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The White House seen from the South Lawn Aug. 5, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Presidential leadership is a moving target

08/08/14 05:06PM

If Ron Fournier's goal was to generate some discussion with his new column, he succeeded. Putting aside whether readers found his thesis compelling, it's clearly generated some chatter.
Before highlighting Fournier's case, it's important to note for those unfamiliar with his work that the National Journal columnist is perhaps best known for his frequent -- some might say, incessant -- calls for President Obama to "lead" more. Many, including me, tend to think Fournier's thesis is superficial and blind to institutional limits, but it's nevertheless become a signature issue for him.
It's with this background in mind that his latest piece seemed especially noteworthy. Fournier considered the president's possible use of executive actions on some key issues, including immigration, and urged caution.
Bypassing Congress may be legal. The reforms he wants may be a good idea. But when I look beyond the next election and set aside my issue biases, I reluctantly conclude that it would be very wrong.
Depending on how far Obama extends presidential authority -- and he suggested Wednesday that he's willing to stretch it like soft taffy -- this could be a political nuclear bomb. The man whose foundational promise was unity ("I don't want to pit red America against blue America") could seal his fate as the most polarizing president in history.
Well, that certainly sounds serious. Fournier has been eager, if not desperate, to see Obama lead more, but now that the president is considering a forceful demonstration of leadership, the columnist sees a "political nuclear bomb." And why is that?
For argument's sake, let's say Obama is right on the issue and has legal authority to act. The big question is ... Would it be wrong to end-run Congress? Another way to put it might be, "Would more polarization in Washington and throughout the country be wrong?" How about exponentially more polarization, gridlock, and incivility? If the president goes too far, he owns that disaster.
Hmm. For argument's sake, the nation is facing some serious policy challenges, and the White House has some meaningful solutions in mind. Those solutions, again for argument's sake, are both legally sound and correct on the merits. As a matter of public policy, President Obama could take these actions and advance proposals with real merit.
But apparently, he should do no such thing. Fournier, who has spent years complaining about the need for Obama to lead more, now recommends the president lead less -- because doing the correct and legally sound thing would make Obama's opponents unhappy.
It's a curious prescription for presidential leadership: Obama should take bold moves to move the nation forward, but only if his opponents who refuse to govern first extend their approval.
US President Barack Obama speaks during an event  Aug. 7, 2014 in Fort Belvoir, Va.

Iraq and the Obama Doctrine

08/08/14 03:15PM

I was talking to some friends earlier about developments in Iraq and one questioned how the new mission, announced by President Obama last night, fits into the Obama Doctrine. Another noted the ambiguity as to what the Obama Doctrine actually is.
I'd argue that's probably a good thing.
To be sure, the phrase pops up fairly regularly. Dick and Liz Cheney recently argued that the Obama Doctrine is defined by "empty threats, meaningless red lines, leading from behind, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies, or apologizing for our great nation." In other words, the doctrine is apparently a series of lazy right-wing cliches.
Around the same time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was complaining bitterly about the policy that led to the release of an American POW in Afghanistan. The Republican defined the Obama Doctrine as a willingness "to make deal with terrorists." (On a substantive level, it was obviously an exceedingly foolish thing to say.)
On a less ridiculous note, Fareed Zakaria argued the Obama Doctrine can aptly be summarized by a quote from Dwight Eisenhower: "I'll tell you what leadership is," Ike told his speechwriter. "It's persuasion -- and conciliation -- and education -- and patience. It's long, slow, tough work. That's the only kind of leadership I know -- or believe in -- or will practice."
But let's consider another school of thought: there is no Obama Doctrine, per se, and as a practical matter, there probably shouldn't be. I'm reminded of something Paul Waldman wrote in June:
Every president should be judged in foreign policy by the decisions he made, not whether you can sum it all up on a catchy bumper sticker. Barack Obama has made his share of mistakes, and the results of some of his decisions have yet to be fully realized. But at least he won't come before the American people, as his predecessor did, and promise to "rid the world of evil."
If George W. Bush was fool enough to believe that might be in his power, he was even dumber than we thought. And the people attacking Obama now are the ones who stood up to cheer when they heard Bush say that. He certainly had a doctrine, though. Maybe it's time we did without one.
This notion that every president is confronted with global challenges and shapes a doctrine that defines his approach has never really made sense to me.
The ACORN office in Las Vegas, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008.

Congress finally declares victory over ACORN

08/08/14 12:36PM

From time to time in recent years, I've marveled at the Republican preoccupation with ACORN, a community group that permanently closed its doors several years ago. Indeed, as recently as December 2012, Public Policy Polling found that nearly half of Republican voters believed President Obama only won re-election because of ACORN's interference -- even though ACORN didn't exist at the time.
Of particular interest, though, was Congress. For years after ACORN's demise, Republican lawmakers continued to insist on provisions in spending bills that blocked ACORN from receiving public funding. The legislative language was about as necessary as measures prohibiting unicorn research, but it seemed to make the right feel better for some reason.
But no longer. Zach Carter reports that House Republicans "appear to be throwing in the towel" in its campaign against the organization that does not exist.
[S]ince the passage of a budget bill in January, which included four different sections blocking funds to the non-existent ACORN, the GOP appears to have abandoned the cause. None of the appropriations bills that have passed the House after Jan. 14 have included anti-ACORN language. Not the Veterans Affairs reform bill, not the recent border crisis bill, not even mundane bills to fund the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Administration.
"Now that the Republicans have been forced by Obama to give in, it's time to get government funds flowing to ACORN again so we can steal another election in 2016," jeered one House Democratic aide, referencing longstanding voter fraud conspiracy theories involving ACORN.
Well, it was funny while it lasted.
Of course, the next question is whether GOP lawmakers might also be willing to end legislative efforts against other imaginary problems.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.8.14

08/08/14 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:
* With Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) dropping his re-election bid and former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) rejecting overtures, who will Montana Dems run against Rep. Steve Daines (R) in this year's Senate race? Igor Bobic considers the possibilities.
* In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) is eager to tell voters about how well he gets along with -- and even votes with -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R). Yesterday, the Alaska Republican demanded that he stop.
* Hawaii is supposed to hold some important primaries tomorrow, including contests for an incumbent governor and U.S. senator, but a pair of hurricanes appears likely to affect voter turnout.
* In a very effective new ad, Wisconsin gubernatorial hopeful Mary Murke (D) is reminding voters that Gov. Scott Walker (R) vowed to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term, but failed to keep his promise.
* On a related note, the Republican Governors Association, which hoped Walker wouldn't need any help in his re-election bid, plans to invest at least $2.3 million in the Wisconsin race this year.
* In Mississippi, the state Republican Party rebuffed Chris McDaniel's latest challenge, and said he'd have to take his case to the courts.
* In Virginia's U.S. Senate race, a new poll from the Hampton University Center for Public Policy shows Sen. Mark Warner (D) leading Ed Gillespie (R) by 25 points with Libertarian Robert Sarvis in the mix. In a head-to-head match-up, Warner's lead is 23 points.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., greets supporters on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Winchester, Tenn. DesJarlais is opposed by Democrat Eric Stewart in the state's 4th Congressional District.

Scandal-plagued DesJarlais faces uncertain fate

08/08/14 11:39AM

Only three congressional Republican incumbents have lost primary fights this year: Virginia's Eric Cantor, Texas' Ralph Hall, and Michigan's Kerry Bentivolio. Will Tennessee's Scott DesJarlais join the small club?
It's apparently too soon to say.
State election officials say they will move to speed up the finalization of results from Thursday's primaries in the 4th Congressional District, but it may be weeks before the outcome becomes clear in the race between U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais and state Sen. Jim Tracy.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett and coordinator of elections Mark Goins told reporters in a conference call after midnight on Friday morning that they have begun to contact election commissions in the 16-county districts to move up meetings to certify the results of the race, which DesJarlais appears to have won by 35 votes based on unofficial returns.
DesJarlais' 35-vote margin is, of course, a remarkably narrow advantage given that more than 70,000 votes were cast in the race. It's the kind of margin that's so small, it's fairly easy to imagine the scales tipping the other way after a recount.
But what makes this House contest so interesting is the fact that DesJarlais, in theory, shouldn't be competitive at all.
Barack Obama

Obama recommits to net neutrality

08/08/14 11:13AM

Back in January, a federal court struck down the FCC's net-neutrality policy, leaving Obama administration officials looking for a new way to guarantee that all online content will be treated equally.
A few months later, in April, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled a possible alternative, which was quickly condemned by net-neutrality proponents. In May, he tried again with his so-called "fast lane" policy -- no online content would be deemed less accessible based on service providers' corporate arrangements , but telecoms could charge some companies, such as Netflix, more to deliver their content faster.
For proponents of net neutrality, the fear has been that President Obama, a longtime ally, would break with his previous commitment. This week, he did the opposite, recommitting his administration to the same position the president has always held (via Joan McCarter).
"One of the issues around net neutrality is whether you are creating different rates or charges for different content providers," Obama said at a business forum with African leaders.
"That's the big controversy here. You have big, wealthy media companies who might be willing to pay more but then also charge more for more spectrum, more bandwidth on the Internet, so they can stream movies faster or what have you," he said.
"The position of my administration, as well as, I think, a lot of companies here is, you don't want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to various user," Obama added. "You want to leave it open so that the next Google or the next Facebook can succeed."
Note, Obama did not specifically comment on the pending FCC plans, but his message wasn't exactly subtle -- and it's exactly what net-neutrality supporters wanted to hear him say.
Annette Mallet passes a wall of campaign signs on Poplar Ave. Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014  near the Shelby County Election Commission Offices in Memphis, Tenn.

Campaign against Tennessee Supreme Court comes up short

08/08/14 10:33AM

While most of the attention in yesterday's election in Tennessee focused on congressional primaries, arguably the most interesting race in the Volunteer State had to do with its state Supreme Court.
As Dahlia Lithwick recently explained, three justices on the Tennessee Supreme Court were targeted with a fierce right-wing campaign, not because of any specific case or ruling, but because Ron Ramsey, Tennessee's far-right lieutenant governor and Speaker of the state Senate, decided they have to go "chiefly for the judicial outrage of having been appointed to the high court by a Democrat."
During his two terms, Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) appointed justices to the state's high court, including Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee, and Gary Wade. Under Tennessee's system, it's up to voters to decide whether to retain Supreme Court justices, and many on the right said these jurists had to go -- if a Democrat liked them, the argument went, they must be bad.
In a major defeat for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, voters on Thursday voted to keep all three Tennessee Supreme Court justices in retention elections.
Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Connie Clark and Sharon Lee all survived to win new eight-year terms on the state's highest court, maintaining a margin of about 57 percent to 43 percent. While the justices were able to overcome a vigorous opposition campaign by Ramsey and others, who accused them of being "liberal," "soft on crime" and of helping Obamacare, their retention victories were by some of the smallest margins in recent history.
Ramsey's political action committee invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hopes of ending these justices' careers. What's more, he recruited the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity to intervene, too.
But while conservatives obviously lost this round, the larger question remains: is justice served by the existence of these expensive fights over judicial seats?
A still frame image from the Crossroads GPS political ad "Richelle"

Another ACA 'horror story' faces scrutiny

08/08/14 09:40AM

The phenomenon started nearly a year ago. Conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act, desperate to discourage consumers from getting health insurance, launched a seemingly endless series of attack ads. But not just any attack ads -- the right relied on commercials featuring regular people (or at least actors who seem like regular people) sharing their awful experiences with the ACA. Soon, the airwaves were filled with "Obamacare victims."
The strategy failed quite spectacularly. In nearly every instance, the stories were fact-checked and discredited. In most cases, the "victims" were actually better off under the ACA than before. The ads appear to have backfired and "Phony Obamacare Horror Stories" became a national punchline.
And yet, the tactic lingers. Before, these dubious horror stories were intended to scare Americans away from getting covered. Now, Republicans have some elections to win. Take this story out of Colorado, for example, from Eli Stokols at Fox31 in Denver.
A new TV ad from Crossroads GPS features a Castle Rock mom criticizing Democratic Sen. Mark Udall for voting for the Affordable Care Act -- not a surprising mouthpiece in a race that will likely come down to suburban women.
But the woman in the ad, Richelle McKim, is actually an employee of an energy company that is among the biggest donors to Udall's opponent; and her story, which seemingly contradicts information on her publicly available LinkedIn profile, is at least more complicated than the 30-second version hitting Colorado's airwaves starting Thursday.
The ad from Karl Rove's attack operation is online here, but the key takeaway is the degree to which this is familiar -- the story of the ACA "victim" that just doesn't stand up well to scrutiny.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) speaks to members of the media at the Capitol, Oct. 11, 2013.

The Tea Party's setbacks mask larger victory

08/08/14 08:37AM

In his final campaign rally before his Republican primary, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) joked with Tennessee voters about the pointlessness of asking "who's the most conservative" candidate. The incumbent said it's a bit like asking who's the thinnest lineman on the University of Tennessee football team. "They're all over 300 pounds!" Alexander said.
The point, of course, was to make clear that divisions within the Republican Party have nothing to do with moderates competing against conservatives. Rather, GOP primary voters have been asked to choose between conservative Republicans and very conservative Republicans, who differ on tactics and tone, but not policy.
For Lamar Alexander, the pitch worked, and he won his primary. The margin was hardly overwhelming -- the senator ended up winning by about nine points, despite recent polls that showed him with a much larger lead -- but the Tennessee Republican dispatched his Tea Party challenger and will almost certainly keep his seat in the fall.
On the surface, Tea Partiers have reason to be discouraged. They had hoped to defeat some GOP Senate incumbents this year, and as the primary season comes to close, they won exactly zero contests, and memories of their successes in 2010 and 2012 are starting to fade. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell boasted a few months ago that literally all of his party's incumbents would prevail in their primaries, and on this, he was exactly right.
But beware of analysts who misinterpret these results. Those who see the Republican mainstream reasserting itself and the party's far-right extremists losing their influence are focusing too much on the trees and not enough on the forest.
Jonathan Capehart flagged a valuable insight from, of all people, Herman Cain.
Herman Cain made no sense when he ran for the 2012 Republican nomination for president.... But Cain made absolute sense when he talked about the state of the tea party on Fox News yesterday.
"The tea party movement is alive and well. Now, I never expected tea party-backed candidates ... to take Congress by storm," he said. "But I think the key thing is it's causing many of the incumbents to move more to the right relative to what the tea party message is."
Oddly enough, that's entirely correct. I suppose even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Thousands of Yazidi and Christian people flee Mosul to Erbil after the latest wave of ISIL advances that began on Sunday has seen a number of towns near Iraq's second largest city fall to the militants on August 6, 2014.

'To prevent a potential act of genocide,' Obama acts in Iraq

08/08/14 08:00AM

Since the U.S. war in Iraq ended, and American troops returned home, it's fair to say President Obama has been reluctant to re-engage militarily in Iraq. Our role in the country, the White House argued, was over. It's time for Iraq to operate as an independent nation.
But as conditions changed in Iraq, so too has the president's willingness to intervene.
President Obama announced Thursday that he had authorized targeted airstrikes in Iraq and carried out a humanitarian airdrop to aid thousands of religious minorities trapped in the mountains by Sunni militants. [...]
Obama made clear that he believes the religious minorities, which include Christians and Yazidis, "a small and ancient religious sect," faced the possibility of genocide at the hands of terrorist forces unless the U.S. intervened. He said he had authorized targeted air strikes to help Iraqi forces break the siege at the base of the mountain to protect the trapped civilians.
The administration was eager yesterday to make clear what this isn't -- we're not invading Iraq; we're not pursuing "regime change"; we're not looking for imaginary WMD; we're not deploying boots on the ground. Watching the president's remarks, the two words that stood out for me were "targeted" and "genocide" -- the latter reinforced the argument that we have a good reason to intervene; the former was a reminder that Obama is eyeing a very limited mission.
"I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that," he said. "I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that's what we've done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."
So why intervene? As the president sees it, these circumstances check a series of boxes: a U.S. ally has asked for our help; we have an opportunity to prevent a possible genocide; and we have the capacity to have a positive impact on the crisis. What's more, there are dozens of Americans at a consulate in Erbil, whose safety is clearly at risk.
"[W[hen the lives of American citizens are at risk, we will take action," Obama said. "That's my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief. And when many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action. That is our responsibility as Americans. That's a hallmark of American leadership. That's who we are."
Questions, however, remain.

ISIS's targets and other headlines

08/08/14 07:41AM

The Iraqi minorities in ISIS's crosshairs. (The Atlantic)

Why Sen. Lamar Alexander's vote for immigration reform didn't sink him in his primary. (The Washington Post)

Tennessee Congressman Scott Desjarlais wins razor-thin victory over his primary challenger: 35 votes. (The Tennessean)

Tennessee primary voters defy calls to dump three state Supreme Court justices. (The Tennessean)

Now that Sen. John Walsh is dropping out, which Democrat will run for his seat? (Billings Gazette)

Cease-fire in Gaza expires with rockets fired into Israel. (NY Times)

Three lawmakers showed up yesterday for an emergency hearing on ebola in West Africa. (The Hill)

Tropical Storm Iselle hits Hawaii overnight, with Hurricane Julio close behind. (Honolulu Star Advertiser)

Toddler squeezes through White House fence. (AP)

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US completes humanitarian operation in Iraq

US completes humanitarian operation in Iraq

08/07/14 10:48PM

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent, reports on the successful completion of a U.S. mission to send C-17s, escorted by F-16s, to drop humanitarian aid to refugees in Iraq fleeing aggression from ISIS forces. watch

White House considers range of Iraq options

White House considers range of Iraq options

08/07/14 10:48PM

Jeff Mason, White House correspondent for Reuters, talks with Steve Kornacki about the options being considered by the White House to address the problem of ISIS in Iraq while keeping any military action "limited in scope." watch