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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 5.18.16

05/18/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Nigeria: "One of the schoolgirls whose abduction triggered the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has been located after more than two years in captivity, activists and military officials said Wednesday."
 
* I still think it's a mistake to assume the economy is growing too quickly: "The Federal Reserve sent a sharp, simple message to financial markets on Wednesday: Pay attention. The Fed is thinking seriously about raising its benchmark interest rate at its next meeting, in June."
 
* A notable shift: "The Obama administration on Tuesday announced an easing of some U.S. economic sanctions on Burma, a move designed to foster greater trade ties with the once-isolated Southeast Asian nation that is undergoing a fitful democratic transition."
 
* Kansas: "A federal court judge ordered Kansas officials Tuesday to register thousands of people to vote in federal elections who had applications derailed for not showing documentation of citizenship when registering at one of the state's motor vehicle offices."
 
* The South Carolina Legislature "passed a bill Tuesday prohibiting abortion after 19 weeks, becoming the 17th state to pass the restrictive ban. The legislation will now head to Gov. Nikki Haley's desk. The Republican said in March she will almost certainly sign it, but wants to look at the details once it reaches her."
 
* That's quite a delay: "High-speed rail is turning out to be a slow-speed proposition. The first segment of California's first-in-the-nation bullet-train project, currently scheduled for completion in 2018, will not be done until the end of 2022, according to a contract revision the Obama administration quietly approved this morning."
 
* It was like a hearing, except it wasn't: "The image was stark: Nine Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee dutifully listened to witnesses shower praise on a Supreme Court nominee, while half of the dais -- the GOP side -- remained completely empty. The nominee, Merrick Garland, wasn't there -- nor is he expected to appear before the Senate anytime soon. Because they're in the minority, Democrats can't call a hearing, so they couldn't use the official Judiciary room. They had makeshift paper nameplates, and a senator not on the Judiciary Committee even got to sit in and ask a question."
Acting U.S. Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning takes his seat as he arrives at his confirmation hearing Jan. 21, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)

New Army Secretary emblematic of Obama-era progress

05/18/16 04:55PM

When President Obama nominated Eric Fanning as the next Secretary of the Army last fall, his qualifications were obvious. The Washington Post noted that Fanning "has been a specialist on national security issues for more than two decades and has played a key role overseeing some of the Pentagon's biggest shipbuilding and fighter jet programs."
 
But in one specific way, this wasn't just another nominee: Fanning, if confirmed, would be the first openly gay leader of any U.S. military service.
 
For some, his sexual orientation was an automatic disqualifier. For Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the fact that the administration was considering a plan to house dangerous people in a maximum-security prison in Kansas meant Fanning's nomination had to be put on hold for months. (How the senator's paranoia related to the Army post was never entirely clear.)
 
But yesterday, Fanning cleared the hurdles in his way and earned Senate confirmation through a voice vote.
A slate of senators from both parties joined in the praise for Fanning. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, tweeted that Fanning's selection is "an historic moment for #LGBT servicemembers," while Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, tweeted that he "appreciated (Fanning's) recognition of Alaska's strategic importance & need for larger @USArmy."
 
Fanning served as the Army secretary's principal adviser on management and operation of the service. He was undersecretary of the Air Force from April 2013 to February 2015, and for half a year was the acting secretary of the Air Force.
Any time there's a breakthrough like this, it's heartening, but it's worth pausing to appreciate just how extraordinary the progress has been in recent years.
 
When President Obama took office, gay and lesbian soldiers were prohibited from serving openly, transgender Americans were banned altogether, and women were excluded from combat units. Now, as Obama gets ready to leave office, DADT a thing of the past; there's no prohibition on transgender Americans serving in uniform; the Pentagon has made women eligible for combat roles; and the Secretary of the Army is an openly gay man.
 
Fanning was confirmed -- without a single vote of opposition -- in a Republican-led Senate.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, West Virginia, May 5, 2016. (Photo by Chris Tilley/Reuters)

The media's latest Trump 'narrative' is plainly wrong

05/18/16 12:45PM

Some of the political media establishment has apparently settled on a new "narrative": Donald Trump will appeal to Democrats by breaking with Republican orthodoxy and endorsing some progressive goals. It might be a compelling thesis, if it were in any way true.
 
The Washington Post got the ball rolling last week with a provocative, attention-getting headline: "How Donald Trump is running to the left of Hillary Clinton." As proof, the article noted, among other things, Trump's "America First" foreign policy, and his willingness to shift "to the left on the minimum wage and tax policy."
 
The problem, of course, is much of this is factually incorrect. Given its historical underpinnings, there's nothing liberal about Trump's "America First" vision, and the media hype surrounding Trump's purported shifts on the minimum wage and tax policy turned out to be completely wrong. The Post's entire thesis struggled under scrutiny.
 
And yet, there it was again in the New York Times yesterday.
On a range of issues, Mr. Trump seems to be taking a page from the Sanders playbook, expressing a willingness to increase the minimum wage, suggesting that the wealthy may pay higher taxes than under his original proposal, attacking Mrs. Clinton from the left on national security and Wall Street, and making clear that his opposition to free trade will be a centerpiece of his general election campaign.
 
As Mr. Trump lays the groundwork for his likely showdown with Mrs. Clinton, he is staking out a series of populist positions that could help him woo working-class Democrats in November.
Again, if these observations were rooted in fact, the thesis might have merit, but it's important not to fall for shallow hype and bogus narratives. Trump did not endorse a minimum-wage hike; he actually said there shouldn't be a federal minimum wage at all. He did not call for higher taxes on the wealthy; he proposed literally the exact opposite.
 
And far from "attacking Mrs. Clinton from the left on ... Wall Street," a few hours after the Times article was published, Trump insisted he would repeal Dodd-Frank reforms -- which represents an attack from the right, not the left.

Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 5.18.16

05/18/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* Bernie Sanders issued a written statement yesterday responding to the unrest at the Nevada Democratic convention over the weekend. The statement made no apology for his supporters' behavior; it blamed party officials for the near-riot; and it seemed intent on stoking the existing fires.
 
* Sanders himself, who has not commented publicly on the unrest at the Nevada Democratic Convention over the weekend, was asked directly about the controversy yesterday. He not only refused to answer, he literally walked away from reporters in the middle of the question.
 
* The Sanders campaign operation, meanwhile, is shrinking. Politico reported that a "handful of high-level staffers have left Bernie Sanders' campaign in recent days, including his director of technology and three of the four members of his original senior leadership team in California."
 
* In New Hampshire, a WBUR poll shows Hillary Clinton with a small lead over Donald Trump in the Granite State, 44% to 42%.
 
* The same poll found Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) leading incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in New Hampshire's U.S. Senate race, 48% to 46%.
 
* In Arizona, PPP found Trump leading Clinton by just two points, 40% to 38%, with third-party candidates in the mix. If Trump chose former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) as his running mate, his lead over Clinton disappears. (Arizona has voted Republican in 15 of the last 16 presidential races.)
 
* A Democratic superdelegate switched his allegiance yesterday, but it wasn't the change Sanders was hoping for. Emmett Hansen II, the Democratic National Committeeman for the U.S. Virgin Islands, was supporting the Vermont senator, but he's now backing Clinton.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gets on an elevator after being on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 4, 2015. (Photo by Susan Walsh/AP)

Discouraging polls force John McCain to scramble in Arizona

05/18/16 11:20AM

Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) re-election campaign unveiled an attack ad this week, targeting state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), the incumbent's primary challenger, for her interest in chemtrail conspiracy theories. The web ad mocks "Chemtrail Kelli" and her "bad judgment," which is "dangerous for Arizona."
 
Now, as it turns out, McCain is throwing some stones from a glass house. TPM reported yesterday that the Republican senator "forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency a letter from a constituent concerned about chemtrails, and asked the EPA to respond," as if the odd theories have merit.
 
But even putting this aside, let's not overlook the broader question: John McCain is worried enough about his primary rival to release an attack ad? According to a poll released yesterday by Public Policy Polling, the incumbent senator has reason to be concerned.
PPP's new Arizona poll finds that John McCain has a negative approval rating with Republican primary voters, and is at pretty serious risk of losing nomination for another term. Only 35% of GOP voters approve of the job McCain is doing to 50% who disapprove. [...]
 
McCain is polling at only 39% in the Republican primary field. He's benefiting from having multiple opponents. Kelli Ward is at 26%, Alex Meluskey at 4%, Scott McBean at 3%, and Clair Van Steenwyk at 2%. 27% are undecided.... When you narrow the field down to just a choice between McCain and Ward, it's a tie at 41%. Ward is polling this competitively at this point despite having only 41% name recognition.
It's only one poll, and we'd need more data before drawing firm conclusions, but if PPP is correct, these are the kind of numbers that suggest McCain's career is in real jeopardy.
 
Complicating matters, in a hypothetical general-election match-up against Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), the same poll showed McCain ahead, but not by much: 42% to 36%. This may help explain why Team McCain launched its first anti-Kirkpatrick attack ad of the year yesterday.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves the stage with his wife Melania Trump and his daughter, Ivanka Trump. after the first Republican presidential debate, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP)

Trump needs to clear a higher bar when it comes to women

05/18/16 10:40AM

The New York Times published a rather brutal piece over the weekend on Donald Trump's problematic history with women. It painted a painful picture:
The New York Times interviewed dozens of women who had worked with or for Mr. Trump over the past four decades, in the worlds of real estate, modeling and pageants; women who had dated him or interacted with him socially; and women and men who had closely observed his conduct since his adolescence. In all, more than 50 interviews were conducted over the course of six weeks.
 
Their accounts -- many relayed here in their own words -- reveal unwelcome romantic advances, unending commentary on the female form, a shrewd reliance on ambitious women, and unsettling workplace conduct, according to the interviews, as well as court records and written recollections. The interactions occurred in his offices at Trump Tower, at his homes, at construction sites and backstage at beauty pageants. They appeared to be fleeting, unimportant moments to him, but they left lasting impressions on the women who experienced them.
The article, according to a spokesperson for the Times, is the most read political story the newspaper has published in 2016.
 
In response to the piece, we've seen some curious reactions from women close to the Republican candidate. His spokesperson, Katrina Pierson, said yesterday, for example, "Women know Donald Trump is a very successful businessperson. He's raised a wonderful family. His own wife endorsed him for president."
 
In a separate interview, Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, said, "I'm not in every interaction my father has, but he's not a groper."
 
And Melania Trump, the candidate's third wife, added in a different interview, "We know the truth. He's not Hitler."
 
So, let's review. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has an alarming history with women, but (a) he's not a genocidal groper; and (b) he's capable of picking up a campaign endorsement from his own wife.
 
Maybe, when looking for a national leader, Americans may look for a presidential candidate who can clear a higher bar, but this is nevertheless where things stand in the 2016 race.
Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) of the House Select Committee on Benghazi speaks to reporters at a press conference on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty)

Benghazi Committee Chair gives away the game

05/18/16 10:00AM

As the House Republicans' Benghazi committee enters its third year, no one seems to be able to explain exactly why the partisan panel still exists, when it'll wrap up, or even why it was created in the first place.
 
Quotes like this one, published by USA Today, raise questions anew about this pointless waste of time and resources.
There was nothing the military could have done on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, to stop the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, but the special House committee investigating the terrorist incident will continue to probe the Pentagon's actions that night, the committee's chairman said Tuesday.
 
"Whether or not they could have gotten there in time, I don't think there is any issue with respect to that. They couldn't," Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., told Fox News.
Wait, hold on. As regular readers know, the whole point of the right-wing conspiracy theory is built around the idea that the military could've done more to intervene in Benghazi the night of the September 2012 attack, but it didn't for political reasons. It's the basis for the ridiculous "stand down" nonsense right-wing activists have pushed for years without proof.
 
Military leaders, the State Department, and multiple congressional investigations all concluded that the conspiracy theory is wrong, but House Republicans don't care, which is why they created a committee, led by Trey Gowdy, to tell conservatives what they want to hear.
 
Except, even Gowdy, who's spent more than two years exploring his party's conspiracy theories, doesn't believe the core question at the heart of the investigation. Neither, we learned this week, does his committee's former top attorney.
 
The panel's ranking Democrat, Maryland's Elijah Cummings, said in a statement, "Chairman Gowdy has finally admitted what we have all known for years. The central Republican allegation that the military was told to withhold assets that could have saved lives in Benghazi for political reasons was wrong."
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) sits in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

House Republicans pick the wrong witness for the wrong hearing

05/18/16 09:20AM

If you're unfamiliar with the recent controversy surrounding Ben Rhodes, consider yourself fortunate. The New York Times Magazine published a profile on the influential figure of President Obama's national security team a few weeks ago, and the ensuing chatter has caused quite a stir in Beltway circles.
 
The article has not exactly withstood scrutiny. As Matt Yglesias explained last week, "Conservative media has enthusiastically embraced a handful of sensational lines [from the Times' piece] as proof of Obama's duplicity, while stories in the Atlantic, Mother Jones, Politico, New York magazine, and Slate have sliced and diced it as riddled with errors."
 
Nevertheless, the general premise proved too delicious for conservatives to pass up: the White House, the argument goes, took advantage of public ignorance and lazy reporters to sell the international nuclear agreement with Iran to the country with bogus claims. That's not even close to true, but that was the right's takeaway from the Times Magazine piece.
 
In fact, conservatives got themselves so worked up about this that the House Oversight Committee actually held a hearing yesterday to explore the lessons of the Times' article. As Politico noted, the hearing didn't go as well as Republicans hoped.
Republicans wanted to make a Tuesday hearing in the House all about how White House messaging guru Ben Rhodes, who refused to testify, supposedly sold a false narrative about the Iran nuclear deal.
 
Instead, Democrats used the presence of another witness, former Bush administration official John Hannah, to hammer the Bush administration for allegedly peddling a false narrative about the Iraq War.
Democrats could hardly believe their eyes. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee's ranking member, declared, "If our goal is to hear from an expert who actually promoted false, false White House narratives, then I think you picked the right person. This committee has basically created its own Republican echo chamber.... That is not just ironic, it's hypocritical."
 
It's worth pausing to appreciate just how extraordinary the circumstances were yesterday: House Republicans are convinced the White House used bogus information to spin reporters, push bogus narratives, and sell the country on a misguided policy in the Middle East. And to that end, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and his committee colleagues invited John Hannah to offer expert testimony.
 
And who's John Hannah?
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on stage before the start of the Democratic presidential debate sponsored by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., Feb. 4, 2016. (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Primaries in Kentucky, Oregon bring added clarity to Dem race

05/18/16 08:40AM

There's a difference between what's mathematically possible and what's realistically probable. After Hillary Clinton won five of the six primaries in late April, it was still technically possible for Bernie Sanders to catch his rival among pledged delegates, but he'd need lopsided landslides in the May contests.
 
That hasn't happened. Narrow wins in Indiana and West Virginia helped Team Sanders with morale and fundraising, but they actually left him further from his goal. The same was true in yesterday's primaries, as MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald reported.
Bernie Sanders mini-winning streak ended Tuesday night in Kentucky, a state analysts expected he could win. The loss could take some wind out of supporters' sails at a critical time as they face increasing pressure to unify the Democratic Party behind likely nominee Hillary Clinton.
 
But it was a mixed night for the candidates. Sanders pulled out a comfortable single-digit win in Oregon, where he is likely to walk away with a solid block of delegates.
In practical terms, the Kentucky results, while incredibly close, are about bragging rights: the difference between a narrow win and a narrow loss is negligible. Sanders needed a landslide victory to keep pace, and his apparent defeat pushed his goal that much further away. Similarly, while the senator's success in Oregon was no doubt satisfying, Sanders' margin of victory was actually quite a bit smaller than Barack Obama's 2008 win in the same state, and to keep up with Clinton, it needed to be more than four times larger.
 
Yesterday, in other words, represented another major setback for the Sanders campaign: his win was too narrow, his loss was a step backwards, and the number of remaining opportunities he’ll have to close the gap continues to shrink.
 
The Vermonter continues to tell supporters that he might win the Democratic nomination. In remarks last night, Sanders said he faced a "steep climb," but he nevertheless believes he can wrap up the primary process with a majority of pledged delegates.
 
Which brings us back to the "mathematically possible" vs. "realistically probable" problem.

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