Saturday Morning Note: The Weekly View from Washington
We’re nearing the event horizon in the long, strange Republican presidential primary. In 23 days, the contest crosses the point of no return when Iowa voters finally gather to caucus. From there, the surviving candidates will scramble across the map in a dash for delegates, over half of which will be awarded in the following six weeks.
But for now, in the approach, things appear to be slowing down even while they’re in fact speeding up. The final weeks before presidential primaries are typically the most tumultuous, with whatever had passed for structure splintering as early-state voters begin to focus in earnest on the race. This year, not so much — or at least not yet. True, firebrand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has pulled ahead in Iowa, but in the three other states voting in February, Donald Trump maintains leads akin to the national one he’s enjoyed since midsummer.
Trump’s continued dominance is exacerbating the sense of suspended animation bracing the field, because his position comes with a major unanswered question: Is it real? That is, after months of packing arenas, monopolizing coverage, and directing the terms of the national conversation from his phone and his Twitter account, can Trump actually get people to show up and cast ballots for him? Some of the brightest political minds addressed themselves to that question this week, and the net conclusion was a shoulder shrug. As one top operative for another candidate frankly summarizes the state of play, “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
In the early going, Trump’s performance can only begin to answer half the equation, as he battles Cruz for the outsider mantle. The rest of the viable bunch, those in the so-called establishment lane, face their first disqualifying round in New Hampshire, eight days after Iowa. There, likely only two of the four — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — will emerge as contenders. At the moment, they’re all snarled within a few points of each other in the state. It may be the relative stasis seizing the contest gives way to a different dynamic before the voting starts. Either way, it won’t be long now.
• White House tries again to forge counter-terror ties to tech
The Obama administration launched a new round of outreach to tech industries leaders on Friday, sending a delegation of top national security officials west to meet with Silicon Valley chiefs on their home turf. The subject — cooperation on counterterrorism efforts — has complicated relations between this White House and the industry, once one of the sectors friendliest to the president. But the scope of the government surveillance revealed by the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013 opened a rift. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the administration wants to try again to find some common ground. Among those in attendance: Apple CEO Tim Cook and senior representatives from Facebook and Google. Fortune
• Jeb’s spent more than anyone and now ranks as least popular
Here’s a harrowing sign for Jeb Bush, the onetime Republican frontrunner: His image among GOP voters has steadily deteriorated over the last 5 months-plus of the campaign. That, despite the roughly $60 million his campaign and affiliated super PAC have sunk into trying to promote the former Florida governor — a pile of cash unrivaled by any of the other contenders. Indeed, his net favorable rating is now underwater, with 45% of Republican voters reporting an unfavorable view of him while only 44% say they’re favorable. That places Bush as the least popular of the nine major GOP candidates. Considering he’s suffered no major scandal or controversy over this period, the results only highlight how hostile the electorate is toward such an establishment candidate. Gallup
• Obama vetoes GOP's healthcare law repeal attempt
President Obama issued the eighth veto of his presidency on Friday to reject an effort by Congressional Republicans to repeal his signature healthcare overhaul. House GOPers have tried 62 times to uproot the Affordable Care Act, though this was the first time such an attempt managed to clear the Senate and reach the president’s desk. Republicans won’t be able to muster the margins to override the veto, but the exercise of delivering a repeal measure to the White House demonstrated the stakes for this year’s presidential elections: The GOP could pose a more credible threat to the law if the party maintains its margins on Capitol Hill and reclaims the White House. And while Obama touts the 17.6 million Americans newly insured thanks to the law, the fact he vetoed the repeal behind closed doors suggests he doesn’t want to draw attention to the fight at the moment. New York Times
Around the Water Cooler
• Top Democratic fundraiser calls out fundraising as crooked, dangerous
Steve Israel, the Long Island congressman who spent four years leading the House Democratic campaign arm, is retiring at the end of this, his sixth term. In a New York Times op-ed, he writes a Good-Bye to All That skewering a campaign finance system wheeling out of control since the 2010 Citizens United decision. Israel speaks from rare experience, having acted effectively as the party’s chief bagman during his stint at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. To fix a process he says is menacing our democracy, Israel endorses real-time reporting of political contributions, shareholder disclosure of any corporate political activity, and public financing of elections. But he also makes clear he won’t be holding his breath. New York Times
• Obama's top aide offers clues to the president's "fourth quarter"
To understand President Obama in his second term’s twilight, you need to get to know Denis McDunough, his fifth, favorite, and likely last chief of staff. Loyal, low-key but intense, and task-driven, the Minnesota native has been with Obama since his days in the Senate. Now, he’s responsible for enforcing day-to-day order within the administration, while helping steer Obama through decision-making on a series of international crises increasingly occupying the president’s attention. McDunough shares Obama’s distaste for military interventions, suggesting that even as the administration catches flak for failing to mount more forceful responses to external threats apparently gathering strength, the team he helps command will stay the course. Politico
• Why car dealers hate political ads
If there’s one group dreading the coming onslaught of campaign ads more than voters themselves, it’s car dealers. That’s because auto dealers are typically among the heaviest buyers of local broadcast advertising. During a heated political season, however, the influx of campaign ads can knock them off the air. One analysis found in those markets most heavily targeted in 2012, that crowding-out effect knocked 3 percent off new car sales. This cycle, with spending by campaigns and deep-pocketed outside groups expected to increase significantly, car dealers can expect an even more painful pinch. Bloomberg