Kevin Drum

Will the Economy Help Democrats or Republicans More Next Year?

| Fri Aug. 7, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Paul Krugman notes that there wasn't much talk about the economy in last night's debate. Why not?

The chart shows private-sector job gains after two recessions — the 2001 recession, and the 2007-2009 Great Recession — ended, in thousands. You can argue that the economy should have bounced back more strongly from the deeper slump; on the other hand, 2008 was a huge financial crisis, which tends to leave a bad hangover.

....Now, am I claiming that Obama caused all that job creation? No — policy was pretty much hamstrung from 2010 on....Recovery should have been much faster, and I believe that there is still more slack than the unemployment rate suggests. But if President Romney were presiding over this economy, Republicans would be hailing it as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Instead, they’re trying to talk about something else.

How is the economy going to play in the 2016 campaign? It's a bit of a mystery at two different levels:

  • There's the poli-sci model level, where the state of the economy is a background factor that affects the vote. A good economy helps the party in power, a bad economy helps the party out of power. Right now, though, the economy is in the middle: not bad, but not great. Next year, when we start plugging numbers into the models, they're probably going to show a tight race.
  • Then there's the campaign level, where candidates actively offer economic proposals (and criticisms) that they think will resonate with voters. Hillary Clinton will have a hard time here, since "it could have been worse" is not a winning slogan. Nor is "Republicans would be crowing if they had done it." But it's going to be hard to brag on the economy when it's only in modestly good shape.

If Jeb Bush is the nominee, he'll be blathering about 4 percent growth and claiming that anyone who says that's impossible is just a defeatist who's given up on America. Unfortunately, a lot of voters will probably believe him, because voters generally believe anything a candidate says. And Hillary won't be able to fight back much, since it really would make her look like a defeatist. Luckily, "4 percent growth" is a fairly abstract concept to most people, and probably isn't a great campaign slogan in the first place.

In the end, I suspect the economy will be in one of those middle states where it's just not that big a deal in the campaign and won't help either candidate much. Instead, the big campaign issues are going to be more specific: stuff like Obamacare, Common Core, ISIS, Clinton/Bush Derangement Syndrome, etc. Unless something big happens over the next 12 months, it's going to be one of those grind-it-out campaigns based on small-ball issues, foreign policy, and GOTV mechanics. Lotsa fun, no?

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Rubio, Fiorina Declared Winners of Last Night's Media Bowl

| Fri Aug. 7, 2015 11:47 AM EDT

I didn't get a chance to hear any of the post-game commentary after last night's debate. After blogging continuously since 2 pm (Pacific time) I just collapsed in the living room with the pizza Marian had gotten and watched whatever it was she had on TV. So I never got a chance to see who had been anointed the winner.

This morning I see that apparently the answer is Marco Rubio, which makes Marian two for two picking winners. Maybe she should be the one writing this blog. Ed Kilgore had about the same reaction to this that I did:

As for the "winners" and "losers" bit, there's no question Carly Fiorina is being deliberately promoted to the Big Stage where GOPers wanted her all along to supply low-gender-politics-risk attacks on Hillary Clinton. I watched her yesterday and saw a former CEO used to doing power-point presentations for stockholders doing her standard speech, amplified by a very lucky question she got about Donald Trump. And for all the (justified) talk about the Fox moderators being tough on candidates, nobody's asking Fiorina the obvious question about her extremely limited qualifications for the presidency.

....I'm also a bit mystified by all the wild praise today for Marco Rubio, but maybe I've just seen his earnest Second-Generation-American routine one time too many to be impressed any more. He got reasonably lucky in his questioning; the only heat he drew was over his alleged support for a rape exception to an abortion ban; he denied it, and used the question to position himself as a real RTL ultra, which is apparently what he wanted to do.

Yeah, my sense is that both Fiorina and Rubio did fine, and since no one else did spectacularly, maybe that's enough to make them winners. But big winners? I don't see it either.

Interestingly, I also see this morning that the commentariat is quickly converging around the idea that Fox News manipulated the debate pretty blatantly. The GOP wanted Fiorina on the main stage because they wanted a woman there, and Fox obliged by giving her easy questions and then praising her to the skies after the debate was over. Likewise, the GOP really wants Trump gone, and Fox obliged by asking him lots of awkward questions. Trump himself certainly played along, claiming afterward that he had been ambushed and treated badly by the moderators, especially Megyn Kelly.

Maybe. I didn't notice Fiorina getting off any easier than the other candidates, but I did notice the over-the-top effusive praise she received in the post-game shows on Fox. Something sure seemed to be going on there. Fiorina wasn't that good.

As for Trump, I think he was bound to have trouble in a debate forum, where he has less opportunity to duck questions he doesn't want to answer. Also, as I said last night, his schtick gets old when you see it over and over in the space of two hours. If, at some point, you don't seem to take any of the questions seriously, even your supporters are going to start thinking that maybe you don't belong in the White House.

In any case, this seems to be a pretty good example of the media having a bigger impact than the debates themselves. Fiorina and Rubio were the winners of last night's media bowl and Trump was the loser. In the future, everyone will know to stay on Megyn Kelly's good side.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in July

| Fri Aug. 7, 2015 11:02 AM EDT

The American economy added 215,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 125,000 jobs and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.3 percent.

Unlike last month, which had a similar top line jobs number, this is a decent jobs report. There was no big exodus from the labor force and no big drop in the labor force participation rate. The number of employed workers went up by 101,000, the number of unemployed went down by 33,000, and the participation rate stayed steady. Nearly the entire gain in employment was from the private sector.

So....not too bad. As with most recent economic reports, it doesn't suggest things are booming, but it does suggest that we're plodding along. For what it's worth, that's better than Europe or China can say.

Debate Liveblogging: The First GOP Presidential Debate of 2015

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 8:59 PM EDT

WRAP-UP: Marian, who seems to be more in touch with the common man than I am, thinks Rubio was the winner tonight. He seemed fine to me: plenty conservative, but also serious and wonkish. But the big winner? I'm not sure.

So who was? I don't think there was a big breakout. But I do think there were two losers. First, Donald Trump. His schtick might be entertaining in small doses, but when you hear it repeatedly in response to question after question, it just seems juvenile. This was just not a good format for his brand of performance art.

The second loser was Walker. Not because he made any big mistakes, but because he didn't really do anything to break out, and he needed to. This is not a huge deal: I don't think he did himself any real harm, and there are plenty more debates to come. But he needs to up his game.

Jeb Bush was very presidential sounding, but mostly treaded water. For him, though, this isn't so bad. Unlike Walker, I don't think he really had to do any more than that.

Tonally, this debate was like night and day compared to the earlier debate. There was plenty of skirmishing, plenty of barbs, and much more energy. The actual substantive disagreements—Rand Paul aside—were pretty slight, but the candidates made the most of them.

There weren't a whole lot of memorable zingers. Even Trump seemed off his game, even defensive at times (when he was asked about his contributions to Hillary Clinton, for example). Walker had his bit about Hillary's email server, but it sounded too robotic to draw blood. Still, I'm sure it will get plenty of cable news air time, since there wasn't a lot of competition. Mostly, I suspect the bits that will be on a 24/7 loop are the direct arguments between the candidates.

Summary: Trump and Walker probably lost a little ground. Maybe Christie too. Rubio gained a bit of ground. Bush stayed even. The rest probably will stay about where they are, which is so low that it hardly matters if they gained or lost a percentage point.

Prediction: Someone will drop off the top ten, and Carly Fiorina will be on the big stage next time. Personally, I think she did well, but not great. (Maybe because I live in California and remember her Senate run in 2010.) But the media seems to have decided very quickly that she did superbly. That will be enough to give her a bump in the polls.

Debate transcript here.


First off, I want to apologize if anyone gets seasick from the graphic at the top of this post. Sometimes politics requires sacrifices, I'm afraid. And I have to look at it too.

10:56 - Carson: "It's time to move beyond" talking about race. Huge applause.

10:54 - Megyn Kelly is asking about God. But someone apparently came up during the commercial break to ask about veterans. So now she asks Rubio what he thinks about God and veterans. Kinda falling off the rails here.

10:52 - Kasich: "I do believe in miracles." He'd better.

10:41 - Walker on recent cyberattacks: "It's sad to think about, but probably the Russian and Chinese governments know more about Hillary Clinton's email server than do the members of the United States Congress." Zing! It got good applause, but wasn't that a little too obviously a preplanned zinger?

10:37 - An Iranian general visited Russia. What would Trump do in response? No answer, but it would be totally different from what Obama is doing. BTW: the part of the Iran deal that Trump doesn't like involves 24-day notice for inspections. Trump twice called it 24-hour.

10:35 - Walker gives a total non-answer about #BlackLivesMatter and civil rights.

10:32 - Kasich gets a surprising amount of applause when he gives a fairly tolerant answer about gay marriage.

10:31 - Trump's defense of his big mouth: People's heads are getting cut off. We don't have time to be nice.

10:30 - I guess this debate is going two hours, not 90 minutes. Crap.

10:29 - Megyn Kelly asks Trump, "When did you actually become a Republican?" Trump says he has evolved. "You know who else evolved? Ronald Reagan." Well, true enough.

10:26 - Rubio says he has never advocated a rape or incest exception to a ban on abortion. Is this true?

10:24 - Huckabee says "Iran got everything, we got nothing" from the Iran deal. With the exception of stopping Iran's nuclear program for at least a decade, I suppose that's true.

10:20 - Walker: We need to kill the Iran deal, put in place even more crippling sanctions, and then persuade our allies to go along. And how will we manage that? Crickets.

10:16 - Trump: Only four out of hundreds of his companies have gone bankrupt. So there. By the way, "this country, right now, owes $19 trillion, and they need someone like me to straighten out that mess." Big applause. Crikey.

10:12 - Huckabee says his consumption tax is great because it will tax "illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers," who are all freeloading off the system right now. Um....

10:11 - Christie: "I'm the only guy on this stage who's put out a 12-point plan on entitlements." Unsurprisingly, this got no applause. I guess 12-point plans aren't what they used to be.

10:10 - Walker has exactly the same economic plan as Bush!

10:07 - How will Bush get 4% growth? Answer: lift our spirits, fix the tax code, get rid of regulations, repeal Obamacare, build the XL pipeline, fix the immigration system.

10:05 - Carson plays the Alinsky card on Hillary.

10:04 - Ben Carson doesn't think Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. I wonder who he's betting on?

9:51 - Trump says he gives money to lots of politicians because he gets favors in return. "I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them and they are there for me." So how about Hillary Clinton? What did he get from her? "I said, be at my wedding, and she came to my wedding. And you know why? Because she had no choice." Ha ha ha. I wonder how long it takes before this routine gets old even with his supporters?

9:50 - Trump is asked why he supported single-payer health care 15 years ago but doesn't anymore. He says it's because 15 years ago was a different era. Huh? Word salad follows.

9:49 - Asked about health care, Trump says he was against the Iraq war. Okey dokey.

9:47 - Carson: "Carson doesn't believe in fighting stupid wars." Apparently this means he's in favor of waterboarding.

9:45 - Bush: "We need to take out ISIS with every tool in our arsenal." That's all the detail we get from Bush.

9:41 - Cruz: "We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorists as long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words 'radical Islamic terrorists.' " Yeesh. Apparently the way to defeat ISIS is to have a president who makes clear that joining ISIS amounts to signing your own death warrant. That's all the detail we get about defeating ISIS.

9:37 - Chris Christie wants more surveillance, not less. Rand Paul supports the Bill of Rights. Christie: "When you're sitting in a subcommittee blowing hot air, you can say anything you want."  Paul: "I don't trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug. If you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead." Christie: "The hugs I remember are the hugs I got after 9/11." Megyn Kelly finally steps in and breaks up the fight.

9:36 - Well, everyone is opposed to illegal immigration.

9:31 - No one really wants to criticize Trump for saying illegal immigration is all due to the fact that our government is stupid.

9:26 - Chris Wallace wants to know if Trump has any specific evidence that the Mexican government is sending criminals over? Trump says that "border patrol people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what's happening, because our leaders are stupid." The Mexican government is much more cunning than ours. "That's what's happening whether you like it or not."

9:25 -Trump seems to think that Republicans didn't really care about illegal immigration until he came along. Um....

9:20 - Rand Paul: "We didn't create ISIS. ISIS created ISIS." Roger that. Then Paul suggests that the way to beat ISIS is to stop funding their allies. I'm not sure what he was getting at with that.

9:18 - Huckabee thinks the next president should just ignore the Supreme Court and ban abortion. Again, huh?

9:17 - Scott Walker defends his opposition to a life-of-the-mother exception for abortion because there are always ways to protect the mother. "That's been proven." Huh?

9:11 - Megyn Kelly wants to know why Trump insults women so much. Trump is Trump in response. He's kidding! He's having fun. America's problem is too much political correctness. That's ridiculous when America is losing to everyone—everyone!—and needs to be made great again. If you don't like it, tough.

9:09 - Rubio: "How is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck."

9:06 - Rand Paul barges in to attack Trump. "He's hedging his bets because he's used to buying politicians."

9:04 - First question: a handraising question. Is anyone unwilling to pledge to support the eventual nominee? Only Trump raises his hand. He's not willing to make the pledge unless he's the nominee.

8:55 - To my surprise, Carly Fiorina has been anointed the big winner of the happy hour debate. I can see the case for her being the winner by a bit—she was competent and on message and made no mistakes—but not by a landslide. But apparently the punditocracy has spoken. Fiorina is ready for the big show.

"Happy Hour" Debate: Kinda Dull, I'm Afraid

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 7:24 PM EDT

I just finished watching the "happy hour" GOP debate—this being the name everyone has settled on as more entertaining than "the early debate" and less insulting than "kiddy table"—and it was....kinda dull. The hosts went efficiently from candidate to candidate, and they all gave their little speeches and stayed within their time limits. Nobody argued. Nobody really had any differences of opinion. It was all very polite.

So did anyone stand out? Not to me. If you're looking for hawkish rhetoric, Lindsey Graham was clearly your man. If you like canned applause lines delivered competently, Carly Fiorina might be the evening's winner. Aside from that, it's hard to say that anyone did especially well or especially badly. However, I took notes at random, and here's what I have for each candidate.

Rick Perry continued to be a gaffe machine. Asked about the Iran deal, he said, "$150 billion is fixin' to go to a country that killed our Marines in Lebanon, that, uh, used their weapons to kill our young men in Iran." I suppose he meant Iraq, right? Later he talked about his economic record in Texas over "the past eight years." But ol' Rick was governor for 14 years. And in his closing statement, he said, "As someone who's worn the uniform of this country, that's how we build our military back up." Huh?

Earlier, I was struck by his answer on immigration: "Americans are tired of hearing 'What are you going to do about illegal immigration?' " That's not a gaffe, really, but it's certainly a strange way to avoid answering a question. He basically went on to say that he had lots of border experience, and that's what counts.

However, Perry also had the best line of the night—though the bar was pretty low for that. Asked for two words to describe Hillary Clinton, he answered, "Let's go with three: Good at email."

Lindsey Graham, as noted, was the most hawkish. Asked about ISIS, he hauled out the oldest chestnut of them all: "If we don't stop them over there, they're coming here just as sure as I stand here in front of you." Asked about Planned Parenthood, he said, "You want to see a war on women, just go to Iraq and Afghanistan." Asked about the economy, he talked about sending troops back to the Middle East and just generally kicking some major ass over there. He ended a rant against Hillary Clinton with, "If I have to monitor a mosque, I'll monitor a mosque. She won't."

He also brought out some nostalgic, old-time Clinton bashing, straight from the 90s: "I'm fluent in Clinton-speak. I've been dealing with this crowd for 20 years....When Hillary Clinton tells you 'I've given you all the emails you need,' that means she hasn't."

Carly Fiorina was the first to take a shot at Donald Trump: "I didn't get a call from Bill Clinton." And speaking of telephone calls, she later said her first phone call from the Oval Office would be to "my good friend Bibi Netanyahu." Booyah!

These were typical. Fiorina was very good at spouting standard GOP crowd pleasers, but I can't remember her saying anything memorable. She delivered her lines well, but in the end, they mostly just seemed like lines.

Of course, delivering GOP applause lines well and not making any mistakes might be enough to make her the winner of the debate. It's a GOP debate, after all. The fact that I wasn't super impressed doesn't mean that a conservative audience won't be.

Rick Santorum told everyone about his new 20-20 economic plan, which features a 20 percent flat-rate tax. "It will create a manufacturing juggernaut." Sure it will, Rick. And what does the other 20 stand for? He never told us.

He also insisted that we need work requirements and time limits not just for welfare, but for food stamps, Medicaid, and housing programs. I'm not sure if this is news or not. Has anyone else called for work requirements for Medicaid?

Bobby Jindal was reliably apocalyptic, that being his latest persona. (He ditched the "boy wonk" thing years ago.) About Obama and Hillary Clinton: "They're working hard to change the American dream into the European nightmare. They do celebrate more dependence on the government." He also promised not just to investigate Planned Parenthood if he wins, but to sic the IRS on them. I'm pretty sure he's crossing a line there. He might want to check with his shadow Attorney General before saying that again.

On the Middle East, he had nothing to offer except the tired refrain that Obama can't possibly defeat our enemies because he's afraid to even call them by their right name. Jindal, by contrast, would have the stones to call them radical Islamist terrorists. How all this naming business would make even the tiniest difference on the ground remains a mystery.

Jim Gilmore and George Pataki apparently said nothing memorable enough for me to write down. Sorry guys! Pataki repeatedly mentioned that he was governor during 9/11, and Gilmore repeatedly checked off his resume for us. I don't remember much else.

Executive orders are one of the GOP's big grievances against President Obama, so all seven candidates were asked what their first executive order would be. Here are the answers from narrowest to most heroic:

Graham: the Mexico City policy on funding abortions. This gets changed every single time the White House changes parties, so it hardly counts for much. He also said he'd put the NSA back in business post haste. Surveillance for all!

Perry: revoking the Iran deal.

Jindal: revoking Obama's immigration order, plus a laundry list of other Obama stuff he doesn't like.

Gilmore: What's first doesn't matter. He would look at all of Obama's executive orders and figure out which ones we don't need.

Santorum: "Suspend and repeal every executive order, every regulation, that costs Americans jobs."

Fiorina: Begin by undoing all of Obama's executive orders.

Pataki: Revoke every one of Obama's executive orders.

Something tells me these folks aren't really aware of how most executive orders work. Some of them really can be revoked with the stroke of a pen, but a lot of them are actually agency regulations that go through a long, long process before they get approved. If you want to revoke those, you have to go through the same process in reverse. It's not going to happen on the first day.

Donald Trump Has Secret Policy Papers He Refuses to Let the Public See

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 2:59 PM EDT

Gabe Sherman writes today about the vicious backstabbing that's taking place inside the Trump campaign. "Considering they have a staff of, like, three people at headquarters, there’s a lot of infighting," one source told him.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest friction seems to be between longtime Trump advisors and younger newcomers hired specifically for the campaign. But the biggest spats were apparently between two of the political hires: advisor Sam Nunberg and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. This particular piece intrigued me:

Nunberg's firing and the turmoil it's caused in Trumpworld illustrates the difficulty Lewandowski has faced wresting control of the campaign. For months, according to a source, he'd been at odds with Nunberg. Not long after becoming campaign manager, Lewandowski instructed Nunberg, who'd been a Trump adviser for several years, to work from home instead of headquarters, a source said. Nunberg felt further marginalized when Lewandowski had him bumped off several campaign trips. The biggest flashpoint, however, was Lewandowski's refusal to release detailed policy papers Nunberg had written for Trump. “The campaign was getting killed for having no substance, and Corey wouldn’t release them,” a source close to the campaign explained.

Oh, please, please, please: someone leak me a copy of these "detailed policy papers." I want to see them so much. I'll bet the blog would write itself for a week.

On a more serious note, this can't possibly be a true dispute between Lewandowski and Nunberg. Either Trump wants policy papers or he doesn't. And if he does, he either liked Nunberg's drafts or he didn't. Whatever happened here, it happened because Trump wanted it that way.

And my guess is that Trump knows perfectly well that policy papers are a no-win proposition for him. Once released, he'd have to defend everything in them, and he'd have to do it seriously. The press would lose interest quickly as he became just another pol. He'd much rather tell entertaining whoppers about sending Carl Icahn to negotiate with China, or unilaterally charging Ford a 35 percent tax if it built a factory in Mexico. That gets the crowd pumped, and this stuff is so transparently absurd that no one ever bothers trying to get him to defend it. That would ruin all the fun. For Trump, then, the blowhard approach works better; it's more amusing; and it takes a lot less time. No need to fix things until they're broken.

BY THE WAY: As long as we're on the subject, you may be fascinated to know that I share a pretty classy genealogy with Trump. My Drum ancestors come from the village of Ulmet in Germany, where the name is spelled variously Drum, Drumm, Trumm, and Trump. The Donald's great-grandfather, Christian Johannes Trump, hails from Kallstadt, a village about 30 miles away in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. More than likely, there's some shared ancestry if we just go back a few centuries.

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Tonight's Debate Agenda

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 2:04 PM EDT

What, you thought this post was about the agenda for the debate itself? Nah. It's on Fox News at 9 pm Eastern and that's all you need to know.

No, this is about the agenda here. Like the blogging dinosaur I am, I'll be liveblogging the Republican debate tonight. I know the kids all use the Twitter thingie for this kind of stuff, but if, like me, you're just too old to keep up with 100 mph Twitter snark, come on over here and refresh your browser every few minutes. It's the retro way of enjoying the debate!

You can even participate your very own self in comments. However, unlike Twitter, no one will see your pearls except for other commenters. You may decide for yourself if that's an upside or a downside.

Blame New Media for the White House's Obsessive Control Over Foreign Policy

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 1:00 PM EDT

A couple of days ago Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post wrote a long, interesting piece about Obama's National Security Council. The basic story was simple: the NSC under Obama has gotten too big, too sclerotic, and has centralized foreign policy too much in the White House. It was enlightening, and yet....it seemed familiar. Like I'd read it before. Maybe during every presidential administration of my adult life.

But I wasn't sure, since this stuff isn't really in my wheelhouse, so I didn't write about it. However, this stuff is very much in Dan Drezner's wheelhouse, and he agrees: "There’s not a whole lot that’s different in these complaints from past ones, except that the Obama White House has probably been more successful at centralizing foreign policymaking authority than the prior two administrations." Still, he did find at least one new thing under the sun:

Reading through her story, there are two things that stand out — one that’s old and one that’s new. The old complaint is that agencies and staffers who don’t get their policy preferences enacted are, shockingly, not thrilled with the policy process. And everything I have heard from White House staffers about President Obama suggests that in recent years the NSC process has produced policy options that are far more hawkish than his own policy preferences. So he swats them down, and underlings get grumpy.

The new complaint is the reason behind the NSC’s micro-management of foreign policy: fear of political fallout.

“Benghazi is a good example,” the former official said, “and . . . Ebola. That can’t just be left to CDC and State and others to manage. No. You have to have a czar and a whole team of people. And why is that? Because the politics on this issue have become so much more corrosive and challenging that it’s a natural instinct for the White House to say, ‘We’ve got to have an eye on this. On everything.’ ”

This is a problem that will not go away with this administration. If future White Houses react to any foreign policy setback by centralizing control in the White House even further, then this administration’s policy process will look Balkanized by comparison.

So the question is: Is political fallout really more toxic than it used to be, or are modern White Houses just more sensitive to it? And if the fallout really is more toxic, why? Is it because politics is genuinely more toxic nowadays, or because modern media magnifies and accelerates it?

We're obviously living in a pretty toxic political era right now. But we've lived through those before. It always seems worse when it's happening right now, but the Clinton era was pretty damn toxic; the Reagan era was pretty toxic; the sixties were pretty toxic; McCarthyism was pretty toxic, etc. And make no mistake: this stuff affected White House decision making viscerally. It just doesn't seem all that visceral when you're only reading about it in history books.

So if the modern era isn't uniquely toxic, why is foreign policy becoming ever more centralized? Partly because everything is. The modern White House controls policy of all kinds far more than in the past, while cabinet departments have steadily lost influence over the past half century.

Beyond that, I think it's the media environment that's driven a lot of the recent centralization. There's just too damn much of it. And it's endless. It's on cable TV, it's on blogs, it's on social media, it's on talk radio, it's on email chains—and you can lose control of a situation in the blink of an eye. All media, from the New York Times down to the dumbest daily email blasts, thrives on the latest shiny toy. And if something catches on, it can take off literally in hours. You might not even realize it's gathering steam until it blows up and becomes 24/7 cable news fodder. It's nearly impossible to react to that kind of feeding frenzy, and it's completely impossible if decisionmaking is decentralized. Your only faint hope is to have your team in the White House obsessively monitoring this stuff and able to react almost instantly.

This is a bad thing. In the same way that Wall Street trading has gotten too fast and too complex for humans to effectively control, so has political life. Good decisions simply can't be made in minutes or hours. And yet, they have to be. Obviously this increases the risk of bad decisions, but it also increases the defensive, circle-the-wagons approach of modern administrations, which seem to be perpetually at war with the press.

And they are. Not because the mainstream press is any more antagonistic than in the past, but because the structure of the entire press pyramid is now inherently more dangerous to the White House than in the past. No obvious answer presents itself to this problem.

Tonight's Winner Depends As Much on the Media As It Does on the Candidates

| Thu Aug. 6, 2015 11:43 AM EDT

Political scientist John Sides tells us four important things about tonight's GOP debate. I'd focus on the last one:

4) The media's reaction to the debate may matter more than the debate itself. Most people won't watch the debate. Heck, most Republican primary voters won't watch the debate. So, how do people form impressions of who wins a debate? The news media plays a crucial role.

In 2012, I discussed a noteworthy experiment by Kim Fridkin and other scholars at Arizona State University. During the 2004 campaign, they showed people some footage of the third presidential debate; or the debate, plus 20 minutes of post-debate commentary on NBC; or the debate, plus 20 minutes’ time to read commentary on CNN.com....Those watching the debate tended to think that Kerry had won, as did those who read analysis on CNN. But those who watched the NBC postmortem had the opposite impression.

....The news media does a lot of interpretive work for us — framing events in particular ways, telling us how to interpret these events, and so on. Those judgments are sometimes explicit and sometimes phrased in passive voice constructions ("Senator Smith was widely seen as victorious") or sourced to, well, others in the news media ("Many commentators saw Senator Smith as victorious"). So even if you don't watch the debate, you may be able to tell which candidate, if any, will benefit — and whether that candidate is someone other than Trump. Just read the news on Friday.

This is absolutely true, and it's even true in a meta way: news commentary affects the way other news commentators view the debate. Conventional wisdom can congeal very quickly after a debate, as pundits get themselves into sort of a vicious circle of not wanting to be seen as the odd man out. It's peculiar that this matters to them, but it very plainly does.

And there's not much you can do about it. That's why I make it a point to turn off the TV and write my debate wrap-ups before I hear what anyone else has to say. I've found that other commentary affects me, mostly by making me a little nervous about saying what I initially thought. That's stupid, but it's human nature. So now I write in isolation and then publish. Then I turn on the TV and start reading my Twitter stream. If that affects my conclusions, I put it in a separate post. But at least the very first one is set in amber, maybe prescient or obtuse, but genuinely mine.

In any case, I agree with Sides and the research he cites. You can see public reaction to debates change surprisingly quickly between the insta-polls, mostly taken before the media weighs in, and polls taken in the day or two afterward. The latter are overwhelmingly populated by people who didn't even watch the debate, but heard about the winners and losers from wherever they consume news. And that's the impression that sticks.

Donald Trump and Bill Clinton Collide in Best Conspiracy Story Ever

| Wed Aug. 5, 2015 6:29 PM EDT

Oh man, this is the best Clinton conspiracy story ever. Except apparently it's true:

Former president Bill Clinton had a private telephone conversation in late spring with Donald Trump at the same time that the billionaire investor and reality-television star was nearing a decision to run for the White House, according to associates of both men. Four Trump allies and one Clinton associate familiar with the exchange said that Clinton encouraged Trump’s efforts to play a larger role in the Republican Party and offered his own views of the political landscape.

....The tone of the call was informal, and Clinton never urged Trump to run, the four people said. Rather, they said, Clinton sounded curious about Trump’s moves toward a presidential bid and told Trump that he was striking a chord with frustrated conservatives and was a rising force on the right.

One person with knowledge of Clinton’s end of the call said the former president was upbeat and encouraging during the conversation, which occurred as Trump was speaking out about GOP politics and his prescriptions for the nation.

Conservative heads must be exploding right about now. Is the Trump candidacy just a devious Clinton scheme to screw up the Republican primaries? It's just the kind of thing a Clinton would do, after all. Did Bill know that Trump would confirm every horrible stereotype of conservative intolerance that moderates have of the GOP, thus ensuring a Hillary win in November? Or was it really just a casual call and Trump is still the real deal? Or...or...maybe the whole thing is yet another Trump PR stunt? Or maybe Bill has a mole inside the Trump campaign? OMG, OMG, OMG.

Anyway, the most fascinating thing about this is not the fact of the phone call itself, but the fact that four Trump allies spilled the beans to the Post reporters. That's not just one loose-lipped nitwit. It's as if Trump wanted this to get out. But why? And why the timing right before the first debate? Does Trump want to make sure he gets asked about this?

And how does this affect Trump's candidacy? Does it make him less attractive to tea partiers, since he was consorting with the devil a few months ago? Or is it a net positive, because it makes him more attractive to moderates, who figure maybe Trump is OK if Bill Clinton encouraged him to "play a larger role"?

I dunno. I just want to know what conservative Trump supporters are thinking about this. I don't see anything yet at Red State or The Corner or Hot Air or Power Line or Breitbart. Maybe they just haven't caught up. Or maybe they don't trust the reporting of the hated mainstream media in the first place. Stay tuned.