#AskTIME Subscriber Q and A: Michael Scherer

15 minute read

Welcome to TIME’s Subscriber Q&A, with TIME’s DC Bureau Chief Michael Scherer. You can read his latest magazine feature, Mike Huckabee’s Encore in Iowa, here.

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sacredh asks, It seems to me that a good many GOP candidates only throw their names into the hat to promote upcoming books or burnish their resumes to land a job at Fox. Do you feel that this cheapens the presidential race or is it just SOP now?

The magic of our presidential election system is that it is not controllable. It’s easy to buy a bunch of ads in Iowa, but very difficult to buy the support of Iowa caucus goers. It’s easy for a billionaire to unleash a SuperPAC character assassination campaign, but billionaires have a terrible record of succeeding. National parties have a role in shaping the schedule and the debates, but they don’t control who the candidates are. (Keep an eye on independent Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, who is edging towards reregistering as a Democrat—full stop—this spring.) Also, pretty much anyone with a book can gather a crowd in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Does that cheapen the contest? I guess you can argue that it does. But democracy thrives on that sort of cheapness.

yogi asks, MS, does Congress care at all that the American public despise them? Why do they all go on their retreats right after starting a new Congress? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to do that before and give the people a belief their actually doing something in the new year? Could the GOP and democrats at least have the decency to have their retreats on the same weekend to at least pretend they care about their constituents and doing their legislative jobs?

I doubt this is a deal breaker for many voters. There were 365 days on the calendar last year, and Congress was in session just over 100. No one noticed when they were not in session, but nearly 9 in 10 disapproved of their performance. Why? Americans don’t feel like their voices are being heard, are angered by the partisan battles, are infuriated by the dysfunction, and, in many cases, furious at whatever tribe they don’t belong to, whether it be liberal, conservative or down-the-middle pragmatic. If Republicans can come up with a plan to get stuff done, or at least not embarrass themselves and the country in the coming year, I think that far outweighs the damage for most Americans of another day of silence on the House floor.

yogi asks, MS, What’s Romney’s deal? Is Romney just trying to get revenge on the GOP for dragging the 2012 primary out? Did Jeb Bush once caffeinate his decaf coffee? He’s got to know he wont win the 2016 primary and will only be sucking up resources and donors that would go to Bush or some other “moderate”, right?

The Romney story of the last two weeks is fascinating. There is little precedent for a nominated loser coming back four years later to win a presidential election—Thomas Dewey lost both times. And Romney’s handicaps as a candidate have been exhaustively cataloged, by himself as well as others. As Zeke wrote last night from California, Republicans are not really champing at the Romney redux bit right now. So why is he doing it? The working theory I have is that this is being driven, right now, more by Romney’s heart than his head. He believes that he could be a great president, is bored on the sidelines, probably a bit addicted to the limelight, and does not want to pass up a chance, however narrow, to make it happen. Whether he eventually runs or not, by taking a step forward, he gets to reassert himself, re-promote himself, and rewrite the Romney legacy narrative. The risks of keeping this up for long are real. I could see a real Romney backlash emerging from both the right and the establishment middle. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be the nominee again, especially if Jeb Bush underperforms and Chris Christie fails to find enough funding.

deconstructivea asks, Michael, we know that “black swan” surprise events that disrupt everyone are by definition nearly impossible to predict (as Nassim Taleb, who popularized the term, has said), but naturally we have to do it anyway. Therefore, what black swans do you see that could influence the 2016 election? Certainly ISIS and Ebola disrupted 2014. I’m guessing the 2016’s black swans will be international in nature, like another wave of terrorism ala ISIS, or perhaps a long-term decline in oil prices might disrupt local oil economies like Texas, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas while simultaneously harming Canada’s energy industries …and Canada is our largest trading partner (not China). Even so, I think these events would lean in Hillary’s favor – her foreign policy background vs. Romney / Huckabee / Rand Paul (as in, none for the R’s).

I agree that we can’t predict the unpredictable. But I think there are two clear trends that are likely to shape the next two years. Remember, at the start of the 2008 election cycle, foreign policy was a much bigger issue than the economy. By election day, Iraq was not on many voters minds. Right now economic stagnation is the biggest issue in the country. For nearly 15 years, voters have been working harder and harder with less and less to show for it. But there are signs the economy will be better the next two years than the last decade. Gas prices are about to give everyone a raise. The labor market is tightening. The long national nightmare of flat median wages may begin to break. At the same time, there is little sign on the macro or micro level that the west is winning the war on radical Islam, from Paris, to Syria, to Nigeria, to Yemen, as David von Drehle writes in this week’s cover story. Also the oil crash could shift geopolitical risks. If the U.S. sends ground troops overseas at some point in the next year, or there is a consequential terrorist attack on the homeland, which Western intelligence officials are warning about, that could scramble the focus of the 2016 election quickly.

deconstructive asks, Michael, okay, we know “what if” speculation often goes against the grain of journalism, and yet in politics it’s a daily source of oxygen. (BTW, how much of a conflict is THAT among your DC staff and reporters?) Therefore, what do YOU guess is most likely to happen if Hillary does NOT run, for whatever reason? My take – the Democratic candidate, whomever he or she may be, will still win because of long-term damage inflicted by the GOP and Tea Party on women, blacks, and Hispanics, and that D turnout tends to aim higher during Prez years. (Romney, a man of the people? Not a chance.) I’d guess Elizabeth Warren might reconsider running since even now she polls okay, though Hillary still leads by a huge margin. Certainly the D primary would feature a sharper debate on how progressive and populist the party wants to go if center / corporate – leaning Hillary is out of the picture, and a dark-horse candidate, perhaps an O’Malley, could improve chances of winning. If Warren does not run, Sanders certainly will push the debate to the left.

Hillary Clinton is running for President. She hasn’t officially declared this fact, so technically she can deny it. But she is hiring staff, has cleared the field, and is preparing a launch. So the question is, what happens if Clinton bows out at this point. My guess is there will be a quick scramble. Biden would step forward, with O’Malley and several other senators. (I would look for Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand to make moves.) I really don’t think Warren sees being President as a priority. She wants to further the work she began decades ago on financial regulation and consumer protection. Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb would also be in the mix, and maybe even Brian Schweitzer. Do I think any of this is likely? No.

DonQuixotic asks, Michael, in Zeke’s recent story on Dave Agema, the end of the article contained a brief snip-it of how “The Democratic Party is facing a similar controversy with one of its own”. Is it really relevant to include lines like that in articles about political scandals or corruption to appeal to the party that has egg on it’s face? Particularly when they’re two unrelated controversies? It seems to me it has no relevance to the story at hand and is just an attempt to appear “balanced”.

Context is important in stories, and what context to provide is often a very subjective editorial call. In this case, I think it’s totally appropriate, since these are two scandals taking place at the same time among party members. I understand the false-equivalence charge. But Zeke was not claiming equivalence.

deconstructive asks, Michael, how important do you think Hillary’s time as Secretary of State will be in helping her win the presidency? Certainly most of the other candidates for both parties don’t have as much foreign experience, except for Biden. Romney’s school days in France and his time spent laundering money in the Cayman Islands don’t really count either (and his 2012 London comments showed his lack of street cred), but I digress. No doubt the GOP / TP will try to rehash Benghazi, but with ISIS and other terror groups still out there, time spent in the foreign policy fields should play well with voters of most stripes, yes? Or are voters most concerned about at-home pocketbook issues and looking for / keeping their jobs, and foreign policy takes a backseat?

I think her work in the Obama Administration will be a huge factor in the election, especially if foreign policy and national security rise as issues of importance. (See above.) Republicans are also to latch on to it, making her record of managing and failing to resolve so many global problems central to their disqualification efforts. How much all this matters depends on whether there is another war or major terrorist attack in the coming months, and whether the economy continues to improve for regular people.

DonQuixotic asks, Michael, what are your thoughts on the dichotomy of the tone we see in the news about gas prices being so low? On the one hand it’s celebrated for the benefit it offers Americans filling up their cars, and on the other we’re reminded how damaging it is to the markets and what’s being done to raise them back up. We see the opposite when gas prices are high: fear and frustration that people have to pay so much to fill up their cars and celebration from market watchers for the economic boon. Is there middle ground in all of this or will one side – the American public versus Wall Street – always be unhappy with where the price of oil? In the end it seems like Washington is never happy with where it is.

Great question. Lloyd Blankfein, of Goldman Sachs, pointed out on CNBC last week that everyone would have predicted broad celebrations if someone had predicted a halving of gas prices a year ago. But that’s not happening, and the reason may be that the oil price drop portends a broader economic problem, including possibly a deflationary cycle. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s important to remember that the markets are moving for complex reasons, not just because we call get to buy $2 gas now. It’s also true that there may be negative impacts on U.S. manufacturing and employment if the shale boom fades. (One of the big reasons the U.S. economy has been growing in recent years is our access to relatively cheap energy; that advantage could fade.) In short, the story has many sides. We don’t know how this will all settle out. In the meantime, enjoy the cheap gas.

deconstructive asks, Michael, if Mitt Romney wins the 2016 GOP nomination, do you see a literal repeat of the 2012 campaign against him by the D’s? I do. He never atoned for his Bain past, never released his tax returns, and never really apologized for his many remarks, like the 47% one (offering excuses or shifting blame, yes, but mea culpas lacking). If he tries to go populist, well, he’s no Elizabeth Warren in that area, and Romney would be picked apart for trying to imitate one. Santorum appears to try to deliver a blue collar message from the right, but Romney has no common touch there. I think the D’s could literally rerun 2012 ads like the Priorities USA “Stage” ad, like they did in Ohio back then, and they would still work.

The campaign against Romney would be somewhat different. But Romney’s central problems would be the same—an inability to connect on trail and an ability to actively disconnect with some voters—so the themes would likely overlap. Worth noting that Hillary Clinton has recruited Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 ad man, Jim Margolis, to do her media in 2016.

deconstructive ask, Michael, an in-house question – how are the reporters and work split up among the different bureaus / divisions? As in, does YOUR bureau in DC have a large core staff of regular reporters and you cover most of the politics with them and send them across the country as needed (as Alex Altman does a lot), or do you have a smaller core of familiar names (to us) like JNS and Altman, and you “borrow” reporters from other bureaus (like Katy Steinmetz, for example), or share work with other divisions, like covering a biz / political story with Rana Foroohar’s biz staff?

All of the above. There are about a dozen of us based in D.C., but we communicate regularly with correspondents in other cities and countries, and I work closely with other editors outside of D.C.

DonQuixotic asks, Michael, do you think Mike Huckabee’s running for office again is genuine? Often Presidential nominees take advantage of the election to push book tours and speaking opportunities for a profit. They know – realistically – that they don’t really have a chance of winning so it provides them a nice boost in publicity for their name brand. What are you thoughts on that?

Yes, I think it is genuine, but that doesn’t mean he is definitely running. If he can’t pull together the financial commitments he wants in the coming months, I would not be surprised if he bows out. Remember, if a pay day was all he was after, he would not have walked away from his Fox News paycheck. I do wonder, however, if Marco Rubio is delaying officially taking his hat out of the 2016 ring, given Jeb Bush’s entry, until his book tour is complete.

Deconstructive asks, Michael, presuming Hillary runs, do you think her party’s nomination is inevitable? I don’t since 2008 proved she could lose. I think that was due both to poor staff planning (think Mark Penn) and a public desire for change. But might 2016 bring about a different attitude among voters, as in are people seeking out comfort and familiarity next time amidst security problems (cyber, ISIS, etc.) and way-too-slowly improving economy, etc.? Thus, might there be a public consensus to prefer a Hillary vs. Romney or Bush vs. new faces, like Obama was in 2008? (I would prefer new faces, especially Warren, though she still insists she’s not running, and I’ve written here before that I’d vote for Warren in the primary if she runs, and vote for Hillary in the general if she wins the nomination, but I digress.)

Nothing is inevitable. But she has as clear a shot to the nomination as anyone in modern memory, not just because of her popularity within the party, and potential to be the first woman President, but also because of a lack of establishment adversaries in the Democratic party. A 2008 Obama could always emerge, but who? Elizabeth Warren is probably best suited to the role. But she doesn’t seem interested in the job.

DonQuixotic asks, Michael, any New Years resolutions for the TIME staff? Department goals or notable achievements in 2014? We look forward to another year of your team’s work.

Do it better.

nflfoghorn asks, Hey Mike, if Huckabee is serious about running for president how will he be able to convince the vast majority of the voting public that same-sex marriage is a bad thing?

I think this would be a drag on him in the general election, especially among younger voters. He would have to demonstrate that he can bring other voters to the polls to make up for the slack. That said, most voters in America are used to voting for politicians in both parties who oppose same-sex marriage (Obama and Clinton in 2008, for instance; Romney and McCain in 2008 and 2012). So I don’t think it is disqualifying.

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