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Thursday's Mini-Report, 8.21.14

08/21/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Ferguson: "Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday ordered the Missouri National Guard to withdraw from Ferguson, where they had been in place since Monday. The move came just after a brief altercation occurred between a state senator and a county spokesperson near St. Louis."
 
* Middle East: "About 10,000 mourners on Thursday buried three senior commanders of the armed wing of Hamas who were killed in a predawn airstrike by Israel, the most significant blow to the group's leadership since Israel's operation in Gaza began more than six weeks ago."
 
* This seems like quite an admission: "A senior Hamas leader has said the group carried out the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June -- the first time anyone from the Islamic militant group has said it was behind an attack that helped spark the current war in the Gaza Strip."
 
* Ebola: "American doctor Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol, both of whom contracted Ebola while treating infected Liberian patients, have been released from an Atlanta hospital. Writebol was discharged from Emory University Hospital on Tuesday, and Brantly was released on Thursday."
 
* ISIS: "Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday afternoon that it would not be possible to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria without attacking its fighters in Syria."
 
* It's a good thing the right was wrong about the auto-industry rescue: "[T]he number of cars coming off our assembly lines just reached its highest level in 12 years."
 
* No one knows why this is happening, though most agree it's good news: "For five years now, America's teen birth rate has plummeted at an unprecedented rate, falling faster and faster. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of babies born to teens annually fell by 38.4 percent, according to research firm Demographic Intelligence. This drop occurred in tandem with steep declines in the abortion rate."
 
* Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) hasn't just earned a reputation for his fierce anti-immigration position; he also seems to have a strong aversion to the Congressional Black Caucus.
 
* A city councilman in Missouri apologized this week for posting racist anti-Obama messages online. In an unfortunate choice of words, councilman Peter Tinsley's defense was he was "a very active Republican" when he published the offensive content.
A wedding cake is seen at a reception for same-sex couples in West Hollywood, Calif., July 1, 2013.

Federal court strikes down Florida ban on same-sex marriage

08/21/14 04:48PM

For proponents of civil rights and marriage equality, the last year has been remarkably successful, though there have been some recent bumps in the road. A state court in Tennessee, for example, interrupted the winning streak last week, while the U.S. Supreme Court halted Virginia marriages that had been set to begin today.
 
But as we were reminded in the Sunshine State this afternoon, the larger trajectory of this fight clearly favors supporters of equal rights.
A federal judge on Thursday ruled Florida's gay-marriage ban unconstitutional and ordered the state to recognize marriages legally performed elsewhere. U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, however, immediately stayed his order until after the appeals process is completed.
 
"When observers look back 50 years from now, the arguments supporting Florida's ban on same-sex marriage, though just as sincerely held, will again seem an obvious pretext for discrimination," Hinkle wrote. "Observers who are not now of age will wonder just how those views could have been held."
It was just six years ago that voters in Florida, with relative ease, approved a state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex couples from getting married. Amendment 2, as it was called, passed statewide, 62% to 38%.
 
But now, thanks to Hinkle, a Clinton appointee to the federal bench, the measure is unconstitutional. With the district court judge, however, agreeing to a stay, those hoping to take advantage of marriage equality in Florida will have to wait a little longer.
 
As for the larger context, let's return to looking at the scope of recent court rulings, because it really is extraordinary.
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, June 23, 2014.

Perry sees 'very real possibility' of ISIS crossing southern border

08/21/14 03:23PM

Several weeks ago, President Obama's Republican critics came up with a bizarre new accusation: the White House might be letting Ebola into the United States by failing to properly secure the Mexican border. The argument really didn't make any sense, but some members of Congress repeated the allegations publicly.
 
The talking point seems to have faded, but it's replaced by an equally foolish argument. Andrew Kaczynski reports on Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) appearance in Washington, D.C., this morning, where the likely presidential candidate said ISIS terrorists may be -- you guessed it -- entering the United States through Mexico.
"Individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be, and I think it's a very real possibility that they have already used that," Perry said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation Thursday.
 
Perry said he didn't have any "clear evidence" of that but said "common sense" tells you it could occur, citing crimes from undocumented immigrants.
The governor went on to say that he's aware of "historic" levels of border crossings from "from countries with terrorist ties." Which countries? Perry specifically referenced Ukraine -- which isn't at all known for its terrorist ties.
 
There are two broad problems with the Texas Republican's argument, both of which are important.
Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan's convinced: time to cut taxes on the wealthy

08/21/14 12:49PM

There are some congressional Republicans who believe the party's commitment to supply-side, trickle-down tax policy is in need of an overhaul. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), for example, still wants expansive tax breaks, but believes the cuts should be directed primarily at the middle class, most notably through expansion of the child tax credit.
 
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), soon to be the new House Ways and Means Committee chairman, wants to make one thing clear: those within his party who question the value of tax breaks for the rich are wrong. The far-right congressman sat down this week with John McCormack.
Some conservatives have argued that reducing the top rate is less urgent now than it was during the Reagan administration, when the top rate was cut from 70 percent to 50 percent and then cut again from 50 percent to 28 percent. But Ryan says that cutting the top rate is "even more pressing now" than it was back then "because the American economy was so dominant in the global economy and capital was not nearly as mobile as it is today."
Ryan added in the Weekly Standard interview that he's a "classic growth conservative," who believes, "Growth occurs on the margin, which is a wonky way of saying, if you want faster economic growth, more upward mobility, and faster job creation, lower tax rates across the board is the key -- it's the secret sauce."
 
Even putting aside the fact that Ryan seems to have an odd definition of "wonky," this is a bizarre perspective. Note, for example, that the failed vice presidential candidate is apparently convinced there's never been a better time to cut the top marginal tax rate, which only the very wealthy currently pay. The United States is in the midst of another Gilded Age, with massive amounts of wealth concentrated at the very top, but Ryan still demands tax cuts because capital is "mobile."
 
As Matt Yglesias noted, "The idea that globalization, which tends to increase the overall size of the economy while also increasing inequality, makes tax cuts for the rich even more urgent strikes me as a little bit hard to defend intellectually."
 
At the same time, we're also learning more about just how much -- or in this case, how little -- Ryan's ideology has changed.

Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.21.14

08/21/14 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 closely watched U.S. Senate race, a new Suffolk/USA Today poll shows incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D) with a two-point advantage over state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), 45% to 43%. Libertarian Sean Haugh has 5% support in the poll.
 
* A peek at how Washington works: "Only one week after Sen. Mitch McConnell took the CEO of Delta Air Lines to breakfast in the exclusive Senate Dining Room last month, the airline executive and his wife wrote $10,000 worth of checks to help fund McConnell's political operation. The donations, which were reported to the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday, made Rick and Susan Anderson the largest contributors to McConnell's Bluegrass Committee in July. Delta Air Lines' PAC contributed another $2,500 within days of the breakfast."
 
* The National Republican Senatorial Committee's latest attack ad in Arkansas tells voters that Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) "voted to give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants." In reality, this never happened.
 
* Rhode Island's Democratic gubernatorial primary is about three weeks away, and it remains a very close contest. The latest WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll shows Gina Raimondo leading the Democratic pack with 32%, five points ahead of Angel Taveras, who has 27%. And Clay Pell, who's at 26%.
 
* Fresh off Dan Sullivan's win in Alaska's Republican U.S. Senate primary, a Democratic super PAC called  Alaska First has welcomed him to the general election with a tough new ad. "There's two things you need to know about Dan Sullivan," an Alaska resident says in the spot. "He's not from Alaska, and he supports the Pebble Mine."
 
* On a related note, Planned Parenthood Action Fund also launched an ad against Sullivan, less than 24 hours after his primary win. (Disclosure: my wife works for Planned Parenthood, but has no role with the Action Fund, this ad, or my report.)

The politics and policy of the Ice Bucket Challenge

08/21/14 11:39AM

In practically every way that matters, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a great phenomenon. The idea originated as a campaign to raise money and awareness about the fight against Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and as the summer has progressed, the viral effort has had extraordinary success.
 
But is there a political/policy angle to this? As it turns out, yes.
 
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) noted on Twitter yesterday, "Since 2011, House Republicans have cut NIH funding by billions. And you thought dumping ice water on your head was cold."
 
Sam Stein fleshed this point in more detail, reporting yesterday, "Some of the very lawmakers who have taken the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness and money for ALS research voted for legislation that defunded ALS research."
The funding cuts, in this case, were caused by the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- otherwise known as the bill to save the United States government from default. As a condition of getting congressional Republicans to sign off on the debt ceiling hike, the Obama White House and Congressional Democrats agreed to budget cuts and future budget cuts that would be delivered via sequestration, an across-the-board cleaver that cut certain agencies' budgets by roughly 5 percent.
 
The National Institutes of Health was one of those agencies. It was forced to slash an estimated $1.55 billion from its programs. Among those was the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In Fiscal Year 2013, the NINDS budget was $1.53 billion, a $92 million decrease from FY 2012. For ALS-specific research, funding went from $44 million to $39 million.
The underlying policy at play is better known as "the sequester," which, to this day, many on the right still consider "the biggest conservative policy victory in a decade."
 
It's worth noting, as Stein did, that those who voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011 are not necessarily opponents of medical research in general, or ALS research in specific. On the contrary, some lawmakers voted for the legislation because they feared Republicans would follow through on their debt-ceiling threats and crash the economy on purpose. Other sequestration backers support research funding, but want the resources to come from private entities, not public resources.
 
Also, my point is not to rain on everyone's ice buckets. This campaign is not only fun, it's doing an enormous amount of good. All of this is to be applauded and celebrated. That said, if the goal is to raise awareness, part of that means mentioning that the public sector plays an important role in financing research on ALS and other diseases, and Congress is responsible for making these funding decisions.
 
Taking the challenge and participating in a fundraising campaign is a good thing. Congress financing medical research is a good thing, too.
A "Help Wanted" sign is posted in the window of an automotive service shop on March 8, 2013 in El Cerrito, California.

U.S. economy adding better jobs, not just more jobs

08/21/14 10:56AM

Gallup released some interesting data this morning, noting that 58% of full- or part-time workers are "completely satisfied with their job security." That's not an overwhelming majority, but it's the best result Gallup has found since it started asking the question 20 years ago.
 
This, when combined with data on job openings, job creation, and unemployment filings, paint a pretty encouraging picture. It's obviously foolish to argue that the job landscape suddenly looks great -- with an unemployment rate above 6%, far too many Americans are still struggling -- but the improvements are nevertheless clear and encouraging.
 
But, skeptics will argue, if these new jobs are bad, low-paying jobs, the progress is a mirage. It's a fair area for pushback, though the latest data suggests this argument isn't entirely true anymore. Ylan Q. Mui reported this week:
The recovery in America's job market is finally spreading to industries with good pay after years of being concentrated in fields with low wages.
 
Hiring has picked up steam in areas such as construction, manufacturing and professional services in recent months -- sectors with a median hourly wage of at least $20. Nearly 40 percent of the jobs created over the past six months have been in high-wage industries, compared with just a quarter during the last half of 2013, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project for The Washington Post. Meanwhile, growth in many low-paying jobs has leveled off or even declined.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told the Washington Post, "I often hear that the recovery is only in low-wage jobs. That is categorically inaccurate. This recovery is creating a lot of good jobs."
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to the media after turning himself in to authorities at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center on August 19, 2014 in Austin, Texas.

When Rick Perry 'said and did nothing'

08/21/14 10:30AM

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) legal troubles started over a year ago, when Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for drunk driving. After an ugly scene in April 2013, Lehmberg, a Democrat, pleaded guilty, apologized, and served 20 days behind bars.
 
Despite the fact that this was the district attorney's first offense, Perry called for her resignation. Lehmberg refused. As we discussed over the weekend, this set a series of steps in motion: the governor announced that if she did not resign, he would use his veto power to strip her office of its state funding. When Lehmberg ignored the threat, the governor followed through and vetoed the funding, in the process scrapping resources for the Texas Public Integrity Unit.
 
Now, for those who are skeptical of the case against Perry, the governor's actions hardly seem unreasonable. Indeed, it's not exactly outrageous to think a governor would want to see a district attorney step down after she spent a few weeks in jail.
 
But the Dallas Morning News added an interesting wrinkle to this argument.
Rick Perry was outraged at the spectacle of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg's drunken-driving arrest last year. But he didn't feel that strongly when two other district attorneys faced the same charges under similar circumstances.
 
In those cases, he said and did nothing.
This is no small detail. If Perry was convinced a DUI was a disqualifier for a district attorney, why did the governor apply this standard so selectively?
 
Democratic strategist Jason Stanford put it this way: "The key difference was that one of the DAs was investigating his administration for corruption and the other two DAs weren't."
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., speaks to the crowd at the Republican Party of Virginia post election event at the Omni Hotel in Richmond, Va., on Tuesday Nov. 6, 2012.

'Growing rancor and division' rocks Virginia GOP

08/21/14 10:00AM

Virginia Republicans haven't had it easy lately. The trouble seemed to start in earnest during last year's elections -- GOP candidates lost all of the statewide races -- and went downhill from there.
 
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) was indicted on corruption charges. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) was thrown out of office by his own party in a shocking primary. Party leaders hoped to make this year's U.S. Senate race in the commonwealth a key battleground, but have so far failed miserably.
 
This week, the intra-party fights took a turn for the worse, to the point that msnbc's Tim Noah said it looks like "the entire Virginia GOP is having a nervous breakdown." Jenna Portnoy reported yesterday:
The battle for control of the Republican Party of Virginia continued to rage this week with revelations of new discord between three prominent elected officials and a group of increasingly powerful conservative activists.
 
The conflict centers around a request from three of Virginia's Republican congressmen to state GOP leaders urging them to postpone a meeting last Saturday that was widely expected to feature a contentious showdown over control of party leadership posts.
I can appreciate why a dispute between congressmen and local party leaders over leadership posts may not seem important, but let's not forget that a dispute like this was a precursor to Cantor's stunning defeat earlier in the summer.
 
And given that Virginia is one of the nation's key swing states, the fact that its state GOP is suffering through "growing rancor and division," as the congressmen put it, may very well carry consequences down the road.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks at a meeting of university officials in Little Rock, Ark., Nov. 1, 2013.

Health-care debate turned upside down in Arkansas

08/21/14 09:21AM

As of a few months ago, the U.S. Senate race in Arkansas, one of the nation's most competitive contests, looked fairly predictable. On health care, incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D) would generally avoid the Affordable Care Act, while Rep. Tom Cotton (R) would run far to the right, base much of his platform on destroying the law, and promise to eliminate benefits for millions.
 
As of this week, those expectations have been shaken up rather dramatically. Indeed, what's playing out in Arkansas is emblematic of the changing nature of the debate everywhere.
 
Pryor, for example, supported the Affordable Care Act that has helped Arkansans enormously, and as Greg Sargent reported yesterday, the conservative Democrat is no longer afraid to tout his record.
In what may be the first, and certainly the most ambitious, such effort of the year, Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas is going up with a new and emotional ad that is focused solely on presenting his vote for health reform as a positive:
 
The ad is backed by a significant, six-figure statewide buy, I'm told. The spot tells the story of Pryor's own battle with cancer, and features the Senator sitting alongside his father, David Pryor.
The 30-second spot is available online here.
 
Note, Pryor doesn't mention the law by name -- or its nickname -- but he doesn't have to. Instead, the senator emphasizes the popular benefits the Affordable Care Act provides for those who need it. "No one should be fighting an insurance company while you're fighting for your life," he tells viewers. "That's why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick, or deny coverage for preexisting conditions."
 
As striking as this is, the larger context is just as important. While Democrats in red states start boasting about ACA benefits, Republicans are moving away from their health care attack ads and struggling to answer questions about Medicaid expansion.
 
Earlier this year, all of this was supposed to be impossible. Republicans, we were assured, would stay on the offensive, attacking "Obamacare," while Democrats desperately hid from the issue. And yet, here we are, watching the conventional wisdom get turned upside down. Indeed, Pryor's ad is a reminder that while voters say they don't like the reform law, they love what's in the reform law -- even in a red state in the Deep South.
 
The politics have become so topsy turvy that Cotton's far-right allies have begun attacking Pryor for not being liberal enough.

Jobless claims drop below key threshold, beat expectations

08/21/14 08:37AM

As we discussed earlier this month, since the start of the Great Recession, the very idea of initial unemployment claims dropping below the 300,000 threshold seemed rather fanciful. But the latest data from the Labor Department shows that it's now happened three times in the last five weeks.
The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell below 300,000 for the third time in five weeks, signaling once again that layoffs remain at a post-recession low amid an uptick in hiring in most major U.S. industries. Initial jobless claims fell by 14,000 to 298,000 in the week of Aug. 10 to Aug. 16, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch expected claims to drop to 300,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis.
 
The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, climbed by 4,750 to 300,750. Although that's a four-week high, the monthly average is still near the lowest level in eight years.
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 21 of the last 24 weeks.
The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

Pentagon's rescue mission came up short

08/21/14 08:00AM

In recent years, it's easy to think of instances in which American servicemen and women are sent on a dangerous mission, which has gone very well. The mission to free Richard Phillips from his captors in 2009, for example, was a great success. So was the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. More recently, the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged ringleader of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, went off without a hitch.
 
But sometimes these missions come up short.
The Pentagon attempted a rescue operation to free James Foley and other U.S. hostages held in Syria by Islamist militants, but the mission failed because the hostages weren't where U.S. planners thought they were, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.
 
The attempted rescue occurred early this summer when Special Operations forces in helicopters, under air cover from U.S. fighter jets, swarmed a compound and were engaged by enemy forces, U.S. officials told NBC News.
An American helicopter pilot suffered a minor injury, but that was the full extent of the U.S. casualties. On the other hand, Defense Department officials said "many ISIS fighters were killed" during the raid and subsequent gunbattle.
 
The hostages, however, simply weren't there.
 
A New York Times report added some additional details, including the fact that the mission was carried out by a team of two dozen Delta Force commandos, dropped by helicopter into Syria, who raided an oil refinery in the northern part of the country.
 
Lisa Monaco, President Obama's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, said in a written statement that the administration had an opportunity and acted on "what we believed was sufficient intelligence," but the raid was too late.
 
"Given the need to protect our military's operational capabilities, we will not be able to reveal the details of this operation," Monaco added. "But the President could not be prouder of the U.S. forces who carried out this mission and the dedicated intelligence and diplomatic professionals who supported their efforts. Their effort should serve as another signal to those who would do us harm that the United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will spare no effort to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable."

Ransom demand and other headlines

08/21/14 07:59AM

ISIS demanded ransom from U.S. before killing reporter. (NY Times)

James Foley's death isn't changing views in Congress. (AP)

Six arrests in Ferguson, MO last night. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

4 of the grand jurors who indicted TX Gov. Rick Perry are offended by suggestions their action was political. (Houston Chronicle)

High court blocks same-sex unions in Virginia. (AP)

North Carolina hears from the public about fracking. (Winston-Salem Journal)

Judge: Justice Dept. must provide list of 'Fast and Furious' documents. (Washington Post)

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