TPM Cafe: Opinion

During the last month the long-awaited, heavily-promoted decline in Donald Trump’s standing in the Republican presidential nominating contest has finally begun to occur. But aside from a small reshuffling of the order in the “lanes” (e.g., Rubio moving past Bush among Establishment Republicans and Cruz moving past Huckabee, Santorum and Jindal among experienced Christian Right candidates) to which the candidates have been assigned by the punditocracy, the big beneficiary of softening support for Trump has been another candidate with no experience in elected office, Dr. Ben Carson. He is running either first or a strong second in virtually every national poll, and is now routinely leading polls of Iowa as well. His approval ratings, moreover, are extremely high, and best in the field. It’s safe to say he is almost universally admired by GOP voters.

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On Monday afternoon in the atrium of the law school on the Newark, N.J. campus of Rutgers University, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would no longer allow most federal agencies to ask job applicants about their criminal backgrounds during the early stages of the federal hiring process. That change, called ‘ban the box’ by growing ranks of supporters, was announced by the president following a visit to a residential drug rehabilitation center and a roundtable with several former inmates who had been assisted by judges, prosecutors, and parole officers in making transitions to more stable circumstances.

For the crowd of about 150 who had been mingling in the room for several hours before the president’s late afternoon remarks, the ‘ban the box’ portion of the speech may have been Mr. Obama’s best line. As Donald Trump would have noticed, it got the biggest applause. That’s not surprising given that some of the New Jersey state legislators in the room had supported a state-level law banning inquires into many public and private sector job applicants’ criminal records. Signed in 2014 by N.J. Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, the law took effect earlier this year.

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Wednesday the most important economic/fiscal policy development of the entire presidential cycle occurred in Washington: The GOP-controlled House approved a two-year budget deal that takes away every conservative point of leverage until after the elections. It confirmed for the rank-and-file conservative “base” every suspicion about the gutless and treacherous Republican Establishment.

Yet in a GOP presidential debate Wednesday evening, the budget deal barely came up. Instead, for a variety of reasons, the candidates mostly took turns attacking the big dumb abstraction of Big Government as the cause of every conceivable problem, with Hillary Clinton and the feckless CNBC debate moderators getting beaten up nearly as much as Washington.

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Even before former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) ended his brief and rather un-energetic campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign was dropping hints that he might pursue an independent presidential candidacy instead. And he confirmed that interest in his Tuesday press conference making his withdrawal from the Democratic contest official:

Saying he is still considering an independent run, though — for which he said he was confident he could get more support than he did in his quest for the Democratic nomination — Webb pointed to an increasingly disillusioned middle in the country that is hungry for a different kind of candidate.

"Poll after poll shows that a strong plurality of Americans is neither Republican nor Democrat. Overwhelmingly they're independents," Webb said. "Our political candidates are being pulled to the extremes. They are increasingly out of step with the people they are supposed to serve."

Webb is ignoring the abundant evidence that a majority of self-identified “independents” are functionally either Democrats or Republicans, with another chunk of “independents” not much bothering to participate in elections. But still, is there any possible traction for an indie candidate in 2016, whether it’s Webb or campaign finance reform crusader Larry Lessig or (despite his pledge to the contrary) Donald Trump?

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Even for those with more than a passing interest in American political history, the name Walter Mondale usually symbolizes one and only one thing: one of the worst electoral defeats in the history of the presidency. Running against popular incumbent Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, Mondale won only the District of Columbia and his home state of Minnesota (and that by fewer than 5,000 votes), garnering a meager 13 electoral votes to Reagan’s 525. It was the worst defeat for any Democratic presidential candidate in American history, a landslide loss so striking that it has understandably become synonymous with Mondale’s name in our political narratives.

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For months now Israelis and others have been asking whether the sporadic acts of terror on the West Bank and in Jerusalem officially herald the Third Intifada—a Palestinian uprising against Israel. Although the title is far less important than the tragic consequences, a simple answer might be that we don’t identify the Third as such because we are conditioned to look for the Second. That is, as much as the Second Intifada, which ran from 2000-2005 and lead to an estimated 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli deaths, differed from the First (1987-1991), so does the current wave of violence differ from both previous ones.

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The last few weeks have brought hell to the streets of Jerusalem and throughout Palestine and Israel. Palestinian teenagers are stabbing Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians in random acts of violence. Israeli soldiers and settlers, mostly teenagers as well, are playing judge and jury on the spot by killing those involved in acts of terror and even some Palestinians that were not. While the Israeli government desperately tries to find someone other than itself to blame for the societal breakdown, one theme is now common on both sides of the political divide, average Israeli and Palestinian citizens are scared to leave their homes. The end result of the violence may have far-reaching political consequences.

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The first debate in the Democratic presidential primary contest put the “part” in “participatory democracy.” Not only was the debate wonderfully substantive—particularly in contrast to the juvenile insult-fests known as the Republican debates—but it reminded the American people why we have campaigns in the first place. When it works, democracy not only educates and engages voters, it educates and shapes the candidates, too. And that potential was on full display at the Democratic debate.

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When the first Democratic presidential debate got underway last night, you got the immediate impression that the CNN organizers were determined to dash the expectation that it would be a less fractious event than the network’s Republican debate last month. Moderator Anderson Cooper, normally the most irenic of talking heads, got in touch with his inner Jake Tapper and began barking harsh criticisms at the candidates. But with few exceptions during the long contest, the five donkeys on the stage did not rise to the bait, and as a result the event often turned into Democrats versus CNN.

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