A Mournful Snub?

As soon as the Politico alerts and text messages announcing Antonin Scalia’s death began resounding across Washington D.C. on a frigid Saturday afternoon, the suffocating shroud of politics was quickly lain his death. That isn’t entirely surprising as right and left are lurching further towards ideological purity in an already riotous presidential race, but it is unfortunate to see the ease with which the conversation moves from mourning to politics with barely a cursory pause for remembrance. However, 2016 is a political year in America, and the death of a conservative icon surely isn’t going to change that.

Now to contribute to the trend with a few words on the politicization of Scalia’s funeral…

After the political earthquake that was Scalia’s death, President Obama’s decision to not attend the funeral might be seen as something of an aftershock, at least as far as conservative media is concerned. Once the news broke that Obama would not be in attendance at Scalia’s memorial service, the reaction from conservative media was sharp and swift. The Fox News punditry was quick to express their outrage and Twitter contributed its usual level of indignation and ire to the conversation. A column on Real Clear Politics ripped Obama’s “shameful” decision while conservative blogs circulated rumors that Obama was planning a round of golf during the funeral. Josh Earnest attempted to downplay the decision to the press, but within hours of his appearance even mainstream media outlets were painting a picture of an administration on the defensive.

To be fair to Obama, there may well be sound reasons for his non-attendance. He and Scalia weren’t close friends, and there’s little doubt that their legal and political worldviews were in continual opposition. Additionally, despite the instant politicization of All Things Scalia after his passing, the funeral will surely be a time for the late justice’s family to mourn their loss. The presence of the president, complete with the necessary security entourage, might be a distraction during a solemn event. Obama will also be visiting the Supreme Court the day before the funeral to pay his respects. In short, there may completely sensible and considerate reasons the president is not attending the service.

On top of that, there is no clear precedent for attending the funerals of deceased justices. George W. Bush eulogized William Rehnquist at his funeral, but Bill Clinton only attended two of the five funerals of Supreme Court Justices who died during his administration (although all were retired at the time of their deaths). Dwight Eisenhower was not in attendance at Robert Jackson’s funeral in 1954 (though he sent a cross made of carnations) but did attend the funeral of Chief Justice Fred Vinson the year before.

With no clear precedent, Obama’s decision is hardly the historic snub that conservative blogs have breathlessly written about. And if Obama had indeed decided to attend, it’s certainly not unthinkable, if not likely, that some on the right would regard it as a political stunt. However, without knowing the particular reasons for Obama’s decision, it’s hard not to wonder if this isn’t a misstep by the White House and a missed chance to strike a non-partisan note in a  hyper-partisan year. Respectfully attending the funeral of a departed conservative icon is unlikely to change the tenor of the political battle that will surround Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, but it may have been a nice reminder that such gestures are still possible.

Additionally, the decision to not attend Scalia’s funeral, unfairly or not, brings to mind past events that Obama has missed, with the anti-terrorism march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks standing out as the most noteworthy recent example. Although the justification for these scheduling decisions may be sound (many sources pointed out the Paris march would have been a security nightmare), at times it does seem that the administration is underestimating the symbolic value of these events for many people. Republicans are going to vociferously oppose Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia whether he was at the funeral or not, but showing up with carnations might have been a nice gesture, and given us a brief reprieve from the culture war that Scalia fought so vigorously.

Why is Hillary Running?

It is a frequently preached political mantra that the first thing a candidate has to do is let everyone know why they are running. Bernie Sanders is running for president to reduce income inequality, and Donald Trump is running to cut deals that will “make America great again”. Ted Cruz is running to promote conservative (but not necessarily Republican) values, and Bobby Jindal is running with the desperate hope that someone will notice his feeble attempt at the presidency. But why is Hillary Clinton in the race? Though she has certainly answered this question many times, it’s still hard to settle on a single answer.

For now, the best answer seems to be that Clinton is running to be the champion of working America. Whether voicing her commitment to “make the economy work for everyday Americans” or for “nurses who work the night shift”, she used some variant of the word “work” or “worker” 35 times in her rollout speech. However, as with previous editions of Hillary Clinton, voters may have trouble relating to her identity as a working class defender.

Although Clinton’s record is fairly liberal as a whole, her most recent job was secretary of state, and she spent most of the 2008 campaign selling the idea that she was “tough and experienced.” The most famous moment of her Senate tenure, particularly for Democratic primary voters, was her vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution, and during her eight years there she was known more as a pragmatist than a champion of the working class.  It could be accurately pointed out that this abbreviated narrative of Clinton’s political career leaves out a range of impressive liberal accomplishments. However, as someone who’s been out of public office since 2013 and had limited influence on domestic affairs since her departure from the Senate years ago, the best known moments of her recent political career don’t lend themselves to this picture of her as a fighter for the middle-class.

On top of this, there’s the additional problem of “Clinton Inc.”, the expansive political and financial empire built by the country’s preeminent power couple. Clinton is a former secretary of state, senator, and first lady whose husband served five terms as a governor and two as president. She’s been a nationally known figure for over two decades and, since Bill left the White House, the couple has amassed a considerable fortune, much of it from speaking fees paid by major corporations. The amount of money Hillary Clinton has charged for single speeches (her highest fee was $335,000) is actually slightly more than Bernie Sanders’ entire net worth (estimated at $330,000). Impressive as her political and professional career has been, voters may not easily see a working class hero in a woman who has a personal net worth that exceeds $30 million and can earn the annual salary of 20 fast-food employees with an hour-long speech.

Related to the problems posed by Clinton Inc. is the difficulty in crafting a new identify for someone who has been in the public eye for decades. Millions of voters had their first impression of Hillary Clinton during the 1992 election, and it’s difficult to build a campaign message tailored to the present with someone who’s been a public figure for so long. Despite her tremendous early advantage in the 2008 race, her message of strength and competence was a poor fit in an election defined by Bush fatigue, economic upheaval, and a desire for change that Barack Obama clearly harnessed. However, her lengthy tenure in the spotlight prevented her from making an argument that she was a “change candidate.” Seven years later, with income inequality as a major issue, Clinton’s progressive/populist rhetoric may ring a bit hollow, particularly given her highly lucrative tour of the corporate speaking circuit. Unlike other candidates who are relatively unknown on the national stage, Clinton’s ability to reinvent herself is constrained by the past.

It hasn’t helped matters that Clinton has often played the part of the out-to-touch elitist with her campaign missteps, such as the widely-mocked assertion that her and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House, or her casual comment that she hasn’t driven a car in over 20 years. Although these are relatively minor gaffes in the grand scheme of a presidential campaign, they also send the signal to voters that she may have trouble relating to their concerns. After all, how does someone who’s been chauffeured everywhere since the mid-90s understand the dread of seeing the check engine light come on? Recall George H.W. Bush’s alleged struggles with a supermarket scanner and inability to say how much a gallon of milk cost. While scanners and milk prices may not have been leading issues in the 1992 election, Bush contributed to the perception of him as an out-of-touch patrician, and sharpened the contrast between him and his much younger and more affable opponent.

This isn’t to say that Clinton can’t craft a winning message or build a compelling campaign narrative in the months ahead. If she secures the nomination, she may emerge as the default working-class candidate if the tumultuous GOP primary yields a Republican candidate who follows in the footsteps of plutocratic forbears such as Mitt Romney. However, the endless and exhausting scandal over her email server, minor but persistent political missteps, and the rise of Sanders mean Clinton has to answer the question of why she’s running with something more compelling and authentic than poll-tested platitudes about “helping working families”. Why is Hillary Clinton running? She may know, but voters don’t.

The Cheer of American Life

Although the sunny disposition of Americans relative to residents of other rich countries  is probably related to the religiosity of the U.S. , this chart still made me think of this passage from The Promise of American Life, by Herbert Croly:

“[O]ur American past, compared to that of any European country, has a character all its own. Its peculiarity consists, not merely in its brevity, but in the fact that from the beginning it has been informed by an idea. From the beginning Americans have been anticipating and projecting a better future. From the beginning the Land of Democracy has been figured as the Land of Promise. Thus the American’s loyalty to the national tradition rather affirms than denies the imagine projection of a better future. An America which was not the Land of Promise, which was not informed by a prophetic outlook and a more or less constructive ideal, would not be the America bequeathed to us by our forefathers. In cherishing the Promise of a better national future the American is fulfilling rather than imperiling the substance of the national tradition.”

Chart from the Pew Research Center

Could King v. Burwell Cost Republians the White House?

If the Supreme Court exercises a willful disregard of legislative intent and rules against the government in the case of King v. Burwell, GOP pols will likely be celebrating before every camera they see. Behind closed doors, however, the merriment could be a bit more muted as they grapple with the consequences of the decision. A ruling in favor of the plaintiff would disallow federal health insurance subsidies to residents of the 34 states who lack state run marketplaces. The Urban Institute projects that 9.35 million people will lose health insurance subsidies, and an estimated 87 percent of those losing subsidies will lose their insurance altogether. What may be more ominous for the Republican Party is the fact that 35 percent of those projected to lose subsidies reside in states that were decided by 8 points or less in the 2012 election, and in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina, the percentage of the estimated voting population losing subsidies is greater than the margin of victory between Obama and Romney in 2012.

Consider the table above, which shows margins of victory in the 2012 presidential race and the estimated percentage of voting age adults who could lose subsidies in swing states that do not operate state marketplaces. A small adjustment has been made to account for the fact that roughly six percent of marketplace enrollees are under the age of 18. These numbers could definitely be refined further (i.e. to account for people who have lost voting rights), but this is a blog that averages 1.7 readers a day. Statistical accuracy will improve when I reach 5.

Consider the table above, which shows margins of victory in the 2012 presidential race and the estimated percentage of voting age adults who could lose subsidies in swing states that do not operate state marketplaces. A small adjustment has been made to account for the fact that roughly six percent of marketplace enrollees are under the age of 18. These numbers could definitely be refined further (i.e. to account for people who have lost voting rights), but this is a blog that averages 1.7 readers a day. Statistical accuracy will improve when I reach 5.

Optimistic Republicans may point out that people who lose insurance are not necessarily registered voters or destined to become newly-minted Democrats. They might also shrug their shoulders and say that it was the ostensibly apolitical Supreme Court, not the Republican Party, that ultimately undid Obamacare. They could also highlight the fact that, even in the most affected states, 90-something percent of the population would not be losing subsidies. Furthermore, those that do lose subsidies will be younger, lower-income voters who are, statistically speaking, less likely to vote.

All of these points have some degree of validity, and ultimately the 2016 elections may turn on issues other than a year old Supreme Court decision. However, the low margin for error in many of these states means that a relatively small number of votes could turn the tide. Recall that Florida, a state in which more than a million people would likely lose insurance, was decided by a 0.009 percent margin in 2000 and, in a comparative landslide, by 0.88 percent in 2012. Even with unregistered voters and Republicans amidst those losing coverage, there will still be many voters who are angered and mobilized by the decision. Republicans might have some success in blaming the court for ill effects of the decision, but here they run into problems as well. For starters, repealing the Affordable Care Act has been an integral part of the GOP message for the past three election cycles. Regardless of how the law was undone, they will be associated with its downfall. Also, Republican control of the House, Senate, and most state legislatures and governor’s mansions puts the party in a position to address problems with the law, although it’s obviously unlikely they will move to fix a law they’ve fought so hard to break.

The loss of insurance by millions of people may also increase internal tensions within the GOP. On a state level, enthusiasm for repeal seems to have flagged, as only 7 states filed amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiff in King v. Burwell, compared to 26 states that supported the last major Supreme Court challenge to the ACA. A Republican Congress certainly won’t be throwing a lifeline to the ACA, although pressures will arise to address the millions of people suddenly rejoining the ranks of the uninsured. However, even if the country was graced with a functional Congress, a major health care bill in the near future is a virtual impossibility, particularly with a sub-cloture majority in the Senate, a Democrat in the White House, and a national election looming. Governors and state governments, having less enthusiasm for inaction than Congress, will feel additional pressures to act or establish an insurance marketplace in their state. Any effort to do so, will unleash fierce denunciations from the right and spark intra-party squabbling during the build-up to 2016..

Needless to say, a ruling for the government will render all these political conundrums moot for the time being. Either way, these potential issues hint at an increasingly difficult political landscape surrounding the ACA. National polls have consistently shown the law to be underwater in terms of favorability, but outside a surge in unpopularity after the bungled launch of Healthcare.gov, public attitudes about the ACA have been relatively static. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office recently lowered its cost estimates for the law, and the number of uninsured Americans has declined sharply. Nonetheless, the law is still a major issue for the Republican base and will likely remain so for some time. But for many moderates and independents, the ACA is no longer a primary concern, and polls have consistently shown that, even if it remains unpopular, there is limited enthusiasm for an outright repeal. If the court effectively issues a partial repeal, voters may look to the GOP for solutions it is unable or unwilling to provide. If the court upholds the law, they will soldier on as vocal opponents. However, for a party already being pushed by demographics, ongoing opposition may risk political capital the Republicans cannot spare in a national election.

Bobby Jindal: GOP Ambulance Chaser

In January 2013, with his party still in the midst of an extended post-election wake, Bobby Jindal attempted to establish himself as a voice of reason in the GOP. At the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings, Jindal gave a speech on how the party could “recalibrate the compass of conservatism” and “win the argument” with the electorate. Though the speech wasn’t  high on specifics, Jindal said the party needed to be more forward looking, more appealing to new groups of voters, and, in a headline-grabbing line, had to “stop being the stupid party.” At the time, it seemed like a savvy political move, as Jindal tried to position himself as an outside-the-Beltway truth-teller with ideas on how to reinvigorate a party that has lost five of the last six popular votes in presidential elections. Unfortunately for Jindal, it didn’t work out as planned, and since then he’s had to forage aimlessly on the right-wing of his party for some shred of conservative identity not yet claimed by another candidate. He hasn’t found it yet, but Jindal is still chasing his ambition.

As other candidates have filled out the first and second tier of GOP presidential candidates, Jindal has been eagerly jostling for relevance. His apparent strategy in recent months has been to dive into whatever controversy presents itself and pretend he’s been there the whole time. In January, for example, a well-bleached “terrorism analyst” named Steve Emerson appeared on Fox News to discuss the existence of so-called “no-go zones” in England and France, claiming that there were areas that essentially operated under Sharia law and were outside governmental control. Residents of Birmingham, England, a city that is 22 percent Muslim, were surely surprised to learn that their city was “totally Muslim” and inaccessible to non-Muslims. Unsurprisingly, Emerson’s remarks, lacking any foundation in reality, produced a strong reaction. Prime Minister David Cameron said Emerson was “clearly a complete idiot”, and the city of Paris decided to eventually pursue legal action against Fox.

Not wanting to miss a chance to stir the pot, Jindal went to London nine days later (after Fox apologized for the report) and delivered a speech in which he claimed Europe was riddled with “no-go zones” where Muslims are implementing Sharia law “without regard for the laws of the democratic countries” they live in.  Although it’s doubtful that Jindal, a former Rhodes scholar who studied in Oxford, seriously believes that swaths of Europe are operating under Sharia law, he refused to back down, even when he encountered pushback from Fox News on his claim. Eager to cash in on a GOP scandal that had already passed him by, Jindal stuck to his guns.

Jindal had a similar but even more ridiculous performance after Republican senators penned a controversial letter to the leaders of Iran. Since Jindal is not a member of the Senate, he was obviously not a signatory to the letter (although he did later add his name to it). That didn’t stop him from making the absurd suggestion that the whole idea had originated with him, claiming that it had been “something we’ve been pushing for a while.” Jindal also noted that Tom Cotton had been in the audience at an AEI event where Jindal had allegedly discussed the idea. When asked if he was implying that Cotton had stolen his idea, Jindal magnanimously said there was “no pride of authorship” for the letter he had neither written nor signed, and that he hoped “a lot of people came to the same conclusion at the same time on their own.”

The governor has made predictable lurches to the right on other matters as well. He strongly defended Rudy Giuliani after the former mayor questioned the President’s patriotism and told the audience that Obama “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up.” He is also one of the most vociferous critics of Common Core, despite the fact that he previously supported the law and helped implement it in Louisiana. When questioned about his former support, Jindal claimed that some sort of “bait and switch” had occurred and that Common Core had since become an unconstitutional affront to the 10th Amendment. Needless to say, the growing conservative opposition to Common Core had nothing to do with his sudden evolution.

Even if Jindal’s eager attempts to join every controversy are successful, the governor has deep political problems back home that may well sink his nascent campaign. Although Jindal came in to office with a budget surplus, his state is now facing a $1.6 billion deficit and one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. Although the recession and plummeting oil prices bear some of the blame for the state’s poor economy, Jindals’s fiscal policies have been criticized by members of both parties. The governor has used budget cuts and accounting tricks to gloss over the issue, but a real solution may require the kind of tough choices (meaning revenue increases) that won’t play well in a GOP primary debate.

With the GOP pool of contenders already well stocked, Jindal’s failure to gain any traction isn’t exactly roiling the race. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, he was barely ahead of Lindsey Graham and tied with “Wouldn’t vote.” However, his ineptitude and inability to settle on any particular political identity is likely a disappointment to Republicans who once saw him as a rising star in the party  (although for some donors and insiders that star may have fallen after the Kenneth the Page speech). For the time being, however, Jindal’s sputtering campaign remains mired in Louisiana’s red ink and, in spite of his best efforts, disappointingly uncontroversial.

 

Update on Jindal’s still unnoticed presidential campaign (4/2): Amidst the uproar over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Jindal is once again eagerly chasing after the scandal and casually insisting that he was more or less responsible for the whole thing. From the Washington Post: “An email from top Jindal adviser Timmy Teepell this morning touted the fact that “Governor Jindal will do three radio interviews today to talk about the fight for religious liberty” and noted, “Governor Jindal was one of the first potential 2016 candidates to talk about the fight for religious liberty when he gave a speech at The Reagan Library in February of 2014. A copy of the speech can be found here.”

Scott Walker: A Candidate Outside His Political Habitat

Scott Walker’s ascension to the first tier of Republican presidential candidates was quickly followed by the typical stumbles of a candidate suddenly thrust into the national limelight. After former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani stoked a controversy by questioning the president’s patriotism, Walker joined in by refusing to repudiate the mayor’s comments and later pleading ignorance when asked whether or not Obama is a Christian. While such doubts about Obama’s patriotism and religion are widespread amongst Republicans, the comments drew the ire of pundits and editorialists alike and forced Walker to play defense for a few days. In the marathon that is a presidential campaign, this minor slip-up is unlikely to have a lasting impact, and may even help Walker with GOP primary voters who sympathize with his viewpoints. The whole episode, however, does reveal potentially serious weaknesses with a candidate who is very much outside of his comfort zone.

Proponents of Walker are fond of pointing to his electoral success in Wisconsin, a state that has supported a Democrat in seven consecutive presidential elections, as an indicator of his broad appeal. The reality, however, is that Wisconsin is one of the most politically balkanized states in the country, and Walker’s success has less to do with attracting crossover votes than it does with his ability to motivate conservative voters. His strongest base of support in the state comes from three strongly conservative counties outside Milwaukee that constitutes the red half of an extremely polarized metropolitan area. Seventy-three percent of the voters in these three counties (Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee) voted for Walker in 2014, providing him with a 146,000 vote cushion in an election he won by just under 138,000 votes. On one hand, Walker’s support from these areas demonstrate his ability to turn out the base, which is obviously an asset, particularly in the primaries. On the other hand, these counties are 95 percent white, wealthier than most of the country, and rich in demographic subsets (i.e. gun owners, home owners) that are generally more sympathetic to Republicans. Given the struggles of Mitt Romney, the former governor of a comparatively diverse state, to reach voters beyond the Republican base, it’s hard to see Walker as a candidate who can expand the GOP’s appeal.

The native political habitat of Walker may also hurt his chances in other respects. As someone who’s built a political career speaking to the conservative base, he often has the benefit of communicating through friendly media outlets. The governor has a good relationship with conservative talk radio hosts in the area, namely Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, and often attracted laudatory coverage from national conservative outlets during his battles with the unions and the subsequent recall effort. After watching the governor unnecessarily insert himself into the Giuliani controversy and indignantly chastise the press for asking him about Obama’s religion, it’s fair to wonder whether Walker is ready to handle questions from the national media.

These issues, Walker’s inexperience with reaching out beyond the base and dealing with the national media, will not knock him out of contention in the primary. The primary contests will reflect the Republican base and draw older, whiter, and more conservative voters than the general election. Contentious exchanges with the national media may even help his cause and build his reputation as the uncompromising conservative in the field. Beyond the primary elections though, it seems unlikely Walker will be able to address the problems that have dogged Republicans in the past two election cycles. The exit polls from Walker’s reelection campaign reflect many of struggles the GOP had in 2012, as the governor struggled to win over women, younger voters, minorities, and lower-income households. While he may attract adoration from the Republican base, at this early stage the Walker does not look like the strongest general election challenger for the GOP.

Grimes Falters in Kentucky

It’s hard to think of a midterm fumble more perplexing than Alison Lundergan Grimes’ refusal to answer a simple question about whether or not she voted for Barack Obama. After spending 40 unfortunate seconds refusing to betray her political allegiances to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Grimes evidently huddled with her advisers and decided it was wise to continue this chicanery in the debate this week. When she was once again asked again about her vote, the fading candidate delivered a response full of sanctimonious nonsense, rambling on about how her non-answer was actually a noble defense of constitutional rights, the right to a secret ballot and, of course,  the military.

Grimes is certainly correct that she has a right to keep her vote private, and no one is suggesting that she be hauled down to jail for refusing to answer the question. However, it seems reasonable to presume that the Democratic candidate for a Senate seat should be comfortable disclosing whether or not she supported the current leader of her party. People casting their votes in a few weeks are interested in what Grimes’ believes, and part of that process is finding out what candidates she has supported. Few political leaders in American history have been shy about declaring their support for national tickets, so it’s hard to see how freedom would perish if the Secretary of State of Kentucky did so.

Compounding the ridiculousness of Grimes’ non-answer was her declaration of support for Hilary Clinton’s candidacy. It seems odd that someone so committed to concealing her political leanings would repeatedly discuss her support for one candidate while claiming it was her sacred duty not to discuss her support for another. However, when one considers the relative popularity Clinton and Obama in the state (Clinton defeated Obama by 35 points in Kentucky’s 2008 Democratic primary), it’s hard not to see the political reasons for her evasiveness.

Unfortunately for Grimes, this haphazard attempt to sidestep a difficult question is unlikely to benefit her, and may well eliminate her as a serious contender. Most voters probably assumed she voted for Obama, and few will reward her for simply refusing to admit it. McConnell’s own unpopularity may allow her to maintain her status as a nominal candidate, but Republicans who have long worried about this race likely breathed a sigh of relief after this unforced error.

Obama’s ISIS Detour

In many ways, Obama’s ISIS speech this week was a successful rebuttal to his own cringe-worthy sound bite announcing that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to counteract the group of rampaging extremists. The president outlined his plan of action, unambiguously declared the group a terrorist organization, and articulated his reasons for acting militarily. For the most part the speech sounded strong, decisive, and presidential. Unfortunately, Obama’s remarks pivoted away from ISIS three quarters of the way through the speech. In a rather forced change of topic, Obama announced that we live in a time of great change (who knew?) and described how America has been able to “bounce back.” Here’s a quick recap of the examples he gave:

  • “Our technology companies and universities are unmatched”
  • “Our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving”
  • “Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades’
  • “Our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history”

While these points may be true, they have nothing to do with ISIS. Additionally, every one of these points would be strongly contested by virtually any Republican member of Congress. Perhaps the president wanted to take advantage of the national stage to paint a more favorable picture of the country’s recovery ahead of the midterms, but these assertions, true or not, came at the expense of the speech as a whole. The jobs line is particularly glaring. Although the monthly jobs report has shown the economy adding jobs for every month since Oct 2010, the recovery has been frustratingly slow and tepid in many parts of the country. This statement isn’t untrue, but inserting a positive assessment of a sometimes exasperating economic recovery into a speech about a terrorist organization doesn’t make much sense. More importantly, it detracts from the gravitas of a speech that should be focused on meeting an external threat to the country and its allies.

From a political standpoint, it may have been difficult to pass up a chance to score points on economic issues during a primetime speech. However, Obama’s rhetorical swerve from the topic at hand may have cost him an opportunity for a rare bipartisan moment. Given the fact that the president’s approval rating is a drag on virtually every contested congressional race, this may have been more valuable than a positive paragraph about the economy.

Governing in the Red: The Sinking Fortunes of Sam Brownback

Sam Brownback’s greatest comfort this evening may be the calendar on his desk reminding him that it’s only August. After weeks of bad economic and political news, the formerly-popular governor is trailing his opponent by 10 points and appears to be in the most difficult fight of his political career. As the incumbent Republican in a conservative state, it’s certainly possible that Brownback can recover, but for now he appears increasingly vulnerable, and Kansas has emerged as a surprising pick-up opportunity for the Democrats.

The primary cause of Brownback’s electoral malaise is his economic agenda, which he strongly promoted after winning office in a 31-point landslide. It included a steep reduction in state income taxes, sales tax, and certain small-business taxes. The governor predicted that, in accordance with the prophecies of supply-side economics, these tax savings would immediately be converted to economic growth, as people moved to hire out-of-work Kansans with their tax savings. Unfortunately for Brownback and the people of Kansas, this prediction has yet to come to fruition. Additionally, state tax revenues have fallen sharply this year, and economists are predicting large budget shortfalls in the future. The state may also face higher borrowing costs after both S&P and Moody’s downgraded the state’s bonds. S&P’s explanation for the downgrade didn’t do Brownback any favors, as the ratings agency said the state had “a structurally unbalanced budget” and that there would be “additional budget pressure as income tax cuts scheduled in future years go into effect.”

In addition to the current and future budget shortfalls, the job market in Kansas is hardly roaring. The unemployment rate has been relatively constant since the beginning of the year, and job growth during Brownback’s tenure has been lower than that of most neighboring states. Although the governor is fond of discussing the number of private sector jobs he has created, his job numbers exclude over 8,000 public sector employees who have lost their jobs. Regardless of one’s believes about the proper size of government, an unemployed government worker is still an unemployed worker. Brownback’s narrative of prosperity also benefits somewhat from the fact that his term began in January 2011, just as the economy was beginning to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. When you consider that the baseline for his cherry-picked stats is one of the worst periods in U.S. economic history, the tepid numbers become even less impressive.

Brownback has always been a politician with an ability to adapt himself to the prevailing political currents. When he was elected to the Senate in 1996, he was seen less as a conservative ideologue than as a candidate who identified with Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, the two relatively moderate Kansas Senators who represented the state alongside each other for nearly two decades. During his tenure in the Senate, however, Brownback became a leading voice of the Christian right at a time when the movement was gaining power within the Republican Party. After an easily forgotten presidential bid in 2007, Brownback left the Senate to run for governor of Kansas. Since taking office, he has made more headlines for this staunchly conservative economic agenda than for his moral crusades. Perhaps hoping that he would be able to embody the anti-government zeal that has consumed his party, Brownback has embraced tax-cutting policies that are more radical than those of conservative stars such as Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Paul Ryan, his former legislative director. Brownback’s idea may have been to build his credentials as a champion of limited-government so he could position himself for another long-shot presidential bid or, at the very least, a second term as governor. Unfortunately for him, his polls have sunk steadily along with the state’s revenue projections.

Aside from the implications for statewide government and Brownback’s political future, the situation is Kansas is an interesting case-study in conservative governance. As a popular Senator who had just returned home after a landslide victory, Brownback had a great opportunity to put it ideas into action and has taken advantage of it. He’s cut taxes, assailed the size of government, and enacted policies that even Jim DeMint could approve of. In an era where the Republican Party oscillates between obstruction and inaction, Brownback has actually sought to govern. Now the only problem is the disastrous results.

Warren @NetRoots

Elizabeth Warren’s Netroots speech got off to an interesting start, as she took to the stage to a predictable burst of adoration from the crowd of liberal activists. The political thing to do would be to take in the applause, offer a few thanks, and let the cheers build to a crescendo. Warren seemed to have no patience for the whole spectacle, particularly as the chants imploring her to seek higher office began to build. In a tone more befitting an admonishing college professor than a Senator with a national profile, Warren cut off the crowd, imploring everyone to sit down and, as the crowd settled, said “Let’s get started.”

Though Warren is a Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party who has generated quite a bit of national buzz, she hardly comes off as a politician in her speeches. She has a strong message that obviously resonates with the crowd, but the demeanor is less that of the politician seeking to sell a message than an advocate speaking for a cause. Although the depth of support for Warren’s non-existent presidential bid is generally overstated, her speech at Netroots provides a window into how and why she generates such enthusiasm.

The speech is laced with the values of progressive populism, repeated assertions that the political system is rigged for corporations and special interests, and, most of all, a determination to fight. At one point, she cited the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency she helped set up, as “proof of how democracy can work in the 21st century.” In an age when so much of the political oxygen and outrage is spent on denouncing the government, it sounds strange to hear someone citing an acroynmed regulatory agency as an example of democracy at work. She also touched on issues such as student loans, crumbling roads, climate change, and expanding scientific research.

Warren has expressed no interest in running in 2016 and is unlikely to emerge as the nominee if she does so, but it’s not hard to see why she has such appeal to the liberal base. While there isn’t any shortage of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, she’s also a tremendously wealthy insider who has spent much of the past two decades in Washington. For people who are concerned with income inequality and the increasing power of corporations and billionaires in the wake of Citizens United, Warren may offer a fresher and more appealing perspective. Furthermore, there is an opening for a progressive, populist voice amidst a political discourse that has been dominated for six years by Barack Obama’s slow-pulse liberalism and the anti-government opposition. Warren has the potential, regardless of whether or not she launches a longshot presidential bid, to emerge as a significant national voice.