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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

Pope Francis celebrated with mass tango

Pope Francis celebrated with mass tango

12/17/14 09:54PM

Rachel Maddow reports on an especially big day for Pope Francis who is not only credited with brokering a historic deal between the U.S. and Cuba, but who also celebrated his birthday, with thousands turning out to tango in St. Peter's Square. watch

US points at North Korea on Sony hack, threat

US points at North Korea on Sony hack, threat

12/17/14 09:26PM

David Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times, talks with Rachel Maddow about the degree of certainty of the U.S. assessment that North Korea is behind the hack of Sony Pictures and the subsequent terror threat against movie... watch

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