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Friday's Mini-Report, 10.31.14

10/31/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Hickox has had quite a week, hasn't she? "A judge in Maine ruled Friday that Kaci Hickox, the nurse who treated Ebola patients and defied a state-imposed quarantine, can come and go as she pleases, as long as she is monitored for symptoms and lets health officials know where she's going."
 
* A tragic accident: "Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane exploded and crashed during a test flight on Friday, killing one crew member and seriously injuring another, authorities said."
 
* The manhunt ends, the legal process begins: "The crowd was waiting Friday as Eric M. Frein, the suspect accused of killing a state trooper and wounding another, was brought out the front door of the Pike County Courthouse at the center of this prim village."
 
* How Frein got caught: "It came down to a surprise stroke of luck. After scouring the Pocono Mountains for seven weeks for a cop-killing suspect who became more a phantom with each passing day, police in Pennsylvania stumbled upon Eric Frein without warning Thursday evening."
 
* Canada "on Friday stopped issuing visas to people from the West African countries at the heart of the Ebola outbreak."
 
* Economy: "U.S. consumer sentiment rose in October to its highest level since in more than seven years on growing optimism about the economy and more favorable personal financial expectations, a survey released on Friday showed."
A nurse and a doctor demonstrate to health care professionals how to properly put on protective medical gear when working with someone infected with the ebola virus on Oct. 21, 2014 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty)

Turning the politics of Ebola on its ear

10/31/14 04:29PM

After a few weeks of Republicans turning the Ebola virus into a campaign instrument, it's still not altogether clear what GOP officials and candidates want voters to think. The message is a little convoluted: Americans are supposed to be terrified, which should lead them to vote Republican, which in turn will empower GOP policymakers to do ... something.
 
It's not that Republicans actually have some Ebola-related policy agenda in mind that can only be implemented by a GOP-run Congress. Rather, the right seems to believe the Obama administration has been "incompetent" in its response to the Ebola threat. By voting Republican, Americans can ensure that GOP officials complain from the majority instead of complaining from the minority.
 
Some of the political hysterics have arguably been effective. The latest USA Today poll asked which party Americans believe can do a better job responding to the Ebola threat, and the parties were nearly tied (Democrats 34%, Republicans 32%). Most recent polling suggests the public is generally satisfied with President Obama's handling of the issue, but it's hardly one-sided.
 
It's against this backdrop that Paul Waldman asks a good question: what if the political world's approach to the Ebola threat is backwards?
Imagine that a year ago, I told you that a few months hence, west Africa would see the largest Ebola outbreak in history. Then I explained that despite regular travel in and out of the affected countries by health professionals and ordinary people, there would be a grand total of two -- not two hundred, or two thousand, but two -- Americans who contracted the disease here, and both of them would be nurses who had treated a dying patient who had contracted the disease in Liberia. And I told you that both of them would be treated, and would survive and be healthy. If I had told you that a year ago, would you have said, "Wow, that sounds like a gigantic federal government failure"?
 
Of course not. You'd say that sounds like a public health triumph.
Agreed. It seems many of the president's detractors were so eager to declare a new "Obama's Katrina" -- the 11th in a series -- that they overlooked the nagging detail that the federal response to Ebola has actually been quite effective.
 
Indeed, the irony of this political "controversy," for lack of a better word, is that to find true incompetence, we must turn not to the White House but to those who've complained about the White House the loudest.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to speak to seniors in New Orleans on Sept. 22, 2014.

Landrieu: South not always 'the friendliest place for African-Americans'

10/31/14 03:02PM

President Obama didn't do terribly well as a candidate in Louisiana. In 2008, Obama lost the state by over 18 percentage points. Four years later, he fared a little better, but only a little, losing Louisiana by 17 points.
 
As recently as the 1990s, Bill Clinton won the state -- twice. What changed? Part of this is the obvious result of the Deep South becoming more much more conservative than it was two decades ago, but Louisiana's incumbent U.S. senator offered another possible explanation.
Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu said Thursday that the issue of race is a major reason that President Barack Obama has struggled politically in Southern states.
 
"I'll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African Americans," Landrieu told NBC News in an interview. "It's been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader."
 
Noting that the South is "more of a conservative place," she added that women have also faced challenges in "presenting ourselves."
It's important to emphasize that Landrieu, speaking to NBC's Chuck Todd, went beyond identity politics. "One of the reasons that the president's so unpopular is because he put the moratorium on off-shore drilling. remember?" she added. "After Macondo. And our state was furious about that. Now he could have shut down the BP operations but he didn't, he shut down the whole Gulf. When you shut down the whole Gulf of Mexico it puts a lot of people here at risk and out of business. That's number one."
 
But it's the senator's comments on race that are generating the most attention.
US President Barack Obama makes a statement on his administration's response to the Ebola crisis before departing the White House in Washington, DC, on Oct. 28, 2014.

Obama support 'sinks' ahead of midterms? Maybe not

10/31/14 01:09PM

The headline on The Hill's homepage yesterday read, "Obama's approval dips ahead of midterms." As Eric Boehlert noted, there's a lot of this kind of reporting going around.
The news media reminders arrive almost daily now: President Obama's approval rating is low and going lower. McClatchy Newspapers highlighted the "dropping approval ratings," while the Washington Post declared "President Obama's approval ratings have plunged to record lows." The Christian Science Monitor noted the numbers have "plummeted." The Washington Examiner stressed the president's approvals were "sinking to historic lows," while an Atlantic headlined announced, "Obama's Sinking Approval Could Drag Democrats Down With Him."
 
The portrait being painted by an array of media artists is unmistakable: Obama's approval ratings are not only weak but they're going down, down, down.
 
But it's not true.
It's obviously beyond dispute that President Obama's support is nowhere near its heights from 2009, but the perception of Obama in freefall just isn't correct. The most recent Pew Research Center poll showed the president's approval rating inching higher. So did the latest Fox News poll. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll showed the president's approval rating up three points. The most recent CNN poll released earlier this week found Obama's approval rating reaching its highest point of the year.
 
The new Gallup tracking poll results haven't been published just yet, but yesterday, the president had a 43% approval rating. At the start of the year, it was 42%.
 
By no fair definition would anyone characterize Obama as popular, but the data clearly doesn't support the "plunged to record lows" talk.
 
So why do we hear it quite so often? I suspect is has something to do with attempts to make sense of the 2014 midterms -- Republicans are running a hyper-aggressive anti-Obama campaign, predicated on the assumption that voters who've turned against the president will also turn against candidates from the president's party.
 
Indeed, there's already been amble Beltway chatter about how much responsibility Obama should shoulder for the Democrats' midterm difficulties. The answer is, not much.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.31.14

10/31/14 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
 
* Colorado's U.S. Senate race appears to be ending on a competitive note. The new PPP poll shows Sen. Mark Udall (D) tied with Rep. Cory Gardner (R), 48% each. The new Denver Post poll, meanwhile, shows Gardner with a two-point edge.
 
* As for Colorado's gubernatorial race, PPP also found that contest tied, with Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) each getting 47% in the poll.
 
* In Iowa's U.S. Senate race, the new Reuters/Ipsos poll also finds a tied contest, with Bruce Braley (D) and Joni Ernst (R) each garnering 45% support.
 
* In Georgia's U.S. Senate, a new Landmark Communications poll points to another tie, with Michelle Nunn (D) and David Perdue (R) each getting 47%.
 
* The final Bluegrass Poll in Kentucky found Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) leading Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) by five points, 48% to 43%.
 
* In North Carolina's U.S. Senate race, PPP now has Sen. Kay Hagan (D) up by one point over Thom Tillis (R), 47% to 46%.
 
* In Arkansas' U.S. Senate race, a University of Arkansas poll shows Rep. Tom Cotton (R) with a sizable lead over incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D), 49% to 36%.
 
* In New Hampshire's U.S. Senate race, the new WMUR poll shows Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) pretty big lead of her own over former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), 50% to 42%.
U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) listens in a Senate hearing. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Ron Johnson's guess on premiums wasn't close

10/31/14 11:37AM

When we last checked in on Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), he was telling a far-right media outlet there's a "real and present danger" about terrorists contracting Ebola on purpose and then attacking the United States. This week, as Igor Volsky reported, the senator returned to the same conservative news station to share some thoughts on health care.
Responding to a question [on NewsMax TV] about premium increases under the law, Johnson related his own experiences with voters. "I'm driving around Wisconsin, I'm talking to business owners and I'm talking to health care providers and insurance agents as well and they're seeing that same kind of range [of premium increases for 2015], anywhere from 16 to 60 percent," he explained. "Kind of with an average of around 30 percent here just anecdotally in Wisconsin."
 
But Johnson's anecdotes appear to be outliers at best and fabrications at worst. Actual rate filings submitted to the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) just last month show that the average premiums in health care plans offered through the law's federal exchange will increase by an average of just 3 percent in 2015, with two insurers registering decreases for the coming year.
Presumably, before the senator started speaking publicly about premium hikes, he probably should have looked beyond the evidence he discovered by "driving around." An average "of around 30 percent" isn't even close to the actual average of 3 percent.
 
As for the big picture, Johnson isn't the only Republican whose talking points on health care need some work.
A man jogs past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30, 2013.

For Senate GOP, 'Right Turn Ahead'

10/31/14 11:15AM

There's uncontested data that suggests today's Senate Republicans are further to the right than any GOP Senate conference in the history of the party. Indeed, given there used to be some moderate-to-liberal Republicans in the upper chamber, all of whom are now gone, the radicalization of GOP senators seems pretty obvious.
 
And with that in mind, it's tempting to think Senate Republicans just couldn't move any further to the right, having hit some kind of ideological peak. That assumption would be wrong -- Ron Brownstein explains this week that the 2014 elections now seem likely to push the GOP even further off the ideological cliff.
[A] look at the candidates' agendas this year finds an almost indivisible consensus behind deeply conservative positions among the 14 non-incumbent Senate Republican contenders with a plausible chance of winning. (The 14 include the challengers for the 11 most threatened Democratic seats and the GOP nominees for Republican open seats in Georgia, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.) [...]
 
Ernst may hold the pole position on conservative aspiration, but the other Republicans racing toward the Senate are not far behind.
Within this crop of GOP candidates, most of whom seem likely to win, all oppose raising the minimum wage. All reject climate science. Nearly all hope to destroy the Affordable Care Act. All reject bipartisan compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. Nearly all oppose background checks on firearm purchases. All oppose marriage equality.
 
The conventional wisdom is that the party nominated unelectable extremists in 2010 and 2012, limiting Republican gains in the Senate, and learned a valuable lesson in 2014. Those assumptions are, at best, suspect. As Brownstein put it, "While some analysts have theorized that a GOP Senate takeover would encourage the party to cut more deals with President Obama, the unswervingly conservative tilt of the Republicans likely to join the upper chamber points instead toward continued -- even heightened -- confrontation."
 
Right. The more the party is rewarded for extremism, the more extremist the party will be. GOP primary voters didn't nominate pragmatic centrists to run in Senate races this year; they nominated very conservative candidates who are arguably to the right of the median in the current Republican Senate conference.
Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal picks an unfortunate fight over intelligence

10/31/14 10:12AM

Looking back at the last year or so, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) effort to raise his national profile has run into occasional pitfalls. The far-right governor, for example, has suggested Americans have a guaranteed right under the First Amendment to appear on reality-television shows, while also refusing to say whether he believes in modern biology.
 
The Louisiana Republican has filed a federal lawsuit in opposition to an education policy he recently endorsed; he said Israel would be safer if Secretary of State John Kerry was "riding a girl's bike or whatever it is in Nantucket"; and he made up a ridiculous argument about Medicaid hurting Americans with disabilities, making it seem as if he doesn't understand the policy.
 
It's against this backdrop that Jindal is now arguing that President Obama isn't "smart" enough for his taste.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) attacked President Barack Obama's intelligence on Tuesday, claiming Obama deserves a tuition refund from Harvard since he didn't learn "a darned thing while he was there." [...]
 
"There's actually one lawsuit I'm happy to endorse. You see we have gotten so used to saying we have a constitutional scholar in the White House, we've gotten so used to saying we have a smart man as president. But I'm beginning to wonder if that's really true," Jindal said, according to video posted by the Louisville Courier-Journal.
As part of his indictment against the president's intellect, Jindal insisted that Obama is the "first president ever to occupy the White House who does not believe in American exceptionalism." He made the comments shortly after President Obama told a White House audience, "I'm a firm believer in American exceptionalism" -- an issue he spoke on at some length.
 
Part of the problem is Jindal's lazy combination of irony and hypocrisy. The Louisiana governor, desperate to rally right-wing support in advance of a likely national campaign, routinely makes comments that can charitably be described as dumb. For Jindal to pick a fight about the president's intellectual acuity is like New Jersey Chris Christie (R) accusing someone of being a bully -- it's a topic probably better left to others.
Image: Obama Nominates Hagel For Defense Secretary, Brennan For CIA Chief

Hagel balks at Obama's Syria strategy? Not really

10/31/14 09:32AM

The headline on The Hill's homepage late yesterday raised the prospect of an important rift within the Obama administration: "Hagel memo criticized WH Syria strategy." The article referenced a CNN report with a similarly striking headline: "Hagel wrote memo to White House criticizing Syria strategy."
 
Kevin Drum was flipping around the channels yesterday and came upon "a CNN chyron informing me breathlessly that Chuck Hagel had just 'blasted' President Obama's Syria policy."
 
It all sounds quite serious, doesn't it? If the president's own Defense secretary, during a war, is openly criticizing the administration's Syria policy, that's a pretty important development for U.S. foreign policy.
 
Except, one gets a different picture by actually reading CNN's piece.
Earlier this month, while on an [sic] trip to Latin America to discuss climate change, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sat down and wrote a highly private, and very blunt memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice about U.S. policy toward Syria.
 
It was a detailed analysis, crafted directly by Hagel "expressing concern about overall Syria strategy," a senior U.S. official tells CNN.... The focus of the memo was "we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime," the official said.
So, where's the part in which the Pentagon chief "criticized" and "blasted" the White House policy? As it turns out, there really is no such part.
 
Kevin added, "That's it? Hagel wrote an internal memo suggesting that we should have a 'sharper view' of what to do about Assad? And some sympathetic White House official kinda sorta agreed that Hagel felt we might be in trouble if 'adjustments' aren't made?"
Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks at a luncheon at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada March 29, 2014.

The gag rule Kasich doesn't want to talk about

10/31/14 08:50AM

The editorial board of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper, hosted a meeting recently with the state's gubernatorial candidates: incumbent Republican Gov. John Kasich, Democrat Ed FitzGerald, and Green Party Candidate Anita Rios. The discussion got a little ... odd.
 
FitzGerald, behind in the polls, not surprisingly stayed on the offensive, and noted the Kasich approved a law that restricts what rape-crisis counselors can tell victims. "Why was it important to have a piece of legislation that literally imposed a gag rule on rape crisis counselors?" the challenger asked.
 
The governor, slumped in his chair and visibly annoyed, decided to pretend that FitzGerald wasn't in the room. Wonkette did a nice job summarizing the scene.
One of the editors prompts him: "Would you like to answer that, governor?"
 
"Do you have a question?" Kasich responds. The editor then tries to explain the question FitzGerald just asked. As much as the editor understands the question, anyway.
 
"I assume that it had to do with, uh, there were limits on what they could say about having abortions," the editor says.
 
Kasich still says nothing, possibly because the reporter made the mistake of mentioning FitzGerald's name while summarizing the question. Once more, Kasich spreads his hands and asks, "I mean, did you have a...?" At which point FitzGerald jumps in and explains to the clueless reporter, "He's trying to pretend he didn't hear me say it, so you need to repeat it."
The discussion, such as it was, continued for a while, with the governor repeatedly saying he's "pro-life," while (a) refusing to answer the question; (b) refusing to acknowledge his rivals were sitting next to him; and (c) refusing to recognize the policy he imposed on his state.
 
Kasich, the chief executive one of the nation's largest states, did all of this while adopting the mannerisms of a petulant child who's been told to take a time out.
 
But the story took an even weirder turn when the Cleveland Plain Dealer decided it didn't want voters to see any of this.

Parties confront mixed signals as Election Day nears

10/31/14 08:00AM

At this point in the 2010 midterms, the evidence of a Republican wave was hard to miss. Over the last two weeks of the cycle, literally every national poll showed the GOP leading on the generic congressional ballot, and most showed the Republican advantage in double digits.
 
Four years later, the GOP is well positioned to have a very good night next Tuesday, but 2014 is clearly not 2010.
Among all registered voters, the Democratic congressional candidate is preferred over the Republican by five points, 45%-40%. But among those who indicate in a series of questions that they are likely to vote, that advantage shrinks to a single point, 43%-42%.
That's from a USA Today poll released yesterday afternoon, showing a plurality of voters actually preferring Democratic candidates, prevailing political winds notwithstanding.
 
Perhaps it's an outlier? It's possible, though over the last two weeks, eight national polls have published generic-ballot results, and in half of them, Dems had a narrow edge -- including, oddly enough, the Fox News poll. (I pulled those polls together in the above chart.)
 
How many national polls showed Democrats with any kind of generic-ballot lead at this point four years ago? Zero.
 
Early-voting data also shows a political landscape that's far from one-sided.

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