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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.19.15

01/19/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Syria: "American support for a pair of diplomatic initiatives in Syria underscores the shifting views of how to end the civil war there and the West's quiet retreat from its demand that the country's president, Bashar al-Assad, step down immediately."
 
* Related news: "An Iranian general was among the dead in an Israeli airstrike that also killed several Hezbollah fighters in southern Syria over the weekend, the official Iranian news media announced on Monday. The announcement compounded the tension and unpredictability in the region stemming from the strike, which placed Israel in a direct battlefield confrontation on Syrian soil with its longtime enemies Iran and Hezbollah."
 
* And speaking of Syria, the Assad regime "has started the long-delayed destruction of a dozen underground bunkers and hangars that were used for the production and storage of chemical weapons, diplomatic sources told Reuters on Monday."
 
* North Korea: "The trail that led American officials to blame North Korea for the destructive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in November winds back to 2010, when the National Security Agency scrambled to break into the computer systems of a country considered one of the most impenetrable targets on earth."
 
* We know why this happens: "A measles outbreak linked to Disneyland has nearly doubled in size since last week with 45 reported cases in California and more illnesses confirmed in at least three other states and Mexico, health officials say. Orange County, Disneyland's home, has the largest cluster of confirmed measles cases at 16, according to that county's health department."
 
* I wonder if Blair is more popular with American Republicans than his former British constituents: "Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair drew three standing ovations when he addressed the joint House-Senate Republican retreat Thursday with a speech that one lawmaker likened to the oratory of Winston Churchill."
President Barack Obama waves to guests as he arrives for a speech on Oct. 2, 2014 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Why Obama's increased national support matters

01/19/15 04:00PM

Rush Limbaugh appeared on "Fox News Sunday" about a month ago and mocked the president's standing in the polls. "Barack Obama's approval is in the 30s," the right-wing host said.
An improving economy is putting Barack Obama back in the game, boosting the president and his party in a striking turnaround from their devastating midterm losses.
 
Americans approve of the president's job performance by 50-44 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, a remarkable 9-point gain in approval and a 10-point drop in disapproval just since December. It's his best rating in a year and a half, and matches his previous best one-time advance, after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in spring 2011.
The usual caveats certainly apply -- it's only one poll, and no other major national survey puts the president's approval rating at 50% -- but it comes on the heels of recent poll results from CBS, Pew, and CNN, all of which show Obama's support growing steadily in recent weeks.
 
When one survey shows a small increase, it's easy to overlook. When several credible pollsters show a significant increase, there's reason to believe the president has seen a genuine bump in his overall support. As FiveThirtyEight put it the other day, "The rebound In Obama's approval is real."
 
Right about now, I imagine there's a small army of Democratic campaign operatives asking themselves, "This couldn't have happened in October?" Indeed, Brian Beutler noted on Friday that if the midterm elections were held now, the combination of lower gas prices and the president's increased backing "might have saved the Democrats' skin" and prevented major GOP gains.
 
Of course, it's obviously too late for Dems' 2014 hopes, but the bump in Obama's poll numbers matters nevertheless.
"Obamacare"  supporter Margot Smith (L) of California pleads her case with legislation opponents Judy Burel (2nd R) and Janis Haddon, both of Georgia, at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 28, 2012.

Republicans divided on ACA's future

01/19/15 02:07PM

Describing the Republican Party's health care policy is, at one level, quite easy. The GOP has an irrational, overwhelming, all-consuming, wild-eyed hatred for the Affordable Care Act. Period, full stop.
 
But it's every relevant detail after this where the troubles kick in. Republicans don't know how (or if) to come up with an "Obamacare" alternative, despite over five years of behind-the-scenes efforts. Republican don't know how (or if) to pursue a full repeal of the law. Republicans don't know how (or if) to help those families who would suffer greatly if their efforts to undermine the law succeed. Republicans don't even know how (or if) they should use the budget "reconciliation" process to go after the ACA.
 
Perhaps the most striking division, however, is between those in the GOP who are desperate to gut the nation's health care system and those Republicans who quietly hope the law survives intact.
 
We learned last week, for example, that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) did not sign on to the Republican effort at the Supreme Court to destroy the ACA through the King v. Burwell case. A few days later, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) devoted parts of his "State of the State" address to highlighting how great the Affordable Care Act has been for his state's residents (though he neglected to credit the law directly).
 
The New York Times reported, meanwhile, that some Republican officials are actually afraid that their party might persuade Republican justices on the Supreme Court, with adverse consequences for everyone -- including their own constituents.
After President Obama's Affordable Care Act was enacted in 2010, Republicans at both the state and federal levels seemed to speak with one voice in flatly rejecting it.
 
But in subsequent years, though most Republican governors remained critical of the health care law, nine accepted a central but optional element, expanding Medicaid programs to cover many more low-income residents of their states. At least four others, urged on by hospitals and business groups, will try to do so this year.
 
And now, briefs filed last month in support of a major legal challenge to the law -- King v. Burwell, which is now before the Supreme Court -- are raising new questions about divisions within the Republican Party over the law.
Just how divided are they?
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about college cost initiatives during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tennessee, Jan. 9, 2015. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Obama to throw down the gauntlet in support of middle class

01/19/15 12:35PM

Free community college, an expansive broadband initiative, and a national effort on paid family leave -- are there any other major proposals President Obama has in mind for his State of the Union address tomorrow? Actually, yes, and it's arguably the biggest component of progressive governance yet.
 
Suzy Khimm reported over the weekend on the president's proposal for tax reform, which Republicans really aren't going to like.
Democrats have offered one proposal after another to tax the wealthy to benefit ordinary Americans. But Obama's new tax plan takes a more targeted approach: He wants to raise taxes on the richest Americans' inherited wealth, not income, to help the middle-class build their own wealth.
 
Obama's plan, unveiled on Saturday night, would eliminate a loophole that allows wealthy Americans to pass on tax-free assets to their heirs. He would raise the capital gains tax for those with incomes above $500,000 from 23.8% to 28% and eliminate a loophole used by a handful of wealthy individuals -- including Mitt Romney -- to turn tax-preferred retirement plans into tax shelters.
One can see the evolution in the White House's thinking in recent years. After Obama's inauguration in 2009, the first goal was an immediate rescue of the nation's economy, which ended the Great Recession. From there the president wanted to establish a foundation of economic security for Americans, which he did through the creation of the Affordable Care Act.
 
But as has been widely documented, the growing wealth gap and stagnant middle-class incomes remain persistent national challenges, which in turn leads Obama to this next phase of his economic platform -- ensuring prosperity that's more broadly shared.
 
Some of you are probably thinking this latest pitch isn't entirely new. After all, tax reform has been on the table for a while, and middle-class tax breaks have already been a major part of the president's agenda.
 
But this really is new.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.19.15

01/19/15 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:
 
* As Rachel noted on the show the other day, the Republican National Committee will hold its 2016 convention in Cleveland next year, at an unusually early point: July 18-21. Democrats have not yet announced the location or dates of their nominating convention.
 
* Among the networks that will not host RNC-sanctioned presidential debates this year or next? Univision, the most-watched Spanish-language network in the U.S.
 
* Minnesota Republican Vin Weber served as a chairman of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, but the former congressman doesn't seem pleased to see Romney move closer towards yet another national race. "I'm not happy frankly with the way he's chosen to re-enter presidential politics and I think his friends need to be honest with him about that," Weber said.
 
* Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is apparently moving closer to a presidential campaign of his own, telling NBC's Chuck Todd yesterday that he's "definitely going to look at it." The senator added that he's created a "testing the waters committee."
 
* As the RNC's winter meeting wrapped up in San Diego, Chairman Reince Priebus was re-elected to a third term, and in his acceptance remarks, he looked ahead. "Keep in mind: 2016 could be a do-or-die moment for our party," Priebus said. "I'm not one to be dramatic, but I want you to know I'm serious."
 
* At a national level, the latest CBS poll found that 29% of Republican voters want New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to run for president, while 44% do not. The only high-profile Republican who fared worse in the poll? Former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).
Dr. Martin Luther King at a news conference in Selma, Alabama on Feb. 5, 1965.

In some states, it's not just a day to honor Dr. King

01/19/15 11:20AM

A reader emailed me over the weekend to note that Arkansas would have a dual, official holiday today: it would honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the same time, the state would also honor Confederate General Robert E. Lee's birthday.
 
And though I was admittedly skeptical about this, it turns out, that's entirely true. The Arkansas Secretary of State's page specifically notes that the state celebrates both birthdays today.
 
Complicating matters, Malcolm Jones notes that Arkansas isn't the only one.
King has a national holiday in his honor and Lee does not (at the state level it's a different and much more problematic story: five Southern states officially celebrate Lee's birthday, and Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi celebrate both men's birthdays on the same day). Put it more bluntly: King deserves a holiday in his honor, and Lee does not.
 
That's as it should be, since King did everything he could to make all Americans equal and Lee was on the wrong side of the conflict that more than any other tore the country apart. Which is not to say that there's not every good reason to study Lee, one of the most problematic individuals in our nation's history. But celebrating him, in the name of "heritage" or anything else, that's another thing entirely.
I can't be the only one who finds the state holidays in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi jarring, can I?
Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback talks to supporters during a campaign event on Nov. 1, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.

Running out of options, Brownback revisits tax policy

01/19/15 10:55AM

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) managed to win a second term last fall, despite the results of his radical economic "experiment," which resulted in debt downgrades, weak growth, and state finances in shambles. Shortly after the election, the governor's budget director nevertheless said the administration "has no intention of revisiting the state's tax policy."
 
Three months later, it turns out this posture wasn't sustainable. With Kansas' fiscal nightmare growing considerably worse, and Brownback's tax breaks obviously going too far, the governor has decided to change course -- sort of.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, whose massive tax cuts became a cause célèbre for conservatives but threw his state's budget into disarray, announced Friday that he would pursue tax increases.
 
In a stark turnaround, the Republican called for higher taxes on cigarettes and liquor as part of his annual budget while proposing to make future tax cuts contingent on revenue projections.
The Politico report quoted Meg Wiehe, state policy director at the liberal-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, saying, "We've seen this exploding budget gap, and this year, after three years of this experience, the recognition is they have to put a halt on these tax cuts." said 
 
Which is a polite way of saying, "We told you so."
 
Note, however, that there are two elements to Brownback's new approach. The first is pausing tax breaks that were scheduled to kick in automatically, but which Kansas can't afford. That's not a return to fiscal sanity, so much as it's a decision to stop making the hole at the bottom of Brownback's boat deliberately larger.
Image: Susan Rice Meets With Republican Senators On Capitol Hill

Graham insists Obama policies 'are getting people killed'

01/19/15 10:20AM

Back in September, when Republicans still hoped to use the ISIS threat as a campaign issue, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was not only eager to condemn President Obama, he seemed willing to do so in a rather hysterical way.
 
"This is a war we're fighting, it is not a counterterrorism operation!" the senator exclaimed on Fox News. Graham, who'd previously dismissed the idea of putting U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, proceeded to argue that the U.S. strategy would fail unless there were American troops on the ground in Syria. "Our strategy will fail yet again," he said. "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home."
 
In context, "rise to the occasion" roughly translated to "adopt the discredited worldview of John McCain and Lindsey Graham."
 
Last week, following the terrorist violence in Paris, Graham unraveled again, insisting the White House's policies "are getting a lot of people killed." The senator added, These policies driven by President Obama of being soft and weak and indecisive are coming home to haunt us."
 
Yesterday on "Meet the Press," Chuck Todd offered the Republican lawmaker an opportunity to dial it down a notch.
TODD: Is that proper rhetoric? You think the President of the United States is "getting people killed"?
 
GRAHAM: I think his policies are getting people killed. I think sound military advice was given to the President to leave a residual force in Iraq and he turned it down. And as a result, Iraq has collapsed. His entire national security team suggested three or four years ago to create a no fly zone and train the Free Syrian Army while it mattered. Almost 300,000 people killed in Syria on his watch.
It's quite a perspective. Syria's deadly civil war has been nothing short of brutal, and according to Lindsey Graham, the conflict's deaths should be blamed in part on the United States in general, and more to the point, the president specifically.
 
Don't forget, by Beltway standards, he's one of the more mainstream Republican senators -- the type of lawmaker with whom the president should try to compromise. He's also the Sunday show regular who said last year, "The world is literally about to blow up."
 
We are, I'm pleased to report, still here.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit in Washington, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014.

Jindal condemns imaginary 'no-go zones'

01/19/15 09:45AM

Not long after the terrorist violence in Paris, Fox News' Steven Emerson had a deeply unfortunate, and internationally ridiculed, exchange with anchor Jeanine Pirro. Arguably the most problematic of Emerson's comments, for which he later apologized, dealt with ridiculous claims about Birmingham, England.
 
But the conservative "expert" on counter-terrorism also made a separate, specific claim that also stood out: in Britain, he said, there are "no-go zones ...where non-Muslims just simply don't go in."
 
Over the weekend, Fox News issued an on-air correction for this and related falsehoods. Specifically, anchor Julie Banderas retracted the network's "discussions of so-called 'no-go zones,'" telling viewers, "To be clear, there is no formal designation of these zones in either country, and no credible information to support the assertion that there are specific areas in these countries that exclude individuals based solely on their religion."
 
One wonders if a certain Republican presidential hopeful happened to be watching. USA Today's Paul Singer had this report the other day:
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, will give a speech Monday in London and reiterate the disputed claim that Muslim immigrants have created "no-go zones" in Europe where non-Muslims are not welcome.
 
An advance text of Jindal's speech, circulated by his office, warns that Islamic radicals are fomenting anti-Western sentiment in "no-go zones" where they rule themselves by Islamic religious law, not the laws of their host nations.
According to the advanced text sent to reporters, on purpose, by Jindal's aides, the Louisiana Republican intends to say today, "It is startling to think that any country would allow, even unofficially, for a so called 'no-go zone.' The idea that a free country would allow for specific areas of its country to operate in an autonomous way that is not free and is in direct opposition to its laws is hard to fathom."
 
To be sure, something here is "hard to fathom," but it's not European policies.
President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters on September 24, 2014 in New York City.

The case for foreign policy expertise

01/19/15 09:10AM

In recent generations, most competitive presidential candidates have come from either the Senate or a governor's office, and both groups have some built-in strengths.
 
Senators can argue, "I've worked on a wide range of issues, including domestic and foreign policy, while learning how to shape federal law." Governors, meanwhile, can argue, "I've been a chief executive, so I know how to run an administration, and I can bring a fresh perspective to D.C."
 
Which pitch is correct? Well, depending on an individual's skill level, they both are.
 
But foreign policy tends to be the senators' trump card. Border governors sometimes claim some limited interaction with foreign officials -- and some claim to be able to see Russia from their homes -- but in general, international affairs is a federal issue. A smart, hard-working senator on the Foreign Relations Committee will probably have a greater understanding of global affairs than most sitting governors combined.
 
All of which brings us to Peggy Noonan and her recent conversation with a GOP governor and likely 2016 presidential candidate, whom the Republican pundit didn't identify by name. Their exchange about foreign policy was striking.
[T]o the governor I said, in a world in which foreign affairs continue to be more important than ever, in a dangerous world with which we have ever more dealings, shouldn't we be thinking about senators for the presidency, and not governors?
 
He listened closely, nodded, then shook his head. No, he said, governors still have the advantage. Why? Because foreign policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts. And your instincts are sharpened by the kind of experience you get as a chief executive in a statehouse, which is constant negotiation with antagonists who have built-in power bases. You learn what works from success and failure with entrenched powers that can undo you, from unions to local pressure groups to unreliable allies. Being a governor is about handling real and discernible power.
Dan Drezner, a center-right scholar on international affairs, responded, "Sweet Jesus, I hope the governor who told [Noonan] this never handles foreign affairs." Drezner added that the comments themselves help represent the "twilight of foreign policy expertise."
 
I agree, though I'd call it something else: "The Colbert-ification of foreign policy thinking."
Attorney General Eric Holder Holds Roundtable With Cleveland Law Enforcement Officials

AG Holder tackles civil forfeiture

01/19/15 08:40AM

Attorney General Eric Holder already has a lengthy list of progressive accomplishments, but even as he eyes the exits at the Justice Department, he's not done making important announcements. In fact, as the Washington Post reported, Holder's news late Friday was one of the biggest of his tenure as A.G.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.
 
Holder's action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
At issue is something called "civil forfeiture" (or as some call it, "asset forfeiture"). It's not exactly new -- as Dara Lind noted last week, the practice "has been legal for a long time -- during Prohibition, it was often used to seize bootleggers' cars. But, like many other aggressive police tactics, it expanded radically during the 1980s with the rise of the war on drugs."
 
The practice of law enforcement simply taking stuff believed to be used by suspected criminals -- cash, cars, property, etc. -- has turned into what Lind described as "a massive 'slush fund' for local cops."
 
And it's not just local police departments that have benefited. Billions of dollars in seized assets have been shared between federal and state agencies. Jamelle Bouie noted that the underlying idea -- using criminals' property to finance law enforcement nationwide -- may sound compelling, but in practice, "it's been a disaster," in large part because "the vast majority of asset forfeiture happens with little oversight or accountability," which has led to predictable abuses in a system in which the police can "confiscate property without due process."
 
Indeed, as crazy as this may sound, the Washington Post reported last fall that through one civil-forfeiture program, police "made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion" from motorists -- none of whom was charged with a crime -- just since Sept. 11, 2001.
Then, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives on stage on Nov. 7, 2012 in Boston, Mass. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty)

Romney moves inequality talk out of the 'quiet room'

01/19/15 08:01AM

As Mitt Romney moves closer to launching yet another Republican presidential campaign, the former governor has told people close to him that he would make poverty one of the pillars of his candidacy. Friday night in San Diego, Romney boarded an aircraft carrier and was even more specific on this in remarks to RNC members.
He said the 2016 campaign should center on making the world safer, offering opportunity for all Americans and lifting people out of poverty.
 
"Under President Obama the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in American than ever before," Mr. Romney said.
The comments drew howls for good reason. The failed former candidate, as recently as 2012, dismissed 47% of Americans as lazy parasites and told a national television audience he's "not concerned about the very poor."
 
Making matters worse, Romney espouses a far-right economic agenda, predicated on cutting taxes on the wealthy, which would exacerbate the problem on purpose. The very idea of the Republican whining about the rich getting richer under President Obama -- as if the hyper-elitist conservative feels justified going after the president from the left -- is painfully ridiculous, even by Romney standards.
 
But there's a related angle to this that hasn't generated enough attention: Romney apparently hopes to draw attention to a problem he explicitly said must be ignored.

Obama budget to tax the rich and other headlines

01/19/15 08:00AM

Pres. Obama's budget proposal will take aim at the wealthy. (Washington Post)

NSA breached North Korean networks before Sony attack, officials say. (New York Times)

Supreme Court could cripple another key civil rights law. (MSNBC)

Police investigate gunshots outside VP Biden's home in Delaware. (AP)

Pres. Obama previews some guests invited to tomorrow's State of the Union address. (AP)

The U.S. Congressional delegation visting Cuba could meet with Raul Castro. (AP)

ISIS releases around 200 captive Yazidis in Iraq. (AP)

Boko Haram militants kidnap dozens in Cameroon. (BBC)

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Image: BRITAIN-SPACE-MARS-EUROPE

Week in Geek: Blast from the past edition

01/18/15 01:20PM

Just over eleven years ago, the European Space Program launched the Mars Express mission consisting of the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander (built in the UK). The orbiter successfully reached Mars in December 2003 and jettisoned the lander towards the surface, but after entering Mars's atmosphere, the lander was never heard from again. Scientists came up with many theories as to what may have gone wrong, but there was no way to know what really happened. Until now.

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This Week in God, 1.17.15

01/17/15 08:44AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a report out of Mississippi, where some lawmakers have decided it's time to make the Christian Bible the official state book (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).,
Rep. Tom Miles of Forest says he and fellow Democratic Rep. Michael Evans of Preston are filing a bill, and they already have received bipartisan promises of support from more than 20 of their colleagues.
 
Miles says Mississippi has a state bird, a state flower and even a state toy, so it should have a state book.
According to the local report in the Clarion-Ledger, the lead sponsor of the proposal said this week "that he's not trying to force religion -- or even reading -- on anyone."
 
If this sounds at all familiar, Louisiana very nearly made the Christian Bible its official state book last year, but backed off once the bill's sponsor acknowledged some "constitutional problems."
 
In case it's not obvious, similar "problems" would plague the Mississippi effort, if it proceeds. In our system of government, government is expected to remain neutral on matters of religion, and for state policymakers to specifically endorse one religion's holy text would almost certainly run afoul of the First Amendment.
 
In other words, Mississippi would be inviting a costly lawsuit that it would inevitably lose.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

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