Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."


Since it’s Super Bowl week, let me tell you my favorite Super Bowl story from back in the day when I covered these things. If you’ve already heard it or any of the others, forgive me. I’ll pass the guac and chips and we can talk about something new, like maybe Cory Gardner and the deflating of windmills.

OK, the story. It’s not the year I went to the Super Bowl Party and was greeted by a gaggle of chanting monks, although that one’s not bad. Or the year where the entertainment included a woman posing with a snake draped around her neck, and I looked around the room hoping that Hunter Thompson was there to see. Or the year of the Miami riots when the NFL couldn’t bring itself to cancel the party even as the city burned because, I don’t know, the rioters would win.

Everyone knows the story of Bears quarterback Jim McMahon mooning the hovering news chopper at practice, which is hard to top. He also urinated in a doorway and ate oysters with a man in a bear suit, but, hey, it was New Orleans. Another year in New Orleans, I went in search of the Meaning of the Game and found myself at Rev. Cicero Zombie’s Voodoo Shop on Bourbon Street and met Priestess Miriam Chamani, who refused to reveal the winner because, she said, “it is unwise to jump between the two life forces” — and who could argue.

In 1978, at the Broncos’ first Super Bowl, the pregame entertainment was dogs in wide collars catching Frisbees. At halftime, they rolled out the Tyler Junior College Marching Band, the Apache Belles and the music group Harmony and Understanding.

Still, my favorite story may be apocryphal, but it should be true, because it’s the perfect Super Bowl story. It’s the night before the game and the coach is meeting with his team. And to show the players just how great the stakes are, he spreads out 96,000 one-dollar bills on a table — one for each dollar a Super Bowl win would bring to each player. And the team goes out the next day and, of course, kicks some Super Bowl butt.

It’s perfect not because professional athletes are any more greedy than the rest of us. It’s perfect because the whole point of the Super Bowl is the unabashed celebration of excess — and that’s just on Media Day.

The other midwinter holidays are supposed to be about something. Lincoln, Washington, MLK. And if you toss in a three-day ALL MERCHANDISE MUST GO!!!! sale, well, you just hope Abe doesn’t mind. But Super Bowl Sunday is about nothing more than jaw-dropping excess. Every number associated with the game is meant to suggest new and absurd levels of unchecked consumption. This may be the age of income inequality, but nearly everyone seems to play along.

The National Chicken Council reveals that we will eat approximately 1.25 billion chicken wings on Sunday. I read in the Sacramento Bee that we’ll eat 120 million pounds of guacamole, which, someone took the time to calculate, equals enough mashed avocado to cover a football field 46 feet deep. Scalped tickets are going for $6,500. A thirty-second commercial costs $4.5 million. I did the math on this one. That’s $150,000 a second, or $600,000 in the time it took me to type this sentence. Ecuador is spending $3.8 million on a tourist ad. Yes, Ecuador. No, I don’t get it either.

This has been a terrible year for the NFL. Former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez is on trial right now for murder. There was the devastating Ray Rice elevator punch and then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s embarrassingly pulled punch. Domestic violence, child abuse, concussions. But none of that will matter Sunday when more than 110 million people are expected to watch the Patriots and the Seahawks.

I don’t know exactly when the Super Bowl became the Super Bowl as we know it today. I’d guess it was around the time when the commercials became more highly anticipated than the game, maybe in the year of the flatulent Budweiser horses. It might have been when Michael Jackson was the halftime entertainment, and the Ultimate Game became the Ultimate Event. I know how it happened, though. It was when the outraged stories about Super Bowl hype became just one more way the NFL shamelessly hyped the game.

It’s hard to remember, but it was not ever thus. Or at least not this much thus. In January of 1978, at the Broncos’ first Super Bowl, the pregame entertainment was dogs in wide collars catching Frisbees. At halftime, they rolled out the Tyler Junior College Marching Band, the Apache Belles and the music group Harmony and Understanding.

This year it’s Katy Perry, and more people will probably watch her than watch the game, and the game will probably set records as the most-watched TV show in history. There’s a story going around that the NFL, which doesn’t pay its halftime entertainment, actually tried to charge Perry for what is basically a 12-minute ad. That’s pretty much a perfect Super Bowl story, too.

And then there’s the story of the pulled GoDaddy Super Bowl commercial. Commercials are leaked these days, of course, so they can appear first on social media or the morning news shows. You can binge-watch them now. GoDaddy, the Website builder which trades in outrageous ads, offered up one about a lost puppy — a send-up of the Budweiser ad — making its way home to its joyful family. And here’s the punchline: The reason the family is excited is that it had set up a Website through GoDaddy and successfully sold the dog. People were outraged because … puppies. And so GoDaddy pulled the ad. Or maybe GoDaddy anticipated the outrage and pulled the ad because it had figured out a way to get two ads for the price of one.

In a neat coincidence, NBC happens to be pitching a piece that will air on its six-hour pregame show in which puppies — yes, puppies — will make Super Bowl predictions. What else? Let’s just hope no animals were harmed by the hype.

[ Photo by C.C. Chapman.]

Littwin: Help wanted in Hillaryland

The unannounced 2016 Democratic Party frontrunner needs a running mate who isn’t at all like Hillary Clinton

hillary sf

If you haven’t heard the news, let me be the one to break it to you: Hillary Clinton is definitely running for president (OK, you knew that), and the two leading contenders to be her running mate are reportedly Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Colorado’s own senator… Michael Bennet.

I’m not making this up. It was right there in Politico, under the byline of Washington insider Mike Allen, who got it from people deep inside Hillaryland, where the talk is that Bennet and Kaine have the inside track. (Others mentioned: Sen. Cory Booker, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, California AG Kamala Harris.)

OK, I don’t believe it either. I have no idea why there would even be speculation about a vice president at this point, except that on the Democratic side, there’s nothing left to speculate about.

Michael Bennet is a sharp, moderate policy junkie. In other words, he’s a lot like Hillary Clinton, who needs someone to run with who’s not like her at all.

Clinton is a lock to win the presidential nomination. Elizabeth Warren apparently isn’t running. Joe Biden isn’t running. Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley might be running. You get the idea. At this stage, Clinton’s primary challenge is, as another Democrat likes to say, to get people fired up. It’s early, but so far, it has been a really slow burn.

All the excitement is on the Republican side, where the list of candidates and would-be candidates and won’t-be candidates and shouldn’t-be candidates is nearly endless and endlessly varied. So the Clintons get a story in Politico — in which they say Hillary plans to be nicer to the press this time — and would-be running mates get leaked as, I guess, a sign of faith. The problem is, did anyone even notice?

If you remember, around this time in the 2012 cycle, the talk was of Joe Biden getting dumped from the ticket and Hillary Clinton taking his place. The basis for that story was that the principals were Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Kaine and Bennet don’t quite measure up.

But there it was. The Politico story lays out the Hillary 2016 game plan, and somehow the plan could put Bennet a heartbeat away. I was kidding with a Bennet staffer about it and asked who was in charge of picking out the drapes. He said he was pretty sure it was blinds.

Funny. But Michael Bennet? Seriously?

I don’t think so.

Bennet is smart, sharp, moderate in his politics, moderate in his affect, an insider, a policy junkie. He can raise enormous amounts of money, which is how he got stuck with the job of keeping Democrats in the Senate majority (let’s just say, it didn’t work out so well). In other words, he’s a lot like Hillary Clinton, who needs someone to run with who’s not like her at all.

I’ve been waiting to write the reasons that any John Hickenlooper speculation for higher office is all wrong. I’ve been dining on it for months, which may explain why I don’t get invited out that often. Hickenlooper gets plenty of national media attention, even as he struggled to hold the governor’s seat against Bob Beauprez, of all people. The Hick shtick works with national media. It works with fellow pols, who elected him head of the National Governors Association. It wears well, and then it doesn’t.

You can see why a Democratic candidate would pick someone from Colorado, a purple state — like Virginia — that Democrats desperately need to keep blue. You can see why Hickenlooper’s name comes up, unless you’ve seen him up close in mid-stumble. But how did Bennet sneak ahead of his old boss?

Here’s the thing about Bennet: He has run in only one election, and he barely won that one, against Ken Buck, of all people. The experts who get paid to judge these things have placed Bennet’s Senate seat as one of the more vulnerable in 2016. I’m guessing he’ll be re-elected — come on, Scott Tipton as senator? — and move up the Senate leadership ladder. He’s got talent. But does he have talent?

You can see, though, why Clinton wanted to make some news. There are two big political stories out there, both from the Republican side. One was the Iowa kickoff in which Rep. Steve “Cantaloupe Calves” King — Iowa’s immigrant-bashing version of Tom Tancredo — hosted a forum for which about a dozen 2016 contenders showed up.

The bigger story took place in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where the Koch Brothers revealed that their network planned to raise $900 million for the 2016 campaign. That’s more than twice as much as they put together in 2012. It’s similar to the kind of money that the campaigns raise. In fact, it makes the Koch Brothers — along with their big-money donors — a party unto themselves.

Cory Gardner was there along with the other new Republican senators to thank the donors for all their help. Marco Rubio was there, too, saying that the big money had no impact on policy. And Ted Cruz was there, saying that Democratic attacks on the Kochs were “grotesque.”

Imagine what Elizabeth Warren would do with that. Now imagine Hillary Clinton. Now you can see the problem, which a moderate senator as running mate just doesn’t solve.

[Photo of Hillary and Hillary taken August 2013 by Steve Rhodes in San Francisco.]


As you know, Sen. Mark Uterus is no longer in the Senate. In losing to Cory Gardner last November, Mark, uh, Udall was mocked for his singleminded single-issueness in running all those TV ads defending women’s reproductive rights, which he insisted were under attack.

You may remember the commercials. If you do, you almost certainly wish you didn’t. Udall was mocked because, it turned out, no one except Udall and some other losing Democrats were talking about abortion and/or birth control. Republicans, if you recall, weren’t saying a word.

And so, what happens? Elections are over. Republicans win. Congress is back in session. And somebody turns off the mute button, meaning that everyone is talking about abortion again.

It may not surprise you to learn that this was all part of the plan, or as Dana Milbank put it in the Washington Post, a bait and switch.

Elections are over. Republicans win. Congress is back in session. Somebody turns off the mute button and everyone’s talking about abortion.

What I mean, and what voters should have foreseen, was that the House would jump-start the 2015 session with something called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. There are exceptions for rape, but only if the woman has reported the rape to the police. And there are exceptions for minors who are victims of incest, but only if the assault had been reported.

In other words, a woman seeking an abortion after 20 weeks would have to bring a note not from her doctor, but from her local cop.

This is not exactly a new twist, but it is one that captured everyone’s attention. We’ve gone from legitimate rape to rape that is rape only when it is reported as rape. Under this bill, which passed the House in 2013 with the exact same wording, women who say they were raped, but didn’t report the assault, are presumed to not be telling the truth.

Does that work for you? No? Well, it didn’t work for many of the Republican women in the House, who got GOP leaders to pull the bill. Some of those women had voted for the bill before, which tells you something. Having majorities in both the House and the Senate means that bills coming out of the House might actually matter and that votes don’t necessarily come free.

Pulling the bill was a major embarrassment, of course. The bill was timed to kick off a Washington anti-abortion march. They held the march, which was to mark the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but the House didn’t provide the expected accompanying music for the latest round in the culture wars, which are playing out again in legislatures across America, including Colorado’s.

And so it seems Udall was right after all. Congressional Republicans couldn’t wait to go after abortion, and they threw in rape just for old times. And maybe you’re saying this was the House, not the Senate, but you may want to note that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already said he would take up the bill once it passed the House (although, we’re told, it would never get past a Senate filibuster). Everyone gets a share of the blame here.

If the bill had passed, newly elected Sen. Cory Gardner would have had to vote on it, but it turns out he was spared. It would have been an early test of Gardner’s ability to play the role of Senate moderate. Instead, the ghost of Todd Akin suddenly appeared on the House floor, and that was that. Actually, it was the living presence of most of the congresswomen in the House who switched off their own mute buttons and told leadership that they must be nuts. Why not just call the bill “The Elect Hillary Clinton Act”?

According to the polls, opposing late-term abortions is a winning political move. Of course, most people have no idea that only 1 percent of abortions come after 20 weeks. But the rape question is an entirely different matter. The strange thing is that the Republicans somehow missed that distinction, which seems to be part of a trend.

It has been a strange few months since the Republicans slammed the Democrats in the midterms. Ever since, Barack Obama has been slamming Republicans in the post-election, pre-2016 campaign. Obama has owned the headlines and gotten a large bump in his approval ratings while Republicans, with their new and improved majorities, can’t seem to get out of their own way.

This is how Charlie Dent — a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania — described the start: “Week one, we had a speaker election that didn’t go the way that a lot of us wanted it to. Week two, we were debating deporting children, and again, not a conversation a lot of us wanted to have then. And week three, we’re now debating rape and abortion — again, an issue that most of us didn’t campaign on or really wanted to engage on at this time. And I just can’t wait for week four.”

Anticipation is obviously running high. It may be the one area where Republicans and Democrats actually agree.


You can forget nearly every detail you heard in Barack Obama’s seventh State of the Union speech. The speech wasn’t actually about policy. Obama knows, just as you know, just as everyone knows, that his policy prescriptions are going nowhere.

As you may have heard, there’s a new Congress in town, not to mention the same old reality, only worse.

And so, the real takeaway from the speech was not new taxes on the very wealthy or free community college for all. It was about Obama’s boldly confident contention that the latest reality in Washington is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

I’d say the speech was meant to convey at least two things:

This was a six-years-in-victory-lap Obama saying that, if you believe income inequality is a real issue, then come up with a plan. This was the 5-percent-economic-growth Obama reminding everyone that Republicans said his plans would wreck the economy.

One, Obama isn’t much impressed by the new Republican majorities, which will only ensure the same kind of gridlock we’ve seen the last four years.

Two, he took a gamble in going big on a series of executive orders, and he seems to be winning those bets. If you combine those bets with strong evidence that the economy is finally moving, he can say — as he did — that a page has been turned, that we’re not in crisis mode anymore, that it’s time to address concerns for middle-class voters, and, if we don’t — and, of course, we won’t — 2014 wasn’t the last election.

Yes, it was only last November that Democrats lost the Senate and saw the Republican majority grow in the House. Not only that, these majorities were constructed by linking every Democratic candidate (see: Udall, Mark) as closely as possible to Obama. This was Obama’s loss, a staggering loss, and yet.

This wasn’t your post-2010-shellacking Obama delivering this speech. This was your 5-percent-growth Obama. This was your 50-percent-approval-rating Obama. This was your challenge-to-Republicans Obama that, if you think income inequality is the real issue, come up with a plan. This was a six-years-in-victory-lap Obama in which he reminded everyone that Republicans had insisted his plans would wreck the economy.

The reality is that, as of now anyway, the 2016 election is likely to center on stagnating middle class pay and the minimum wage and immigration reform. Whether or not Democrats win on those issues is far from certain, but it is inarguable that those are the issues Democrats would love to run on.

The speech was a reminder that, against all expectations, Obama has won the post-election campaign — as Republican watched in some despair — and that if Obama isn’t getting much past Congress, then Congress isn’t getting much past him either. When Obama ended his speech with yet another plea for Washington comity, it was only after laying out a mostly liberal agenda meant to get Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats to their feet. Hillary Clinton tweeted her approval.

You had only to look at John Boehner’s face — a study in still life — to see that Obama wasn’t getting anywhere with him. Of course, the truth is that Obama wasn’t trying. If there are any compromises this year, they will likely be on the margins. Maybe Obama’s willingness to talk on trade will lead to talk on infrastructure. He made the obvious point that if Keystone is so great for jobs, why wouldn’t repairing bridges be even better? But there will be no major agreements, not with 2016 clearly in sight.

And what people will remember from the well-crafted speech is an ad-lib, which you’ve probably heard repeatedly by now. Obama was saying, “I’ve run my last campaign” and drew mock applause from some Republicans, to which Obama said, “I know, because I won both of them.” This was Obama in trash-talk mode, and, whatever else it did, it won’t bring anyone together.

It was a night for theatre, and, for Obama, it was a successful one-man show. What I mean is, when was the last State of the Union in which you saw a president wink? But the speech was also notable for what it didn’t emphasize. There was hardly any discussion of foreign policy. There was brief mention of Paris. There was brief mention of Syria and Iraq. Obama made a quick link of Ferguson to Selma, but he wasn’t about to make the night about race.

There’s no secret here. It’s hard to turn the page on crises when there are always new ones waiting. But for the first time in Obama’s presidency, he had a success story to tell on the economy, and that’s where he wanted the story to begin and end. He said it was time to get past the idea that America is failing and, more than that, to get past the idea that there is little Washington can do to make things better.

When Mitt Romney is gearing up a new campaign by talking about income inequality (which he described in his 2012 campaign as being about “envy” and “class warfare”), you know the political calculus has changed. Obama’s speech was an argument that after the disastrous midterms, this change — the old Obama standby — was finally moving in his direction.

The question today isn’t whether or not he’s right — we have two years to argue that — but how, in just two months, he even got to make the case.

fiscal thicket

I was on the edge of my seat for 40 minutes, which, let me tell you, is a long time to be on the edge of anything.

The governor was giving his state of the state speech (the state of the state, by the way, is apparently “strong”), and the speech felt — I’ll try to be fair here — long. But I knew there would be a payoff, because, well, 40 minutes.

So, there were shoutouts to the Broncos, to wall-climbers, to France, to bipartisanship, to smart water sprinklers, to a woman who found a job.

There was an extended riff on Colorado’s considerable economic growth.

There were introductions. There was applause. There was bipartisanship (bipartisan felony DUI, bipartisan school-test reductions). There were Hick’s endearing word stumbles. There was Hick’s puzzling contention that his fracking committee was making progress.

And, finally, there was the payoff — in which John Hickenlooper warned of our stumbling into a “fiscal thicket,” which would, if unattended, turn into a “crisis,” which was entirely “avoidable” if only …

If only …

If only …

If only … and nothing.

I’m serious. Hickenlooper didn’t say. He didn’t even hint at a solution. What he did say — as we face the thicket/crisis — was that we need to ask ourselves this: “What will be of maximum benefit for all Coloradans?”

I was game. I asked myself and everyone I saw, What will be of maximum benefit to all Coloradans? And each time I heard nothing, not even crickets. Like me, I guess, they were waiting for the governor.

As you might have heard, though, we’re in a mess. It’s a Taxpayer Bill of Rights- or TABOR-born mess, of course, in which the economy has grown so rapidly that the budget has run into population-and-inflation TABOR caps, meaning (according to TABOR calculations) there will be surplus tax revenues, meaning there will be tax refunds.

The recession put us years behind on basic infrastructure, basic education and a lot of other basic stuff, and now, in the good times, we won’t have the ability to catch up. Ask yourself, Is that the maximum benefit for anyone?

Hickenlooper did set the stage in his speech, using some stark language.

“Under TABOR,” he said, “rebates are required even as we see legitimate needs all over the state going unmet. Amendment 23 demands more new money than we can possibly expect to have two years from now.

“If we do nothing, if we pretend the future will take care of itself, and we’re back here in two years facing what was clearly an avoidable crisis, history will show that we failed future generations of Coloradans.”

He has made the point before. In his inaugural address just two days earlier, he had said, “Our state constitution mandates that we increase our expenditures and simultaneously cut taxes. If that does not sound like it makes much sense, that’s because it doesn’t. Nothing can grow and shrink at the same time.”

If it sounds like Alice down the rabbit hole, that’s because it is. The economy is booming. The budget is collapsing. Do you wonder why no other state has adopted TABOR?

And if you wonder why Hickenlooper didn’t offer any remedies for the thicket/crisis, it’s because the possible remedies are a tough sell.

Hickenlooper could ask the voters to turn down their refunds. Well, he could. He won’t because it’s a sure loser. You may recall Amendment 66 — the funding amendment for which Hickenlooper did not jump out of a plane. Voters were asked to raise their taxes in order for the state to spend more on K-12 education. The voters said no by a 2-to-1 margin.

Another option is for the legislature to provide a fix. For example, we have something in Colorado called the hospital provider fee, which is collected from hospitals to cover uninsured patients and for the state to qualify for matching federal Medicaid funds. When the state transfers the money to the general fund, the money would push the budget up against TABOR limits, and the excess money would have to be refunded. Or something like that. (If I have it wrong, don’t blame me. Blame Doug Bruce.)

But the legislature apparently could vote to change the funding mechanism and remove the money from TABOR limits, meaning no refunds. Well, it could, if the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House agreed and the inevitable court challenge failed and Hickenlooper once again laid claim to the bipartisan center.

There’s hope in the governor’s camp that newly installed Senate President Bill Cadman will see the need for a fix. Of course, Cadman might see only the need for a refund, which is the default Republican position. And if the refunds begin, don’t expect them to stop.

Former Gov. Roy Romer has called for Hickenlooper to “lead a movement” to get rid of TABOR. But Hickenlooper — who says he supports much of TABOR, particularly the notion that voters must approve tax hikes — settled instead for simply pointing out the thicket. The question I’m asking myself, Can the governor negotiate a way out?

[ Thicket photo by Bill Branzen.]