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Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin answers questions at a news conference on Nov. 5, 2014, at City Hall Park, in Burlington, Vt.

The nation's first single-payer plan collapses in Vt.

12/18/14 10:45AM

Politics in Vermont tend to be a little different than most places. For much of the country, when a Democrat's health care plan is described as "socialized medicine," it's considered an insult. In the Green Mountain State, however, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), recently re-elected to his third two-year term, made the creation of a single-payer system a key element of his statewide platform.
 
That, however, was four years ago. Yesterday, as Vermont's Seven Days newspaper reported, the Democratic governor effectively walked away from his ambitious goal.
In a striking reversal, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday abandoned his chief policy initiative, saying "now is not the right time" to pursue single-payer health care reform.
 
Shumlin dropped the political bombshell with no warning Wednesday afternoon at a crowded Statehouse press conference. He said that new cost estimates presented to him last Friday by his health care team made clear that the plan he envisioned was "just not affordable."
The governor and his team originally estimated that single-payer would carry a price tag of about $2 billion a year. (In a state where the entire budget is about $2.7 billion, that's an enormous amount of money.) More recently, however, those estimates were revised to over $3 billion a year by the end of the decade, and Shumlin simply did not see a way to adequately cover the costs.
 
The governor did not go so far as to officially kill the plan altogether -- the talk in the state capital was about "hitting the pause button" -- but under the circumstances, there's little doubt that single-payer is finished in Vermont for the foreseeable future.
 
And if it's dead here, it's unlikely Americans will see it anywhere for quite a while.
US President Barack Obama speaks on the phone with King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Oval Office of the White House on August 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.

A welcome international reaction

12/18/14 10:03AM

There was something funny about the Weekly Standard denouncing President Obama's new policy on Cuba by running a piece from, of all people, Elliott Abrams.
 
It was Abrams, for example, who pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal, before serving on the Bush/Cheney National Security Council, which didn't turn out well for anyone.
 
Nevertheless, the noted neoconservative has taken a look at the White House's shift on Cuba, and Abrams is not impressed.
The American collapse with respect to Cuba will have repercussions in the Middle East and elsewhere -- in Asia, for the nations facing a rising China, and in Europe, for those near Putin's newly aggressive Russia. What are American guarantees and promises worth if a fifty-year-old policy followed by Democrats like Johnson, Carter, and Clinton can be discarded overnight? In more than a few chanceries the question that will be asked as this year ends is "who is next to find that America is today more interested in propitiating its enemies than in protecting its allies?"
Just at face value, it's hard not to marvel at the underlying argument here. The United States stuck to an ineffective policy for more than a half-century. For Abrams, that suggests (a) the policy must have been good, since it stuck around for so long; and (b) we should continue to embrace the failed policy to demonstrate to the world how consistent we are.
 
I suppose this has a certain Burkean logic, though it's hardly the basis for a sound, sensible foreign policy. As Simon Maloy joked, paraphrasing Abrams, "How can they trust the U.S. when we'll only adhere to a policy position for five decades for no discernible reason?"
 
But taking this one step further, by Abrams' reasoning, the international reaction to the White House's announcement would necessarily be negative. After all, according to the neocon argument, yesterday undermined global confidence in "American guarantees and promises."
 
So foreign condemnations of the administration's new policy were common yesterday, right? Well, actually no.
Sen. John McCain goes to the floor for a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. President Barack Obama has asked his former 2008 rival for the White House to travel to Egypt with fellow Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, to press...

McCain vs. McCain on Cuba

12/18/14 09:06AM

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) angrily disagrees with President Obama, it's about as common as the sunrise. But when McCain reject his own views from a few years ago, something more important is happening.
 
Yesterday, for example, McCain issued a joint press statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), offering a rather predictable condemnation.
"We agree with President Obama that he is writing new chapters in American foreign policy. Unfortunately, today's chapter, like the others before it, is one of America and the values we stand for in retreat and decline. It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America's influence in the world. Is it any wonder that under President Obama's watch our enemies are emboldened and our friends demoralized?"
To be sure, the rhetoric is stale and tiresome. Almost all of this, practically word for word, has been a staple of McCain press releases for six years. The point is hardly subtle: when it comes to foreign policy and international affairs, whatever President Obama supports, John McCain opposes, whether it makes sense or not.
 
That's not the interesting part. Rather, what McCain neglected to mention yesterday is the fact that he used to support the very changes the Obama White House announced yesterday.

Jobless claims steadily improve, beat expectations

12/18/14 08:37AM

With the calendar year nearly over, those hoping to see 2014 end on an encouraging economic note will be pleased with the new Labor Department report on initial unemployment claims.
The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits fell by 6,000 to 289,000 in the seven days ended Dec. 13, keeping initial jobless claims at a low level typically associated with strong hiring. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to total a seasonally adjusted 295,000. Initial claims are often quite volatile in the period stretching from Thanksgiving until the end of January because of the holiday season and poor weather.
 
The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, dipped by 750 to 298,750, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average smoothens out seasonal volatility in the weekly report and is seen as a more accurate predictor of labor-market trends.
To reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it’s worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it’s best not to read too much significance into any one report.
 
In terms of metrics, when jobless claims fall below the 400,000 threshold, it’s considered evidence of an improving jobs landscape, and when the number drops below 370,000, it suggests jobs are being created rather quickly. At this point, we’ve been 300,000 in 14 of the last 15 weeks.
Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee

Republicans hardly unanimous on new Cuba policy

12/18/14 08:00AM

We've grown accustomed to some clear divisions among Republicans on foreign policy, with the Dick Cheney wing of the GOP aggressively at odds with the Rand Paul wing. It's not exactly a 50-50 split -- the former contingent is vastly larger than the latter -- but it's the basis for some spirited intra-party debates.
 
These fights are largely about military intervention abroad and the utility of using force. They're not, however, the sole basis for Republican disagreements.
 
For example, one of the lead stories on Politico this morning said Republicans are "livid" over President Obama's new U.S. policy towards Cuba, and there's obviously a great deal of truth to this.
Leading Republicans reacted with outrage Wednesday over the Obama administration's move to normalize relations with Cuba, with some casting it as appeasement and the product of blackmail by the communist Castro government.
GOP critics of the White House's announcement weren't hard to find yesterday. Every Republican who's likely to run for president in 2016 was eager to tell news organizations how outraged they are, as were many GOP congressional leaders. As the day progressed, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) seemed to be having a competition of sorts, with each effectively saying, "No, I'm more enraged than you."
 
It's hard to know how much of this was sincere and how much of it was knee-jerk opposition to everything the president says, but either way the Republican posturing puts the party at odds with the American mainstream. David Graham noted yesterday, "[I]n every Gallup poll since 1999, a majority of Americans have wanted to normalize relations with Cuba, with the number varying between 55 and 71 percent in favor. And bare majorities -- or in one 2000 poll, a plurality -- have also supported ending the U.S. embargo against the country."
 
More important, however, is the degree to which the Republican posturing also masked GOP support for Obama's policy shift.

Guantanamo's fate and other headlines

12/18/14 07:55AM

Guantanamo not part of U.S.-Cuban bargain. (Miami Herald)

Not much chance of Congress stopping Cuba policy. (AP)

At annual press conference, Vladimir Putin defies the West. (NBC News)

The return of the Kingmaker: Jim DeMint is getting back in the game. (National Journal)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's planned prayer rally is stirring up controversy. (Times-Picayune)

Pakistan court agrees to let man accused of planning Mumbai attacks go free on bail. (Dawn)

Autopsy results contradict original story of Pennsylvania rampage suspect's death. (AP)

How Justices Scalia and Kagan are spending part of their December break. (Wall Street Journal)

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Cuban expats gain new political prominence

Cuban expats gain new political prominence

12/17/14 09:58PM

Rachel Maddow points out the large number of Cuban defectors in the American arts and sports communities who are about to become powerful lobbying voices for further breaking down the embargo wall between the United States and Cuba. watch

US points at North Korea on Sony hack, threat

US points at North Korea on Sony hack, threat

12/17/14 09:26PM

David Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times, talks with Rachel Maddow about the degree of certainty of the U.S. assessment that North Korea is behind the hack of Sony Pictures and the subsequent terror threat against movie... watch

Ahead on the 12/17/14 Maddow show

12/17/14 07:29PM

Tonight's guests:

  • Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian
  • David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times
  • Alan Gomez, USA Today immigration reporter

And here's executive producer Cory Gnazzo with what's coming up tonight:

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 12.17.14

12/17/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Welcome home: "The U.S. contractor who was freed Wednesday after five years in captivity in Cuba expressed support for restoring normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and celebrated his return to American soil. 'What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country,' Alan Gross said in a short speech from his lawyer's Washington, D.C. office."
 
* Russia: "Trading in the Russian ruble was volatile early Wednesday morning, rallying briefly on news that the Finance Ministry was ready to sell some of its foreign currency reserves, and then weakening again."
 
* The day after: "Pakistan's army and intelligence chiefs traveled to Afghanistan on Wednesday to seek help locating the Pakistani Taliban commanders responsible for the massacre of students at a school here in Peshawar the day before, officials said."
 
* New York: "Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration announced on Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State because of concerns over health risks, ending years of uncertainty over the disputed method of natural gas extraction."
 
* A surprising retreat: "Sony Pictures has decided to pull their upcoming comedy 'The Interview' from distribution amid security concerns and reports that the five largest movie theater chains in the U.S. had decided to hold off on screening the film."
 
* Arizona: "The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked the state of Arizona from enforcing a policy that denies driver's licenses to young immigrants granted legal status by President Barack Obama in 2012."
 
* As if the White House beat wasn't busy enough today: "President Obama granted clemency to 20 individuals -- including 12 pardons and eight commutations."
 
* No rush: "The Federal Reserve on Wednesday said it would be "patient" in deciding when to begin to increase interest rates, suggesting that the recent burst of positive U.S. economic data hasn't moved up widely-expected plans to begin to raise rates sometime next year."
 
* Does Russia's economic crisis threaten the U.S. economy? Not exactly. In fact, it might even help us a little, at least in the short term.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event on Oct. 2, 2014 in Evanston, Ill. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

The 'Obama refuses to lead' crowd falls silent

12/17/14 04:56PM

Kevin Drum pauses today to take stock of the recent actions from President Lame Duck.
So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted, and disengaged president? He's been acting pretty enthusiastic, energized, and absorbed with his job, I'd say.
It's funny, in a way, to think about how long ago the midterm elections seem. Seven weeks ago, President Obama was apparently supposed to be a defeated man, crushed by an electoral rebuke, pushed into irrelevancy by an ascendant far-right majority in Congress. It was up to the White House, the Beltway said, to start looking for new ways to make Republicans happy.
 
There's a script that lame-duck presidents are supposed to follow, and gosh darn it, Obama would be expected to play by the rules, slipping further and further out of frame.
 
But given today's developments, it's striking to realize what the president has done over the 58 days since the midterms.
 
Obviously, there's today's historic announcement about U.S. policy towards Cuba. There's also Obama's breakthrough climate agreement with China, the successful secret mission that freed American prisoners in North Korea, and the sharp reduction of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
 
And that's just foreign policy. Closer to home, the president has unveiled a major new immigration policy that will bring new hope to 5 million immigrants; he's taken the lead on net neutrality; and he's scored a series of confirmation victories in the closing days of the Senate.
 
All of this comes against the backdrop of an improving job market, a highly successful ACA open-enrollment period, falling gas prices, a Russian crisis that arguably benefits the United States, and the number of Ebola cases in the United States falling to zero.
 
The White House's many critics don't want to hear this, but if Obama were a Republican, it's likely we'd be inundated with coverage about how "President Comeback just got his mojo back."
Image: Marco Rubio

Rubio struggles with condemnations of Obama's Cuba policy

12/17/14 04:00PM

The politics of President Obama's new U.S. policy towards Cuba does not fall neatly along partisan lines. Plenty of Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are celebrating the White House's announcement, while a handful of Democrats, most notably Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), aren't at all pleased.
 
But among all critics, few have been as vocal and visible today as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who's been apoplectic about the administration's breakthrough. That's not unexpected, though the far-right senator's complaints seem deeply flawed and poorly thought out.
 
In an official written statement, for example, the Florida Republican called the White House's shift "inexplicable."
"While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear."
It almost sounds as if Rubio thinks "business interests" -- in this case, farmers and Rubio's allies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- should accept limits on free enterprise, even as other countries trade with an American neighbor. Doesn't the senator usually see "business interests" as "job creators"?
"But most importantly, the regime's brutal treatment of the Cuban people has continued unabated. Dissidents are harassed, imprisoned and even killed. Access to information is restricted and controlled by the regime."
Right, and that's after 54 years of the exact same U.S. policy. How more decades of a failed policy would Rubio recommend to improve the conditions of the Cuban people? Isn't it at least possible that Cubans will benefit better relations and expanded opportunities with the United States?
 
Rubio later said Obama's moves "will tighten" the Castro regime's grip on power "for decades." I suppose that's possible, but my follow-up question for the senator is simple: hasn't the Castro regime already had a tight grip on power for decades? Has the old, ineffective U.S. policy weakened that grip in any way whatsoever?
 
Rubio then raised concerns that normalized relations won't address Cuba's human rights record, which is an odd argument coming from a senator who was defending torture just last week.

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