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Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) and President Barack Obama (L) take part in a joint press conference at the International Convention Center in Hanoi on May 23, 2016. (Photo by Luong Thai Linh/AFP/Getty)

Obama arrives in Vietnam, with China in mind

05/23/16 03:50PM

It didn't take long for President Obama to make some news after arriving in Vietnam: he announced this morning that his administration is lifting of a longstanding arms embargo against the country.
 
"The United States is fully lifting the ban on sale of military equipment to Vietnam that's been in place for some 50 years," Obama said. "Sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those on human rights, but this change ensures Vietnam has access to equipment it needs to defend itself."
 
The president's trip, however, is about more than military sales. As the New York Times reported, the Obama administration scheduled three days of meeting in the hopes of "luring yet another Southeast Asian country away from China's tight embrace."
Mr. Obama's visit is an important step in a complex dance that Vietnam has carried on with China for centuries. Most of Vietnam's illustrious historical figures made their reputations by battling Chinese invaders. The population here is deeply nationalistic and anti-Chinese sentiment is visceral. The American War, as it is known here, is mostly forgotten, particularly since half of the population is under 30.
 
Vietnam relies on China for trade, investment and even the water that feeds the vast Mekong Delta, so the leadership knows it can poke the dragon only so much.
The Times' report added that China infuriated Vietnam in 2014 by building an oil drilling rig right off the Vietnamese coast, which soon after prompted Vietnam to "step up its contacts with the United States."
 
Which works just fine for President Obama, who wants to expand access to Vietnamese ports in the short term, while weakening Chinese influence in the long term.
 
And as we discussed in February, all of this seems to fit nicely into an important pattern.
President Barack Obama arrives to speak at Flint Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich. on May 4, 2016, about the ongoing water crisis. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

President Obama's poll support raises eyebrows

05/23/16 12:52PM

It's funny to think back to the 2014 midterms and what the chattering class was saying after Republican gains. President Obama was "finished," Americans were told. The election results were a stinging rebuke to the White House and its agenda, and unless Democrats wanted to invite the public's fury, Obama would have no choice but to give up on his ambitions and start giving the Republican Congress at least some of what the GOP wanted.
 
The president proceeded to ignore all of these assumptions, pursuing his agenda with the increased enthusiasm of a leader who recognized he needed to make the most of his remaining time in office.
 
If Republicans assumed Obama would face some kind of backlash for governing this way, they're no doubt disappointed with the results. The Washington Post reported over the weekend on the president's vastly improved standing.
When the ball dropped in Times Square on Jan. 1 of this year, more than half of the country disapproved of the job that President Obama was doing, according to Gallup. That boded poorly for the Democrats over the course of the year; presidential approval correlates to both how his party fares in the presidential race (even if he's not on the ticket) but also to the results of Senate races. An unpopular Obama suggested a less popular whoever-was-about-to-win-the-Democratic-nomination.
 
But over the course of the year, Obama's approval numbers changed -- quickly, and a lot. In Gallup's most recent weekly average, Obama is at 51-45 -- the exact opposite of where he was on Jan. 1 and a 12-point swing since then. He's been at 50 percent or higher in every week since March 1, save one.
The Post's analysis was based on Gallup data, but even if we take a broader view and consider the president's average standing across all of the recent polling, Obama not only finds his head above water -- supporters outnumber detractors -- but he's also currently seeing his strongest support in three years.
 
There's no one explanation for this. Some have argued his improved standing is the result of several recent governing successes. Others point to steady economic gains. Many have suggested Americans aren't overjoyed with the president's would-be successors, prompting some voters to say, "You know, maybe that Obama guy isn't so bad after all."
 
Whatever the cause, every Republican -- and every pundit, for that matter -- who said in November 2014 that the president might as well give up on trying to get anything done was mistaken. The more Obama has done in the last quarter of his presidency, the stronger his public support.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.23.16

05/23/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* To the surprise of no one, the National Rifle Association formally endorsed Donald Trump's presidential campaign on Friday.
 
* Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) this morning signed a bill into law replacing the state's caucus system with a more democratic primary system.
 
* In April, Bernie Sanders narrowly outraised Hillary Clinton, but his campaign also spent most of its money, leaving the operation with just $5.8 million cash on hand as of May 1. Clinton, investing far less in the late primaries, had $30.2 million in the bank as May got underway.
 
* Politico published a piece this morning on Trump's alleged connections to organized crime. The piece asked, "Why did Trump get his casino license anyway? Why didn't investigators look any harder? And how deep did his connections to criminals really go?"
 
* Abandoning all subtlety, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) hinted once again last week that he wouldn't mind being asked to run on Trump's GOP ticket as the party's vice presidential nominee.
 
* In a press statement issued this morning, the DSCC said it raised raised $6.1 million in April, outraising the NRSC by $1.9 million. Though the majority party usually fares better in these reports, the Democratic committee has now outraised its Republican counterpart in 14 of the last 16 months.
The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, March 16, 2016. (Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters)

How many justices would a President Trump add to the high court?

05/23/16 11:20AM

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Trump said he expects to name "as many as five" justices to the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming years, each of whom would oppose reproductive rights. In remarks to the NRA on Friday, the presumptive Republican nominee used a similar figure.
[Trump] said he expects the next president to appoint between three and five justices to the high court.
The GOP candidate caused quite a stir last week when he released the names of 11 specific, far-right jurists, explaining that they represent the kind of people -- if not literally the exact people -- he'd consider for Supreme Court vacancies. Reviewing the list satisfied conservatives and gave chills to liberals, which was probably the intended goal.
 
But is Trump right about his expectations? If elected, should Americans expect him to nominate a literal court majority by himself?
 
To be sure, five would be an awful lot. Looking back at every president in the last century, only FDR and Eisenhower named that many justices to the high court.
 
But Trump's prediction isn't completely outlandish. Consider a chart we first put together a year ago:
President Barack Obama walks across the South Lawn of the White House from Marine One, March 29, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Obama admin adds to counter-terrorism record, kills Taliban chief

05/23/16 10:40AM

Among Republicans, it's simply assumed that President Obama and his administration are passive and indifferent when it comes to counter-terrorism. In recent months, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, has said the White House's approach to defeating terrorists is simply "rhetorical," and barely exists in practice. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) added in November, "I recognize that Barack Obama does not wish to defend this country."
 
And yet, reality keeps getting in the way of ridiculous conservative talking points.
The leader of the Taliban has been killed in a U.S. airstrike, officials in Afghanistan said Sunday, setting up a potential succession showdown in the deeply-divided insurgent group.
 
A statement from the Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security was the first official confirmation of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor's death. It was soon followed by an announcement from Afghanistan's chief executive -- but no acknowledgement from the Taliban.
Earlier this morning, President Obama personally confirmed the Taliban leader's death, calling it "an important milestone" for Afghanistan, and adding that the United States had "removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces."
 
This specific airstrike reportedly occurred in southwestern Pakistan, in a province called Baluchistan, which the New York Times described as "the de facto headquarters of the Afghan Taliban."
 
Much of the focus now shifts to the future of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fact that Mansoor reportedly has no clear successor. But it's also worth pausing to appreciate the recent U.S. record when it comes to counter-terrorism.
McCracken County residents vote at the Lang No. 2 precinct located at Murray State University, Paducah, Ky., Regional Campus, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Ryan Hermens/The Paducah Sun/AP)

Why the latest polls are causing such a stir

05/23/16 10:00AM

For months, much of the political world obsessed over primary and caucus polls, eager to know who the party's presumptive presidential nominees would be. Now that this phase of the process is nearing its end, general-election polls are all the rage -- though they probably shouldn't be.
 
Last week, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by six (47% to 41%), while a Fox News poll showed Trump ahead by three (45% to 42%). Over the weekend, two more major pollsters added some grist for the mill. First, there's the latest data from NBC News/Wall Street Journal:
Clinton, who remains a heavy favorite to win the Democrat nomination, leads the presumptive GOP nominee 46 percent to 43 percent among registered voters, a difference that is within the poll's margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points. In April, Clinton held an 11-point advantage over Trump, 50 percent to 39 percent, and had led him consistently by double digits since December.
And there's the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, which was also released yesterday:
In all, the survey foreshadows a hard-fought, competitive and negative general election. At this point, the two candidates are in a statistical dead heat among registered voters, with Trump favored by 46 percent and Clinton favored by 44 percent. That represents an 11-point shift toward the presumptive Republican nominee since March. Among all adults, Clinton holds a six-point lead (48 percent to 42 percent), down from 18 points in March.
All told, the polling averages compiled by Real Clear Politics show Trump ahead nationally by 0.2%, while the averages compiled by the Huffington Post point to Clinton up by 1.6%. (The latter, for what it's worth, tends to be a bit more comprehensive.)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks past the guns of the USS Iowa after speaking on the battleship in San Pedro, Los Angeles, Calif., United States Sept. 15, 2015. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Donald Trump's 'shady' support for veterans

05/23/16 09:20AM

When Democrats make the case that Donald Trump has a controversial background when it comes to veterans' issues, it's not just wishful thinking. The presumptive Republican nominee, for example, has drawn criticism for supporting a privatization plan for veterans' care. His associations with the sketchy Veterans for a Strong America exacerbated the problem.
 
And it certainly didn't help matters when Trump, who avoided military service during the Vietnam War, said he "felt" like he'd served in the military because his parents sent him to a military-themed boarding school as a teenager. The Republican went so far as to boast that his expensive prep school gave him "more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military."
 
Making matters much worse are new questions about Trump and veterans-related fundraising.
 
In January, the New York Republican skipped a debate in Iowa to instead hold a fundraiser for veterans. Trump repeatedly boasted at the time that, thanks to his bold leadership, he's raised $6 million for vets. Trump added that he'd contributed $1 million out of his own pocket.
 
Whatever happened to all of that money? The Washington Post took a closer look.
Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said the fundraiser actually netted about $4.5 million, or 75 percent of the total that Trump announced.
 
Lewandowski blamed the shortfall on Trump's own wealthy acquaintances. He said some of them had promised big donations that Trump was counting on when he said he had raised $6 million. But Lewandowski said those donors backed out and gave nothing. [...]
 
Lewandowski also said he did not know whether a $1 million pledge from Trump himself was counted as part of the $4.5 million total. He said Trump has given that amount, but he declined to identify any recipients.
The number of questions, which the campaign does not want to answer, represents a real problem. Exactly how much did Trump raise for veterans? His campaign doesn't know. How much of it has been allocated? His campaign doesn't know that, either. Who were the beneficiaries of Trump's $1 million contribution? The campaign doesn't want to talk about it.
 
I'm trying to imagine how the political world would react if Hillary Clinton and her team tried this.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Boardwalk Hall on May 9, 2016 in Atlantic City, N.J. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty)

Bernie Sanders sharpens his pitch to Democrats

05/23/16 08:40AM

On Friday, Bernie Sanders repeated a familiar complaint: "It's strange and undemocratic that 450 superdelegates backed [Hillary Clinton] even before we got into the race."
 
This isn't exactly the easiest case to make. For one thing, it's really not that odd for many Democratic insiders to throw their support behind the former Secretary of State, senator, and 2008 runner-up before the primaries got underway. For another, when it comes to the challenges facing the Sanders campaign, superdelegates are practically irrelevant: the senator is trailing among pledged delegates. His deficit among superdelegates is the least of his troubles.
 
But perhaps most important is the Sanders campaign's broader strategy: the senator and his team are committed to a plan in which they'll ask party insiders to give Sanders the Democratic nomination, even if he comes in second. Given this dynamic, it would seem the senator has an incentive to impress superdelegates, not complain about them.
 
And yet, over the weekend, Sanders went much further down a confrontational road. The Washington Post reported:
If you want to make a politician really, really angry, endorse their primary opponent. That's exactly what Bernie Sanders did Saturday to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
 
"Clearly, I favor her opponent," Sanders said in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper set to air today.
Yesterday, the Sanders campaign, which, with few exceptions, hasn't done much to help Democratic candidates, went so far as to launch a fundraising campaign to help the DNC chair's primary rival in her Florida district, Tim Canova.
 
As the Washington Post's report added, "You can be certain that Wasserman Schultz has spent the past 12 hours making sure that every one of her colleagues is aware of what Sanders has done. If he is willing to do this to me, don't fool yourself into thinking he won't do it to you too, she'll argue."
 
And that gets at the heart of Sanders' dilemma: he's identified the people who can rescue his candidacy, and he's poking them with a pointed stick.
A woman points a handgun with a laser sight on a wall display of other guns during the National Rifle Association convention Friday, April 13, 2007, in St. Louis.

Stage set for historic 2016 showdown over guns

05/23/16 08:00AM

Over the last generation or so, presidential elections have generally followed a predictable trajectory when it comes to guns: Republicans have partnered with the NRA, warning voters that Democrats are going to pursue dramatic changes to gun laws, while Democrats, feeling defensive, have insisted that little, if anything, will change.
 
Indeed, about a year ago, the Washington Post explained, "For at least the past several decades, Democrats seeking national office have often been timid on the issue of guns for fear of alienating firearms owners." It was an observation rooted in fact: guns have served as a powerful wedge issue, drawing lines Dems were afraid to cross.
 
This year is poised to be very different.
 
On the Republican ticket, Donald Trump has abandoned some of his previous positions and sworn fealty to a right-wing vision on gun policy. Late Friday, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee spoke at the National Rifle Association's annual gathering and condemned, of all things, gun-free school zones. Yesterday, Trump went just a little further.

Phoning in to “Fox & Friends” Sunday, Trump contradicted himself multiple times when asked to respond to [Hillary] Clinton, saying, “I don’t want to have guns in classrooms, although in some cases teachers should have guns in classrooms, frankly,” because “the things that are going on in our schools are unbelievable.” Then, he said, “I’m not advocating guns in classrooms, but remember in some cases … trained teachers should be able to have guns in classrooms.” 

Hmm. So the GOP's 2016 candidate doesn't want guns in the classrooms, except for all the guns brought into classrooms by teachers.
 
Not surprisingly, Trump has also spent a fair amount of time condemning Hillary Clinton for advocating progressive gun reforms, but instead of getting into a defense crouch and pretending to love the status quo, Clinton has largely responded by bragging about her support for progressive gun reforms.
A Transportation Security Administration official walks by passengers at the Baltimore Washington International Airport. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

This Week in God, 5.21.16

05/21/16 07:41AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a bold new faith-based suggestion from the Republican Party's favorite idea man -- Newt Gingrich -- about a new approach to national security. TPM reported yesterday:
After an EgyptAir plane carrying 66 passengers disappeared en route from Paris to Cairo, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested Thursday night the U.S. create a test for airport workers to see if they "believe in Sharia."
 
Asked by Fox News host Sandra Smith, standing in for Megyn Kelly, whether he's confident in the country's ability to vet airport workers, Gingrich replied, "No, no, no."
The Georgia Republican said he's fairly confident in TSA officials' ability to "stop people who are stupid" from bringing weapons onto airplanes. Gingrich added, however, that airports need to create "the right standards."
 
More specifically, the former Speaker argued, "You know, the first test -- and this is very hard to do -- the first test ought to be, are we dealing with people who believe in Sharia and who want to impose Islamic supremacism?"
 
In case the problem with Gingrich's bold new idea wasn't obvious, Wonkette explained, with tongue firmly in cheek, "Because one of the laws of Sharia Law is that if someone asks you if you believe in Sharia Law, you have to say yes."
 
Right. Applying religious tests to airport workers is a bad idea on its face, but it's especially problematic when trying to identify those who may pose security threats -- because if you ask them, "Hey, do you want to impose Islamic supremacism?" they're very likely to say, "Nope."
 
Why not at least subject these employees to security backgrounds checks? That's a great idea -- which was already implemented many years ago.
 
There is, of course, a broader context to all of this. The former Speaker is apparently eager to be considered for the vice presidential nomination under Donald Trump, and with the Republicans' presumptive nominee running on a platform with highly controversial anti-Muslim plans, Gingrich has an incentive to push ideas like religious tests for airport workers: they're the sort of thing that might impress the GOP candidate.
 
That does not, however, mean they're ideas with merit.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

Citations for the May 20, 2016 TRMS

05/21/16 12:29AM

Tonight's guests:

  • Raymond Buckley, New Hampshire Democratic Party chair and president of the Association of Demcoratic Chairs
  • Chuck Todd, political director for NBC News and moderator of Meet the Press
  • Maggie Lamb, schooled in the fine art of news viewing

Tonight's links:

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Congress oddly silent on Hastert's misdeeds

Congress surprisingly silent on Hastert's misdeeds

05/20/16 09:25PM

Rachel Maddow notes that while some organizations have acted to distance themselves from former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, his most famous association, the House of Representatives, has yet to offer any reprimand or censure to the longest serving Republican speaker in U.S. history, the highest ranking American elected official to have been... watch

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