Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

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


It’s no mystery why Republicans keep losing the women’s vote in Colorado (personhood/abortion/birth control). But if you’re even slightly confused, come with me for a trip into the magical world of Karl Rove via his Crossroads GPS way-way-back machine.

The setting for Rove’s latest campaign ad is a suburban kitchen, presumably somewhere in Jefferson County, because all Colorado elections are decided in kitchens somewhere in Jefferson County.

We zoom in on a coffee cup and then, strangely, on a woman’s, uh, profile — possibly to signal the viewer that this campaign ad is about women drinking coffee. And as the camera pulls back, it reveals four such women standing around one of those granite-top kitchen island things, doing what Jefferson County women presumably do — stand around and complain about Mark Udall’s Senate campaign’s insistence on talking about, you know, female stuff (personhood/abortion/birth control) instead of the real issues, which we’ll get to in a minute.

These are actors, you quickly realize. There are at least two giveaways.

In this kitchen, there’s one issue. It’s Keystone and Keystone only. I guess Karl Rove doesn’t know that if you hear people talking about Keystone in Colorado, they’re probably discussing next season’s ski package, not a proposed pipeline that would come nowhere near the state.

One, real people don’t actually talk this way. Here’s a sample piece of caffeinated conversation in Rove’s world o’ kitchens: “Unfortunately, after 15 years in Washington, political scare tactics are all Mark Udall has left.”

“Political scare tactics” are, of course, words that have never been said consecutively in anyone’s kitchen, but they are a handy euphemism for personhood/abortion/birth control, which is all Udall talks about because, well, you know. Not surprisingly, personhood/abortion/birth control are words the Karl Rove stand-ins never utter.

And two, as the 30 seconds slip agonizingly by, you realize something else: that maybe too much caffeine is involved. These women are, well, miffed. No, they’re more than that. They’re angry. And it’s not just your everyday stressed-out anger at the world, it’s more like they are auditioning for a guest spot on Hannity.

If there’s anything you know about affable Mark Udall, the mountain-climbing senator, it’s that, whatever else, no one is mad at the guy. Except, I guess, Karl Rove, who imagines that Jefferson County women are — dare I, a reconstructed male, use the word in 21st century America? — this annoyingly, umm, shrill.

It’s not me who’s saying it (really, it’s not). It’s Karl Rove, who is betting Crossroad GPS millions that these are the kind of women that Jefferson County’s female voting population — or any other population — could relate to or even recognize.

This is less a coffee klatch than it is a desperate cry for an anger-management class. And what are the Jeffco Four so mad about? It’s not the Hobby Lobby kitchen decor. And it’s not the cookies and fruit put out with the coffee and cream. They’re tired, they say, of being treated as single-issue voters.

“Shouldn’t Mark Udall talk about the issues?” one woman asks.

“Udall voted against Keystone,” one replies.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the only issue discussed. I’m serious. One woman does say that Udall voted 99 percent of the time with Obama, as you may have heard Cory Gardner mention once or twice. But for issues in this kitchen, it’s Keystone and Keystone only. I guess Rove doesn’t know that if you hear people talking about Keystone in Colorado, they’re probably discussing next season’s ski package and not a proposed pipeline that would come nowhere near the state.

And yet, Karl Rove apparently envisions unaffiliated voters in kitchens across Colorado slamming their hands on their kitchen islands, even at risk of spilling the coffee, and screaming, “Dammit, when is Udall gonna come clean on Keystone??!!!!”

Yes, Keystone. Not immigration reform. Not Obamacare. Not over-the-counter birth control. Not ISIS. Not entitlements. Not the debt. Not guns. Not NSA. Not long-term unemployment. Not equal pay for women. Not same-sex marriage. Not the economy. Not income inequality. Not Broncos-Seahawks.

You get the feeling that somebody is ripping Rove off? The last Crossroads GPS commercial I remember starred a woman called “Richelle” asking Udall to repeal Obamacare because the program had forced her to go back to work. Except that simple fact-checking (by KDVR’s Eli Stokols) showed that she had gone back to work before there was an Obamacare because, she said, her family needed the money. Whatever financial problems her family had, they had nothing to do with Obamacare (or, just guessing, Keystone).

If you’re going to make the argument that Democrats won’t talk about anything but abortion rights and birth control, do you make it by talking about pipelines?

Michael Bennet beat Ken Buck by 17 points among women in the last Colorado Senate race. That number underlies the thinking in every Udall ad. What the strategists understand is that personhood is not just about personhood. The reason Gardner is desperate to change the subject is that personhood stands for every issue in which so many middle class suburban women find Colorado Republicans standing somewhere in the last century.

That’s why in Udall’s latest commercial, he asks people — including these same Rove-targeted women, who may not, in fact, spend their lives standing in a kitchen — to check their calendars. Let’s face it, that granite-top kitchen island is right out of the 1990s.


It was sad to watch, but, I guess, inevitable. In delivering a strong and decisive speech on how to deal with the ISIS threat, Barack Obama resoundingly answered his critics — by sounding just like them.

As Philip Gourevitch points out in the New Yorker, every American president over the last 25 years — Bush the Elder, Clinton, Bush II, and now Obama — has eventually gone on TV to announce his decision to bomb Iraq.

Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe Obama will be the last one. We are not just back at war in Iraq. We are, Obama concedes, back in the long war.

The key line in Obama’s speech came right at the beginning when he upped the stakes on ISIS, saying the goal was to “degrade” and “ultimately destroy” the terrorist group known variously as the Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL. Before the speech, Obama had never gone beyond “degrade,” and for good reason.

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe said we’re ‘in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.’ He didn’t add: ‘Until the next time right around the corner that we’re in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation, or the time after that.’

Despite large and powerful American armies put to the task over many years, we have not destroyed al-Qaeda and we have not destroyed the Taliban. And now, Obama is vowing to destroy ISIS by using only American air power to complement what everyone agrees are unreliable and, in the case of Syria, basically unknown allies on the ground.

Obama didn’t say how long it would take, only that it would take a while. He didn’t say how we’d know the mission was, uh, accomplished. And he didn’t say why, if we left again, that another ISIS or al-Qaeda in Iraq or some other disaffected group wouldn’t simply emerge in its place, starting the cycle over again.

In any case, you may recall how well the bombs-only, in-support-of-little-known-allies policy worked in Libya. I know Obama does. It wasn’t long ago that he was saying how much he regretted the now-disaster that is Libya. That is one lesson of Iraq after all: bombing is always the easy part.

This is not news to Obama. He’s the president who gets nuance, who understands complexity, who knows the shadings of Muslim rivalries, who has resisted the notion of permanent war in the world after 9/11, who resisted getting involved in the Syrian civil war even in the face of all the suffering. And yet, here he is and here we are.

It’s no secret how we got to this point. The horrific video deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were intended to force our hand, and, to our horror, they worked. They worked so well, in fact, that some of our leaders weren’t content to talk only of barbarism. Suddenly, ISIS must be uniquely dangerous. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called ISIS “the most vicious, well-funded and militant terrorist organization we have ever seen.” Sen. James Inhofe said it was developing a “method of blowing up a major American city,” putting us “in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.”

It’s the WMD-plus argument. Daniel Benjamin, once a top counterterrorism coordinator in the Obama administration, told the New York Times that the branding of ISIS had devolved into a “farce” of “lurid” tales and “uncorroborated” threats. And yet in Obama’s speech, even when saying that there was no indication that ISIS currently threatens the United States, he said it was possible that it could some day.

There are sound reasons why Obama wanted out of Iraq and resisted going into Syria. He once called the idea of finding secular moderate rebels to arm in Syria a “fantasy.” Now for Obama’s strategy to work, the fantasy has to come true, and even if the fantasy team were to push ISIS out of Syria, we’d have to hope that Bashar al-Assad — when he isn’t busy gassing his own people — doesn’t just walk in and take its place.

In Iraq, we have to hope that the newly installed government, still led by a Shia Islamist party, would stop repressing Sunnis and actually follow through with giving them a real voice in governing. In fact, that’s the critical piece of the entire arrangement — counting on a government that has been in sort-of power for a week to resolve the whole Shia-Sunni rivalry issue, so that Sunnis won’t keep feeding ISIS with fighters. And where does Iran figure into all this? Are we doing Iran’s work here or our own or both?

And let’s say the the new government does become inclusive — it’s possible, I guess — does that mean the newly trained Iraqi army, last seen in full retreat from ISIS, changes, too? Wasn’t the other lesson of Iraq that there was no military solution? And if ISIS is as dangerous as we’re told, wouldn’t we have to do the fighting ourselves — yes, with American boots on the ground — if the Iraqis couldn’t hack it?

The risks are enormous, just as they were back in 2003 when young Obama was complaining of “dumb” wars. And the likely rewards? After all these years, no one has found them.

Littwin: Winning the debate, losing the fight

Gardner hit Udall repeatedly on his proximity to the president and Obamacare, but what if the election is about more than that?

Udall Gardner Club 20


GRAND JUNCTION — Let’s cut to the chase. Debates are notoriously hard to judge, but here’s my best guess: In the big Saturday night showdown here with Mark Udall, Cory Gardner won the debate and lost the fight.

Gardner performed exactly as expected. He was slick and he was smooth and he was quick on his feet. He smiled when he was attacking and he smiled even in the rare instances when he wasn’t.

Gardner’s game plan was clear from the start. He would deliver countless variations on a single theme, which can be summed up this way: Mark Udall and Barack Obama are joined at the hip, and even Obamacare couldn’t separate them.

As any good debater would, Gardner made his points repeatedly. And with feeling. Some highlights: Udall is an Obama loyalist. He’s a 99 percenter. He was the deciding vote (one of 60 deciding votes, as it turned out) for Obamacare. And furthermore: Udall, Obama. And yes: Obama, Udall. And did I mention: Udall, Obama.

The line of the evening came when Udall, after another Gardner attack, said, “I’m curious what problem facing the nation I haven’t caused.”

Gardner’s reply: “Me, too.”

Those Republicans in the Club 20 crowd, which was fairly evenly divided, ate it up. And why not? This was all they could have hoped for — someone, finally, to lead them out of the wilderness.

They’ve got the best possible candidate in Gardner (who represents, at this point, pretty much the entire GOP bench). They’ve got him running in the best possible year (the dreaded six-year itch, when the out party nearly always gains). They’ve got more money than they know how to spend (which is true for both parties in our speech-equals-boatloads-of-money era).

And, most of all, they’ve got the one issue upon which they’ve been pounding until it’s bruised and battered out of all recognition (and one that could put Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate).

But here’s the catch. And it’s a big one.

If the election is a referendum on Obama and Obamacare, Gardner is going to win. I can read the polls. But if the election were simply a referendum on Obama and Obamacare, any Republican would win.

If the election turns out to about something more than that, Gardner basically wasted his night.

You see, I’m going to guess that you already knew Mark Udall voted for Obamacare. I’m going to guess you already knew he voted with Obama most of the time. I’m going to guess you had seen similar messages on countless TV ads. I’m going to guess that you knew it before you had seen any of the TV ads.

And here’s something that you might guess: All the time that Gardner was hitting Udall on Obama and Obamacare, we didn’t hear much about what he might do to fix Obamacare or replace Obamacare or not replace Obamacare.

In other words, Gardner didn’t move the argument one inch. This is a problem. It may also be a waste of Gardner’s talents.

Republicans haven’t won a top-line election in Colorado since 2004. It has occurred to some people that this might actually be a trend and that once-red, now-purple Colorado is on the verge of going blue. I’ve always thought it’s a little more complicated than that.

In a generic election — say for Secretary of State when Scott Gessler is not involved — a generic Republican is just as likely to win, probably more likely, than a generic Democrat. It’s when the issues come into play that Republicans lose. It seems to me they lose on the merits. They lose by going all Tancredo on Latinos and by going all personhood on women.

Udall wasn’t as smooth or as slick as Gardner. He stammered a bit. But he still got in shots on immigration, on the shutdown, on 52 votes against Obamacare. And, of course, on social issues. And, in a room where real people were actually listening, when Gardner answered an abortion question with his line about over-the-counter birth control, it sounded very much like what it is — a non-sequitur.

It’s hard to win one of these debates. In truth, you can only lose them. And you don’t lose them on the facts. You lose them on gaffes, which turn into headlines, which turn into talk radio fodder, which, say, Bob Beauprez or John Hickenlooper could tell you about, although neither of them managed a single gaffe in their debate Saturday.

Gardner may have won on style points, but the real news in the Udall-Gardner race came the next morning with the release of the latest NBC/Marist poll, which showed Udall leading by six points, 48-42. In the same poll, it showed Obama’s approval ratings in the state at 39 percent. It’s confusing. Didn’t they know: Udall, Obama. Obama, Udall.


Littwin: Straight face? You try it.

gardner straight face

If every picture of Cory Gardner shows him flashing a big smile, there’s a reason. And it’s not just because he’s a friendly, likable guy (although he is).

The reason for the big smile, I’d guess, is that he’s having trouble keeping a straight face.

Give Gardner credit. The one thing he knew when he started his Senate campaign was that he couldn’t win by being, well, Cory Gardner — not when the National Journal had ranked him in 2012 as the 10th most conservative member of the House of Representatives. To give you an idea, Michele Bachmann didn’t make the top 25.

So, he had to change. But there’s change and then there’s this.

The reason for the big Cory Gardner smile, I’d guess, is that he’s having trouble keeping a straight face.

One day he’s regular, smiling, 10th-most Cory, and then next he’s pro-pill, anti-personhood, pro-windmill, pro-DREAMer (still smiling) Cory, the “new kind of Republican,” as it says in the TV ad. And, gosh, you’d hope so, given that the old kind of Republican has lost every top-of-the-ballot race in Colorado since 2004.

But to say that the sudden makeover is a little cynical would be to miss the point, not to mention all the backstage costume changes. This isn’t politics as usual. It’s more like magic. What we’re seeing is Gardner reconfiguring himself as the perfect kind of Republican to win in a bluish state.

You can say that the old Cory repeatedly voted for personhood, for big oil, against the DREAMers and cite each vote. But that risks sounding like so much whining. Gardner is attempting something on a grander scale. He’s not trying to convince everyone that he’s changed, but rather, that despite all the evidence, this is basically who he has always been.

It started with Gardner’s renunciation of Colorado personhood, of course. Yes, it was a rough patch. He had to have a reason why he was once (actually three or four times) a strong supporter of personhood and now, suddenly, he wasn’t. He decided on going for ignorance. He said he hadn’t understood that the concept of life beginning at conception might preclude certain kinds of birth control, even though everyone said so at the time. But now that he understands it, he says, he’s naturally changed his position.

OK, the idea that the summa cum laude college student hadn’t bothered to study up on the issue is preposterous. Still, he made a little mistake. He neglected to undo his co-sponsorship of the federal personhood bill. So he’s officially against personhood and he’s officially for personhood, which he explains by saying that his co-sponsorship is just a way to send a message.

Straight face? You try it.

But we’ve moved on. OK, the Democrats haven’t moved on. They’re running scary, apocalyptic ads every day on Gardner and abortion and personhood, saying that Gardner led a “crusade” against birth control, which might be a slight exaggeration.

But the new Cory has moved on. To the pill. And this is where it gets really good. I hope you’ve seen the ad because the ad tells the entire story. Yes, there’s the windmill ad in which Gardner basically claims he invented the Internet or whatever the equivalent would be of wind energy.

The pill ad is different. It gets to something essential. You may remember that Gardner wrote an op-ed in the Denver Post calling for the pill to be sold over the counter, where everyone could buy it, and where market forces would make the pill cheap and affordable for all.

This, he hoped, would get him past — or at least sideways with — personhood and Hobby Lobby and the whole birth control problem that Republicans have brought upon themselves. I thought it was great strategy. The shock effect alone might make you forget, if just momentarily, the Rush/slut fiasco.

But Gardner kept getting slammed. And now, he is slamming back. You can’t believe this — Udall certainly can’t — but Gardner has gone to Udall’s left on women. It’s a move you’ll have to replay a few times to believe. He…could…go…all…the…way.

Here’s the script, which doesn’t mention that, under Obamacare, most contraceptives are free:

“What’s the difference between me and Mark Udall on contraception? I believe the pill ought to be available over the counter, round the clock, without a prescription — cheaper and easier, for you,” Gardner says in a town-hall type setting, as if he’s answering a question from the crowd. As he speaks, women are seen nodding their heads.

“Mark Udall’s plan is different. He wants to keep government bureaucrats between you and your healthcare plan. That means more politics, and more profits for drug companies. My plan means more rights, more freedom, and more control for you — and that’s a big difference.”

So Gardner, who is strongly anti-abortion, is using the language of, say, Planned Parenthood. Rights, freedom, control. Definitely a new kind of Republican. A desperate kind, or a really shrewd one?

Gardner released the ad just days before the first Senate debate Saturday night in Grand Junction. The debate might offer a clue. Meanwhile, Udall’s campaign called the ad “jaw-dropping.” One Democrat called it “chutzpah.” And Gardner? We’ll know things have really changed if his campaign starts to call it Cory’s Plan B.

Littwin: So much money, so little speech

speech- money

This may be the year in which we finally say enough is enough. (Actually, it won’t be. But if you buy the premise, you buy the bit.)

This may be the year campaign ads on TV finally hit the saturation point and actually become either a) white noise or b) the TV equivalent of Internet popup ads. (This might happen, but it won’t matter. They’ll keep coming, regardless.)

This may be the year when a few political pros leak the news that, in the end, all the money spent on ads was basically a non-factor. (Some studies suggest this could be at least somewhat true, but hardly true enough that anyone can afford to disarm unilaterally.)

This may be the year ….

What am I saying? This won’t be the year. It’ll be like every other year, except worse — much, much worse.

If money were really speech, we might actually have a U.S. Senate race worth talking about, one between two politicians with starkly different views. I know we’d have more than attack ads on Personhood and Obamacare.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, we have stripped away all the pretenses about money and politics. Money is speech. Speech is money. PACs have evolved (devolved?) into Super PACs and Super PAC dark money has become the black hole of politics. And, whether or not you think this is what the Constitution requires, is there anyone out there who really thinks we’re better off for it?

The story goes something like this: Campaign reform gives way to Citizens United, and Citizens United is made even worse by McCutcheon. And in the new Gilded Age — wherein millionaires are no longer rich and even billionaires come cheap — we can’t even put together a decent populist party. In fact, the real watershed moment in campaign finance may have come during the 2008 presidential race when Barack Obama turned down federal matching funds and Democrats, in the process, turned their backs on good-government reform.

It’s no wonder that running against the outsize influence of Koch Brothers — together worth about $100 billion — isn’t a cinch for Democrats. It isn’t as if they haven’t tried, though. They’ve tried ads. Harry Reid rips them every other day.

There was the recent Huffington Post story about Cory Gardner and other Republican Senate candidates attending a secret Koch Brothers retreat, in which Mitch McConnell was taped saying to “Charles and David … I don’t know where we’d be without you.” If that was supposed to be a scandal, let’s just say it didn’t exactly scare anyone off.

In fact, a bunch of Republican would-be presidential candidates spent their Labor Day weekend — yes, Labor Day weekend — at a Dallas summit for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers’ political arm. Rand Paul was there and Rick Perry was there and Mike Pence and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. It wasn’t exactly a secret. Cruz made headlines there saying that we should bomb ISIS “back to the Stone Age.”

Meanwhile, the Kochs raised something like $400 million for the 2012 election, using what the Washington Post described as “a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors” from view. They may raise as much as $300 million for this mid-term election and maybe half a billion for 2016.

All the polls show that voters think big money corrupts politics, but they may not know the half of it. It’s not that politicians are necessarily crooks — the great majority are not — but that they spend so much of their time raising money that they might as well be. They become basically influence peddlers. The least that we can demand — but don’t seem to care enough to insist — is that they disclose the people trying to buy the influence.

Of course, there are billionaires for both parties. Mark Udall has climate-change activist Tom Steyer, who says he is spending $50 million on Senate races. This is what the competition for money means in real terms: According to a report by Colorado Public Radio, TV political ad buys in Colorado had reached $49.8 million by Aug. 22. And $38 million — more than three dollars out of four — had arrived courtesy of outside money.

CPR did the math for us. That’s the equivalent of more than 58,000 30-second spots, or — and I like this little statistic — 20 days of nonstop TV viewing. It’s like watching the Simpsons marathon, only with slightly fewer laughs.

Here’s what really bothers me. Let’s take the Udall-Gardner race. If money were really speech, we might actually have a race worth talking about, one between two politicians with starkly different views. I know we’d have more than attack ads on Personhood and Obamacare.

There might be real debates about immigration, about the limits of government, about the limits of American power, about tax reform, about entitlement reform, about the role of science in making policy, about the impact of climate change or if there is one, about access to abortion, about voter ID, about equal pay, about inequality, about guns, about dozens of other issues.

There will be a few debates, but most people won’t see them. And most questions will remain unasked and unanswered. The ironic thing is that big money in politics allows politicians to narrow the conversation instead of expanding it. It allows them to control the message instead of explaining it. It means making 30-second TV ads instead of having to make a defensible argument.

[ Photo: 'Loud' by Jesse Garrison. ]