There can be no doubt that ISIS's brutal murder of two journalists had a deep impact on how Americans perceive the terrorist threat. For years, polls showed a war-weary nation reluctant to launch new military offenses in the Middle East, but the recent beheadings abroad changed the calculus on the public's appetite for intervention.
But it's also true that many voices in the U.S. have exploited the political value of fear.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) argued a few weeks ago that there's "a very real possibility" that ISIS terrorists may have entered the United States through the southern border with Mexico. Soon after, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) added that the U.S. border is "porous," and officials must "secure our own borders" to prevent "ISIS infiltration." This week, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), now running in New Hampshire, echoed Perry's original claim, telling Fox News that ISIS terrorists might "actually [be] coming through the border right now."
Last night on CNN, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined the chorus.
ANDERSON COOPER: Senator McCain, the president also said that we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland. Americans who hear those words might wonder, if that is really the case, then why do we need to take action against ISIS? To that you say what?
JOHN MCCAIN: I say that today, we had a hearing, and there was testimony from the counterterrorism people and the Department of Homeland Security. There is Twitter traffic right now and Facebook traffic, where they are urging attacks on the United States of America. And there is a great concern that our southern border and our northern border is porous and that they will be coming across.
A few hours earlier on Twitter, McCain encouraged his followers to read a piece on a far-right website, which reported that the U.S. officials have "confirmed" that Islamic State terrorists are "planning" to infiltrate the United States through our southern border.
Is it any wonder so many Americans are afraid?
Perhaps now would be a good time to pause for a deep breath -- and a reality check.
When it comes to initial unemployment claims, many expected September to build on the progress we saw in August. The data from the Labor Department, however, wasn't quite what we were hoping for.
The number of people who applied for jobless benefits rose 11,000 to 315,000 in the week that ended Sept. 6, hitting the highest level since late June, according to government data released Thursday. Despite that rise, weekly claims remained near pre-recession levels, signaling a slow pace of layoffs. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected initial claims for regular state unemployment-insurance benefits to tick down to 301,000 in the most recent weekly data from an originally reported 302,000 for the prior period. [...]
The four-week average of new claims, a trend that's less volatile than weekly changes, rose 750 to 304,000, the government reported.
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 below 330,000 in 23 of the last 26 weeks. (We've also been below 300,000 in four of the last eight weeks.)
If nothing else, the political world's conversation can now shift. Instead of handwringing about whether President Obama has a strategy to confront Islamic State, the discussion can now turn to considering the White House plan on its merits.
In a primetime address, the president spelled out a fairly broad objective -- to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy" -- and presented the four parts of his larger plan.
1. "First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists."
2, "Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground."
3. "Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks."
4. "Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization."
Ordinarily, in a speech like this, it might seem as if Americans can now expect a new war -- or something akin to war -- to get underway, with a "shock and awe" moment poised to unfold. But these are a different set of circumstances -- the truth is, the "systematic campaign of airstrikes" began over a month ago. For that matter, we've also been taking steps to prevent attacks, while at the same time, providing humanitarian assistance to victims.
So what's different? What's clearly new is the expanded scope of the offensive, with Obama saying for the first time last night that ISIS targets in Syria are now part of his plan. The administration also seems eager to vastly bolster support to opposition forces, a move that carries its own dramatic risks.
Just as important was the president's reference to "a broad coalition of partners," with some significant developments on this front overnight.
* U.S. policy in Syria: "Senate Democratic leaders on Wednesday prepared legislation to expressly authorize the United States military to train Syrian rebels to help battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and House Republicans appeared ready to follow their lead."
* On a related note: "The House will postpone its scheduled Thursday vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government past Sept. 30. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made the announcement during the afternoon vote series on Wednesday, saying the delay was needed to give members time to reach an agreement on whether to include Obama administration-requested language to aid Syrian rebels."
* Progress in Ukraine: "President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine said on Wednesday that the bulk of Russian forces had withdrawn from Ukrainian territory, a move that he said heightened the chances for a lasting cease-fire in the southeast."
* Iraq: "Secretary of State John Kerry arrived here on Wednesday for top-level talks to forge a coalition against the Sunni militants who have seized control of much of northern and western Iraq and to show support for Iraq's new government."
* Israel apparently hopes to preempt allegations of possible war crimes in Gaza: "Israel's Military Advocate General Corps has ordered criminal investigations into five incidents of possible misconduct on the part of Israeli forces in the 50-day Gaza war, a senior Israeli military official said on Wednesday."
* A month later in Ferguson, the anguish felt by Michael Brown's family has not eased.
* It looks like Ex-Im supporters are likely to get their way: "Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) on Wednesday said he intends to support a stopgap bill funding the government despite the inclusion of a provision reauthorizing the Export-Import bank."
* Detroit: "A federal judge agreed on Wednesday to delay Detroit's bankruptcy trial to give the city and its fiercest opponent a chance to finish a major settlement that could speed an end to the city's court fight over its future."
* Jose Padilla's sentencing: "U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke cut Padilla a break, of sorts, giving the one-time "enemy combatant" a new 21-year sentence rather than the 30-year term sought by federal prosecutors. While tacking on an additional 3 1/2 years to his original sentence, Cooke acknowledged Padilla's mistreatment in a South Carolina Naval brig where he was held after his arrest in 2002."
During his first presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was asked about whether he'd try to hunt down Osama bin Laden, who, by that point, the Bush/Cheney administration had largely given up on. Romney said he intended to "get him," but quickly added that he didn't want to "buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person."
He said, "This is about Shi'a and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort."
It was, even at the time, an odd thing to say. Romney never got around to explaining what "this" referred to, and according to his vision, Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood were all effectively the same thing. They're not.
This came to mind because the temptation to group unrelated people in the Middle East together apparently hasn't gone away.
The rising threat from Islamic extremists has set the stage for Republicans to make a splash with the launch of their Benghazi investigation next week. [...]
"ISIS has now woken up the American people to the fact that the threat is real, and Benghazi is certainly symptomatic of that," said Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who is not a member of the Benghazi panel, in an interview.
Really? Republicans -- including the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee -- are now trying to connect ISIS and Benghazi, just because?
As President Obama readies a national address on his strategy towards ISIS, congressional opinions are all over the place. Many members are convinced the White House will need congressional approval for military intervention; others insist the president already has the authority he needs to act.
Some want a spirited debate, others are effectively telling administration officials, "Just bomb the place and tell us about it later."
And then there's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who's been pretty quiet on the issue of late, and who seems to have come up with an unusual position. For example, here's the first paragraph of a piece in The Hill today.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Tuesday that President Obama should seek approval from Congress for any plan he has for combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
And here's the fifth paragraph in the same piece.
A Republican leadership aide said McConnell is not necessarily calling for a vote on a new use-of-force resolution.
Oh. So the Republicans' Senate leader believes the president should seek congressional approval, but that doesn't mean McConnell is calling for a vote on extending congressional approval.
Perhaps Obama should seek lawmakers' approval so McConnell can say, "No"?
In May, New Jersey's debt was downgraded for the sixth time since Gov. Chris Christie (R) took office. It was right around the time the governor scrapped his state pension-reform plan, once considered Christie's "landmark achievement."
New Jersey had its credit rating cut one step by Standard & Poor's, handing Chris Christie his eighth downgrade, the most ever for a Garden State governor.
The reduction to A, the sixth-highest level, with a stable outlook follows a Sept. 5 downgrade by Fitch Ratings.... Only Illinois has lower ratings than New Jersey among U.S. states.
In a press statement, S&P analyst John Sugden said, "New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance. The governor's decision to delay pension funding, while providing the necessary tools for cash management and budget control, has significant negative implications for the state's liability profile."
When I noted the other day that Christie has only been in office five years, and he had time to break his own downgrade record, I didn't think it would happen quite this quickly.
I have no idea what the governor will do to explain this once he hits the presidential campaign trail, but it's not hard to imagine his Republican rivals putting the issue to good use, especially since Christie has so little else to fall back on.
Most national polls in recent months tend to offer roughly the same results, to the point that it's tough be surprised by new data. With minor fluctuations, we know that President Obama isn't popular, while Congress fares much worse. Republicans enjoy less support than Democrats, but are likely to make gains in the 2014 midterms anyway.
On the whole, the American electorate isn't happy with the economy, foreign policy, immigration, or the nation's direction in general. Most national polls show the public in a mood that's somewhere between dour and sour.
But general trends notwithstanding, some recent polling has been quite surprising. In particular, if asked to predict Americans' attitudes towards U.S. military intervention in Syria and Iraq, I would have guessed that the war-weary nation would prefer to stay out of another conflict in the Middle East.
That's not the case. Rachel noted on the show last night that a new NBC/Wall Street Journalpoll found 40% of Americans support airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, while an additional 34% support airstrikes and the possible use of American ground troops.
The wording of the Washington Post/ABC News poll is a little different, but 71% of respondents nevertheless said they support U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, while nearly as many, 65%, support U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
Not only is this unexpected, it's worth emphasizing that public support for U.S. airstrikes in Syria was much lower a year ago, when President Obama weighed military intervention against the Assad regime -- plans that were scuttled when Obama struck an agreement that rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
So what changed? As President Obama prepares to present his vision for a national-security offensive, where is all this support for military intervention suddenly coming from?
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:
* Rep. John Tierney lost his Democratic primary in Massachusetts yesterday, coming up short against Harvard Business School graduate and Marine veteran Seth Moulton. Tierney is only the fourth congressional incumbent to lose in a 2014 primary, and the only Democrat.
* In Georgia's U.S. Senate race, a new poll from the NBC affiliate in Atlanta shows David Perdue's (R) advantage over Michelle Nunn (D) slipping from nine points to three, 47% to 44%. The same poll also showed a very close gubernatorial race, with Gov. Nathan Deal (R) leading Jason Carter (D) by one, 45% to 44%.
* Speaking of Georgia, during the Senate GOP primary, Perdue said he's prepared to oppose Mitch McConnell as the Senate Republican leader. Yesterday, McConnell nevertheless hosted a fundraiser for Perdue. Asked about the apparent contradiction, a Perdue spokesperson said the Republican candidate is "focused on winning."
* In Nebraska, Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann (R) announced his resignation yesterday following a violent family dispute. Heidemann has been Republican gubernatorial hopeful Pete Ricketts' running mate, forcing a major shakeup just eight weeks before Election Day.
* In Florida's gubernatorial race, PPP now shows former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) with a narrow lead over incumbent Gov. Rick Scott (R), 42% to 39%. Libertarian Adrian Wyllie is third with 8% support.
* In Michigan's U.S. Senate race, a new Detroit Newspoll shows Gary Peters' (D) lead over Terri Lynn Land (R) growing to 10 points. The same poll has Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) lead over Mark Schauer (D) down to just two points, 44% to 42%.
A lot of folks had a good laugh a few weeks ago when Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said there's "a very real possibility" that ISIS terrorists may have entered the United States through the southern border. The claim didn't make any real sense, and only reinforced concerns about the Texas governor's limited grasp of public policy.
The trouble is, Perry suddenly isn't the only one repeating the argument.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) last week said the U.S. border is "porous," and officials must "secure our own borders" to prevent "ISIS infiltration." Today, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), now running in New Hampshire, echoed Perry's original claim.
One day after winning a primary making him the GOP's Senate nominee in New Hampshire, Scott Brown said Islamic militants could already be crossing the border into the United States.
Brown also said that the U.S. shouldn't rule out putting ground troops in the Middle East to fight insurgents with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"As you know, what happened recently with the beheading of one of our own, there's deep concerns that there are members of ISIS actually coming through the border right now," Brown said on Fox News.
Look, there are elements of immigration policy and national security policy that are complex and require extensive study and examination.
This isn't one of them. It's just reckless demagoguery, intended to exploit public fears to advance a partisan cause.