Mobilizing chick power … Male menopause … Can Dems match gun raffles?

Is McConnell’s “free speech” machine about to meet its match?

Does it make me a bad person that I’m tickled pink by Mitch McConnell’s scramble to keep pace in the money race for his Senate seat?

During my tenure as an editor at the Washington Monthly (late 1996 through 1998), among the political hot topics were the Clinton fund-raising scandals. Amid the buzz about John Huang and “no controlling legal authority,” advocates for campaign finance reform clamored for action. I recall trudging up to the Hill to talk with John McCain about his and Russ Feingold’s signature reform plan (which took another seven years to pass). I also recall reporting multiple stories on McCain-Feingold’s chief nemesis, McConnell. Known back then as “the Darth Vader of campaign finance reform” (a moniker he wore with pride), McConnell did his damnedest to smother any attempt to reduce the influence of money in politics with his big, fluffy, money-equals-free-speech pillow.

Flash-forward nearly two decades (and multiple Supreme Court decisions empowering big donors), and McConnell is trying to weather an incoming storm of hostile free speech. Though he ultimately squashed his primary challenger, the Senate minority leader was compelled to spend millions hammering at Tea Party darling Matt Bevin, who had the backing of numerous outside groups, including FreedomWorks, the Madison Project, and the Senate Conservatives Fund. (Plus, Bevin had the personal resources for some supplemental self-financing.) Better still, buoyed by McConnell’s flaccid approval numbers, Dems have helped Alison Lundergan Grimes out-raise McConnell in two of the last three quarters, and the race is expected to be one of the most, if not the most, expensive this cycle.

I assume that, in the end, McConnell will live to serve another term. The GOP can’t afford the humiliation of having its Senate leader booted (though just think of the vicious succession battle!). Plus, as you might imagine, McConnell has a “free speech”-raising machine most pols would kill for. Still, it’s been a while since Darth Vader had a real race on his hands, and nobody more deserves to have to go out and grub for campaign cash.

Jeb stands up for “Obamacore”

Say this for Jeb Bush: the man has cojones. The former Florida governor threw conservatives into a tizzy when, during an April 6 shindig at his daddy’s presidential library in Texas, he told a Fox News interviewer that illegal immigration is not a felony but “an act of love.” Immigrant bashers from Iowa Representative Steve King to rodeo clown Donald Trump jockeyed to see who could most vigorously slam Jebbie as a combination of stupid, naive, and opportunistic.

But getting all touchy-feely about immigrants wasn’t the only giant bull’s-eye Jeb slapped on his chest in that interview. He also reaffirmed his love for the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS, the set of education benchmarks that enjoyed strong bipartisan backing until conservatives decided that it was too closely associated with President Obama and so, by definition, must be a tool of Satan. Trust me: do not get Tea Party types talking about “Obamacore” unless you are ready to have your ears seared with talk about the federal government’s plot to control America’s children. But not Jebbie, who has spent much of his post-governorship focused on education reform: “I just don’t feel compelled to run for cover, when I feel like this is the right thing to do for our country,” he insisted.

Way to stand tall, big guy! Of course, the question isn’t really whether Bush should run for cover. It’s whether the base will support his running for anything else. At this rate, his best shot at the presidency in 2016 may be on the Democratic ticket.

Extremism in the denial of moderation

Then, of course, there’s the GOP’s anti-Jeb, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has been struggling mightily for the past few years to erase any sign of the pragmatic reformer he was once known to be.

As Bush courts the base’s wrath with his defense of the CCSS, Jindal scurries to sandbag the education reform he too once supported. In early April, the governor cheered efforts by a small band of state legislators to derail Louisiana’s adoption of the new standards. A couple of weeks later, Jindal called on the state to pull out of the consortium, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), that has been working to develop the assessment test associated with the new standards. He even made noises about wielding his executive pen if the legislature failed to act.

As the New Orleans Times-Picayune points out, pulling out of PARCC is, practically speaking, a symbolic gesture at this point. The test is already pretty much developed. But, as the Times-Picayune also notes, all Jindal’s huffing and puffing will play well with the CCSS’s conservative critics.

Mobilizing chick power

Despite my admiration for Texas senator turned gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis’s true grit, I expect the Democratic nominee to lose her bid against Republican State Attorney General Greg Abbott. For all the talk about its shifting demographics, Texas, at this point, is still Texas. Just ask Ted Cruz.

That said, Davis may have done more to influence the midterms thus far than any Democratic pol not named Obama. And unlike POTUS, who has Dems playing defense, Davis has helped put them on offense. Specifically, her relentless gigging of Abbott over the wage gap this winter proved to have such traction that it revived the issue as a national cause. Chick-power groups like Emily’s List started firing off blistering press releases accusing the GOP of not caring about women’s economic struggles. Before long, the entire Democratic Party was looking to pay inequality as a way to reorient 2014 away from Obamacare and back toward the Republican-war-on-women meme. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went so far as to launch a “GOP Pay Gap” campaign, looking to, as a spokesman explained to CNN, “hold Republican Senate candidates accountable for their baseless and partisan opposition to equal pay for equal work.”

Not bad for a woman sneeringly dismissed by right-wingers as “Abortion Barbie.”

Learning from ladies eating

OMG! OMG! OMG! This PR email landed in my in-box from Vogue about its May cover girl, actress Emma Stone: “Emma Stone is flying high—major movie roles, a Spider-Man beau, fashion-world heat—but, as Jason Gay discovers, she’s just as down-to-earth and devilish as ever.”

Of course he does, because that’s what every writer for every glossy magazine discovers about his or her celebrity interview subject. No matter how rich or famous, Hollywood A-listers profiled in Vogue or GQ or Vanity Fair or Esquire are always revealed to be so very, very real. And, bizarrely enough, writers’ absolute favorite method for illustrating this
realness—at least when profiling women—is to describe the ladies eating.

I’m serious here. The first thing that crossed my mind when I read Vogue’s press release was: I bet you a million bucks the piece talks about how Stone likes to scarf down junk food just like you and I. Sure enough. The opening sentence: “It is a quiet Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles, and Emma Stone and I are at a mall, eating hot dogs on a stick from Hot Dog on a Stick, sitting with our teddy bears from Build-a-Bear Workshop.”

Hot dogs on a stick! How adorably down-to-earth is that? I was immediately reminded of an old GQ profile of Mad Men’s January Jones (November 2009, it turns out), which opened with the actress wanting to hit the Chili’s down near “the H gates” at O’Hare. Or how about the lead of this May 2010 Esquire profile of Jennifer Lawrence: “Jennifer Lawrence is hungry. It’s 9:00 A.M., she’s been up for an hour, and she hasn’t eaten a thing. ‘I’m freakish about breakfast,’ she says, by which, thank God, she doesn’t mean she wants an extra diet cookie. ‘You’re not gonna order, like, fruit or something, are you?’ she asks, with real concern. ‘Because I’m gonna eat.’ She orders the eggs Benedict without looking at the menu.”

Turns out, the svelte-actresses-who-eat-like-lumberjacks trope is so common that a veteran movie publicist coined the term “Documented Instance of Public Eating,” or DIPE, to describe it. The New York Times Dining and Wine section ran a feature on DIPE in early 2011. Clearly, the situation has not improved since then.

Heavy sigh. It’s not enough for magazines to airbrush cover models to the point that they only vaguely resemble real people. Do they have to pile on by trying to convince us that these alien creatures look like they do despite cruising airport terminals for beer and queso?

Rising tide swamps Republicans I

Much has been written about the emerging fault lines in the Republican Party over climate change. The Christian Coalition, of all groups, has been pushing GOP pols to stop foot-dragging on the issue. Out in Arizona, Barry Goldwater Jr. has put his family’s famous brand name behind a crusade for solar energy. Multiple polls show that, particularly among non-antiquated Republicans, patience is wearing thin for politicians who toe the global-warming-is-a-hoax line even as rising sea levels spill into cities like Miami and Norfolk.

Rising tide swamps Republicans II

And now for our latest installment in the ongoing adventures of How Conservatives Love to Bash Big Government Right Up Until They Need It. This month’s topic: federally subsidized flood insurance.

To review: The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), created in 1968, established a basic compact between the federal government and residents of flood-prone areas. As Scott Gabriel Knowles, author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America neatly explained in Slate, “In exchange for government-subsidized insurance, communities would undertake and maintain serious commitments to restricting development in low-lying areas. Government scientists would provide the detailed floodplain maps necessary to judge where to build or not.”

Alas, the latter half of this compact collapsed under the combined weight of aggressive state-level lobbying by developers, the NFIP’s failure both to enforce coverage requirements and to keep up with its mapping duties, and, of course, Americans’ deep-rooted conviction that nothing as silly as frequent floods or hurricanes should deter them from living anywhere they damn well please. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NFIP wound up bankrupt post-Katrina, and today, taxpayers are on the hook for an estimated $24 billion in flood insurance debt.

Looking to fix this mess, in 2012 Congress overhauled the NFIP so that high-risk residents would pay premiums closer to market rate. But—whoopsie!—the minute those higher insurance bills started rolling in last October, residents flipped out and ran screaming to their congressional reps. Rather than seek targeted fixes (like, say, issuing vouchers to low-income residents), besieged lawmakers scrambled to restore, indefinitely, the bulk of the subsidies—which they did with the March passage of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act.

The rich irony here is the abundance of conservatives who lined up to roll back the 2012 reform, including big-government bashers such as Marco Rubio (Florida), Jeff Sessions (Alabama), and, Mr. Government Shutdown himself, Ted Cruz (Texas). Hmmmm. Wonder if this we-love-subsidies vote will hurt Cruz’s 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union?

Of Dems and denial

Cruz et al.’s hypocrisy on flood insurance may be snicker worthy, but the underlying problem is downright depressing. Subsidizing people to live in flood-prone areas isn’t merely irrational, it’s dangerous. As Ari Phillips at ClimateProgress.org pointed out, “This is especially true in coastal flooding zones where rising sea levels due to climate change, extreme weather events and human-induced erosion and environmental degradation can make the risks outweigh the benefits, and the costs—for which taxpayers are liable—
exceedingly high.”

The 2012 NFIP reform was a vanishingly rare instance of Congress coming together to address a long-term problem. But the second the blowback started, members on both sides of the aisle raced to put short-term political concerns ahead of sensible, long-term policy. Hardly a bipartisan portrait in courage.

Closing the confidence gap

Tied to last month’s Coachella festival, the New York Times Style section ran a piece about how, increasingly, men are feeling pressure to prove their fashionista credentials at the annual music, arts, and recreational-drug extravaganza. Good-bye baggie shorts and Ts. Hello mesh cardigans and pastel onesies.

The piece made me smile—and not just because it pictured a guy with a ZZ Top beard clad in a baby-blue shortie jumpsuit printed with honeybees. Nope. My satisfaction ran deeper. I have long felt that, if pop culture is going to make women paranoid about everything from the shape of our eyebrows to the brand of our sports bras, then men should face similar expectations. Seriously. Why should guys get away with rolling out of bed, pulling on the same sweatpants and grungy ball cap they’ve been wearing since college, and calling it a look? No sirree. I want men angsting about whether their new Tom Ford jeans make their butts look big just like women do. Fair is fair.

Male menopause

In February, the New York Times looked at one of the newest studies, a comprehensive analysis of some 2.6 million people born in Sweden between 1973 and 2001, which ominously concluded, “Children born to middle-aged men are more likely than their older siblings to develop any of a range of mental difficulties, including bipolar disorder, autism and schizophrenia.”

This shouldn’t shock us. Boomers may have changed the way we think about aging, but, from a baby-making standpoint, fifty is not the new thirty. The fact that more and more of us (myself included) are finding reasons to put off having kids until well into our thirties or forties or even later does not change the biological reality that reproductive organs wear out. Cells mutate. The center cannot hold.

Until very recently, however, discussion of parental age revolved almost wholly around the fertility and genetic freshness of mothers—which meant that debate over the pros and cons got swept up into the super-touchy terrain of gender politics. The reasons why are not mysterious: waiting to have kids until one is professionally, economically, and/or emotionally stable has done much to expand women’s horizons. To bring up the downsides makes many of us anxious, as though even acknowledging the trade-offs is an endorsement of the keep-’em-barefoot-and-pregnant thinking of yore.

The new focus on old sperm is unlikely to defuse this bomb entirely. But at least now women aren’t the only ones who have to put up with annoying biological-clock jokes.

Baby Clinton

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Chelsea Clinton is expecting a baby in the fall. I’d like to request that the family save us a whole lot of time and drama by simply naming the baby “President.”

Can Dems match gun raffles?

This election cycle has seen the rise of a hot new campaign gimmick among Republican candidates: gun raffles. Voters hand over all sorts of valuable personal information for a chance to win a shiny new firearm—the higher caliber, the better.

Some folks are appalled by this trend. But you have to admit it’s got a raw genius to it that goes beyond the usual, boring “Send us all your money for a chance to win dinner with Politician X.” As inflammatory culture war totems go, guns are hard to beat, imbuing these giveaways with the irresistible frisson of rebellion.

In the interest of fighting fire with fire, Dems need to get creative with contests of their own. Forget breakfast with Nancy Pelosi or even beer and pizza with POTUS. There have to be some awesome giveaways that would mobilize left-leaning voters. But what exactly? Most of the things that progressive pols want you to have that conservatives dislike don’t lend themselves to sexy raffle prizes: Obamacare, a higher minimum wage, reproductive rights, comprehensive immigration reform, marriage equality. . . . Maybe voters could register for a chance to have Joe Biden officiate at their same-sex wedding. (Or, really, any kind of wedding. Biden makes everything more festive.)

Obviously, this calls for some imaginative crowdsourcing. Poll your friends. Send along your best ideas.

W. gets with transparency, sort of

Calling out politicians for dishonesty, venality, cowardice, and general stupidity is part of what journalists are paid to do. But we should also give credit where credit is due. So count me among those impressed by the recent revelation that, in 2010, George W. Bush quietly signed directives expediting the public release of records from his presidency. According to Politico, the documents affected include “purely factual or informational” memos from aides, policy talking points, adviser recommendations on bills, and scheduling info. Plenty of hush-hush stuff will remain under wraps. But still, this is not what you’d expect from a guy who, in his first year in office, signed an executive order giving presidents greater power to keep their papers secret.

Friendly and unfriendly skies

News you can use: In the wake of the Spring Break rush, the fine folks at
Airfarewatchdog.com released a survey on which airlines have the rudest flight attendants.

Voted worst (with 26 percent): Spirit Air.

And at the other end of the niceness spectrum: a tie between Southwest and Alaska (whose attendants only 1 percent of respondents found horrible).

Book your summer travel accordingly.

Michelle Cottle

Michelle Cottle is a senior writer for National Journal.