Political Wire Conversations

Political Wire Conversations

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Engaging interviews and discussions of elections and the political issues of the day

Episodes

Neil Newhouse: The ‘Nose-Holder’ Election  

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.

David Wasserman: Can Democrats Put More House Seats In Play?  

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.

What's Going On with the Republican Party?  

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.

Dan Drezner: Foreign Policy for Campaigns is Like an Unexploded Landmine  

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...

Jim Messina: "It Was Always Going to be Close"  

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.

Maureen Dowd: "This is Pure Madness"  

So if this campaign is part psychological drama, part comical farce – a matchup of personalities that would be case studies 1 and 1a for any Psych 101 class… is there anyone better to talk to than Maureen Dowd?

Of course there isn’t. Which is why I was really looking forward to this conversation.

Maureen Dowd, as you know, is the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist. She’s a best selling author, and her latest book – just published – is “The Year of Voting Dangerously: The Derangement of American Politics.”

I can certainly say, based on this conversation, she’s also really funny and extremely thoughtful. She’s kind of seen it all.

Dowd’s covered Trump and Hillary Clinton for more than 20 years. So I asked her whether Trump was always like this – and, if not, what in the world happened? I asked her also about Hillary and why do people think Dowd hates her. She answered it all – usually with a laugh or insightful line.

Robert Costa: Reporting on a 'Wild and Weird' Election  

So I just finished talking with Robert Costa, the Washington Post National Political Reporter and political analyst for NBC and MSNBC.

The call was perfectly timed, as just this morning, a bunch of publications – including the Washington Post and Bob Costa – were taken off the Trump blacklist. So I had a newly freed Bob Costa, ready to talk about Trump and the Republican Party and Congress and more.

And he did. As you likely know, Bob is basically the pre-eminent political reporter on the Republican Party. He used to work at the National Review, and he’s built what must a crazy Rolodex of everyone even tangentially connected to the party. He reports on Democrats, also. But he breaks a lot of news on the Republican side.

We talked a lot about what it’s been like to cover Trump – even with the blacklist – and what his campaign means for the Republican Party. I don’t want to give away the whole conversation, so for now, just two words: Wild and weird.

I really liked the end of the conversation, too. Bob started to talk about how the wildness and weirdness of this campaign was actually making his job of reporting more the way he’d want it to be – less scripted, less corporate. I really got the sense that he’s having fun. That he just loves old-fashioned reporting – calling people, seeing people, asking questions, getting answers (or not getting answers). But true reporting, rather than having every moment manicured and staged.
 
For everything else you can say about Trump – and we know there’s a lot – he certainly is changing a lot of the rules around a lot of institutions. Reporting is just another one. And Bob was really insightful on that and more.

Stuart Stevens: A Neutron Bomb Has Gone Off in the Republican Party  

Where does Stuart Stevens find the time? He is a founding partner of Strategic Partners & Media, the political consulting firm. He’s a Daily Beast contributor. He was the lead political strategist for the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. And he just released his 7th book – this one is a novel – titled “The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear.” It’s an excellent read whose narrative is also weirdly close to the plotlines of our current presidential campaign.

Speaking of the presidential campaign – no surprise – that’s what we spent most of our time talking about. If you’ve spent anytime on his Twitter feed or read his columns: Is there anyone more active, more persistent, more consistent in arguing against Donald Trump than Stuart Stevens.

The conversation also hit on a wide range of ideas – it was really interesting, very funny at times, and, frankly, really serious. This guy is worried. He’s worried about the Republican Party and about the level of civil discourse in our country. He’s worried about what’s next. And don’t misunderstand – he’s hopeful and confident. He has no doubts – not one – about America. But he cannot believe what is happening in the campaign or in the Republican Party.

He was incredibly thoughtful, too, about what makes governing important. This guy has dedicated so much of his life to helping public servants serve. He believes in the cause. So this conversation with a political strategist covered political strategy, of course. But as you’ll hear, Stevens also gives a pretty good civics lesson. And he writes a great new book, as well.

Jim Lehrer: There's Never Been One Like This  

Jim Lehrer, the Dean of debate moderators, as Bernie Shaw once called him, joins us on Political Wire Conversations.

Moderator of 12 U.S. Presidential debates. He’s also a current member of the Board of Directors for the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group that organizes and runs the general election debates – three with Trump and Clinton and one for the Vice Presidential candidates Pence and Kaine, assuming, of course, they all take place.

Maybe Jim hasn’t seen it all, but he surely has seen nearly everything in modern American politics. In fact, that’s what I started with. I really wanted to know: Given everything he’s seen, has he ever seen anything like this campaign. His answer might surprise you.

Of course, we spent most of the time talking about debates – future and past. Is there anyone more qualified to discuss Presidential debates in this country?

By the way, in case you don’t know the rest of what Jim has done: Not only is he the former executive editor and a former news anchor for the PBS NewsHour, but he’s also written more than 20 books – fiction and non-fiction – along with some screenplays and plays. I’m telling you – check out his author page on Amazon. It’s really something.

Oh yeah – one other thing: You may not know, but as a journalist, Jim not only wouldn’t register with any party – he wouldn’t even vote. He said that was a personal choice – he didn’t feel every journalist had to do that, but that’s how he felt. So I asked him – will you vote now? His follow-ups to my question were a lot of fun.

Taegan Goddard: Is This Clinton's Election to Lose?  

The 2016 presidential campaign is shaping up as Hillary Clinton's race to lose -- unless everything we know about politics is wrong.

Clinton is leading Donald Trump in the national polls and most state polls as well. Nearly every forecast at this point show s landslide in the Electoral College. She has put together a better national campaign. She's running way more television ads.

But can she win?

John Dickerson: Have We Really Never Seen a Presidential Election Like This One?  

We’re in the middle of a political campaign that everyone says is unprecedented. There’s never been a candidate like Donald Trump. There’s never been a candidate like Hillary Clinton. There’s never been a campaign like this one. Never more negative. Never more disorganized. Never more off the cuff. Never, never, never.

Well, how truly “never before” is this campaign? Are we really in totally unchartered territory? His history in fact no guide at all? Does context matter?

John Dickerson just might be the perfect person to discuss this with. You know his bio: He’s Moderator of CBS’s Face the Nation. He’s a Slate political columnist. But he also hosts an incredible podcast called Whistlestop, Slate’s podcast about presidential campaign history. And now he has published a new book of the same name: “Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History.” Dickerson goes through “the stories behind the stories of the most memorable moments in American presidential campaign history.” You can order it now at Amazon or your local bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.

What’s great about this conversation – and what’s genius about Dickerson’s podcast and his book – is that we’re constantly told that we’re at this “End of Political History” moment, this time where nothing that’s happened before matters and we can’t possibly make sense of today’s political realities.

Now some of that makes sense to me. I mean, it’s factual: Trump would be the first elected president with no political or military experience. Clinton, of course, is the first woman presidential nominee of a major party. We’ve never had a presidential nominee who tweets like Trump does. The list goes on.

So is there nothing to learn from the past? Is EVERYTHING about this election new ground? Personally, I doubt that, and Dickerson is a perfect person for that discussion.

It’s not just all of his current roles. Dickerson grew up in a house where politics and news were central – his mother, Nancy Dickerson, was TV News’ First Woman Star, as John wrote about in his outstanding memoir about his mother. This guy is an incredible source to help us try to make sense of this most incomprehensible election.

Van Jones: When the Temperature Gets Too Hot  

So as you know, because you can hardly turn on the television without seeing him, Van Jones is a political commentator on CNN. But as you’ll hear, he’s got so much else going on. He is President of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, and you’ll hear about that. As opposed to so many of the people we see and hear on TV and talk radio, this guy is out there getting it done. You may not agree with Van on every issue, but you’ll have to agree there’s substance there.

More biography: Van was President Obama’s green jobs adviser; you’ll hear a little about that. He’s also a Best-selling author. I didn’t even get to ask him at all about his books. There was just too much else to discuss around Trump and race and Hillary and progressives and the state of our nation and the turning point that we face.  

Josh King: An Advance Man’s Look at the 2016 Campaign  

Chris Riback talks to Josh King about his new book, An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide, and the 2016 presidential campaign.

King, a veteran of Bill Clinton's White House, leads readers through an entertaining and illuminating journey through the Hall of Infamy of some of the most catastrophic examples of political theater of the last quarter century.

Charlie Cook: This Has Been the Wildest Year  

If you really want to know how good the Cook Political Report is, you’ll want to listen up – because we’ve got the real thing! Charlie Cook is Editor and Publisher of the eponymous Cook Political Report. He is also a National Journal columnist, and it’s only a slight exaggeration that there is nothing in the political world that Charlie can’t analyze, clarify or explain.

Which is good news, because we’ve got plenty to cover: On the Republican side: Are votes enough? Donald Trump keeps winning them, but do they translate into enough delegates? If not, then what? For Democrats, can Hillary Clinton finally start her victory lap? And assuming she wins the nomination, has she been pulled too far left – How does she translate her message for more centrist general election voters?

Taegan Goddard: The Outcomes Look Bleak for Republicans  

The candidates may be riding the subway in New York. Perhaps they’re thinking about Pennsylvania – Even California. But all political eyes are on Cleveland.

While polls show Donald Trump crushing in the Big Apple, Ted Cruz was the Big Cheese in Wisconsin. Cruz’ double-digit win there significantly increased the chances of a contested Republican Convention. 538’s panel of experts estimates Trump will fall short of the magic 1,237 delegates. As The University of Virginia Center for Politics told the New York Times: “The chances of a contested convention just went up.”

It’s no surprise that the frontrunners say a wide-open, no-holds-barred contested convention would devastate the Republican Party; delegitimize the entire primary process; silence the precious voice of primary voters. It would bring disaster.

But would it? Or instead at this point, might a contested convention be exactly the thing Republicans should hope for?

Taegan Goddard, as we all know, runs Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire. He spends the totality of his waking hours and many of his sleeping ones scouring political news of the day.

Rick Shenkman: What Your Brain Really Thinks About Donald Trump  

Many of us look at this extraordinary, ridiculous, seemingly-unprecedented political season and wonder: How is this possible?

The anger perhaps we understand. The feeling that the system is so corrupted that the only effective approach will be to kick over the table and figure out later how to rebuild it? Even those who don’t agree the problem is that dire can get their heads around the idea.

But fear-mongering, name-calling, locker-room-talk-mimicking as the path the White House? What is going on?

According to historian Rick Shenkman, the answer just may be science. And evolution – or, perhaps more accurately, a lack of evolution and the way our natural instincts are helpful for, say, avoiding sharks in the ocean, but unhelpful when it comes to sharks of the political kind.

Shenkman is the New York Times best selling Author of ”Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.” Shenkman uses science to explain why so many of us are susceptible to politicians’ manipulations – and why so many don’t seem to care. Shenkman is also Editor & Founder of the History News Network.

Mark Blumenthal: What Do Americans Really Think About Politics?  

Chris Riback speaks with pollster Mark Blumenthal on what we know about the 2016 presidential election.

For answers to a Presidential campaign that few predicted and fewer, perhaps, pretend to understand, we often turn to the dark science of polling.

Given the overwhelming amount of data each of us generates each day – from clicks to searches to surveys and more – the people who tell us what we think and feel have taken an important if not outsized role in American society generally and American politics specifically.

Among our big questions:

Is this nasty campaign an accurate reflection of who we are as a country? What do American’s really want in our next leader? And if it does end up to be Clinton vs. Trump, who wins an election where both candidates are disliked in such intense ways by so many?

Complicated issues, which is why Mark Blumenthal is here to help us understand. Mark is Head of Election Polling for SurveyMonkey and runs their NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking poll. He, of course, is the original Mystery Pollster, and was co-founder of Pollster.com and previously served as Senior Polling Editor at The Huffington Post. He has worked for dozens of Democratic candidates running for office at various government levels.

Taegan Goddard: The Party No Longer Decides  

Chris Riback and Taegan Goddard discuss the how Donald Trump's campaign not only broke the Republican party but broke political science.

What in the world is going on?

We are well into a primary season with results few of us expected, headed straight to a general election that even fewer dare to predict. All of us – and certainly both major political parties – are in unchartered territory.

For Democrats, their new location at least appears to be on a pre-existing map. For Republicans, their new map reveals a planet they never knew existed – a place that frequently shows little signs of gravity – and I mean both definitions of the word, with its lack of seriousness alongside a certain amount of weightlessness. This place is a foreign territory – there’s no huge wall to keep us out. It’s a place where the leading candidate and possible nominee is hated by the party establishment, actively running against the Party – and Party ideology – he hopes to represent.

Yet this new planet may be exactly where the future of politics is headed. A place where the direct connection between candidate and voter has changed – and governs – everything.

So how did we get here? More importantly, where are we going?

To kick off our season and help us find answers, there’s no one better than my friend and Political Wire’s namesake, Taegan Goddard.

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore  

With the elections finally behind us, our focus turns the hard work of governing – and the big question of what, if anything, will get done?

With Republicans controlling Congress and a lame duck Democrat who’s surely thinking about his legacy in the White House, what will give? Or are we about to see gridlock so extreme that the last few years will look incredibly productive in comparison?

It won’t take long to find out. With the President’s Executive Order to remake Immigration in America – and with Republican vows to override – the first battle is on. What’s next? Where are we headed? And is it all really just about 2016?

To help us understand: Jim Gilmore, Founder of Growth PAC. Of course, among many other roles, he’s also former Attorney General and Governor of Virginia and former chair of the Republican National Committee…

David King, Harvard Kennedy School  

Midterms 2014 are just around the corner, and for Repubicans it seems the voting can’t come soon enough. State by state, poll by poll, the GOP appears to pick up steam by the day. They can taste Senate control.

Are the appearances true? Might there even be a Republican wave? Which key races – in the Senate and the House – should we make sure to watch?

David King is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He directed the Task Force on Election Administration for the National Commission on Election Reform following the 2000 presidential elections and recently hosted a conversation on the upcoming Midterms…

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