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Jobless claims inch up, but remain near 7-year low

04/17/14 08:39AM

Initial unemployment claims improved unexpectedly last week to a level unseen in seven years, and though the new figures from the Labor Department aren't quite as good, they're close.
The number of people who applied for unemployment-insurance benefits ticked up by 2,000 to 304,000 in the week that ended April 12, a slight increase from the lowest level since 2007, signaling that employers are maintaining a slow pace of layoffs, according to government data released Thursday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to total a seasonally adjusted 315,000 in the latest weekly data. The average of new claims over the past month dropped by 4,750 to 312,000, hitting the lowest level since October 2007, just two months before the recession began.
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.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez isn't being seriously vetted as a potential Mitt Romney running mate.

An unflattering portrait of Susana Martinez

04/17/14 08:00AM

Look up any list of "Republican rising stars" and you're likely to find first-term New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. And on paper, it's easy to see why: she's the nation's first Latina governor and an effective former prosecutor with a high approval rating in a relatively blue state.
But Mother Jones' Andy Kroll this week published a detailed, closer look at the New Mexico Republican and the portrait that emerges is deeply unflattering.
[P]reviously unreleased audio recordings, text messages, and emails obtained by Mother Jones reveal a side of Martinez the public has rarely, if ever, seen. In private, Martinez can be nasty, juvenile, and vindictive. She appears ignorant about basic policy issues and has surrounded herself with a clique of advisers who are prone to a foxhole mentality. [...]
[I]nterviews with former Martinez aides, state lawmakers, Democratic and Republican officials, fundraisers, and donors show a governor whose prosecutorial style and vindictiveness have estranged her from leaders in her own party and from the Democratic lawmakers she must work with to get anything done. Martinez and her staff, they say, have isolated themselves in her fourth-floor office inside the modest state capitol known as the Roundhouse. As one major Republican donor in New Mexico puts it, "They've got this Sherman's march to the sea mentality, burning everything in sight until they get to the finish."
It's a lengthy, tough-to-excerpt piece, but Kroll's piece raises some highly relevant concerns that will matter quite a bit if Martinez pursues national office. Her political operation, for example, appears petty and paranoid, alienating friend and foe alike. On public policy, Martinez comes across as disinterested in governing details -- soon after getting elected, she asked an interviewer to "remind me" what the DREAM Act was.
There are even questions about possible corruption: in 2011, the state "awarded a 25-year lease worth an estimated $1 billion to a company largely owned by a pair of major Martinez backers ... to operate a racetrack and casino at the state fairgrounds." Critics have accused the Martinez administration of rigging the bidding process and the FBI has interviewed witnesses about the deal.
Stepping back, there are a couple of broader issues to also keep in mind.

Putin on the blitz and other headlines

04/17/14 07:48AM

Ukraine forces kill 3 pro-Russian protesters.Putin admits Russian forces helped Crimean separatists. (NBC News) Colorado Senate Dems spike bill that would have protected reproductive rights. (Denver Post) New Hampshire may repeal the death penalty today. (AP) Obama and Cantor fight over immigration reform and a "Happy Passover" call. (NY Mag) CIA's former top lawyer fires back at Senate report, criticizes Feinstein. (McClatchy) read more

Cornell Woolridge takes part in a demonstration outside the Supreme Court in Washington as the court heard arguments on campaign finance, October 8, 2013.

About that Democratic 'outside money advantage'...

04/16/14 04:59PM

There's a big AP article that's made the rounds today with a headline that offers surprising news: "Democrats Have Outside Money Advantage - for Now." The piece goes on to report, "Democrats, at least for the moment, seem to have a roughly 3-to-1 advantage over Republicans in cash raised and banked through independent groups, according to the early filings."
Reading this, it's tempting to think Democrats and their allies, just 202 days before the midterms, must be in great shape. Despite all the fears of conservative billionaires helping buy the entire election cycle for congressional Republicans, here's evidence that it's Dems with the big financial advantage, at least as of now.
But if this doesn't quite sit right, there's a very good reason. Consider this excerpt from the AP piece (thanks to my colleague Tricia McKinney for the heads-up):
Groups that disclose whose money is coming in and how much is going out on a quarterly basis faced a midnight Tuesday deadline. Groups that release that information on a monthly basis have until Sunday to post their reports.
For instance, National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund has until Sunday to file. Through the end of February, the Republican-leaning group had raised almost $14 million.
And Americans for Prosperity, one of the most aggressive in running ads against Democrats as part of the billionaire Koch brothers' network of conservative groups, does not have to disclose its donors because, under tax rules, it is technically not political.
Don't brush past this too quickly, it's important.
Muslim-American men offer evening prayers after breaking their day-long Ramadan fast on Aug. 24, 2011 at Islamic Center of Bay Ridge in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Peter King still backs NYPD 'Demographics Unit'

04/16/14 04:23PM

As a mayoral candidate, New York City's Bill de Blasio (D) last year endorsed a "full review" of NYPD surveillance efforts, but civil libertarians weren't sure whether the so-called "Demographics Unit" would persist.
As Adam Serwer reported this morning, however, the once-secret unit devoted to surveillance of local Muslim communities is no more.
"Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair," New York City Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys."
Referred to as the "Demographics Unit," the unit, advised by an official from the Central Intelligence Agency, had engaged in broad surveillance of Muslim communities, such as neighborhoods, mosques, businesses in New York and New Jersey, without specific evidence of criminal behavior. Testifying under oath, an NYPD official admitted that the program had not lead to a single terrorism investigation.
Despite this track record, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who stands a reasonably good chance of becoming the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee next year, told msnbc this morning he feels "strongly" that the surveillance program that didn't lead to a single counter-terrorism lead "worked."
"The reality is the threat is going to come from the Muslim community," King added. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of Muslims are good Americans, but the fact is the Islamic terrorist threat comes from the Muslim community and good detective work is knowing who is in that community."
The "Islamic terrorist threat comes from the Muslim community"? Well, I suppose that's true to the extent that an Islamic terrorist threat wouldn't come from some other community, but if King still believes that the most meaningful terrorist threat in the country comes from Muslims, the congressman might want to check out Rachel's A block last night.
Abortion-rights advocates demonstrate during a rally outside a civic center in Fargo, N.D.

Court finds North Dakota abortion ban unconstitutional

04/16/14 02:54PM

Lawmakers in North Dakota went further than most in banning abortion last year, approving a state law that would prohibit terminating pregnancies after six weeks of pregnancy. In July, a federal court blocked implementation of the law, deeming it unlikely to withstand legal scrutiny.
Today, the judge finished the job, striking down the law as unconstitutional.
A federal judge has struck down one of the strictest abortion laws in the country, ruling that a North Dakota ban on abortions after as early as six weeks is unconstitutional.
In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Hovland wrote of the state's push to end abortions after a month and a half, "The United States Supreme Court has spoken and has unequivocally said no state may deprive a woman of the choice to terminate her pregnancy at a point prior to viability."
The law, which would have prohibited abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, passed last year and was immediately challenged. The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed suit on behalf of the Red River Women's Clinic, the only abortion provider in North Dakota.
"The controversy over a woman's right to choose to have an abortion will never end. The issue is undoubtedly one of the most divisive of social issues. The United States Supreme Court will eventually weigh in on this emotionally-fraught issue but, until that occurs, this Court is obligated to uphold existing Supreme Court precedent," Hovland said.
It’s the latest in a series of legal setbacks for opponents of reproductive rights, following related defeats in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona and Idaho.
American political consultant Karl Rove and Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah share a word at the Republican National Convention on August 27, 2012.

Conservative Victory Project wins by losing

04/16/14 01:00PM

In 2010 and 2012, Democrats successfully defended their Senate majority, but they had a little help from far-right primary voters. In races in Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, and elsewhere, more electable Republican candidates likely would have won, but they never made it to the general election -- the GOP base instead backed fringe candidates who lost.
In February 2013, just a few months after Democrats enjoyed another strong cycle, Karl Rove announced he had a plan to prevent future fiascos: the Conservative Victory Project would help ensure more competitive Republican candidates stopped losing to extremists.
Whatever happened to the project? A year later, Ben Dimiero discovered that Rove's hyped solution barely exists.
After debuting in 2013 to major media coverage and virulent opposition from conservative activists, Karl Rove's Conservative Victory Project political group is seemingly defunct. According to FEC filings, as of March 31, the group has $667 cash on hand after taking in only $2,214 in the first quarter of 2014.
Rove's Conservative Victory Project was announced in a 2013 New York Times article, which explained that the Fox News contributor and former Bush administration official was joining forces with "the biggest donors in the Republican Party" to create a group which would "recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts." The Times reported that the "project is being waged with last year's Senate contests in mind, particularly the one in Missouri, where Representative Todd Akin's comment that 'legitimate rape' rarely causes pregnancy rippled through races across the country."
As the time, many conservatives were apoplectic, fearful that the Republican establishment was poised to respond to 2012 defeats by moving closer to the mainstream, using vehicles like the Conservative Victory Project to crush far-right candidates in GOP primaries. With primary season already upon us, it appears groups like Club for Growth didn't have too much to worry about after all.
But let's not lose sight of the larger circumstances: Rove's project appears to have flopped in large part because it's not needed. The Conservative Victory Project lost, insofar as it's a non-entity in electoral politics, but in practical terms, it also won -- the problem it sought to address isn't seriously plaguing the party in 2014.

Rand Paul doesn't remember the 1980s very well

04/16/14 11:30AM

At the inaugural "Freedom Summit" in New Hampshire over the weekend, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said President Obama's economic policies mirror the "failed" policies of the 1970s: "Out-of-control spending, taxes, and regulation produced the exact same misery and stagnation." The remarks were well received, though none of Cruz's claim is true.
But as Bill Scher noted, Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) attempts at the same event to combine recent history with economic analysis were arguably worse.
"When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan ... Did he say, 'Oh let's just cut taxes for low-income people?' No, he said forthrightly, 'Let's cut everyone's taxes' ... The top rate was 70% ... he lowered it ... to 28% ... and 20 million jobs were created."
OK, senator, you asked for this.

In health care, making an effort matters

04/16/14 10:38AM

The Affordable Care Act has obviously become a major part of a national health care system, but as is now obvious, the implementation of the policy is hardly uniform nationwide. Some states have made a concerted effort to embrace reforms and implement the ACA as effectively as possible, while others made a deliberate effort to do nothing, regardless of consequences.
And as it turns out, those consequences matter quite a bit. Gallup reports today:
The uninsured rate among adults aged 18 and older in the states that have chosen to expand Medicaid and set up their own exchanges in the health insurance marketplace has declined significantly more this year than in the remaining states that have not done so. The uninsured rate, on average, declined 2.5 percentage points in the 21 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have implemented both of these measures, compared with a 0.8-point drop across the 29 states that have taken only one or neither of these actions.
This is important. It's not just that states that have made an effort now enjoy a lower uninsured rate, it's also that these states have done proportionately better at making progress. (Note, in the above chart, lower numbers are better.)
In other words, Americans living in states that haven't bothered to create an exchange marketplace and have rejected Medicaid expansion are worse off, and adding insult to injury, insurance conditions are getting better in those states slower than if they lived in areas where officials tried to make the system work.
Those officials who want to see "Obamacare" work effectively for the public are more likely to implement the law well, to their constituents' benefit. And at the same time, those officials who want the ACA to struggle can create their own self-fulfilling prophecy.
File Photo: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks during the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, File)

Sandoval steps up on jobless aid

04/16/14 09:54AM

It took four months of effort, but the Senate finally approved a bipartisan compromise last week on extended unemployment benefits. The bill's prospects in the Republican-led House are, at least for now, non-existent -- as Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) put it, "I don't think there is a great sense of pressure on our members."
Putting aside whether lawmakers should only act when "pressured" to do the right thing, the debate took an interesting twist yesterday when two governors -- one from each party -- began trying to compel the House to vote on the pending jobless aid.
The governors of the two states with the highest unemployment rates are urging Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio to take up the Senate's unemployment extension bill.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, wrote to  Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. D-Calif., asking that the House take up the Senate-passed bill.
In their letter, Sandoval and Chafee wrote, "As you know, long-term unemployment remains unacceptably high despite the fact that our economy has been recovering from the worst recession in generations. When our country has experienced similar rates of long-term unemployment in the past, Congress has consistently acted in a bipartisan fashion to extend emergency unemployment benefits."
That true, Congress has consistently acted in a bipartisan fashion to extend emergency unemployment benefits, especially when the jobless rate is as high as it is now. But that was before the current crop of House GOP lawmakers took power.
In the larger context, House Republicans obviously find it easy to condemn Democratic ideas. But on jobless aid, House Republicans now want the public to believe everyone is wrong: several Republican senators, Republican voters, at least one Republican governor, the Congressional Budget Office, the White House, independent economists, etc.
Phyllis Schlafly speaks during an interview in her office Wednesday, March 7, 2007 in Clayton, Mo.

Who wants to increase the pay gap between men and women?

04/16/14 09:21AM

During the recent debate over the Paycheck Fairness Act, Republican opponents carefully stuck to some specific talking points, intended to sound palatable to the American mainstream. They're against wage discrimination, GOP officials said, and support equal pay for equal work, but don't want to bother "job creators" with pesky measures like these.
In other words, for Republicans, it's not that the pay gap is a good thing, but rather, legislative remedies to address the pay gap are more trouble than they're worth.
As Kyle Mantyla at Right Wing Watch noted yesterday, however, Phyllis Schlafly, a long-time Republican activist and leader in the religious right movement, is bringing an entirely different perspective to the debate.
Given [her anti-feminist] outlook, it is not surprising that Schlafly opposes things like the Paycheck Fairness Act and efforts to close the gender pay gap, arguing in an op-ed published in The Christian Post that closing the pay gap will actually harm women.
As Schlafly sees it, women want to marry a man who makes more money than they do.  As such, if women and men make the same amount, then women will be less likely to get married because they will be "unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate."
The solution, obviously, is to increase the pay gap so that men will earn more than women so that women, in turn, will have a better opportunity to find husbands.
There was no indication that Schlafly was kidding. On the contrary, she specifically wrote that if the pay gap between men and women were eliminated, "simple arithmetic suggests that half of women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate."
And who wants to argue with simple arithmetic?
In Schlafly's vision, women will benefit economically after men get better jobs: "The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap."
To be sure, Schlafly isn't quite as powerful a political player as she used to be, but it's worth noting that as recently as 2012 -- less than two years ago -- she was a member of the platform committee at the Republican National Convention.
Nevada Rancher And Federal Gov't Face Off Over Land Use Battle

'And then you go, 'Uh oh''

04/16/14 08:43AM

As became clear late last week and over the weekend, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has a core group of supporters, many of whom happen to have weapons they're willing to bring to a protest. Bundy, who's been ignoring federal laws and court rulings for many years, also has his champions among conservative media personalities.
But David Nather noted that there seems to be a ceiling on Bundy support among conservatives who ordinarily enjoy railing against "big government," but who fail to see a "powerful rallying cry" in this story.
"It's like, really, Glenn Beck? This is the issue you want to get behind?" said one Nevada conservative activist who has followed the story for years. "People who aren't in tune with the story just jumped all over it. And then you go back and read the facts of the story, and then you go, 'Uh oh.'"
Uh oh, indeed. The new right-wing cause celebre is a man who doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the United States government, and whose supporters appeared prepared for a confrontation -- a potentially violent confrontation -- with American law enforcement.
The Politico report noted that Republicans and Tea Partiers are eager to talk about the Affordable Care Act and the IRS, but took a pass on Bundy: "Officials at the top Republican campaign organizations, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, didn't respond to requests for comment. Top lawmakers were silent. And a spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots said there was no one available to talk about the rancher issue on Tuesday."
I suppose that's preferable to the alternative -- GOP leaders cheering Bundy on -- but the silence isn't altogether comforting, either.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin speaks to the media in Oklahoma City, September 3, 2013.

Oklahoma's regressive approach to the minimum wage

04/16/14 08:00AM

Several states from coast to coast have given up waiting for Congress to act on the minimum wage and are instead acting on their own. Connecticut, Maryland, and Minnesota each recently approved wage hikes, while Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Vermont are poised to do the same.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, is also implementing a new statewide law on the minimum wage. But in this case, the Republican-led state is a very different approach. As Ned Resnikoff reported:
Oklahoma cities are now banned from raising their own minimum wages above the state level, thanks to a law signed by Republican Governor Mary Fallin on Tuesday. The law will also prevent cities in Oklahoma from crafting their own mandatory paid sick day laws.
Oklahoma's minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. The new law would stymie labor's attempts to raise the minimum wage in Oklahoma City, where activists have been organizing around a proposed ballot initiative to raise the city-level minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
In contemporary conservatism, "local control" is an important principle. The right tends to believe the government that's closest to the people -- literally, geographically -- is best able to respond to the public's needs.
Except, of course, when local government considers progressive measures Republicans don't like, at which point it's time to intervene and snuff local control out.
Wait, it gets slightly worse.