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President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington,D.C. on Sept. 26, 2014.

The ISIS 'gaffe' isn't quite what it's cracked up to be

09/29/14 03:23PM

If the White House press briefing today was any indication, much of the media has decided that President Obama has put a new "gaffe" on a tee, inviting critics to swing at it. Are they right? Let's take a closer look.
 
On "60 Minutes," the president covered a fair amount of ground with Steve Kroft, but apparently the most important exchange was about Islamic State militants.
KROFT: How did this get, how did they end up where they are in control of so much territory? Was that a complete surprise to you?
 
OBAMA: Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.
 
KROFT: I mean, he didn't say that -- just say that, "We underestimated ISIL." He said, "We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight."
 
OBAMA: That's true. That's absolutely true.
From there, the president added some additional context about political conditions in Iraq, and the interview moved on. To my ear, this hardly stood out as shocking stuff -- and Kroft didn't seem to find it especially noteworthy, either. I think much of the world expected Iraqi security forces to put up a more effective resistance to easily outnumber Islamic State militants, but their recent confrontations didn't go as planned.
 
But that's not quite what the political world heard. First, many news organizations seem stunned by the fact that the president acknowledged out loud that his administration "underestimated" a foreign foe. Second, Fox News and Ron Fournier have decided it's outrageous that the president is "shifting blame."
 
Let's consider these one at a time.

Why a compromise on contraception remains so elusive

09/29/14 01:02PM

Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has put himself in a very awkward spot. After flip-flopping on Colorado's proposal on personhood, which would ban abortions and many common forms of birth control, the conservative Republican continues to support federal personhood legislation.
 
Asked to explain himself, Gardner has been reduced to arguing, over and over again, "There is no federal personhood bill." This plainly isn't true -- the congressman is a co-sponsor of the "Life Begins at Conception Act," which his fellow co-sponsors agree is a personhood bill.
 
It's a problem that Gardner supports a radical proposal that would ban popular forms of contraception. It's arguably a bigger problem that Gardner has been caught trying to deceive the public.
 
But making matters slightly worse, social conservatives have decided Gardner's new position -- make birth control available over the counter, without a prescription -- isn't good enough, either. Sophie Novack reported the other day:
Some [in] the Religious Right see the plan as backtracking on conservative ideals, and they worry the ambiguity of the proposal would make pills too easy to access.
 
Eliminating the doctor as a middleman and making birth control easy to obtain could result in its misuse, the critics say. Over-the-counter access to pills that could cause abortions -- intentionally or accidentally -- would be their worst nightmare.
 
"There are several serious health complications with birth control pills," said Jennifer Mason, communications director for Personhood USA. "Some pills could cause abortions; even aside from the moral implications, it's reckless to make abortion and contraception pills available over the counter."
Remember, for Gardner and others in the GOP, this was supposed to be the silver-bullet solution. The idea is, they can overcome all of their proposed restrictions on contraception access by simply pushing for over-the-counter sales. Voila, political crisis resolved.
 
What these Republicans may not have realized is that they're inviting scorn from the right by pretending to move to the left.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.29.14

09/29/14 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:
 
* In North Carolina's U.S. Senate race, a new CNN poll shows Sen. Kay Hagan (D) leading Thom Tillis (R) by three among likely voters, 46% to 43%. That's roughly in line with most other recent polling in the state.
 
* In Louisiana's U.S. Senate, race, a CNN poll also found Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) leading Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) by three among likely voters, 43% to 40%. Given Louisiana's unusual system, if no candidate gets 50%, Landrieu and Cassidy will run in a head-to-head match-up in a December runoff.
 
* Maine's three-way gubernatorial contest continues to be a nail-biter, with the latest Portland Press Herald poll showing Rep. Mike Michaud (D) narrowly leading incumbent Gov. Paul LePage (R), 41% to 39%. Eliot Cutler, running another independent campaign, is third with 14%, which isn't enough to win, but which is a large enough percentage to affect the outcome.
 
* The Values Voter Summit, arguably the year's largest gathering for the religious right movement, held a presidential straw poll at the end of its gathering. Not surprisingly, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) came out on top with 25% support. Ben Carson was second with 20%, followed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) with 12%.
 
* BuzzFeed reported overnight on a Republican opposition researcher for the firm American Rising editing Wikipedia articles of Democratic candidates.
 
* If Greg Orman (I) prevails over Sen. Pat Roberts (R) in Kansas, which party will he caucus with? As of yesterday, the independent still doesn't want to talk about it.
 
* President Obama may not be able to campaign everywhere this season, but Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is only too pleased to welcome the president to his home-state campaign trail.
Mitch McConnell

McConnell's muddled message on minimum wage

09/29/14 11:31AM

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sat down late last week with "a room full of advertising and cable television types" in Lexington, and he had plenty to say about how great American politics would be if only he led the Senate. The Daily Independent in Ashland, Kentucky, reported Friday on one striking detail in particular.
He promised to restore order to the U.S. Senate, allow votes on legislation he might not support, force President Barack Obama to sign or veto legislation for "a growth agenda," and joked about the expense of running a U.S. Senate campaign. [...]
 
[D]oes that mean he'd allow votes on such things as the minimum wage which Democrats generally support (including Grimes) and which Republicans generally oppose?
 
"Yes," McConnell said.
Well, that's different. Indeed, it's more than different -- it's the exact opposite of what McConnell recently told the Koch brothers and their allies.
 
The Kentucky Republican appeared earlier this summer at a private summit organized by the Kochs, and at the time, McConnell told the crowd that if he's put in charge of the Senate, "we're not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals. That's all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage."
 
So, which is it? Was McConnell telling the truth to the Koch brothers, when he said the Senate wouldn't vote on raising the minimum wage, or was he telling the truth to the media professionals last week, when he said he would allow the Senate vote on a minimum-wage increase?
Michelle Nunn

Nunn pushes back against Perdue's low blow

09/29/14 10:40AM

Nearly every major campaign at some point faces a classic public-relations dilemma: what do you do when a rival launches a scurrilous and untrue attack? You can respond forcefully, running the risk that you'll bring more attention to the lies, or you can ignore it, running the risk that the lies will go unchallenged and voters might deem them true.
 
In Georgia's competitive U.S. Senate race, Michelle Nunn (D) found herself in this exact situation. Republican David Perdue recently approved a National Republican Senatorial Committee attack ad that accused Nunn of funneling money to terrorists while leading former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light Foundation. Neil Bush, the former president's son, called the attack "ridiculous" and "shameful," adding that the allegations make his "blood boil."
 
As Benjy Sarlin reported, Nunn is trying to turn Perdue's attack against him, making his dishonesty a campaign issue.
Georgia Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Michelle Nunn is out with a new TV ad in which she directly rebuts her Republican rival David Perdue's claim that she "funded organizations linked to terrorists" while running former President George H.W. Bush's Points of Light Foundation.
 
"That's a terrible lie and an insult to the millions of volunteers I worked with to make a difference," Nunn says in the new ad. "David Perdue's ad has been called the worst in America and President Bush's son called it 'shameful.'"
Nunn's pushback has the benefit of being true. Bush's Points of Light Foundation directed grants to a problematic entity called Islamic Relief Worldwide, but additional research helped show that "the grants referred to funds that eBay sellers donated, not the foundation itself."
 
The usual rules still apply, of course, and Nunn risks bringing attention to ugly falsehoods, but at the same time there may be real value in raising questions about Perdue's character. If Nunn's response succeeds, the question for Georgians to ask themselves is what kind of candidate would launch such an attack, and more to the point, what kind of senator would he be?
In this May 2, 2012 file photo, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., speaks at the Capitol in Denver.

Lamborn thinks he's in the clear following military controversy

09/29/14 10:09AM

Last week, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) went further than most when condemning President Obama: he boasted about urging active-duty U.S. generals to resign, during a war, in order to undermine the Obama administration.
 
Not surprisingly, this raised a few eyebrows, though over the weekend, the far-right congressman, who happens to also sit on the House Armed Services Committee, was taking a no-harm-no-foul attitude. The Colorado Springs' newspaper, The Gazette, reported Saturday:
The campaign spokesman for U.S. Rep Doug Lamborn said Saturday that the congressman has felt "no pressure" regarding his comments calling for generals to resign if they disagreed with White House policy. [...]
 
"No one from leadership has contacted the congressman because there is nothing to contact him about," said Jarred Rego, Lamborn's campaign spokesman.
By way of a defense, the congressman's spokesperson said Lamborn was referring to years-old policy disputes, including sequestration cuts and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
 
Given what Lamborn actually said, this defense seems literally unbelievable.
 
This isn't at all complicated. A voter made some bizarre anti-Obama comments, while urging the congressman to "support the generals and the troops." The congressman replied, "[L]et me reassure you on this. A lot of us are talking to the generals behind the scenes, saying, 'Hey, if you disagree with the policy that the White House has given you, let's have a resignation. You know, let's have a public resignation, and state your protest, and go out in a blaze of glory.'"
 
We're to believe that Lamborn was talking about the 2010 policy on gays in the military and the 2013 sequester? If so, why did the Republican reference present-tense efforts that he says are underway "behind the scenes"?
Republican senatorial candidate State Sen. Joni Ernst, speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition fall fundraiser on Sept. 27, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Justin Hayworth/AP)

When Senate candidates struggle with the basics

09/29/14 09:23AM

The political world spends a fair amount of time considering the role of low-information voters in an election. But what happens when the line between low-information voters and candidates is blurred?
 
Iowa is home to one of the nation's most competitive U.S. Senate races, and last night, the major party candidates -- Rep. Bruce Braley (D) and state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) -- faced off in a lively televised debate. The Des Moines Register reported on some of the highlights.
[Ernst's] low point was "stubbornly pushing the claim that Obamacare cut Medicare benefits, an argument repeatedly debunked by nonpartisan fact checkers, and her confusion on a question about current 'job-killing' regulations, where she cited cap-and-trade, which is not law," [Kedron Bardwell, an associate professor of political science at Simpson College in Indianola] said.
 
[Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist] said Ernst is "an excellent performer." "She looks right at the camera. She seems to radiate a certain kind of confidence," he said.
 
But Ernst didn't often say anything of substance, Goldford said.
It ultimately comes down to whether or not it matters when candidates for statewide office have no idea what they're talking about.
 
On climate change, for example, the far-right Iowan said, "I don't know the science behind climate change. I can't say one way or another what is the direct impact, whether it's man-made or not."
 
On Social Security, which Ernst wants to privatize out of existence, the Republican said, "Within 20 years, the system will be broke," which isn't even close to resembling reality.
 
On federal regulations, Ernst blamed a federal "cap and trade" law for undermining job creation, despite the fact that there is no federal "cap and trade" law.
 
On contraception, Ernst was asked about her efforts to pass a state law that would have banned in-vitro fertilization and forms of birth control. She responded, by way of a defense, that her bill didn't pass, which hardly counts as a persuasive retort.
 
On the minimum wage, Ernst still doesn't seem to understand that the federal minimum is a floor and that states are free to approve higher levels if they choose.
 
When a U.S. Senate candidate is this confused about basic issues so close to Election Day, it's tempting to think the candidate must be on the verge of a humiliating defeat. Except in Iowa, the evidence points in the opposite direction.
The perimeter fence along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House is seen in Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2014.  (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Secret Service faces renewed scrutiny following shooting incident

09/29/14 08:40AM

The Secret Service has experienced a series of unfortunate setbacks recently, including an incident this month in which a man with a knife was able to jump the White House fence and enter the building before he was apprehended.
 
Carol Leonnig, however, reported over the weekend on an even more serious incident that the public previously knew nothing about.
The gunman parked his black Honda directly south of the White House, in the dark of a November night, in a closed lane of Constitution Avenue. He pointed his semiautomatic rifle out of the passenger window, aimed directly at the home of the president of the United States, and pulled the trigger.
 
A bullet smashed a window on the second floor, just steps from the first family's formal living room. Another lodged in a window frame, and more pinged off the roof, sending bits of wood and concrete to the ground. At least seven bullets struck the upstairs residence of the White House, flying some 700 yards across the South Lawn.
 
President Obama and his wife were out of town on that evening of Nov. 11, 2011, but their younger daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, were inside, while older daughter Malia was expected back any moment from an outing with friends.
In this case, Secret Service officers, including one near the terrace where bullets hit the White House, rushed to action, but a supervisor halted the response, blaming the sound on a vehicle backfire.
 
Hours later, the Secret Service changed its assessment, but still got the incident wrong -- officials decided there had been shots, but the White House wasn't the intended target.
 
It wasn't until a housekeeper noticed "broken glass and a chunk of cement on the floor" that the Secret Service realized that a shooter had hit the White House residence. It was four days after the incident.
 
The gunman, Oscar R. Ortega-Hernandez, was eventually caught and arrested, but even this was largely the result of luck.

Underestimating ISIS and other headlines

09/29/14 08:04AM

Obama admits U.S. underestimated ISIS, blames Iraq's prime minister. (New York Magazine) (60 Minutes)

Airstrikes hit grain silo, gas plant in Syria, activists say. (AP)

Boehner: 'At some point, somebody's boots have to be on the ground.' (Wall Street Journal)

Secret Service fumbled response after gunman shot at White House in 2011. (Washington Post)

'Umbrella Revolution' grows in Hong Kong. (NBC News)

At CIA Starbucks, even the baristas are covert. (Washington Post)

read more

A view of Capitol Hill Oct. 16, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Boehner waits for Obama's orders on war authorization

09/29/14 08:00AM

For weeks, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been confronted with an awkward dynamic. He's repeatedly expressed public support for U.S. military intervention against Islamic State militants, but he's been lost as to how, or whether, Congress should meet its constitutional obligations in authorizing strikes on ISIS targets.
 
Would Congress act before giving itself another 54 days off? Boehner said no. Would Congress interrupt its pre-election break to do its duty? From Boehner, another no. Would Congress tackle the national-security crisis after the elections, during the lame-duck session? Last week, Boehner gave that a thumbs-down, too.
 
Yesterday, however, the beleaguered Speaker sat down with ABC's George Stephanopoulos and took a slightly different posture. The host asked why Boehner doesn't simply vote on a war resolution now, and the Speaker replied he'd be "happy to" to just that.
"The president typically in a situation like this would call for an authorization vote and go sell that to the American people and send a resolution to the Hill. The president has not done that. He believes he has authority under existing resolutions. [...]
 
"I think he does have the authority to do it. But the point I'm making is this is a proposal the Congress ought to consider."
Boehner added, I believe for the first time, that he's prepared to "bring the Congress back" into session, presumably before the elections, if President Obama presented lawmakers with a resolution authorizing the use of force.
 
Around the same time, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told Fox News that President Obama "has an obligation to call [lawmakers] back" into session to "start this debate" over ISIS.
 
This argument has been working its way through Republican circles for a couple of weeks, but it's apparently become the semi-official GOP line at this point: Congress will meet its obligations, but it's up to Obama to ask first. The "obligation," to use Barrasso's term, falls on the White House, which apparently is responsible for writing Congress' to-do list.
 
I can appreciate the appeal of the talking point -- it's a creative way to blame the White House for Congress ignoring its responsibilities -- but the argument's repetition isn't improving its quality. Indeed, there are two main flaws.

This Week in God, 9.27.14

09/27/14 08:51AM

First up from the God Machine this week is evidence of a striking shift in public attitudes, especially as it relates to the separation of church and state.
 
During the Cold War, the United States took deliberate steps towards blurring the church-state line -- the point was to rebuke the "godless" USSR -- with symbolic measures like adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" to all U.S. currency. Now that the nation's principal enemy believes in merging religion, politics, and government, might the American pendulum shift once more in the opposite direction?
 
Apparently not. Christopher Ingraham reported this week on the growing number of Americans who also want to help merge religion, politics, and government.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life just released its semiannual survey of American attitudes on the role of religion in politics. The survey finds a growing appetite for belief in the ballot box, and politics in the pulpit.
 
These shifts are largely happening on the Republican side of the aisle. And among Republicans, the changes are driven by white evangelical concern that the country is becoming less favorable to religion and, inexplicably, more hostile toward white evangelicals.
The results of the Pew Forum's study, which can be found in their entirety here, show sudden reversals in key areas. As recently as 2010, for example, a majority of Americans believed houses of worship should steer clear of day-to-day political disputes, but in 2014, a plurality believes the opposite. The reversal can be attributed almost entirely to self-identified Republicans, who've moved sharply to the right on this issue in recent years.
 
Indeed, the same report found that GOP voters, unlike the American population at large, increasingly want churches to endorse candidates for elected office, and believe there's "too little" talk about religion from U.S. politicians.
 
The broader question is why this is happening. Don't rule out the role of reflexive tribalism -- as we discussed in February, Republicans in the Obama era have quickly turned against evolutionary biology, too, not necessarily because GOP voters are more anti-science than they were six years ago, but because of tribal instincts. As Paul Krugman put it a while back, "The point ... is that Republicans are being driven to identify in all ways with their tribe -- and the tribal belief system is dominated by anti-science fundamentalists."
 
It's quite possible we're seeing a similar dynamic in the new Pew Forum data -- Republicans are suddenly eager to merge religion and politics because they've come to see constitutional principles like church-state separation as "liberal."
 
If this is driving the shifts, GOP voters may yet move closer to the mainstream at some point in the future.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

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