributing writer at 538. Few know more about the House – and each of the 435 districts – than David. Seriously, don’t sit at a bar with David and try to get into a contest throwing darts at a U.S. map and trying to name that district’s U.S. representatives. I promise you’ll lose.

But we won – we got David, and if you only listen to one podcast on the House races, I think you’ll want it to be with David.

Direct download: PWC_David_Wasserman.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:52pm EDT

I wanted to step away from the daily politics today and take a bit of a longer view, because maybe you’re wondering the same thing I am: What’s going on with the Republican Party?

Everywhere you turn there’s another layer of erosion, whether from politicians  or party elders or longtime political donors.

Regardless of who wins the Presidency, something big has changed within the Republican Party. And I don’t care which party you belong to, if either of them looks like it’s disintegrating before our eyes, that means definitionally that our political system – the one that’s done us pretty well over the last 200 years – is changing.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying change is bad or that it hasn’t happened before. And I’m definitely not saying it’s not needed. But change is underway, and for anyone the least bit curious, the question becomes: What’s next?

That’s what I wanted to learn in this conversation: Where is the Republican Party today and what’s next? We pulled together two great guests to help us think about it.

Matt Lewis is a senior contributor at The Daily Caller, a CNN political commentator, and author of  Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (And How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots). Matt also serves as a contributing editor for The Week and as a weekly columnist for Roll Call.

Taegan Goddard, as we know, is founder and publisher of Political Wire. I’d tell you that Taegan thinks and writes about politics continually – even in his spare time – but I happen to know he has no spare time. So let’s leave it at continually.
It was a really thoughtful conversation with these two who come at the question from different perspectives. And I hate to disappoint any of you who are addicted to the cable TV shows, but there’s no yelling or screaming in this podcast. There’s not even any name-calling. … maybe this conversation wasn’t as good as I thought it was.

Well, you’ll have to judge.

Direct download: PWC20Lewis20and20Goddard2010_16.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:01pm EDT

I just finished talking with Dan Drezner, Professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Stay with me now… because Drezner is most definitely not your parents’ poli sci professor.  

For one, you’ve got to follow him on Twitter. He’s funny, topical, and as likely to tweet a goofy video as he is to include a scatter-plot graph. He’s also not above using a curse word every now and then.

He also seems, on Twitter, like a guy you’d want to hang out with. For example, when he tweeted before the debate: “I'm stocked up on the necessary provisions for #debatenight. Are you,” the accompanying image wasn’t old Theodore White books on The Making of the President, but instead was a photo with bottles of rum, scotch, vodka, and ibuprofen. And the scotch was Blue Label.

Like I said, definitely a new age professor – and we talked about that. In fact, it turns out that in addition to foreign policy and international security agreements and global trade, Drezner thinks a lot about how technology lets him and others like him become an important and growing part of every day political discussion. And if you listen to his analysis, you’ll understand immediately why Dan’s become a big player.

But if you want to keep up with him, you better move quickly. In addition to teaching and tweeting seemingly non-stop, Dan’s a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s “PostEverything” blog. He’s also written 5 books, and is at work on number 6.

He’s got a lot to say. Much of it’s really funny. All is incredibly insightful. I think you’re going to like this conversation...

Direct download: PWC_Dan_Drezner.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:15am EDT

So I just finished talking with Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s winning 2012 campaign manager.

Boy this guy knows politics. He knows the numbers. He knows the states. He knows the strategies. He knows the personalities. And he offers this great mix of numbers and narrative – he’s a walking master class. The data doesn’t matter without the story, and if you’ve got a campaign message but no numbers to get to 270 votes, well that doesn’t matter much either.

For background in case you don’t know, before the 2012 Obama for America campaign, Jim served as Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Before that he worked on Capitol Hill. He almost literally grew up running campaigns, from his home state Montana to Alaska, New York, and more. Today, the Messina Group helps run campaigns around the world.

Anyhow, we had a great discussion on the changing demographics in America and of American voters – and how that should be helping Hillary Clinton and Democrats. I asked him to help me understand why, despite that, the race is still so close and Trump has such good numbers in some key swing states.

Jim’s got excellent analysis on that and more… Also, he comes across as he also comes across as a really nice guy.

Now, I’ve got to warn you – Jim’s a bit quiet in this conversation and the connection isn’t the greatest. He was calling from an airport lounge, and I think he just really didn’t want to disrupt the people around him. That’ll teach me to talk with nice guys. Also, the cell service – I know this is shocking – but the cell service wasn’t the best.

However -- when you’ve got the campaign manager of Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign on the line and he’s giving you color and insights into that election and the current one and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and demographics and his technology conversations with Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt and Steven Speilberg… well, you forgive a couple of “Can you hear me now” moments.

Direct download: PWC_Jim_Messina.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:53am EDT