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Thursday's Mini-Report, 12.18.14

12/18/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* ISIS: "Three leaders of ISIS have been killed by American airstrikes in Iraq in the past month and a half, U.S. defense officials said Thursday. They were identified as Haji Mutazz, a deputy to the ISIS leader; Abd al-Basit, the top military commander; and Radwin Talib, who is in control of ISIS in Iraq. They were described as mid- to high-level leaders."
 
* Nigeria: "More than 100 women and children were unaccounted for after gunmen stormed a northeastern Nigerian village in a deadly raid Sunday, a Nigerian military source told NBC News on Thursday. No group took responsibility for the attack in Gumsuri, but it bore the hallmarks of Boko Haram, which abducted more than 200 girls in April from a secondary school in nearby Chibok."
 
* Secret Service: "The Secret Service is overstretched and needs a 'culture change' from outside leadership, according to an independent review of the agency that found profound problems in the organization tasked with protecting the president and his family."
 
* Putin: "Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a press conference on Thursday to address the country's increasingly dire economic crisis, made an extended, bizarre reference to bears that is drawing a lot of attention, and rightly, because it makes him sound absolutely crazy."
 
* A lot of the early reporting on this was wrong: "How exactly the former Marine suspected in this week's killing spree in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, died is unclear after an examination by the county's coroner. Coroner Dr. Walter Hoffman tells NBC10's Deanna Durante there was no sign of trauma to Bradley Stone's center region, contradicting information released by prosecutors on Tuesday."
 
* DOJ: "Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department's position going forward in litigation will be that discrimination against transgender people is covered under the sex discrimination prohibition in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
 
This will matter to several red-state policymakers from Plains states: "U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said reforms announced today by President Barack Obama will make it make easier to sell U.S. farm products to Cuba."
This image released by Columbia Pictures shows James Franco, left, and Seth Rogen in "The Interview." (Photo by Ed Araquel/Columbia Pictures/AP)

Hollywood retreats in the face of threats

12/18/14 05:08PM

I'll concede that the entertainment industry is pretty far from my usual beat, but the story of North Korea, Sony, and "The Interview" is obviously no longer just a story about a movie.
 
And while there are obviously policy concerns related to national security and cyber-attacks, even at a surface level, it's hard not to notice the speed with which Hollywood is retreating, just over the last 24 hours.
 
For example, as you've probably heard, the movie studio has already scrapped distribution of the movie.
Sony Pictures decided to pull its upcoming comedy "The Interview" from distribution Wednesday amid security concerns and news that the five largest movie theater chains in the U.S. had decided to hold off on screening the film.
A handful of theaters intended to respond to the developments by screening "Team America," a puppet movie that casts Kim Jung-il in a negative light, but apparently those plans are off, too.
Paramount Pictures ordered movie theaters planning to screen Team America: World Police to cancel the screenings.
If that weren't quite enough, it appears yet another film that might bother North Korea has now been scrapped before production could even begin.
According to Deadline.com, plans for a "paranoid thriller" set in North Korea and starring Steve Carell have been scrapped in the wake of a cyber attack against Sony Pictures that eventually led to the postponement of "The Interview." A source close to the project confirmed that production company New Regency had stopped development on the untitled film after Twentieth Century Fox pulled distribution plans.
I can think of instances in which various movies have been the subject of protests and boycotts, but is there any precedent for Hollywood fearing literal, physical violence from a foreign government and its allies?
A supporter holds a campaign sign of Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, promoting his goal of $2.50 a gallon gas as he speaks at a rally in Brandon, Miss., Sunday, March 11, 2012.

Gas prices drop below key threshold

12/18/14 04:01PM

Remember the 2012 presidential campaign? It was just two years ago that Mitt Romney boasted that if he were elected president, he'd "get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent, perhaps a little lower" by the end of his first term in 2016.
 
Americans decided to re-elect President Obama instead. The unemployment dropped below 6 percent in September 2014, about two years ahead of Romney's timeline.
 
It was around this time when Newt Gingrich vowed that if he were the president, he'd lower the price of gas to $2.50 a gallon. That was the threshold for success.
 
Which brings us to this morning's latest news from the energy sector.
This week's national average is $2.47 per gallon, also down by more than 14 cents from last week.
 
Triple-A analysts say prices could fall even further in the coming weeks, barring unforeseen circumstances.
You know, by the standards set by Republicans two years ago, Obama sure is looking like a great success, isn't he?
An Affordable Healthcare Act supporter (R) talks with a student (L) about the law on the campus of Santa Monica City College in Santa Monica, California, October 10, 2013.

U.S. uninsured rate shows sharp improvement

12/18/14 12:45PM

The Affordable Care Act covers an enormous amount of policy ground, and on every front, it's having considerable success. But the point of initiating the reform effort in the first place was to bring coverage to those who need it -- Americans, like residents of every other advanced democracy on the planet, should be able to receive affordable medical care when they need it.
 
And when it comes to extending coverage to those who've lacked it, the latest data is very encouraging. Time's Zeke Miller reported this morning:
New federal government data shows the percentage of Americans without health insurance was at or near historic lows this year following the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, and appears certain to fall to record levels next year.
 
The data released Thursday from the National Center for Health Statistics' National Health Interview Survey found that 11.3 percent of Americans were without coverage in the second quarter of 2014, down from 13.1 percent in the first quarter and 14.4 percent throughout 2013. An analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds the drop in the uninsured to be the largest in four decades, amounting to roughly 9.7 million Americans getting insurance, consistent with other Affordable Care Act estimates.
Note, as encouraging as this is, the figures do not include the recent data on new enrollments, which is also quite heartening at this point.
 
Miller's report flagged this new piece from White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jason Furman and CEA Senior Economist Matt Fiedler, who argued, "As this week's data confirm, 2014 has seen dramatic coverage gains, gains matched or exceeded only by those seen in the decade of rapid progress that followed the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Following this year's gains, we estimate that the Nation's uninsured rate is now at or near the lowest levels ever recorded across the 50 years for which we have data."
 
I'm sure the right doesn't want to hear this, but results like these are what success looks like. Those wedded to the idea that "Obamacare" is a "failure" simply have their heads in the sand.

Thursday's Campaign Round-Up, 12.18.14

12/18/14 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 Arizona's 2nd congressional district, Rep. Ron Barber (D) conceded yesterday to his far-right challenger, Martha McSally, who prevailed by 167 votes. The net gain for House Republicans for the 2014 cycle is now 13 seats.
 
* If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intends to separate herself from President Obama in advance of 2016, she has a funny way of showing it -- HRC yesterday not only endorsed the president's new policy towards Cuba, she highlighted her recommendations on the subject.
 
* In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) also appears to be gearing up for a national campaign, but closer to home, his support continues to fade. The new Rutgers-Eagleton poll shows Christie's approval rating inching lower and his favorability rating falling, too.
 
* In Kentucky, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) made clear yesterday that Sen. Rand Paul (R) cannot legally run for president and the U.S. Senate at the same time in 2016. She's prepared to take him to court to prevent the Republican from trying to circumvent Kentucky law.
 
* Despite losing re-election in the worst showing ever for an incumbent Pennsylvania governor, outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett (R) told the Associated Press he has "great interest" in helping a Republican presidential hopeful in 2016.
Former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush prior to speaking at the 2014 National Summit on Education Reform in Washington, DC on Nov. 20, 2014. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Jeb Bush's challenges quickly becoming apparent

12/18/14 11:38AM

The last time former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) faced a competitive election was literally 20 years ago. After winning an easy primary in 1994, Jeb took on incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) and lost -- in a year when nearly every Republican in America won big.
 
Bush tried again four years later, and he won two terms without much trouble, but in campaign politics, politicians who hone their skills on the trail and on the stump have an advantage over those who don't. In Jeb's case, the former governor simply doesn't know what it's like to persevere through a tough primary -- or eke out a win in a spirited general election -- because he's never had to do it.
 
And with this background in mind, it's that much more interesting to see the kind of challenges Jeb Bush is facing as he stumbles a little out of his presidential stumbling blocks.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush blasted the Obama administration's decision to normalize relations with Cuba in a Facebook post Wednesday, but in an example of why Bush's ties to private equity and Barclays could provide fodder for opponents and critics, Barclays (which reportedly pays Bush more than a million dollars a year) had to settle criminal charges for violating sanctions that included Cuba.
Soon after, reports indicated that Bush will abandon his paid advisory position at Barclays in two weeks.
 
To be sure, it's good to get problems like these out of the way now, and it's wise for Bush to take steps to address pitfalls before the campaign begins in earnest, but I'm not sure he's fully prepared to defend himself against controversies like these. Didn't he and his team see this coming before going after President Obama's breakthrough announcement?
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin answers questions at a news conference on Nov. 5, 2014, at City Hall Park, in Burlington, Vt.

The nation's first single-payer plan collapses in Vt.

12/18/14 10:45AM

Politics in Vermont tend to be a little different than most places. For much of the country, when a Democrat's health care plan is described as "socialized medicine," it's considered an insult. In the Green Mountain State, however, Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), recently re-elected to his third two-year term, made the creation of a single-payer system a key element of his statewide platform.
 
That, however, was four years ago. Yesterday, as Vermont's Seven Days newspaper reported, the Democratic governor effectively walked away from his ambitious goal.
In a striking reversal, Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday abandoned his chief policy initiative, saying "now is not the right time" to pursue single-payer health care reform.
 
Shumlin dropped the political bombshell with no warning Wednesday afternoon at a crowded Statehouse press conference. He said that new cost estimates presented to him last Friday by his health care team made clear that the plan he envisioned was "just not affordable."
The governor and his team originally estimated that single-payer would carry a price tag of about $2 billion a year. (In a state where the entire budget is about $2.7 billion, that's an enormous amount of money.) More recently, however, those estimates were revised to over $3 billion a year by the end of the decade, and Shumlin simply did not see a way to adequately cover the costs.
 
The governor did not go so far as to officially kill the plan altogether -- the talk in the state capital was about "hitting the pause button" -- but under the circumstances, there's little doubt that single-payer is finished in Vermont for the foreseeable future.
 
And if it's dead here, it's unlikely Americans will see it anywhere for quite a while.
US President Barack Obama speaks on the phone with King Abdullah II of Jordan in the Oval Office of the White House on August 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.

A welcome international reaction

12/18/14 10:03AM

There was something funny about the Weekly Standard denouncing President Obama's new policy on Cuba by running a piece from, of all people, Elliott Abrams.
 
It was Abrams, for example, who pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal, before serving on the Bush/Cheney National Security Council, which didn't turn out well for anyone.
 
Nevertheless, the noted neoconservative has taken a look at the White House's shift on Cuba, and Abrams is not impressed.
The American collapse with respect to Cuba will have repercussions in the Middle East and elsewhere -- in Asia, for the nations facing a rising China, and in Europe, for those near Putin's newly aggressive Russia. What are American guarantees and promises worth if a fifty-year-old policy followed by Democrats like Johnson, Carter, and Clinton can be discarded overnight? In more than a few chanceries the question that will be asked as this year ends is "who is next to find that America is today more interested in propitiating its enemies than in protecting its allies?"
Just at face value, it's hard not to marvel at the underlying argument here. The United States stuck to an ineffective policy for more than a half-century. For Abrams, that suggests (a) the policy must have been good, since it stuck around for so long; and (b) we should continue to embrace the failed policy to demonstrate to the world how consistent we are.
 
I suppose this has a certain Burkean logic, though it's hardly the basis for a sound, sensible foreign policy. As Simon Maloy joked, paraphrasing Abrams, "How can they trust the U.S. when we'll only adhere to a policy position for five decades for no discernible reason?"
 
But taking this one step further, by Abrams' reasoning, the international reaction to the White House's announcement would necessarily be negative. After all, according to the neocon argument, yesterday undermined global confidence in "American guarantees and promises."
 
So foreign condemnations of the administration's new policy were common yesterday, right? Well, actually no.
Sen. John McCain goes to the floor for a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. President Barack Obama has asked his former 2008 rival for the White House to travel to Egypt with fellow Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham, to press...

McCain vs. McCain on Cuba

12/18/14 09:06AM

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) angrily disagrees with President Obama, it's about as common as the sunrise. But when McCain reject his own views from a few years ago, something more important is happening.
 
Yesterday, for example, McCain issued a joint press statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), offering a rather predictable condemnation.
"We agree with President Obama that he is writing new chapters in American foreign policy. Unfortunately, today's chapter, like the others before it, is one of America and the values we stand for in retreat and decline. It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America's influence in the world. Is it any wonder that under President Obama's watch our enemies are emboldened and our friends demoralized?"
To be sure, the rhetoric is stale and tiresome. Almost all of this, practically word for word, has been a staple of McCain press releases for six years. The point is hardly subtle: when it comes to foreign policy and international affairs, whatever President Obama supports, John McCain opposes, whether it makes sense or not.
 
That's not the interesting part. Rather, what McCain neglected to mention yesterday is the fact that he used to support the very changes the Obama White House announced yesterday.

Jobless claims steadily improve, beat expectations

12/18/14 08:37AM

With the calendar year nearly over, those hoping to see 2014 end on an encouraging economic note will be pleased with the new Labor Department report on initial unemployment claims.
The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits fell by 6,000 to 289,000 in the seven days ended Dec. 13, keeping initial jobless claims at a low level typically associated with strong hiring. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to total a seasonally adjusted 295,000. Initial claims are often quite volatile in the period stretching from Thanksgiving until the end of January because of the holiday season and poor weather.
 
The average of new claims over the past month, meanwhile, dipped by 750 to 298,750, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average smoothens out seasonal volatility in the weekly report and is seen as a more accurate predictor of labor-market trends.
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 300,000 in 14 of the last 15 weeks.
Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee

Republicans hardly unanimous on new Cuba policy

12/18/14 08:00AM

We've grown accustomed to some clear divisions among Republicans on foreign policy, with the Dick Cheney wing of the GOP aggressively at odds with the Rand Paul wing. It's not exactly a 50-50 split -- the former contingent is vastly larger than the latter -- but it's the basis for some spirited intra-party debates.
 
These fights are largely about military intervention abroad and the utility of using force. They're not, however, the sole basis for Republican disagreements.
 
For example, one of the lead stories on Politico this morning said Republicans are "livid" over President Obama's new U.S. policy towards Cuba, and there's obviously a great deal of truth to this.
Leading Republicans reacted with outrage Wednesday over the Obama administration's move to normalize relations with Cuba, with some casting it as appeasement and the product of blackmail by the communist Castro government.
GOP critics of the White House's announcement weren't hard to find yesterday. Every Republican who's likely to run for president in 2016 was eager to tell news organizations how outraged they are, as were many GOP congressional leaders. As the day progressed, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) seemed to be having a competition of sorts, with each effectively saying, "No, I'm more enraged than you."
 
It's hard to know how much of this was sincere and how much of it was knee-jerk opposition to everything the president says, but either way the Republican posturing puts the party at odds with the American mainstream. David Graham noted yesterday, "[I]n every Gallup poll since 1999, a majority of Americans have wanted to normalize relations with Cuba, with the number varying between 55 and 71 percent in favor. And bare majorities -- or in one 2000 poll, a plurality -- have also supported ending the U.S. embargo against the country."
 
More important, however, is the degree to which the Republican posturing also masked GOP support for Obama's policy shift.

Guantanamo's fate and other headlines

12/18/14 07:55AM

Guantanamo not part of U.S.-Cuban bargain. (Miami Herald)

Not much chance of Congress stopping Cuba policy. (AP)

At annual press conference, Vladimir Putin defies the West. (NBC News)

The return of the Kingmaker: Jim DeMint is getting back in the game. (National Journal)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's planned prayer rally is stirring up controversy. (Times-Picayune)

Pakistan court agrees to let man accused of planning Mumbai attacks go free on bail. (Dawn)

Autopsy results contradict original story of Pennsylvania rampage suspect's death. (AP)

How Justices Scalia and Kagan are spending part of their December break. (Wall Street Journal)

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Cuban expats gain new political prominence

Cuban expats gain new political prominence

12/17/14 09:58PM

Rachel Maddow points out the large number of Cuban defectors in the American arts and sports communities who are about to become powerful lobbying voices for further breaking down the embargo wall between the United States and Cuba. watch

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