Dec 7, 2019

Axios AM

🏈 Happy Saturday! Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,149 words ... 4 minutes.

1 big thing: Reality bites? Gen X candidates becoming biggest losers

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos by Getty Images photogs Joe Raedle, Jim Watson, Joshua Lott, Ethan Miller, Paras Griffin, Win McNamee, Alex Wong.

Now should be their time in life to grab the reins, but when it comes to the 2020 presidential field, Generation X candidates are becoming an endangered species, Axios White House editor Margaret Talev writes.

  • All the frontrunners in the still-crowded Democratic field are either millennials (Pete Buttigieg, 37), Baby Boomers (Elizabeth Warren, 70), or products of the Silent Generation (Joe Biden, 77, and Bernie Sanders, 78).
  • At 73, President Trump is one of America's oldest boomers.

This week's departures from the race by Kamala Harris (55) and Steve Bullock (53) are just the latest examples of the failures of Gen X to gain traction.

  • Beto O'Rourke (47), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (52), Rep. Tim Ryan (46), and Rep. Seth Moulton (41) are earlier casualties.
  • Hanging in the contest but at 3% or lower in national polls: Gen Xers Sen. Cory Booker (50), Julián Castro (45), Andrew Yang (44) and Sen. Michael Bennet (55). (Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 59, and John Delaney, 56, are boomers. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 38, is one of the oldest millennials.)

Why it matters: Other generations might argue, it doesn't. (Ouch!) Gen X is a smaller pack population-wise than either boomers or millennials.

  • The N.Y. Times summed it up as a "gloomy, goofy club of forgotten middle children," while WashPost columnist Petula Dvorak made the case that Gen Xers have been underrated "repairers," "fixers" and "uniters."

Flashback: In cycles past, being in the age range that now covers Gen X was a sweet spot for presidential candidates.

  • Bill Clinton was elected at 46. Barack Obama was 47. George W. Bush was 54. (You guessed it. They're all boomers.)

Our thought bubble: As Lelaina Pierce said, "I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23."

2. How a big prisoner swap unfolded
Brian Hook stands with Xiyue Wang in Zurich today. Photo: State Department via AP

Brian Hook, the State Department special representative for Iran, boarded a military plane at Andrews Air Force Base last night and flew to Zurich, where today he swapped an Iranian scientist for an American student who'd been captive in Iran.

  • Iranian officials handed over Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang, 38, detained in Tehran since 2016 on what the U.S. says are false charges, for scientist Massoud Soleimani, who faced a federal trial in Georgia.

A senior administration official told me how it went down:

  • National security adviser Robert O'Brien had worked on the case in his previous job as the State Department's chief hostage negotiator.
  • The final flurry happened over the past few weeks after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo learned from the Justice Department that Soleimani was about to be released. Pompeo told Hook: "We may be able to move on this case. Let's reach out and see."
  • Iran, convulsed by what the N.Y. Times calls its "worst unrest in 40 years," has faced international condemnation for a crackdown that the U.S. says has killed at last hundreds.
  • After the swap, Hook and Wang flew to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Hook was to return soon. Wang will follow when doctors approve.

Behind the scenes: As soon as the swap happened, administration officials called the families of other Americans held in Iran to share the news, and tell them that they're still working on their cases.

  • What they're saying: The official said President Trump has made a huge priority of getting American hostages home, and added that this was done with "no sanctions released, no pallets of cash, no change in policy."
3. Scoop: Top Trump officials' feud prompts sex discrimination probe
HHS Secretary Alex Azar speaks at a July event with Medicare chief Seema Verma (right). Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

HHS took the extraordinary step of bringing in outside counsel earlier this year to investigate allegations of sex discrimination, Axios has learned — a sign of how badly the working relationship had deteriorated between Secretary Alex Azar and Medicare chief Seema Verma, Jonathan Swan and Caitlin Owens report.

  • Why it matters: While the outside lawyer investigating the claims ultimately described them as unsubstantiated, the revelation of the investigation is more evidence that bad blood between the nation's top two health officials has sidetracked one of the biggest arms of the federal government.

Azar and Verma are charged with executing President Trump's agenda on prescription drug prices, the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid.

  • The drama comes ahead of an election year when health care will be a driving issue.

The allegations of sex discrimination arose over the summer amid a personnel dispute between Verma and Azar, according to two sources:

  • Verma wanted to name Brady Brookes, who was the deputy chief of staff at CMS, as chief of staff. But Azar's office wanted another candidate — also a woman — to be considered. This candidate had more experience and had spent more time at CMS headquarters. Brookes ended up getting the job.
  • Verma then told two people that Brookes could file suit for sex discrimination if Brookes wasn't chosen as the chief of staff.

The big picture: Azar and Verma's contentious relationship spilled into the public spotlight following Politico's extensive reporting on their disagreements.

Bonus: Pic du jour
Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

A limping Harvey Weinstein, 67, is helped out of court in New York after a pretrial hearing. His lawyer said he had a back ailment.

  • The Oscar-winning producer hobbled into court with his tie loosened and a shoe untied, AP reports.

Prosecutors said Weinstein had repeatedly violated his bail conditions by leaving home without activating his electronic ankle bracelet.

  • Defense attorney Donna Rotunno blamed "technical glitches" like dead batteries.
4. Jobs jump, fueling confidence
Expand chart
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chart: Axios Visuals

U.S. jobs in November grew by the most in 10 months, "the strongest sign yet the economy is in no danger of stalling," Reuters writes:

  • Among the reasons: The health care industry boosted hiring and GM workers returned after a strike.
  • Why it matters: "The numbers suggest consumers will keep the longest economic expansion in history, now in its 11th year, chugging along into" the election year.

The big picture: "The unemployment rate fell one-tenth of a percentage point to 3.5% percent, matching September’s reading, ... the lowest level since December 1969."

5. 📷 New feature: Photos of the year, from epic to intimate
Photo: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

A U.S. Border Protection officer stands in heavy rain near the border fence between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 1.

6. 🎥 1 film thing: Disney disturbs the force
"Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker." Image: The Walt Disney Company

A dilemma after Disney bought Lucasfilm was how to bring aboard a new generation of Star Wars moviegoers "while avoiding turning off the die-hard fans that have an outsize voice in the success or failure of the films," The Wall Street Journal's Erich Schwartzel and R.T. Watson report (subscription).

Any whiff of marketing imperatives driving the creative decisions on the Star Wars franchise would immediately, in the eyes of devoted fans, cast Disney as the evil empire that had gobbled up their beloved modern-day myth. ...
The second episode of the new trilogy, the 2017 release "The Last Jedi," collected 33% less at the domestic box office than "Force Awakens." ...
The final film of the current trilogy, "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker," is in theaters on Dec. 19. Disney has indicated it needs to take a moment after that to reassess its strategy. "We’re gonna hit pause," Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said on a conference call with Wall Street analysts last month.

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