Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 6, 2011

FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* I guess the conspiracy theorists will think the terrorists are in on the hoax: "Al-Qaida confirmed the killing of Osama bin Laden and vowed revenge, saying Friday that Americans' "happiness will turn to sadness." The statement was the first by the terror network since its leader was slain in a U.S. commando raid against his Pakistani hideout."

* Syria: "Security forces fired on demonstrators in six Syrian towns and cities in a day of protests that activists declared a "Friday of Defiance," in which 26 people died, but a withering crackdown subdued the most restive town and prevented many protesters from gathering in larger demonstrations, activists and human rights groups said."

* Japan: "Japan urged a power company Friday to suspend all three reactors at a coastal nuclear plant while a seawall and other structures are built to ensure a major earthquake or tsunami does not cause a second radiation crisis."

* I wonder if congressional Republicans have heard about this: "Americans are paying the smallest share of their income for taxes since 1958, a reflection of tax cuts and a weak economy, a USA TODAY analysis finds."

* Republicans sure do love to take orders from Wall Street: "Republican senators vowed Thursday to block any nominee to lead the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless stronger limits are put on its power, in the latest blow in a long-running battle to rein in the watchdog agency before it officially launches this summer."

* Let's just say Condoleezza Rice isn't having a very good week.

* I don't know Nancy Pelosi personally, but I get the feeling she enjoys annoying the hell out of her Republican colleagues.

* Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has a new idea: abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, and fold its responsibilities into another agency.

* Remember her? "Monica Goodling, a key figure in the politicization of the Justice Department during the Bush administration, has received a public reprimand from the Virginia State Bar, Virginia Lawyers Weekly reports. The state bar found that Goodling committed 'a criminal or deliberately wrongful act' that reflected poorly on her 'honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to practice law,' the publication reports."

* Why the Department of Justice's interest in a for-profit college operation, accused of bilking taxpayers, may be bad news for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine.

* This is an actual story from the NBC affiliate in Miami: "Floridians are going to have to start pulling up their pants and stop having sex with animals soon."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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JOHN YOO BECOMES A CARICATURE OF HIMSELF.... John Yoo, the former deputy A.G. in the Bush administration responsible for writing torture memos, complained to CNN last night about President Obama's successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

No, really, Yoo actually complained about this on national television. There's video proof.

Pressed by Eliot Spitzer, Yoo argued that the al Qaeda leader should have been taken alive, and that President Obama's record of killing lots of terrorists is a problem because Yoo would rather see them tortured and interrogated.

"I do think that [the president and his team] don't want to capture high-level al Qaeda leaders," Yoo argued, making the case that Sunday's mission in Abbottabad was a mistake.

Wait, it gets worse.

In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, Yoo wrote that shooting the unarmed bin Laden meant "one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands."

Yoo told Spitzer "that a deliberately small force was sent in" to Abbottabad, Pakistan by the White House because "they don't want to capture high-level al Qaeda leaders."

Why? As Yoo said in his op-ed, the administration is terrified of backing the Bush administration's moves in the war on terror.

"Capturing [bin Laden] alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay," Yoo wrote, "something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure."

As a friend of mine summarized, "Shorter John Yoo: It's too bad you killed Osama, because if you'd captured him, I could have criticized you for not torturing him."

Remember, Yoo isn't just some clown on right-wing radio; he helped shape an administration's rationale for ignoring the law while combating terrorism.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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POLITICS ON A HAIR-TRIGGER.... Yesterday afternoon, ABC's Jake Tapper had a fairly innocuous tweet: "One minute to air and they decided to take the flag down from the live shot!" It was accompanied by a photograph from Ground Zero, where an American flag was being removed.

It was a harmless little message. President Obama visited Ground Zero yesterday, and there were many American flags on display. Hours later, when Tapper was getting ready to appear on the air, he was disappointed about the change in backdrop. No big deal.

But then the right saw the message and took it to mean that President Obama had the flag removed for his appearance, hours earlier.

Drudge told his readers, "REPORT: Team Obama takes down US flag before Ground Zero event..." Conservative bloggers were driven to apoplexy, with one arguing:

This administration and, by extension, the Democrat [sic] Party are now so thoroughly divorced from the history, traditions and morals of America that we might as well admit the Marxist left has executed a successful coup d'etat on this Republic.

Other online Republicans were equally outraged, apparently never considering the notion that Tapper, posting an item at 6:30 p.m. (ET), hours after the president had left Ground Zero, might be referring to his own live shot.

Dan Amira explained, "Everyone makes mistakes, but this mistake illustrates the mind-set of some of the people who despise Obama with every fiber of their body. Even conspiracy theories that would appear entirely illogical to everyone else -- like the American president ordering the American flag removed from ground zero -- are readily embraced because they conform to a warped view of Obama's patriotism."

Agreed. Tapper's tweet didn't mention the president or "Tea Obama" or anything related to the afternoon's event. The whole message was 16 words, and was a harmless complaint about a news backdrop.

But for the right, all politics is on a hair-trigger at all times. It just doesn't take much to get hysterical, again, about Obama and their distrust of his patriotism.

It's just not healthy for such a large group of Americans to hate their president this much.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE DCCC OWES PAUL RYAN A THANK-YOU NOTE.... When Rep. Chris Lee (R) resigned in disgrace in February, few expected his seat to change party hands. His Buffalo-area district has been represented by Republicans for a long while, and national Democrats didn't expect the special election to replace Lee to be competitive at all.

In March, the New York GOP rallied behind Jane Corwin, a well-liked state assemblywoman, and the race in the 26th congressional district appeared to be largely over.

And then a Siena College poll was published, showing Corwin's lead at just five points over Democrat Kathy Hochul. What happened?

Part of the competitiveness is the result of Jack Davis, an odd millionaire, running as an independent and splitting the right. And the other part is Paul Ryan's House Republican budget plan.

After leveling a barrage of attacks against the proposal put forth by Mr. Ryan, the Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul, has tightened the race considerably, even as her Republican opponent remained supportive of the plan, perhaps out of concern that distancing herself from it would alienate conservatives.

The shifting dynamics of the race, which have emboldened top Democrats and their allies, underscore the intense reaction to Mr. Ryan's proposal, the centerpiece of a budget that House Republicans voted to approve in April to address the nation's long-term financial problems. [...]

"The Republican vote to end Medicare has moved the needle in this race," said Representative Steve Israel of Long Island, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The Republican should be running away with this. Instead, she is clinging to a minuscule lead."

At this point, the best the Republican campaign can come up with is the charge that Democrats "are trying to scare seniors." But that's awfully weak -- it's not demagoguery if it's true, and if accurate descriptions of the GOP plan end up scaring people, that's certainly not Democrats' fault.

Marsha Sherris, 61, a real estate broker in the district, seems to epitomize the challenge for Ms. Corwin. A registered Republican, Ms. Sherris said that she was troubled about the Republican Medicare proposal and that it might ultimately influence her vote in the special election.

"Maybe I would go Democrat," Ms. Sherris said on Main Street in Williamsville. "We have to worry about the seniors. They are the ones who supported this country all this time."

The special election is in about three weeks, and Republicans are scrambling to salvage a win. Given their efforts and the district's traditional leanings, the GOP might very well hang on. Time will tell.

But the larger point is how nervous this should make the rest of the Republican Party -- especially those vulnerable GOP House members who are worried about re-election in 2012. There are 60 House Republicans who represent districts President Obama won in 2008, and 59 of them voted for Ryan's budget plan and all that it entails.

If Corwin is struggling in a GOP stronghold, how optimistic are they about following their leadership off the right--wing cliff?

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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JIM DEMINT FORGETS WE HAVE ACCESS TO GOOGLE.... Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina is arguably the most right-wing member of the Senate, a designation he accepts with some pride. In fact, in 2008, Mitt Romney sought out -- and earned -- DeMint's endorsement precisely to help boost his bona fides with the GOP's extremist base.

It's what makes stories like this one from Dave Weigel that much more interesting.

In the spin room after last night's debate, I asked DeMint whether he'd had his qualms about a health care mandate in 2007, when he endorsed Romney, and the mandate was law in Massachusetts.

"I got involved with him before that," DeMint explained, "and the concept that was presented to me was the idea of moving people from government plans to private plans. That's what the goal was. That's how my conversations went, and that's how it was presented. But the way it ended up..." he paused to think about this. "I cannot accept all the mandates, all the government exchanges. And it hasn't worked. I think the goal of figuring out how you can move people from government policies to private insurance policies is a good goal. That's one of the things that attracted me to what he was trying to do. Frankly, with the Democratic legislature in control there, I just think the way it ended up, we wouldn't want it in our state or our country."

What's fascinating about this is the extent to which DeMint has no idea what he's talking about.

Let's set the record straight. Romney signed his health care reform package in Massachusetts into law in April 2006. It included an individual mandate, which has traditionally been a Republican idea. More than a year later, DeMint endorsed Romney's presidential campaign, citing -- you guessed it -- Romney's success on health care. Indeed, while Romney was defending health care mandates as part of his campaign, DeMint praised a health care policy based on mandates as being a "good conservative idea."

DeMint added at the time that "the need to have everyone insured" was something that made sense for the "entire country."

When Democrats based their health care policy around the same basic structure and principles a year ago, DeMint considered it radical socialism. It's funny how that works out.

Now, part of this is about poking fun at DeMint's absurdities. His response to Weigel last night made absolutely no sense.

But the other part of this is to drive home the point that the Republican Party's shift to the right is happening at blinding speeds. The health care policy the Senate's most conservative member loved in 2007 was deemed a communistic government takeover in 2009 -- a detail that's been largely ignored in the larger political discourse.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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'SORRY," IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE.... At last night's debate for some Republican presidential candidates, Fox News moderators pressed Tim Pawlenty on his least favorite subject.

The moderator announced that everyone should turn their attention to a old radio ad for an environmental group in which Mr. Pawlenty heartily endorses a cap-and-trade policy -- practically apostasy in his party.

"Do we have to?" Mr. Pawlenty quipped awkwardly. His voice soon echoed through the auditorium saying "cap greenhouse gas pollution now!"

But in a response that was clearly carefully prepared, Mr. Pawlenty looked right at the camera after the radio ad played, apologized to the American people, and said he had made a "mistake."

"I've said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I'm sorry," Mr. Pawlenty told the Fox television audience, presumably filled with potential Republican primary voters. "You're going to have a few clunkers in your record, and we all do, and that's one of mine. I just admit it. I don't try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I'm just telling you, I made a mistake."

Pawlenty isn't the only GOP presidential hopeful who briefly acknowledged reality but now regrets it, but he's the only one who seems anxious to turn his reversal into a positive -- we're supposed to admire Pawlenty's bold rejection of science and willingness to admit he was wrong (when he was right).

But for anyone who takes reason seriously, Pawlenty is just embarrassing himself. As Republicans go, he was actually quite progressive on climate policy, not only backing cap-and-trade, but also supporting ambitious renewable energy policies and leaving no doubt he considered climate change a serious national threat. He even appeared in an Environmental Defense Fund commercial in support of a cap-and-trade plan, alongside then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D).

What's more, Pawlenty was right -- a fact he hopes Republicans will forget and/or forgive. His "mistake," to use the word he mentioned last night, was finding value in evidence.

Remember, it was just a few years ago that the public was concerned about the climate crisis, and Republicans -- including the McCain/Palin ticket -- responded by embracing a cap-and-trade plan. Democrats ultimately saw the GOP proposal as a viable option, only to find Republicans denouncing their own idea. (Yes, it's pretty similar to the health care fight.)

And now that the American mainstream cares less about the issue, and the Republican rank-and-file has been told by Fox News that climate science is a communist conspiracy, party leaders no longer feel the need to keep up appearances.

Still, it's awful to see what Republicans have to do to themselves in order to press right-wing activists.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE TORTURE APOLOGISTS WON'T QUIT.... The issue of torture was apparently raised in last night's Republican presidential candidate debate, with three of the five featured candidates -- Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain -- saying they'd waterboard terrorist suspects under certain circumstances.

Pawlenty went further, insisting that President Obama should be "asked to explain" his opposition to torture "if" abusive techniques contributed to bin Laden's death. (Pawlenty said two years ago that waterboarding does damages "not only to the individual but to our values more broadly.")

As this GOP rhetoric continues, despite evidence that torture played no meaningful role in the successful mission in Abbottabad, it's worth touting this wise New York Times editorial.

Even if it were true that some tidbit was blurted out by a prisoner while being tormented by C.I.A. interrogators, that does not remotely justify Mr. Bush's decision to violate the law and any acceptable moral standard.

This was not the "ticking time bomb" scenario that Bush-era officials often invoked to rationalize abusive interrogations. If, as Representative Peter King, the Long Island Republican, said, information from abused prisoners "directly led" to the redoubt, why didn't the Bush administration follow that trail years ago? [...]

The battered intelligence community should now be basking in the glory of a successful operation. It should not be dragged back into the muck and murk by political figures whose sole agenda seems to be to rationalize actions that cost this country dearly -- in our inability to hold credible trials for very bad men and in the continued damage to our reputation.

Dahlia Lithwick also had a terrific piece on the subject this week.

The folks who think otherwise are now using half-facts and unverifiable assertions to ask another question: Does torture work? Unsurprisingly, they claim that it does. That's nice. Let's ignore them. As former interrogator Matthew Alexander explains, even if it did work, we still wouldn't do it -- because it's immoral and leads to all sorts of false claims and wasted time. The answer to question No. 1 -- should America torture? -- has nothing to do with the bogus questions being raised today.

In short, if you are being led by a handful of torture apologists to "reconsider" the efficacy of torture, ask yourself whether you have yet heard even one credible account that water-boarding led us to Bin Laden. I haven't. At most, I have heard that it may have played some very small part in a vast tangle of intelligence and surveillance and patient detective work, all of which is unproven and -- more important -- impossible to disprove. A handful of cynics may want to relitigate the efficacy of torture based on facts not in evidence. The rest of us should continue to remind them that they have been answering the wrong question all along.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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FRIDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP.... 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:

* Five Republican presidential candidates gathered for a debate last night in South Carolina. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) didn't watch it, and I have to admit, neither did I. Apparently, the participants, mostly second- and third-tier candidates, repeated a lot of tired falsehoods.

* Fox News formally terminated its contracts with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum yesterday, as both prepare to formally launch their Republican presidential campaigns.

* Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) conceded on the record yesterday that he's likely to run for another term in a state outside his Cleveland-area district. "If I don't have anywhere I can run in Ohio, I have to start thinking about what my options are," he said.

* To the disappointment of the state Republican Party, Nevada Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) announced yesterday that he won't run in the special election in the 2nd congressional district.

* On a related note, now that Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller (D) has said the special election will be open to all qualifying candidates regardless of party, the Nevada Republican Party has filed a lawsuit. The GOP wants to nominate its own candidate.

* Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) formally took her party's reins this week, getting elected chair of the Democratic National Committee. She's the first woman ever to be nominated by a sitting president to lead a national party.

* Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) this week became the first 2012 presidential candidate to open a campaign office in Iowa.

* Arizona is one of the nation's more reliable "red" states in presidential politics, but the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows President Obama pretty competitive in the state, leading most of the GOP field and trialing Mitt Romney by only four points in a hypothetical match-up.

* Though he continues to have trouble with his state's redistricting map, PPP shows Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) with a big lead over Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R) in next year's gubernatorial race.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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FOR THE RIGHT, IT'S A FEATURE, NOT A BUG.... In April, the private sector added 268,000 jobs, while the public sector lost 24,000.

So far in 2011, the private sector has added 854,000 jobs, while the public sector has lost 86,000 jobs.

Over the past year, the private sector has added 1.7 million jobs, while the public sector has lost 404,000 jobs.

Looking at the larger trend, the overall situation is clearly improving. An economy that was shrinking is now growing. An economy that was losing jobs is now creating jobs. Based on the latest data, the job market is now at its strongest point in five years, and while that's not good enough, it is heartening.

But the larger trend also reminds us that the job picture would be even better were it not for conservative economic policies that are causing so many job losses in the public sector.

Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty recently claimed that "the only booming 'industry'" in the Obama era is the public sector, while the private sector has lost jobs. That's not only backwards, that's hopelessly insane.

As Matt Yglesias reminds us this morning, Republicans have little to complain about.

[A]nother issue is simply that this is the recovery conservatives say they want. The balance of economic activity is shifting away from the public sector and toward the private sector. So why is it that we have people running around the country -- not just ignorant grassroots folks or talk show entrepreneurs, but billionaire political organizers like David Koch -- screaming about incipient socialism?

It's within the government's power to intervene and prevent these public-sector layoffs at the state and local level. Indeed, in 2009, Democrats did just that, and it immediately helped improve the nation's economy.

It's no longer an option because Republicans reject such a move on ideological grounds. Worse, according to GOP leaders, the goal is to expand this approach, and make public-sector layoffs even worse, on purpose. Remember Speaker Boehner's "So be it" line? It was in response to a question about deliberately making unemployment worse by laying off hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

For the GOP, the loss of public-sector jobs is a feature, not a bug. It's not a development to lament, it's a development to duplicate and expand.

If Americans disapprove, and want to see fewer layoffs, they shouldn't have elected a Republican House.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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A COURSE CORRECTION THAT BRED SUCCESS.... When it comes to progressive criticism of President Obama, arguably the most persuasive relates to civil liberties and the national security state. The routine law-breaking of the previous administration is gone, but those hoping for a significant break from Bush-era policies have an entirely legitimate beef.

That said, Obama's approach to national security is not a carbon copy of his predecessor's. In fact, this week, in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, those on the right who aren't dismissing the development's significance are saying Obama only succeeded because he followed the trail Bush already blazed.

As Condoleezza Rice put it, there was "continuity across two presidencies."

Today, National Journal's Michael Hirsh explains the extent to which this argument is wrong, and credits the successful mission in Abbottabad to this White House's "new conception of terrorism."

Behind Obama's takedown of the Qaida leader this week lies a profound discontinuity between administrations -- a major strategic shift in how to deal with terrorists. From his first great public moment when, as a state senator, he called Iraq a "dumb war," Obama indicated that he thought that George W. Bush had badly misconceived the challenge of 9/11. And very quickly upon taking office as president, Obama reoriented the war back to where, in the view of many experts, it always belonged. He discarded the idea of a "global war on terror" that conflated all terror threats from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah. Obama replaced it with a covert, laserlike focus on al-Qaida and its spawn.

This reorientation was part of Obama's reset of America's relations with the world. Bush, having gradually expanded his definition of the war to include all Islamic "extremists," had condemned the United States to a kind of permanent war, one that Americans had to fight all but alone because no one else agreed on such a broadly defined enemy. (Hezbollah and Hamas, for example, arguably had legitimate political aims that al-Qaida did not, which is one reason they distanced themselves from bin Laden.) In Obama's view, only by focusing narrowly on true transnational terrorism, and winning back all of the natural allies that the United States had lost over the previous decade, could he achieve America's goal of uniting the world around the goal of extinguishing al-Qaida.

In fundamental ways, Bush and Obama perceive the terrorist threat in very different ways, and only one of those visions makes sense and has borne fruit.

I'll give you a hint: it's not Bush's.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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BOEHNER STRUGGLES WITH GOOD NEWS.... The new employment report shows the strongest job creation in five years, leaving House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) with an awkward challenge. Does he take credit for Democrats successfully getting the economy back on track and risk being mocked, or does Boehner downplay good news and look like a leader rooting for failure?

In his press statement this morning, the Speaker leaned towards the latter.

"While any improvement is welcome news, job growth in America is still nowhere close to what it should be. Our economy continues to suffer from the uncertainty being caused for private-sector job creators by the Democrats who run Washington. Over the past month, rather than joining Republicans in focusing on policies that promote long-term economic growth to help balance the federal budget, the Democrats who control Washington have indicated they are planning to increase taxes and allow the government's spending binge to continue."

This is kind of sad, but let's take a moment to unfold the statement anyway.

First, the only "uncertainty" hanging over the economy right now is whether the debt ceiling is going to be extended, or whether there will be a massive catastrophe of Congress' making. The only people in America responsible for this "uncertainty" is John Boehner and his caucus. (Indeed, this morning's statement goes on to say, "Congressional Republicans have made clear there will be no debt limit increase unless it is accompanied by significant spending cuts and reforms." Isn't this a perfect example of creating uncertainty?)

Second, Democrats don't "run Washington" anymore. Boehner should realize this -- he's the Speaker of the House.

And third, Republicans aren't "focusing on policies that promote long-term economic growth," they're focusing on abortion rights and austerity measures that undermine economic growth.

Aside from this and assorted other problems -- Boehner's wrong that the GOP plan balanced the budget -- the Speaker's message is just fine. It would be nice if he were capable of applauding good news, though I suppose that's too much to ask.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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PRIVATE-SECTOR JOB MARKET IMPROVES, REACHES FIVE-YEAR HIGH.... In the previous post, we talked about the new monthly jobs report, but in keeping with tradition, here's a slightly different chart -- one showing just the private sector job market.

In April, the overall economy added 244,000 jobs, but 24,000 Americans working in the public sector left the workforce, as state and local governments continued to cut spending. The private sector, however, added 268,000 jobs, marking the 14th consecutive month of private-sector growth.

More important that the streak, however, is the data. The 268,000 total not only beat expectations, it's a genuinely good number. We're accustomed to dealing with relative encouragement -- results that are only heartening because of the larger, awful context. But a month in which 268,000 private-sector jobs were created is actually quite strong regardless of context.

Indeed, looking at the chart below, it's worth emphasizing that April's private-sector numbers were the single best Americans have seen since the Great Recession began in 2007. What's more, the combined data from February and March shows easily the best three-month stretch in the last five years.

It is, in other words, encouraging. As we talked about earlier, the kind of robust job growth we'd need to bring the unemployment rate down in a hurry would require even stronger employment numbers, but given the hole we've been in, what we're looking for are significant steps in the right direction. That's exactly the news we received today.

With that in mind, here is a different homemade chart, showing monthly job losses/gains in the private sector since the start of the Great Recession. The image makes a distinction -- red columns point to monthly job totals under the Bush administration, while blue columns point to job totals under the Obama administration.


Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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APRIL SHOWS SURPRISINGLY STRONG JOB GROWTH.... With nearly all the recent economic news looking quite discouraging, expectations were low for the new monthly unemployment report. Nearly every estimate suggested the job market was getting worse, and that April would show a decline from previous months, dipping to about 185,000 jobs created.

It comes as something of a relief, then, that this morning's report didn't just greatly exceed expectations, it's arguably the single best month for jobs since the Great Recession began in 2007.

The Labor Department says the economy added 244,000 jobs last month. Private employers shrugged off high gas prices and created 268,000 jobs -- the most since February 2006.

The gains were widespread. Retailers, factories, financial companies, education and health care and even construction companies all added jobs. Federal, state and local governments cut jobs.

The unemployment rate ticked higher, from 8.8% to 9%, but as we've talked about before, that's not the most reliable gauge. Indeed, as April's report helps demonstrate, the unemployment rate can go up when more jobs are created, and go down when fewer jobs are created. It's just quirky that way.

The number to watch is the total number of jobs created. And in this case, the economy added 244,000 jobs in April. That's the third highest total since the recession started, and the single-best month when one excludes Census-related jobs. By most measures, this is the fastest job growth Americans have seen in five years.

Also note, the total would have been even higher had it not been for state and local budget cuts -- the private sector added 268,000 jobs, but the public sector lost 24,000 jobs. Those were jobs that could have been saved were it not for conservative fiscal policies.

Nevertheless, this is the third good jobs report in as many months, and offers hope that the employment market is finally getting back on track. So far in 2011, the economy has added 768,000 jobs -- and that just covers four months.

To be sure, to have robust growth that would bring the unemployment rate down in a hurry, we'd need to see even stronger employment numbers, but given the hole we've been in, what we're looking for a significant steps in the right direction. That's exactly the news we received today.

Just as encouraging, the totals from February and March were both significantly revised upwards.

From a purely political perspective, policymakers would ideally look at figures like these, and consider ways to keep the momentum going. Regrettably, congressional Republicans continue to fight for austerity measures that would reverse the progress on purpose. This morning's report should offer Washington a big hint: if we want more good news, the GOP plan needs to be rejected.

Once again, here's the homemade chart I run on the first Friday of every month, showing monthly job losses since the start of the Great Recession. The image makes a distinction -- red columns point to monthly job totals under the Bush administration, while blue columns point to job totals under the Obama administration.


Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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HOUSE REPUBLICAN ON MEDICARE PLAN: 'THINGS ARE UNRAVELING'.... Three weeks ago today, House Republicans approved their radical budget plan, which included, among other things, a measure to eliminate Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme. After the vote, GOP officials were all smiles, confident they'd made the right move.

As of this morning, the party's leadership is retreating. Over the course of 24 hours, Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp all backed away from the Medicare privatization scheme. Rank-and-filed Republicans, who apparently weren't told this was coming, were left dazed and confused.

"It is a big problem," one GOP aide said. "Things are unraveling."

Indeed, in the first round of White House budget talks, overseen by Vice President Biden, Cantor outlined his party's vision on the budget, but largely ignored the Medicare plan. "He didn't need to talk about it in that room," said one participant. "Everyone knows it's dead."

At this point, the folks to keep an eye on are the vulnerable House Republicans who voted for their party's radical budget plan, knowing full well it wouldn't pass the Senate.

Some members -- especially freshmen from districts with steep re-election hills to scale -- were upset to hear that the plan could be scotched after they had voted for the budget proposal and then invested so much hard work trying to sell it back home over the spring recess.

Right. These lawmakers stuck their necks out, and then returned home to angry constituents, trying to sell their party's agenda. Four days after going back to work, they learn that their leaders -- the ones who demanded they vote for the right-wing agenda -- are giving up on the most contentious idea. It's the sort of thing that's likely to breed intra-party resentments.

As for the leadership, Atrios asked a good question yesterday: "What were they thinking?"

That's not a rhetorical question. Boehner, Cantor, & Co. knew the risks and knew Dems were unlikely to give in on Medicare. So why force their own caucus to put their careers and majority on the line?

Jonathan Bernstein outlined three possibilities: (1) GOP lawmakers are afraid of primary challengers; (2) they're so stuck in epistemic closure that they thought their plan would be popular; (3) they're just incompetent and didn't realize what they were doing.

Without access to the internal deliberations, it's obviously hard to say with certainty, but I'm going with Door #2. Republicans boasted for months that they're following the will of "the American people," convinced they earned a mandate in November to shred the social contract. Since they only interact with people who agree with them, GOP officials actually started to believe their own spin.

As of yesterday, it seems the leadership woke up.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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May 5, 2011

THURSDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* At Ground Zero: "President Obama laid a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers at ground zero on Thursday, honoring the nearly 3,000 people killed in the September 2001 terrorist attacks and marking the death of its perpetrator, Osama bin Laden."

* This is cause for genuine concern: "The number of people applying for unemployment benefits surged last week to the highest level in eight months, a sign the job market may be weakening. The Labor Department says applications rose by 43,000 to 474,000 in the week ended April 30, the third increase in four weeks."

* Pakistani officials tell the U.S. not to make a habit of raiding their country without permission.

* POTUS to meet Team 6: "President Obama will meet members of the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden when he visits a military base Friday in Kentucky. The Associated Press, citing an anonymous source, reported the meeting will occur during Obama's previously announced visit to Fort Campbell in Kentucky."

* Syria: "Backed by tanks, Syrian security forces raided a restive Damascus suburb Thursday morning, arresting scores of people in a broad campaign that targeted men between the ages of 18 and 50, human rights groups and activists said."

* White House budget talks: "Vice President Joe Biden said talks on a long-term budget deal will resume next week, following an initial meeting Thursday to set up the group. The first meeting included a general discussion of rival proposals, Democrats leaving the meeting said, and the only agreement made was to meet again Tuesday."

* Agreed: "Too many of today's conservatives are unable to celebrate a pure victory for America because of who was at the helm when it happened. That's disturbing."

* Judge Jack McConnell was confirmed late yesterday on a party-line vote, 50 to 44. The vote came soon after a GOP filibuster was defeated.

* Right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton was on "The Daily Show" last night, spewing a lot of nonsense. It just wasn't possible for Jon Stewart to fact-check every claim during their discussion, but Right Wing Watch detailed Barton's most glaring errors (Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV).

* Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has a new definition for the GOP: "Get Old People."

* Daniel Luzer: "A few colleges are now starting to treat binge drinking like a public health problem, rather than just a campus discipline problem."

* America's Worst Sheriff: Joe Arpaio faces a new corruption scandal.

* Fox host Eric Bolling seemed to endorse the idea of torturing a variety of public officials, including President Obama.

* And as disgusting as it is that this incident occurred, I'm glad the district acted: "A Southeast Texas school has put a teacher on leave pending an investigation into an allegation that he asked an American-born Muslim student if she was grieving because her 'uncle' had died, referring to Osama bin Laden, a school district spokeswoman said Wednesday."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE CAP ACT IS ARGUABLY WORSE THAN THE RYAN PLAN.... MoveOn.org and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich have a new video out today, slamming the "CAP Act" being championed by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Claire McCaskill's (D-Mo.). Reich makes a brief, compelling case, calling it "the Republican plan with lipstick."

I heartily endorse the sentiment. The "CAP Act," as I've been arguing the past few weeks, would impose insane, statutory spending caps on Congress, with the goal of automatically slashing public investments in practically everything. The measure is generating growing support from Republicans and "centrist" Democrats, but it's still one of the worst ideas in recent memory.

But with due respect to Reich and MoveOn, I think they're arguably understating matters. The CAP Act isn't "the same" as the Republican agenda; it's almost certainly worse.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said Wednesday that a fellow Democrat's plan to tackle federal spending would be even worse for Medicaid than House Republicans' "heartless" proposals for the program.

House Republicans' fiscal 2012 budget would convert federal Medicaid spending into block grants to states, which opponents say would ultimately lead the states to cut benefits or drop people from the program. The proposal is "almost beyond my moral understanding," Rockefeller said at a press conference.

But he said Medicaid cuts would be more dramatic under Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-Mo.) proposal to cap federal spending. She and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have proposed limiting total federal spending to about 20 percent of gross domestic product. Such "global caps" would be "worse than the House budget bill," Rockefeller said.

On a related note, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' Paul Van de Water explained to the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, "Imposing an arbitrary limit on federal spending would risk tipping faltering economies into recession, make recessions deeper, and make recovery from a recession more difficult."

Heather McGhee also did a nice job summarizing the case against the CAP Act, calling it what it is: "a depression maker."

I realize this seems like a dry topic, which isn't yet generating much attention, and the idea of arbitrary spending caps might even poll well. But I'm going to keep banging this drum. At this point, these caps probably have enough support to actually pass both chambers, and if enforced, they'd obliterate the safety net and destroy any chance of progressive policymaking for a generation. And yet, there's some talk about including the idea in the Gang of Six plan and/or making it a precondition for raising the debt ceiling.

In other words, this really should be taken seriously.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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HOUSE GOP EFFECTIVELY GIVES UP ON REPEALING ACA.... House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) effectively killed Medicare privatization this morning, explaining that he doesn't see the point of his committee wasting time on it if the proposal is just doing to die in the Senate anyway.

But he expounded on another interesting subject, too.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, acknowledged Thursday that Republican plans to repeal President Barack Obama's signature health care law were "dead." Instead, Camp predicted, the GOP would turn its focus to overturning the most controversial portion of that legislation: the mandate requiring individuals to buy insurance.

"Obviously, I voted to repeal the bill and you pretty much know where I am on replacement because I put out a bill last year on that," Camp said. "Is the repeal dead? I don't think the Senate is going to do it, so I guess, yes."

Camp added that he'd keep an eye on the courts -- the Affordable Care Act is still the target of multiple, ongoing federal lawsuits -- and might push for a vote to repeal the individual mandate "some time in this Congress."

Of course, congressional Republicans have been talking about repealing the health care law since before it even became law. After the midterm elections, GOP officials said eliminating the entirety of the law was their top priority -- more important than jobs, energy policy, or anything else -- and immediately went to work on this goal.

Republicans didn't have an alternative policy and didn't care that polls shows Americans opposing a full repeal, but they nevertheless invested an enormous amount of time and energy into this. The result was predictable -- the House GOP passed its measure; Republicans felt good about themselves for a couple of days; and the whole effort faded away.

It's just occurring to these guys now that a Democratic Senate and Democratic White House aren't going to accept this, so it's time to give up?

As for repealing the mandate, keep a few things in mind: (1) this was a Republican idea; (2) by their own admission, Republicans have no idea how to deal with the consequences of scrapping the provision; and (3) mandates couldn't be that bad since they're part of the Paul Ryan agenda.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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SOFT BIGOTRY, LOW EXPECTATIONS.... The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg noted yesterday that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) was in Manhattan on Tuesday -- at a "Gilded Age Upper East Side mansion," no less -- and had lunch with 13 journo-pundits, including Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru, Michael Kinsley, Josh Marshall, Mark Halperin, and George Stephanopoulos. It went fairly well.

Afterward, the informal consensus of the leftish contingent was summed up in this exchange:

"If we have to have a Republican..."

"...this one seems like he'd be better than the others."

It's remarkable how common this is. Dana Milbank noted that Daniels was in D.C. yesterday, delivering a speech on education policy, and coming across as the Republicans' "alternative to scary."

As best as I can tell, Dana Goldstein was one of the few -- if not, the only -- media professional to actually scrutinize the substance of what Daniels had to say about education policy. Her conclusion: his agenda is "somewhat misguided."

But at this point, given Daniels' apparent interest in the presidential race, substantive critiques are taking a back seat to electoral considerations. For now, that means political observers sizing him up as a national contender.

What's striking, though, is how far standards have fallen. Mitch Daniels is presented as the thinking voter's Republican because (a) he speaks in complete sentences; (b) right or wrong, he seems to take policy more seriously than Romney, Pawlenty, & Co.; (c) he's the "non-threatening" Republican who doesn't behave like a "public clown"; and (d) one can listen to his speeches without reaching for the Maalox bottle.

Is now a good time to note that the bar should be set much higher?

Mitch Daniels claims to care primarily about fiscal issues, but his record as Bush's budget director is utterly humiliating. He claims to have no use for hot-button social issues and prefers a culture war "truce," but just announced his support to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood clinics in Indiana, leaving untold thousands of Hoosier families without access to preventive health care.

Maybe none of this matters. Republican primary voters probably won't care much that Daniels is loved by D.C. pundits and was deemed acceptably charming at a luncheon on the Upper East Side. Indeed, just the opposite is true -- the GOP base seems likely to resent him for this sort of thing.

But it still amazes me that much of the establishment is willing to perceive Daniels as The Great Republican Hope, is large part because the existing field is so wretched.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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GETTING BTU'D.... In 1993, President Bill Clinton pressed congressional Democrats to vote for proposal to tax the heat content of fuels -- the so-called "BTU tax." Rank-and-file House Dems didn't like it, but many of them grudging went along, following Clinton's lead. A few months later, budget talks stalled in the Senate, and the White House felt it had no choice but to drop the BTU measure.

A year later, vulnerable House Dems were slammed with attack ads for having voted for the measure -- and having nothing to show for it -- and the issue likely contributed to Democrats losing their majority in 1994.

With that in mind, Karen Tumulty asked today, "Is it possible that House Republicans got 'BTUed' on Medicare?"

Oh, it's more than possible.

As of this afternoon, Republicans appear to be in full retreat over their plan to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme. Voters hate the idea, and Dems are using it as a cudgel to bludgeon GOP members. But the retreat doesn't change the problem for vulnerable Republicans -- they already voted to end Medicare, even after telling voters last year that they wouldn't, basically because their leadership told them they had to.

Ezra Klein explained the phenomenon of "getting BTU'd."

In 2010, a number of House members felt BTU'd after Nancy Pelosi forced them to vote on a cap-and-trade plan that never made it to the Senate floor, but made it into a lot of their reelection campaigns. But it's not clear how much cap-and-trade -- or, for that matter, the BTU tax -- actually mattered in the subsequent election.

But Ryan's Medicare plan will be a core part of the Democratic message in 2012. This could be a BTUing at a whole other level.

And Dems couldn't be happier about it.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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MEDICARE PRIVATIZATION LOOKS DEAD.... We learned overnight that House Republicans leaders appear to be backing away from their plan to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme. Realizing it can't pass, GOP leaders seem ready to drop the plan as budget talks continue.

The reports have generated some pushback this morning, but the Republican plan's fate now appears to be sealed.

The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee said Thursday he has no interest in bringing up House Republicans' proposal to replace Medicare with subsidies for private insurance if it's not going to pass the Senate.

"I'm not really interested in laying down more markers," said Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.). "I'd rather have the committee working with the Senate and with the president to focus on savings and reforms that can be signed into law."

Camp made his remarks to reporters at a Health Affairs policy breakfast.

For those unfamiliar with congressional procedures, the Ways and Means Committee is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, committee on the Hill. An effort like privatizing Medicare would necessarily go through Ways and Means before advancing, and if the committee chairman doesn't even want to bother, it suggests the initiative really is dead.

And while that's certainly good news, it probably won't come as a relief to vulnerable House Republicans. Remember, they knew ending Medicare would be unpopular, they knew Democrats would never go for it, but they voted for a budget plan that scrapped Medicare anyway. Some of those GOP lawmakers almost certainly didn't want to go along, but they stuck their necks out and voted for this ridiculous agenda because their leaders asked them to.

A month later, those same leaders are moving away from their own idea, leaving their most vulnerable members with nothing more than attacks ads to look forward to.

Update: Boehner is walking away from his party's policy, too. That's not too surprising -- he started distancing himself last week.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THURSDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP.... 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:

* The first debate for Republican presidential candidates is tonight in South Carolina, but the Associated Press and Reuters won't cover it because of media restrictions being imposed by News Channel and the South Carolina Republican Party.

* We've known for months that Rep. Mike Pence (R) was running for governor in Indiana, but today, he made it official. He was supposed to announce on Monday, but delayed in light of the Osama bin Laden news.

* To state Democrats' delight, Nevada state Treasurer Kate Marshall (D) announced yesterday she'll compete in the 2nd district's special election this year. It will be a multi-candidate free for all, though, with multiple Dems and Republicans running at the same time.

* A new WMUR poll in New Hampshire shows Mitt Romney continuing to lead the GOP field in the first primary state. The former Massachusetts governor has 36% support, with Donald Trump second with 11%.

* Fox News wants Mike Huckabee, one of the network's paid employees, to make up his mind about the 2012 presidential campaign. The Republican network has reportedly given Huckabee until the end of May to make a decision.

* Michele Bachmann has not yet decided whether to run for president, but she said publicly this week she wants God to give her and her husband "a special anointing on how to put our team together."

* To the disappointment of the state GOP, former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) will not take on Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) next year. Michigan Republicans are still without a top-tier Senate candidate.

* And in case Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) didn't have enough trouble, former Rep. Elizabeth Furse is now talking about taking Wu on in a Democratic primary next year. State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian is already running against the incumbent, who recently acknowledged struggling with mental health issues.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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THE MOST UNDER-COVERED SUCCESS STORY OF THE OBAMA ERA.... About two years ago, NBC News established a tough benchmark: "As the GM bailout goes, so goes the Obama presidency."

With that in mind, Jonathan Cohn offers us a helpful update on where things stand.

On Thursday General Motors announced that, for the fifth consecutive quarter, it had made a profit. And not just a measly one, either. The $3.2 billion was higher than experts had predicted and more than three times the profit of the same quarter in 2010, when the company was still struggling to emerge from its bankruptcy.

GM sales in North America were up 25 percent over that period. That reflects the recovery, obviously, but the increase in GM sales was still larger than the industry average. Even if GM can't keep up that pace, it's a sign of increasing health.

Still, the most interesting part of the news is not the profit itself. It's how GM made it.

Right. After the federal intervention to rescue the automotive industry, GM shifted its focus, reducing excess capacity and developing a better lineup of fuel-efficient cars and crossover vehicles. It's proven to be quite successful.

Cohn noted that GM recovery has not been flawless, and the transition has been painful for many. He concluded, however, "[I]f not for the Obama Administration's intervention, the entire American auto industry might very well have collapsed and taken the Midwest with it. Instead, the industry is on the rebound, at least for now. That's not bad for government work. Not bad at all."

I'd just add, from a purely political perspective, that Republicans still consider this a failure. As far as the right is concerned, the Obama administration's rescue of the American automotive industry wasn't just wrong, it was one of the president's most dreadful mistakes. Confront conservatives with reports like the latest from GM, and the response tends to be that the success of the policy doesn't change anything.

The thesis about the right valuing ideology over practical results needs no better example.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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HUCKABEE EQUATES NATIONAL DEBT WITH HOLOCAUST, BRISTLES AT CRITICISM.... Over the weekend, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) raised a few eyebrows when she drew a parallel between the Holocaust and the U.S. national debt. The same evening, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) delivered the keynote address to a National Rifle Association gathering, and made nearly an identical argument.

[Huckabee] offered an anecdote that seemingly compared silence in the face of mounting debt in modern America to those who said nothing about the rise of the Nazis.

He recalled a family trip years ago to a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. He said he was comforted when his young daughter, at the end of the tour, wrote unbidden in the guest book: "Why didn't anybody do something?"

"Let there never be a time in this country when some father has to look over his daughter's shoulder and see her ask the haunting question, 'why didn't somebody do something?'" he said.

As a substantive matter, this is deeply crazy. That Huckabee actually believes this nonsense is a reminder that, beneath the folksy demeanor, the guy is a deeply troubling ideologue.

But what was especially interesting about this story was what happened next.

The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman was not at all pleased at Huckabee equating the Holocaust and the national debt, and chastised the former governor for his remarks. Michelle Goldberg reports that Huckabee didn't take the criticism well.

After all he's done for Israel, Mike Huckabee does not appreciate being criticized for comparing American debt to the Holocaust. Thus on Tuesday, when the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman chastised him for doing just that, he responded with anger and a hint of menace, saying, "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have." Such words are unlikely to convince many Jews that Huckabee is their ally.

Worse, Huckabee then asked for Abe Foxman to retract the criticism and apologize to Huckabee for daring to question his remarks.

It's a fascinating perspective -- the former governor believes he's a friend of Israel, which effectively gives him free rein to say what he pleases, even if that means equating the Holocaust to our national debt.

Even for Huckabee, this is ridiculous.

Update: Adding insult to injury, the estimable Steve Kornacki reminds me that Huckabee has likened the Holocaust to the debt before, including at a campaign event in 2007.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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SCOTT BROWN'S IGNOMINIOUS STUMBLES.... Maybe the Senate Armed Services Committee isn't the right place for Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.).

US Senator Scott Brown is retracting statements he made earlier today, when he told several news outlets that he had seen photos of Osama bin Laden's dead body as part of an official briefing.

Brown made that assertion in an interview with NECN today to bolster his argument that the photos should not be released to the public.

"Let me assure you that he is dead, that bin Laden is dead," Brown said. "I have seen the photos and, in fact, we've received the briefing and we'll continue to get the briefings."

Brown echoed the sentiment in a separate interview with Fox-25 TV. "Listen, I've seen the picture," Brown said. "He's definitely dead."

It seemed odd that Brown had seen the images before anyone else in the Senate. As it turns out, he didn't.

The Massachusetts senator apparently saw doctored photos that were circulating on the Internet, and assumed they were true. They weren't. When he told reporters, "I have seen the photos and, in fact, we've received the briefing and we'll continue to get the briefings," the clear implication was that the images were part of the briefings. That wasn't true, either.

Brown just doesn't know what he's talking about.

In the same interview with the local Fox affiliate, Brown expressed frustration that "someone" leaked word of his request to be deployed to Afghanistan, and complained that he has to "talk about it now." And who, pray tell, leaked the story to the media? That would be Scott Brown -- the same person now complaining his own leak.

Brown has only been in office a little over a year, and during that time, he's made demonstrably ridiculous remarks about the stimulus, financial regulatory reform, health care, economic policy, energy policy, and foreign policy, among other things. It's tempting to think, at a certain point, he'd develop an unflattering reputation.

I'm sure Brown is a nice person, but it's hard to deny the fact that as a member of the Senate, he's in over his head.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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WHY BUSH WON'T JOIN OBAMA AT GROUND ZERO.... President Obama will travel to Lower Manhattan today, visiting Ground Zero and meeting with families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. He invited former President George W. Bush to join him, but the Republican declined, preferring, his spokesperson said, to "remain largely out of the spotlight."

That's certainly his prerogative, but it has sparked some speculation about why the former president would turn down the opportunity, with even some Bush supporters questioning the move. The New York Daily News reports today that Bush apparently declined in part because Obama hurt his feelings.

George W. Bush won't be at Ground Zero with President Obama Thursday in part because he feels his team is getting short shrift in the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.

"[Bush] viewed this as an Obama victory lap," a highly-placed source told the Daily News Wednesday.

Bush's visit to the rubble after the 9/11 attacks was the emotional high point of his presidency, but associates say the invitation to return with his successor was a non-starter. "He doesn't feel personally snubbed and appreciates the invitation, but Obama's claiming all the credit and a lot of other people deserve some of it," the source added.

"Obama gave no credit whatsoever to the intelligence infrastructure the Bush administration set up that is being hailed from the left and right as setting in motion the operation that got Bin Laden. It rubbed Bush the wrong way."

First, Obama didn't claim all the credit.

Second, Obama very specifically heralded "the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals" that has taken place "over the last 10 years."

And third, is Bush really this immature? Even after the killing of Osama bin Laden?

I'm not even sure what the former president and his allies expect Obama to say, exactly. Bush said he didn't care about catching bin Laden, disbanded the CIA team tasked with hunting bin Laden, deemphasized bin Laden's importance in counter-terrorism, and screwed up the mission at Tora Bora. What's Obama's message supposed to be, "Thanks for getting out of the way and letting me get the job done"?

Just for context, I'd note that the article was written by Thomas DeFrank. It relies, obviously, on unnamed "highly-placed sources," which understandably may lead to skepticism, but DeFrank is one of the more clued-in reporters I can think of, especially when it comes to Bush's team. If DeFrank says the quotes come from "highly-placed sources," I'm very much inclined to believe it.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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BACKING AWAY FROM MEDICARE PRIVATIZATION.... Just last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked about his caucus' budget plan, which included, among other things, the elimination of Medicare. The Speaker said he supports the agenda, but added, "I'm not wedded to one single idea."

It was the first meaningful hint that Republicans may not be fully prepared to go all the way in support of their own radical vision. The Washington Post's Lori Montgomery reports today that GOP leaders now appear to be backing away even faster than expected.

Senior Republicans conceded Wednesday that a deal is unlikely on a contentious plan to overhaul Medicare and offered to open budget talks with the White House by focusing on areas where both parties can agree, such as cutting farm subsidies.

On the eve of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said Republicans remain convinced that reining in federal retirement programs is the key to stabilizing the nation's finances over the long term. But he said Republicans recognize they may need to look elsewhere to achieve consensus after President Obama "excoriated us" for a proposal to privatize Medicare.

Republicans are certainly entitled to their spin, but I have a hunch the president's excoriation had less to do with the GOP's change of heart than polls (Americans hate the Republican agenda) and two weeks of town-hall meetings (angry constituents gave GOP lawmakers an earful).

Regardless of the motivation, though, Montgomery's report suggests Republican leaders, at least for now, are scurrying away from their hard-right line and embracing a more "conciliatory tone."

That search could start, Cantor said, with a list of GOP proposals that would save $715 billion over the next decade by ending payments to wealthy farmers, limiting lawsuits against doctors, and expanding government auctions of broadcast spectrum to telecommunications companies, among other items.

Democrats said they were encouraged by the move, which could smooth the way to a compromise allowing Congress to raise the legal limit on government borrowing and avoid a national default.

Obviously, we'll need to wait for more details, but at this point, the shift seems encouraging. There are, however, some angles to keep an eye on, and two jump out right away.

The first is that senior Republican officials may be prepared to narrow the scope of their demands, but it remains to be seen whether the GOP's rank-and-file agree. As we've seen in recent months, party leaders aren't always the ones doing the leading.

The other is that Republicans, if they are prepared to scrap their Medicare privatization plan, made a terrible strategic decision when it came to pursuing their agenda. They knew ending Medicare would be unpopular, they knew Democrats would never go for it, but they voted for it anyway. Now GOP leaders are prepared to negotiate it away, which makes sense, but what about the 235 House Republicans -- 98% of the caucus -- who stuck their necks out and voted for this ridiculous agenda because their leaders asked them to?

The attack ads they'll face next year will be brutal -- and accurate -- and they'll have nothing to show for their risk.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE HOUSE GOP'S ODIOUS ANTI-CHOICE BILL.... As best as I can tell, yesterday afternoon's House vote on the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" (H.R. 3) hasn't generated much in the way of media attention. To a certain extent, that's understandable -- editors/producers aren't often inclined to invest a lot of energy covering legislation that's going to fail, and only got a vote to pander to far-right ideologues.

But it's also a shame that the vote is being largely ignored by major outlets, because Americans need to know (a) what House Republicans are doing in their name; and (b) just how awful this bill really is.

The House of Representatives just passed H.R. 3, the controversial abortion-funding law that pro-choice critics and the White House has said will make it harder for woman to pay for abortion coverage with their own money. [...]

Proponents say the bill will simply make permanent existing bans on using federal money to pay for abortions. But critics say the bill goes much further than existing law, and say it reopens the abortion fight that's been in detente for years thanks to the Hyde Amendment.

Any serious scrutiny of the bill shows that the critics are right.

This recent editorial summarized the point of the bill nicely: "The tax credits that are encouraging small businesses to provide insurance for their workers could not be used to buy policies that cover abortions. People with their own policies who have enough expenses to claim an income tax deduction could not deduct either the premiums for policies that cover abortion or the cost of an abortion. People who use tax-preferred savings accounts to pay medical costs could not use the money to pay for an abortion without paying taxes on it."

Indeed, the closer one looks at the bill, the more odious it becomes. The final version included a provision to ensure that only victims of "forcible rape" are eligible for federal funding if they seek abortions. It also raises taxes. It also effectively calls on the IRS to conduct rape audits.

And how many House Republicans voted for this offensive bill? All of them.

Yes, there was also a small group of conservative Democrats who went along with this nonsense, but it was Republicans who made the bill one of the top legislative priorities of the 112th Congress, and then unanimously supported it.

Senate Democrats have said H.R. 3 has absolutely no chance of passing, and in case that weren't quite enough, the White House formally announced this week that President Obama strongly opposes the bill and would veto it if it reached his desk.

That is, to be sure, reassuring, and explains why this bill isn't front-page news.

But voters need to understand what they did when they elected a Republican House majority. GOP lawmakers aren't working on job creation; they're not working on energy policy; they're not working on national security; they're not working on immigration. Instead, Republicans have made abortion one of their top priorities, and yesterday wasted time on a bill they knew would fail, because they want to make it harder for women to pay for abortions with their own money.

Voters who backed GOP candidates last year because you were unsatisfied with economic growth should be aware of what they elected.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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May 4, 2011

WEDNESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Watch this closely: "The Obama administration is seeking to use the killing of Osama bin Laden to accelerate a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and hasten the end of the Afghanistan war, according to U.S. officials involved in war policy. Administration officials think it could now be easier for the reclusive leader of the largest Taliban faction, Mohammad Omar, to break his group's alliance with al-Qaeda, a key U.S. requirement for any peace deal."

* On a related note: "Osama bin Laden's death is likely to revive a debate within the Afghan Taliban about their ties to al-Qaida -- a union the U.S. insists must end if the insurgents want to talk peace."

* Seeking an explanation from Pakistan: "Obama administration officials here and in Islamabad are demanding that Pakistan quickly provide answers to specific questions about Osama bin Laden and his years-long residence in a bustling Pakistani city surrounded by military installations."

* In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll released this morning, President Obama's approval rating jumped 11 points, from 46% to 57%. Support for his handling of the economy, however, reached the lowest point of his presidency.

* Despite the fact that his remarks came very late on a Sunday night, President Obama's speech announcing the killing of bin Laden was watched by 56.5 million Americans. That's 8 million more viewers than watched his State of the Union address.

* Any lingering doubts on whether Obama's call to raid the compound in Abbottabad was gutsy? Consider this piece on "the debacle that didn't happen."

* Scandalous: "U.S. mining regulators found multiple safety violations at a West Virginia mine owned by Massey Energy Co., saying Tuesday that the conditions were 'nothing short of outrageous' and accusing the company of failing to clean up its act after the 2010 explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine."

* Paul Krugman 1, Casey Mulligan 0.

* The company formerly known as Blackwater has a new ethics chief. It's former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

* Conor Friedersdorf put together his top 100 pieces of journalism from the last year, and it's good to see a couple of pieces from the Washington Monthly print edition in there.

* On the lookout for the next economic bubble? Is higher education on the list?

* Virginia's truly bizarre, hyper-conservative state attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, published one of the strangest tweets I've ever seen this morning: "How much would I give to be one of the 72 Virginans Osama is 'hanging out' with since Sunday?" I suppose there's supposed to be some kind of pun in there about "Virgins" and "Virginians," but he spelled the latter wrong and the whole message was just a distasteful mess.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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WHAT DEMINT CONSIDERS 'A NEW BEGINNING'.... In the late '90s, there was a catchy little four-chord single called, "Closing Time" from a band called Semisonic. If you listened to the radio at the time, it was hard to miss.

One of the lyrics was repeated a few times, and it always stuck in my head: "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." It has a certain logic to it.

I wonder if Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has ever heard the song.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is the latest Republican to use verbal gymnastics in an attempt to muddle the Ryan budget's changes to Medicare. In an interview with ThinkProgress this past weekend, DeMint first declared -- incorrectly -- that most Americans would favor a plan that privatizes Medicare. He then went on to argue that the Republican budget is "not an end of Medicare, it's a new beginning."

It's been one of the oddities of the past few weeks -- we've been stuck trying to define "end." It's really not that complicated, but everyone from PolitiFact to Republicans to journalists are unhappy with the left using the word to describe the GOP's Medicare plan.

DeMint's spin is especially interesting -- he doesn't want to "end" Medicare, he just wants to give it "a new beginning."

Isn't that a bit like redefining "retreat" by saying one is advancing in the other direction?

Look, semantics debates can get pretty tiresome, but this need not be complicated. If you give a program a "new beginning," you have to end the old program. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

In this case, DeMint and his party want to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme. It would still be called "Medicare," but it wouldn't be Medicare.

It seems foolish to have to parse the meaning of the word "end," but if there's a program, and it's replaced with a different program, proponents brought an end to the original program. That's what the verb means.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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SENATE GOP FILIBUSTER OF JUDICIAL NOMINEE FAILS.... This probably won't generate a lot of attention, but it's arguably the most significant political development of the day.

A trial lawyer nominated by President Barack Obama to be a federal judge in Rhode Island is on track to be confirmed after a Senate GOP filibuster attempt failed Wednesday.

Eleven Republicans joined with Democrats in the 63-33 vote Wednesday to support John McConnell's nomination. GOP leaders opposed McConnell, citing his record as a trial lawyer in cases against businesses.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is not related to the nominee, accused John McConnell of being a lying, anti-business ambulance chaser, and was backed up by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which broke with tradition and urged senators to block the nomination, and the religious right, which condemned him as a cultural liberal.

But something very interesting happened on the Senate floor today. Senate Republicans launched a filibuster against John McConnell -- just a few years after these same Senate Republicans said judicial filibusters are the single most outrageous and unconstitutional abuse imaginable -- and the filibuster failed.

Eleven Senate Republicans -- Alexander, Brown, Collins, Graham, Kirk, McCain, Murkowski, Snowe, Thune, Chambliss, and Isakson -- broke ranks, ignored the GOP leadership, and voted for cloture. It's certainly possible that some or all of the 11 will vote against John McConnell's confirmation, but they agreed that he is entitled to an up-or-down vote.

Sure, 33 Republicans said the opposite. And sure, nearly all of those 33 spent eight years condemning judicial filibusters as tearing at the very fabric of democracy. And sure, the hypocrisy from some of the GOP senators is pretty astounding.

But 11 Senate Republicans did the right thing -- and that's pretty astounding.

On the substance, McConnell is a terrific progressive nominee, and the far-right's apoplexy is ridiculous. But in the bigger picture, there's a vacancy crisis in the judiciary right now, created almost entirely by Senate Republicans refusing to allow President Obama's judicial nominees to be considered in a timely manner. Today was a big step towards addressing this crisis in a fair, bipartisan way. Republicans don't have to like all of the nominees the White House sends to the Senate, but they should at least stick to their own principles and allow the jurists to get an up-or-down vote.

This afternoon, 11 Republicans agreed. It was a very pleasant surprise.

Jonathan Bernstein added that the existing logjam allows a handful of uncontroversial nominees to be confirmed in periodic bursts -- basically one or two a week, who generate unanimous support -- but has stymied judicial nominees who enjoy majority support, but face significant GOP opposition. Progress on John McConnell today suggests there may be progress on this group, too, clearing the way for breaking the logjam, and offering Obama a chance to help shift the judiciary away from the far-right.

Here's hoping the progress continues.

Postscript: Thanks to Glenn Sugameli at Judging the Environment, my go-to expert on judicial nominees and confirmations, for the background info and links.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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OBAMA WON'T RELEASE OBL PHOTOS.... President Obama told CBS's Steve Kroft today that his administration won't release post-mortem images of Osama bin Laden, taken to prove his death.

Mr. Obama said he concluded that images of Bin Laden, bloodied by gunshots, would do nothing to persuade skeptics, but could inflame tensions in the Muslim world and pose problems for America's national security.

He disclosed his decision in an interview for the CBS program "60 Minutes," part of which will be broadcast on the network's evening news programs Wednesday.

According to a transcript read aloud at a White House press briefing, Mr. Obama said that there was no doubt Bin Laden was dead and that "we don't trot this stuff out as trophies -- that's not who we are."

The president went on to say, "[I]t is important to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool." He added, "We don't need to spike the football.... [G]iven the graphic nature of the photo it would create national security risk."

I don't have especially strong opinions on this, but on balance, this strikes me as the right call. There are conspiracy theorists who'll continue to demand proof, but the funny thing about conspiracy theorists is that no level of proof is ever enough. They'd very likely say the photographs were faked, just like the moon landing and the president birth certificate.

And given the potential risks associated with the dissemination of the photos, Obama's call seems entirely reasonable.

Of course, this is not to say the photos won't leak anyway. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have reportedly seen them, and one assumes Intelligence Committee members will soon follow, if this hasn't already happened. It only takes one staffer with brief access to send the image to a worldwide audience.

But so long as the president has a choice, I think he's making the right one.

Bolstering this judgment, Sarah Palin today argued that releasing the photo would serve as a "warning to others seeking America's destruction." She went on criticize "pussy-footing around."

For what it's worth, I find it hard to imagine dissemination of the images would discourage terrorists, and it's ludicrous on its face to suggest those who just killed bin Laden are guilty of "pussy-footing around."

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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THE ABRUPT CONVERSATIONAL DETOUR.... No one, least of all the White House, should be surprised.

Officials inside the Obama administration have grown discouraged by the abruptness with which the news over the killing of Osama bin Laden has turned into a debate over the efficacy of harsh interrogation techniques and torture.

Just days after the al Qaeda header was killed in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the political conversation has shifted from the implications of the assassination to questions of whether the waterboarding of valuable detainees was crucial in gathering intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts.

Defenders of the interrogation technique raised the issue, earning write-ups in several high-profile publications, including The New York Times and Time magazine. It was also put forward in most bin Laden-related news interviews with Obama officials.

The moral of the story is simple: the political world tends to talk about whatever Republicans want to talk about.

In this case, the immediate goal of Republicans was to ensure the Bush/Cheney administration received some, if not all, of the credit for the raid on bin Laden's compound. Given recent history, that was a tough sell, so the focus quickly shifted to torture -- Bush-era abuses led to intelligence that started the ball rolling, leading to Sunday.

We now know the GOP arguments are largely baseless, but the question itself was provocative enough to detour the conversation.

"I think this is a distraction from the broader picture, which is that this achievement was the result of years of painstaking work by our intelligence community that drew from multiple sources," White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor said.

Well, yes, of course it's a distraction. That's how this game works.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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WHEN HOPE IS THE ONLY PLAN LEFT.... Atrios summarized the painful state of the economic debate nicely: "It's all about the deficit, nobody talks about jobs anymore, and the administration isn't making the case that there's something they want that Congress won't give them. The plan is... hope for the best."

Quite right. President Obama could announce today that he's launching an ambitious jobs plan, but he won't, because he knows Congress would reject it. Indeed, Americans, for whatever reason, elected a House majority that wants to make unemployment worse on purpose, and actively dislikes those who are unemployed.

And so, while the public is clamoring for Washington to focus on economic growth and job creation, policymakers are focused on the opposite: taking money out of the economy. The best -- the very best -- we can hope for is a president who'll stop Republicans from making matters much worse, and maybe a reluctant Federal Reserve that might choose to play a more constructive role.

But really, that's it. The White House can't act without Congress, and Congress doesn't want to act at all. We're left to simply hope the economy continues to improve on its own.

The NYT's David Leonhardt isn't sure hope is enough.

White House advisers and Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, argue that the bad news is a merely a blip caused by bad weather, a temporary cut in military purchases and other one-time factors. They may be right, too. Stock market investors certainly share their optimism: the Standard & Poor's 500 index is near a postrecession high.

But both Wall Street and Washington were also optimistic around this time last year -- too optimistic. The unfortunate truth is that the recoveries from financial crises have a habit of disappointing.

Crises do so much damage that they leave businesses and households predisposed to believe the worst and to pull back at the first hint of economic weakness. Households are slow to resume spending. Banks are slow to lend, especially to small businesses. Companies are slow to hire.

All this is why the typical financial crisis has caused unemployment to rise for almost five years, according to historical work by the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. We are well ahead of that timetable, thanks to aggressive action by the Fed, the Obama administration and, in its final months, the Bush administration. But our working assumption should be that this recovery will remain at risk for a long time.

Leonhardt added that the "sensible" response from Congress would be some sort of short-term stimulus, perhaps tied to a long-term deficit reduction plan.

But Americans ensured last November that no "sensible" economic policies will come out of this Congress any time soon.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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HOW TO DEFEND THE INDEFENSIBLE.... Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made his "Meet the Press" debut the other day, and was asked about his support for the Republican plan to end Medicare. Given the number of retirees in Florida, Rubio's position is of particular interest.

He responded that the GOP proposal "doesn't cut Medicare," adding, "The only people in this town that have voted to cut Medicare spending are the people who voted in favor of Obamacare. That's a fact."

Except, that's not a fact at all. Jonathan Cohn explains today, "It's becoming pretty clear how Republicans plan to defend their budget. They're going to lie about it."

Yes, the Affordable Care Act reduces spending on Medicare. But it does so gradually, by establishing a long-term goal of allowing the program to grow at the same rate of gross domestic product plus one additional percentage points -- that is, GDP+1. And it's a goal in the truest sense of the word. If the program's starts growing at a faster pace, there are mechanisms to slow it down but not necessarily to get it all the way back to GDP+1.

The Republican budget, by contrast, would hold the cost growth of Medicare to the consumer price index, or CPI. CPI grows considerably slower than GDP, let alone GDP+1, so that's no small thing. The Republican budget would also enforce this target rigidly, by handing seniors vouchers whose value is set by a fixed, pre-determined formula. At the same time, the Republican budget would dramatically reduce the federal investment in Medicaid, on which so many of the elderly rely for supplemental coverage and/or long-term care, particularly nursing homes.

Overall, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the difference between the two plans goes from about 1 percentage point of GDP in 2022 to between 7 and 9 percentage points of GDP by 2050.

In other words, Rubio's on-air response wasn't even close to being accurate. I'm sure the right liked it -- the senator was rehashing misleading arguments from 2010, and got to say "Obamacare" a bunch of times -- but as Cohn noted, Rubio's answer was "pretty much the opposite of the truth."

It's likely Rubio didn't know he was deceiving a national television audience. He was no doubt prepped on what to say, and the senator, who doesn't appear to be especially bright, repeated the same phrases over and over again in the interview, reinforcing the notion that he was clinging to his talking points with all of his might.

Or maybe Rubio is a secret wonk and knew exactly what he was talking about, in which case he was shamelessly lying through his teeth.

But the one thing I'd add to Cohn's report, which is worth reading in full, is how "Meet the Press" host David Gregory responded to Rubio's lying. There was some pushback, but it was mild and superficial, and viewers likely had no idea the senator's comments were completely wrong. Indeed, the transcript offers a script for how Republicans should lie their way through the debate: say the plan to end Medicare actually "saves" the program, and if pressed, say Democrats don't have a plan of their own.

This is why we can't have nice things.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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QUITE A LINEUP IN SOUTH CAROLINA.... Exactly eight years ago this week, the field of Democratic presidential candidates assembled for their first debate of the 2004 cycle. It was held the same weekend as the release of the second X-Men movie, prompting Jon Stewart to draw a parallel, describing the Democratic debate as a "saga of a small group of misfits -- 'mutants,' if you will -- shunned by human society."

If the Dems' 2004 field was characterized as misfits and mutants, I can't wait to hear how folks describe the participants in the first debate for Republican presidential candidates.

Republicans are holding their first presidential debate tomorrow in South Carolina. The state Republican Party just released the complete list of contenders:

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Congressman Ron Paul, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and pizza guy Herman Cain.

It's a list you could just keep reading to yourself all day.

Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (R) reportedly wanted to participate, but has been excluded, apparently because every national poll has his support below 1%.

Romney declined without explanation; Gingrich won't set up an exploratory committee until next week and is therefore ineligible; Huntsman is in a similar boat; Bachmann hasn't made any formal moves; Daniels is still figuring out what he wants to do; Roy Moore falls into Roemer's category; and Palin and Huckabee are still on the Fox News payroll.

And that leaves Pawlenty, Santorum, Johnson, Paul, and Cain. I'd call this a clown debate but I don't want to insult clowns.

One of these five, former two-term Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, obviously stands out as the most credible of the group -- though that's not saying much -- and probably hopes to take advantage of the situation.

Indeed, Pawlenty probably sees this as an opportunity. He'll shine, the argument goes, against fringe, unknown, and unelectable candidates with no credible shot at the nomination.

That's certainly possible. But there's also the problem a 15 year old experiences when he's told he has to sit at the little kids' table at a family gathering -- being dragged down is embarrassing. Pawlenty may tower over the other four, but does he seriously believe his stature will get a boost standing alongside Herman Cain and Ron Paul?

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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WEDNESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP.... 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:

* Jon Huntsman, the Obama administration's former ambassador to China, took his first step toward a Republican presidential campaign yesterday, creating a political action committee that will allow him to travel and raise money.

* Huntsman quickly drew praise from former President Jimmy Carter (D), which probably won't help his GOP bid.

* Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) has not yet decided whether he'll run for president, but he's solicited advice from George W. Bush.

* Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign enjoys big leads in New Hampshire primary polls, but in an ominous development, Bruce Keough, the 2008 chairman of Romney's New Hampshire campaign, has announced he won't support the former Massachusetts governor again.

* Rick Santorum created a presidential exploratory committee yesterday, moving his all-but announced campaign one step forward.

* Former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) shook up her foreign policy team yesterday, replacing Randy Scheunemann with Hoover Institution fellow Peter Schweizer. It remains unclear why Palin has a foreign policy team.

* It seems unlikely she'll be physically able to run for the seat, but Public Policy Polling found that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) would lead Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in next year's Senate race in Arizona, 48% to 41%.

* In a clever move, Democrat Darren Spellman attended a town-hall meeting hosted by Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), and announced his campaign against the congressman.

* State House races generally don't garner national attention, but Democrats won a seat in Wisconsin yesterday that had been held by Republicans for many years. The campaign focused largely on Gov. Scott Walker's (R) anti-union agenda, and Wisconsin Dems hope to duplicate the success in the upcoming recall elections.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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NO COMPARISON.... On Monday, Obama administration officials offered reporters a variety of details involving the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Yesterday, after gathering additional information, the White House clarified matters, and corrected mistaken information that had been shared the day before.

Under the circumstances, this doesn't seem especially shocking. It's not as if Monday's information was part of a deliberate effort to deceive anyone -- if it were, officials wouldn't have been setting the record straight a day later.

With that in mind, Josh Marshall flagged this report comparing some of this week's errors to the Jessica Lynch story back in 2003. He's not buying it, and neither am I.

What does seem clear is that the White House went public with details only hours after the attack had happened. The Seals were no doubt pumped up by the success of the mission. And it's clear that the president's top staff were very pumped up too. They went forward with details that hadn't been reconciled, in some cases proved untrue and in a couple key cases really should have been seen as a bit too good to be true. In retrospect, as I'm sure the White House is finding, it would have been better to wait to get all the details confirmed and ironed out before doing these briefings -- something that was likely hard to do considering the probably literally unprecedented press and public demand for details.

Still, c'mon. There's a rather clear difference between going forward with unconfirmed or even pumped up accounts of events of an indisputably dangerous and successful mission and hyping up what was essentially a non-event into propaganda morality tale.

Quite right. I've even seen a few comparisons to the Pat Tillman story, which are equally over the top.

In the Bush era, stories like Lynch and Tillman were used as propaganda. Officials knew the truth, but created fictional-but-inspiring stories for purely political reasons. It was wrong, and the truth was hidden for months, and in some cases, years.

There's just no comparison between this and the details of the bin Laden killing.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE MISGUIDED REPEAL CRUSADE PICKS BACK UP.... House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) lectured President Obama last week during an interview with ABC. "It's time to grow up and get serious about the problems that face our country," Boehner said.

With that in mind, Boehner's House Republican caucus returned to work yesterday after a two-week break, ready to "get serious about the problems that face our country." What's up first? Maybe a jobs bill? Ideas to lower gas prices?

No, the first order of business was passing a bill to repeal part of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans insist the health care repeal effort hasn't jumped the shark -- but even they admit the bills they're pushing through the House Tuesday aren't exactly the biggest repeal votes they've taken.

The bills are getting smaller and narrower -- going after shrinking slices of President Barack Obama's health care law, rather than the whole thing. The main one on Tuesday's agenda, which passed the House 238-183, repeals the mandatory funding for the state-based health insurance exchanges.

Today, they'll follow up, voting to repeal funds for building school-based health centers.

There are a few problems with this. First, House Republicans are working hard on legislation they know can't pass the Senate and won't be signed by the president. Second, it's tricky pretending to "get serious about the problems that face our country," while at the same time ignoring actual problems and investing time and energy in bills that won't become law.

"They come back this week and instead of focusing on jobs they're going to be voting to take away more Americans' health care and do nothing to grow our economy," a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

And third, if Republicans were somehow successful in this little endeavor, and they cut off funding for state-based health insurance exchanges, the result would be increased federal control over the exchanges -- which is presumably the opposite of what the GOP wants.

Indeed, the whole effort is pretty odd. The bill isn't going to pass anyway, but just looking at it on the merits, the Republican measure would eliminate grants to help the states establish health insurance exchanges. But if states fall short in creating exchanges, the executive branch steps in to do the work for them.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's not the president who needs to be reminded about "getting serious about the problems that face our country."

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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REMEMBER HOW MUCH REPUBLICANS HATE THE INDIVIDUAL MANDATE?.... If there's one thing GOP officials agree on when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, it's their disgust for the individual mandate. Never mind the fact that the mandate was their idea, Republicans have labeled this provision of the health care law to be an outrageous, un-American assault on liberty. In some conservative circles, it's downright tyrannical.

Now, any serious person listening to the hysteria has to realize Republicans don't actually mean any of this. Indeed, many of those characterizing the individual mandate as the death of the American experiment were endorsing the idea as recently as 2009 -- during the debate over reform.

But in case anyone thought to take the faux-outrage seriously, Simon Lazarus raises an important observation: the highly-touted House GOP budget plan, as shaped by Paul Ryan, includes a health care mandate, too. In fact, it includes more than one.

The Ryan budget would reshape Americans' access to health insurance mainly through two provisions, both of which pressure people to purchase private health insurance to an extent and through mechanisms that are materially indistinguishable from the supposedly toxic Obamacare mandate. One of these Ryan budget proposals -- as yet little noticed by pundits or politicians -- is almost an exact copy of its equivalent in the Affordable Care Act. [...]

Under both provisions, the result is the same: People who choose to carry health insurance have a lower tax bill than they would if they chose not to. In terms of their respective potential impact on individuals' bank accounts and tax liability, the manner in which they affect individuals' financial incentives, and hence the constraining effect on individuals' financial choices to either buy or forgo health insurance, the two "mandate" provisions are identical. (Indeed, in most cases, the financial difference for the individual taxpayer made by the Republican tax credit would be greater -- i.e., more "coercive" -- than the ACA tax penalty.)

In addition to cloning the ACA's framework for coverage of adults under 65, the Ryan budget would also apply a similar approach to Americans currently covered by Medicare. Beginning in 2021, former Medicare-eligibles would receive a voucher they can apply to the purchase of private insurance. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the vouchers would be worth approximately $6,000 for recipients age 65, and would be greater for older recipients, averaging $11,000 across the entire Medicare population. Of course, Americans would be required to continue to pay their annual Medicare tax throughout their working lives. Hence, the Republicans' proposal to replace Medicare with partially subsidized private insurance also operates to "compel" people to pay for private health insurance policies. Moreover, this mandate is not even a pay-or-play option; Medicare taxes are mandatory, whether workers want to buy eligibility for old-age vouchers or not.

Nearly every member of the House Republican caucus voted for this budget plan, and said nary a word about the freedom-crushing provision included by Paul Ryan.

Ezra Klein added, "It's not surprising, of course, that Republicans are still coming up with ideas that are similar in execution and intent to the individual mandate. The individual mandate, after all, was a Republican idea.... They've not come up with anything better in the past few years, and so they're awkwardly trying out new variants of the individual mandate even as they fight the mandate itself in the courts."

For a political establishment obsessed with "flip-flops," this should arguably be considered a reversal for the ages.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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PAT ROBERTS TALKS UP 'PRETTY HOT DEMOCRATS'.... I have no idea what he could have been thinking.

At a Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) was questioning a panel of experts on the tax code's fairness. To kick off his questions, Mr. Roberts jokingly said he was conferring an "honorary doctorate of economics" on each of the four witnesses.

One of the witnesses, Aviva Aron-Dine, actually is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at MIT. Making nice with the senator, she said she appreciated the conferral of a degree, because she wouldn't mind getting hers a couple of years early.

"I always heard a Ph.D. was a pretty hot Democrat," Mr. Roberts replied.

"Pretty ... sorry?" Ms. Aron-Dine responded.

"Somebody asked me what a pretty hot Republican was, and they said, 'Nothing,'" Mr. Roberts continued. "So, you know, it's an equal deal." Then he went on with his questioning.

Pat Roberts isn't exactly known for being the Senate's classiest and most dignified member, but what possessed him to say these things out loud?

The senator's spokesperson later said, "He means hot as in partisan or 'fired up.'"

Really? That's the defense?

Since when is a Senate Finance Committee hearing an appropriate venue for locker-room jocularity and making young professional women feel uncomfortable?

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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A FLEETING MOMENT.... On Sunday night, announcing Osama bin Laden's demise, President Obama told the nation, "[T]onight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people."

On Monday night, at a bipartisan social gathering with congressional leaders, the president stressed a similar point: "[T]here have been several moments like this during the course of this year that have brought us together as an American family.... Last night was one of those moments. And so tonight it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face."

Here's hoping Obama kept his expectations low. Dana Milbank noted, "The Pax bin Ladenis is over before it really began."

Thirteen hours later, Republicans answered Obama's plea for bonhomie — with broadsides. "The command-and-control paranoia that we see in this administration is antithetical to everything that we understand about freedom in our country," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) declared on the Senate floor as the chamber began its first legislative day after a two-week vacation. "Individual responsibility and individual freedom and free markets and free enterprise: They're attacking it on every front."

House leaders emerged from their caucus meeting Tuesday morning with a similar response to the whole unity thing. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), chairman of the Republican caucus, reported his finding that the recession and slow recovery are "attributable to the president and the previous Congress." [...]

Senate Democrats made clear that, after passing a ceremonial resolution about bin Laden's end, they would return to skirmishing over oil company subsidies and judicial nominees. House Republicans signaled that they would proceed with divisive legislation on oil drilling, abortion and undoing health-care reform.

The New York Times added, "Whatever sense of unity the nation might have felt after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it did not extend to the pressing domestic policy issues that divide Congressional Republicans and Democrats, who returned to work in earnest Tuesday."

This isn't surprising, and frankly, it's not especially troubling. Washington is deeply divided, partisan differences haven't been this stark in decades, and Congress is just returning from a two-week recess, getting ready to dig into contentious issues again. I'm sure lawmakers are pleased with Sunday's success in Abbottabad, but by all appearances, there's no reason to think May 1 is The Day That Changed Everything.

The political divisions that existed before the raid on bin Laden's compound still existed afterwards.

When policymakers get along, it's certainly nice, but we have parties that disagree with one another, one of which has been radicalized to an extent unseen in generations. They're going to fight. They're supposed to fight. Americans gave power to a center-left White House, gave center-left Democrats a narrow majority in a dysfunctional Senate, and handed a House majority to right-wing Republicans -- all at the same time. Americans then, in effect, said, "Go pursue your agendas."

And that's exactly what they're doing. There's no reason to be surprised or even disappointed.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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BUSH DECLINES OBAMA'S INVITATION.... President Obama will travel to Lower Manhattan, visiting Ground Zero and meeting with families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Some on the right, including Fox News personalities, have argued that the president should bring George W. Bush along as a "nice gesture."

As it turns out, Obama extended an invitation to his predecessor. Bush declined.

President Obama invited former President George W. Bush to join him at ground zero in New York City on Thursday to mark the killing of Osama bin Laden, but Mr. Bush declined, a spokesman for the former president confirmed on Tuesday.

"President Bush will not be in attendance on Thursday," said his spokesman, David Sherzer. "He appreciated the invite, but has chosen in his post-presidency to remain largely out of the spotlight. He continues to celebrate with Americans this important victory in the war on terror."

What's wrong with that? Nothing at all. Aside from some book promotion, Bush has kept a fairly low profile since leaving office, and if he'd prefer not to join Obama on Thursday, that's certainly his prerogative. There's no need to assume this is some sort of partisan snub, and he's under no obligation to accept the president's offer.

But given that Obama was gracious enough to extend the invitation in the first place, maybe the political establishment can get past the whole "Obama's a big meanie towards Bush" theme?

Also note, the president has also reportedly extended an invitation to former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) for tomorrow's gathering, but it's not yet clear if he'll attend.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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May 3, 2011

TUESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Not surprisingly, some of the initial accounts from Sunday's firefight at the bin Laden compound weren't accurate: "White House officials on Tuesday sought to correct the official account of the raid in Pakistan that ended in the killing of Osama bin Laden, saying that the Qaeda leader was not armed and that his wife was not killed."

* Obama in New York tomorrow: "President Obama will travel to New York City on Thursday to mark the death of Osama bin Laden by visiting the site of the World Trade Center and meeting with families of victims from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The president is scheduled to deliver a speech, tour the site and meet privately with family members, an administration official said."

* Iraq: "A car bomb tore through a cafe packed with young men watching a football match Tuesday in Baghdad, killing at least 16 people, officials said."

* House Republicans put together a new contract for attorney Paul Clement, and will once again pay him and his legal team $500,000 in taxpayer money to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

* I really wish more people still cared about this: "Arctic ice is melting faster than expected and could raise the average global sea level by as much as five feet this century, an authoritative new report suggests."

* Two UCLA geographers and a class of undergraduates authored a 2009 paper predicting Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. How'd they do? "According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night."

* The Oklahoma state House of Representatives censured state Rep. Sally Kern (R) for her racism yesterday. Some of her Republican colleagues defended her, but they were in the minority.

* Congrats to Nico Pitney on his promotion, as he becomes the executive editor at the Huffington Post.

* The American Enterprise Institute tries to weigh in on for-profit colleges. The results aren't good.

* And easily the strangest thing I've seen all day is a collection of tweets from people who have no idea who Osama bin Laden is. The terrorist, it turns out, wasn't living in a cave, but maybe these folks have been.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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SETTING UP A 'CLEAN' VOTE FOR FAILURE.... House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suggested this morning that the House will agree to vote, up or down, on a "clean" bill to raise the debt ceiling before the country reaches the debt limit in two weeks.

That may sound encouraging, but it's not. The point would be to set up the "clean" bill to fail in order to "send a message" to the Senate and the White House.

"If it is necessary for us to tell the president that it is dead on arrival in the House, I believe that we can do that," Cantor said following a Republican conference meeting. [...]

Cantor, who sets the floor schedule for House Republicans, rejected the idea of raising the debt ceiling without real cuts to spending and accompanying reforms. He said the White House wants to raise the nation's ability to borrow without cutting spending.

"I think that what we've heard from the president as well as a number of Democrats here in the House is that they'd like us to just go ahead and increase the nation's credit limit without any changes," Cantor said.

Um, yeah, actually they would. This isn't a secret. When Dems say, "Let's pass a clean bill," it means they want a clean bill. Does Eric Cantor think he was sharing some kind of new revelation this morning? Is he just now figuring out that Democrats want lawmakers to "go ahead and increase the nation's credit limit without any changes"?

For that matter, I also wonder if Cantor realizes that every other Congress, including those led by Republicans, also went ahead and increased the nation's credit limit without any changes. It's not like a clean bill would somehow be a radical departure -- it's actually the norm, and consistent with how the process has always worked. Indeed, Republicans holding the debt limit hostage is something no majority party has ever done.

Now, former Bush aide Peter Wehner doesn't see it that way. He argues that the Republican expectation of a payoff in exchange for doing the right thing isn't unprecedented at all -- Dems, he said, played the same game just a few years ago during the Bush presidency.

I get the sense others in the media buy into this, as if what we're seeing now is just another routine partisan game. Dems hatched reckless schemes under Bush, Republicans are hatching a reckless scheme under Obana, and this is just how the world turns.

But that's not true at all. What House Republicans are up to in 2011 has no modern American precedent. Parties have huffed and puffed about the debt limit before, but Wehner's misguided outrage notwithstanding, Democrats never seriously put the country in danger, never invited a debt-ceiling crisis, and they certainly received a ransom for doing their duty.

Did previous Congresses posture? Sure. Did they hold administrations hostage, threatening to destroy the economy on purpose? Of course not.

Nevertheless, the House will consider and kill the clean bill, probably soon, and tell the White House to start meeting the GOP's ransom demands. The moment that happens, though, it may also send a signal to the financial industry and foreign investors that Washington dysfunction really is putting America's future at risk.

As Ezra Klein noted last week, "The danger in this is that as the rhetoric ramps up, the market may not realize this is all just more of Washington's fun and games. Brinksmanship runs the risk of misjudging what is the last minute, or the maximum amount of uncertainty, that the market will accept before it reevaluates the American government's capacity to pay its debts back in a timely and smooth way."

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE WISDOM OF CROWDS.... A few months back, the New York Times' David Leonhardt put together an interesting online feature, allowing readers to balance the federal budget however they see fit. (Participants wouldn't balance the budget all at once, but rather, over the course of several years.)

Bill Keller noted the results of the online exercise in his column today, and seemed pretty impressed at what people, collectively, came up with.

Nearly 9,000 readers worked the puzzle. Individually, they were all over the map. But as a group, they accomplished the goal by splitting the difference: almost exactly half the savings came from tax increases, half from spending cuts. Collectively, readers seemed to realize that the hole we're in is too deep to be filled by tax increases alone or spending cuts alone.

The result is broadly consistent with polls, which show that a majority of American voters hate most tax increases and a majority hate cutting entitlements, but -- confronted with a choice of one, the other or some of each -- they'll go for the hybrid. The hive mind, it seems, is open to compromise.

So far, so good. The "hybrid" approach -- or as Democrats are calling it, the "balanced" approach -- has the benefit of being a popular and responsible approach to deficit reduction (though I feel compelled to note that deficit reduction shouldn't be policymakers principal goal). That the wisdom-of-crowds answer is the right one is heartening. That congressional Republicans consider this answer so unacceptable that they won't even consider the possibility is discouraging.

But Keller added a more problematic observation.

On the question of the national debt, all the forces of stagnation are at their worst: we're like Israel, where there is something very close to a grudging consensus about a two-state peace, but every attempt to enact it is hogtied by democracy. Thus the formal budget debate is currently framed as an ugly standoff between Representative Paul Ryan, whose plan uses the debt as a pretext to radically shrivel the government, and President Obama, whose response is essentially "Over my dead body."

That's why I'm rooting for the Gang of Six -- the three Republican and three Democratic senators who have set out to negotiate a credible deficit plan that can move Congress past paralysis and toward compromise.

I think this is wrong in some important ways. The first is characterizing President Obama's budget approach as an inflexible bookend to Paul Ryan's radicalism. That's simply not true -- the president's long-term debt reduction plan includes extensive cuts in spending, raises taxes responsibly, and does so with numbers that add up. Dismissing it as "Over my dead body" isn't fair.

The second and more important problem is that the Gang of Six vision is likely to disappoint Keller quite a bit. While Keller praises the public for backing a 50-50 approach -- half the savings in taxes, half the saving in cuts -- the Gang is almost certainly going to present a plan that's skewed heavily towards cutting public investments and entitlements.

I say "likely" because neither Keller nor I have actually seen the plan, but Gang members have offered plenty of hints about where they're headed. As Jon Chait noted, it looks like it'll be a 75-25 split, with three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases.

That is, of course, what happens with a Gang consisting of three conservatives, two moderates, and one liberal -- it lacks a certain balance.

Making matters slightly worse, the Gang of Six is already interested in imposing unnecessary and dangerous structural changes -- including possible spending caps -- that add insult to injury.

Want to focus on debt reduction? Fine. Like the idea of a "hybrid" solution? Fine. Consider the Gang of Six an ally in this endeavor? Not fine.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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COMPARTMENTALIZING.... When thinking about the qualities an effective president must have, some of the first things that come to mind are probably pretty generic: a president should be smart, well informed, have a strong moral center, exercise sound judgment, have the ability to lead, communicate, and inspire, etc.

But modern presidents in particular must also have an ability to compartmentalize. John Dickerson had a good piece last night, noting a president "is occupied by a lot more than the public can see."

The presidency distorts the brain like perhaps no other job on Earth. In the First Noggin, there must be many compartments locked double tight, so the president doesn't show anything on his face. Sometimes he must keep secrets even from the people who work down the hall. But each box has to be accessible immediately if a decision needs to be made. Sometimes the contents of these boxes are difficult and profound questions about life and death. Other times, they concern merely a president's political fortunes -- which appeals to the ego, making them perhaps even more difficult to control. And all the while, there are legions of journalists and opponents trying to pry open these little boxes through force, shame, and flattery.

The most acute recent moments of compartmentalization for Obama had to have been Friday and Saturday. On Friday he gave the final order and then flew to Alabama to visit with families ravaged by the recent tornado. He ended the day in Florida visiting with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband. On Saturday he attended the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where he had to tell jokes and sit through a comedy routine during which everyone watched his every facial twitch for insights into his psyche.

On just April 19, President Obama hosted an Easter Prayer Breakfast, held a town-hall meeting, attended meetings on immigration policy, and chaired one of the final National Security Council meetings on raiding Osama bin Laden's compound.

Last week, after the White House presented the long-form birth certificate Republican activists had been clamoring for, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the president is too "worried about birth certificates." Priebus added, "I just wish the president would engage in the real issues that are affecting America."

Reince, I'm pretty sure he is engaging in the real issues, even when we don't see it on camera.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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RICE'S LIMITED VIEW OF HISTORY.... I'm going to hope she just misspoke and didn't actually mean this.

It didn't take long after the momentous announcement of Osama bin Laden's death for conservatives to start taking credit and claiming vindication for the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies. This morning on Fox & Friends, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined the chorus of conservatives heaping praise onto her former boss, suggesting that Bush's bullhorn speech at Ground Zero was "probably the most important moment maybe in American history."

Really, she said that. It's on video.

Fox News' Brian Kilmeade argued that it would be "nice" for President Obama to invite George W. Bush to join him at Ground Zero on Thursday. Rice dodged that, but said, "President Bush had at Ground Zero probably the most important moment maybe in American history. It was when this wounded nation watched their commander-in-chief stand on that rubble and say that they will hear us, we are going to avenge this."

Um, Condi? It was a good moment, and it was powerful imagery, but to suggest the bullhorn speech may have been "the most important moment maybe in American history" is so absurd, it's almost comical.

Rice went on to defend the observation, noting the bullhorn speech was "a clarion call to the nation at Ground Zero," which in turn led to a successful war in Afghanistan, a successful war in Iraq, and many defeats for al Qaeda, and the death of bin Laden. "Surely," Rice added, "this is all coming into place and President Bush began that with that call to the nation."

Remember, in the Bush/Cheney administration, Condoleezza Rice was considered one of the least ridiculous figures.

I'd like to think this goes without saying, but in case anyone's inclined to think Rice's assessment has merit, Bush badly handled the conflict in Afghanistan; Bush's handling of the war in Iraq was a fiasco for the ages; the Bush administration's track record on counter-terrorism was genuinely awful; and Bush downplayed the significance of bin Laden for most of his two terms.

And I can think of several hundred moments that were more important in American history than Bush's speech at Ground Zero.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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A CLOSER LOOK AT THE BOOST IN SUPPORT.... It was largely inevitable that President Obama would see his support in the polls grow in the wake of killing Osama bin Laden, but the first question was how big a bump he'd see.

It's only been a day and a half, but there's already some data available.

In the immediate aftermath of the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama's approval rating has jumped higher, with big increases in the number of Americans giving him high marks on dealing with terrorism and the situation in Afghanistan.

But the new poll, conducted Monday evening by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center, also finds virtually no movement in Obama's numbers when it comes to handling the economy. That suggests that success on one front -- even one as important as the death of the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- might not translate easily to other areas.

I'm not sure why anyone would find that surprising. Americans seem pleased about the bin Laden success, but they're still worried about the economy. One isn't really related to the other.

All told, the Washington Post poll shows the president's approval rating up nine points, from 47% to 56%. Though it may not last, Obama's standing is now at its highest point since November 2009, at least in this poll. Just as important, when the pollster asked, "All in all, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country today?" there's been a 10-point jump in the percentage of Americans feeling satisfied. It's still a fairly small minority, but the satisfaction rate hasn't been this high since May 2009.

There's some tracking poll data also out today showing modest increases in the president's approval rating, but given how Gallup conducts its tracking numbers in three-day tallies, the new poll doesn't reflect post-OBL support.

CNN also has a new poll showing the president's support going up just a little, but a more significant bump when it comes to his handling terrorism and the war in Afghanistan.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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EXORCISING PARTY DEMONS.... I tend to think much of the mockery Jimmy Carter receives is gratuitous. He wasn't an especially good president, but the ridicule he receives, even now, decades later, often seems unnecessary.

That said, Carter remains a symbol of a "failed Democratic president," and Dems bristle at any comparisons to him. With that in mind, reader J.T. emailed last night with an interesting point I hadn't thought of. Noting the work that went into the mission in Abbottabad, J.T. noted, "The whole scene to me was eerily similar to Pres. Carter's failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran."

J.T. added, "In both cases it was a high-risk, high-reward gamble. In both cases mechanical failure disabled a helicopter at a crucial moment in the mission. And in both cases there were serious political as well as national security consequences. The major difference is Carter's gamble failed where Obama succeeded. And the impact on the national psyche in both cases has been dramatic, in opposite directions."

William J. Dobson has a good piece in The New Republic today, emphasizing a very similar point.

[T]here is another reason why this event is hugely important for the foreign policy of this president: A Democratic president opted against ridding the world of its most wanted terrorist by lobbing a missile from 30,000 feet above. He sent helicopters in on a daring raid with a clear mission and plan for exit. In one fell swoop, President Obama has done more to exorcise the demons of Democratic foreign policy error and mishap than anyone in the last three decades. This was not Operation Eagle Claw over Iran. This was not the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. This was not another Black Hawk Down.

After the first year of his presidency, it was popular to call Obama the new Jimmy Carter.... [H]ad Sunday's mission gone horribly wrong, "Carter" would have tripped off the lips of every pundit. That would have been an obvious political risk to anyone in the room when the president scrapped the idea of a surgical missile strike in favor of an assault led by Navy SEALS.

The mission could have gone wrong, but it didn't. It was judiciously planned. Obama's helicopters flew straight, and, when they encountered unexpected adversity -- one of the helicopters engines stalled -- they had a contingency plan to see the mission through successfully. The desire of a president to move decisively, combined with the patience to see to the details: Who is going to call Obama the aloof, contemplative professor now? The comparison to Carter died in Pakistan along with bin Laden.

I'd argue the Carter comparison was always rather ridiculous, and was put to rest when President Obama racked up huge legislative wins over his first two years. But if we're looking for political bookends, with Eagle Claw on one end and the killing of bin Laden on the other, that works for me.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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TUESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP.... 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:

* Nevada election officials announced yesterday the special election in the 2nd congressional district will be "open to all candidates and not just nominees selected by the state's political party." In other words, it's going to be a free for all, and Republican officials won't be able to keep Sharron Angle off the ballot.

* The first debate of the cycle for Republican presidential candidates is just two days away, and it appears the stage won't have many credible contenders. Yesterday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced he isn't attending.

* In Wisconsin, Democrats and their allies hoped to force recall elections for eight state Senate Republicans, but it appears they'll fall short of the goal. With the deadline having come and gone, petition signatures weren't enough to force recalls of two GOP senators, leaving the total of vulnerable Republicans at six.

* Despite a recent poll showing Kathy Hochul (D) within striking distance in the upcoming New York special election in Buffalo, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee "has shown no signs of aiding Hochul, even though she has been an effective fundraiser who is running competitively in polling."

* In Ohio, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) is likely to find that state policymakers have eliminated his district through the redistricting process. As hard as it seems to believe, the liberal Democrats is now reportedly running again anyway, only this time, he'd run in the state of Washington.

* Has reality-television show host Donald Trump already peaked? A new Fox News poll shows his support dropping in the field of GOP presidential hopefuls, slipping from 11% to 8%.

* It probably won't matter, but former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer (R) has officially moved beyond the exploratory committee and is now a full-fledged Republican presidential candidate.

* And it was a big day for politics in Canada yesterday, with the Conservative Party winning a long-sought majority. It was also an election that "decimated the Bloc Quebecois and humbled the Liberals," and made the New Democratic Party the Official Opposition for the first time ever.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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ENSIGN'S DISGRACED DEPARTURE.... Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) officially resigned from the Senate yesterday, a day before he was scheduled to testify under oath about his humiliating sex/corruption scandal. He couldn't have known when he announced his departure two weeks ago that the timing would be so fortuitous -- Ensign's departure was largely overlooked in light of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But before the far-right Republican's name slips into the history books and out of the public eye, I'd note for the last time how very fortunate Ensign has been, at least as far as the public and the media is concerned. The New York Times' Eric Lipton, who has done some great reporting on this story, noted recently that Ensign's scandal is the biggest for a sitting senator since Bob Packwood was forced to resign 16 years ago due to sexual misconduct.

But in 1995, Packwood's scandal, involving the sexual harassment of women staffers, was a huge story for the political media. Ensign, in contrast, has had it quite easy.

The media feeding frenzy just never happened. All of the elements were in place -- salacious sex scandal, high-profile sitting senator, breathtaking hypocrisy, secret payoffs, violations of lobbying and ethics rules, etc. -- but major news organizations just didn't bite. There were no camera crews staked out in front of Ensign's home. There were no op-eds on the need for Ensign to step down. There were no reporters chasing him through the halls of Senate office buildings, demanding answers for his alleged crimes. There was no breathless speculation about what the Ensign scandal would mean for the Republican Party.

Just a few days after a sitting senator announced he would resign in disgrace, most of the Sunday morning shows didn't even think to mention the development.

Indeed, even after getting caught and finding himself a target of the FBI and the Senate ethics committee, John Ensign, as recently as February, planned to seek re-election -- and no one pointed and laughed.

Nevertheless, apparently eager to avoid testifying, Ensign delivered a farewell speech yesterday, apologizing for his misconduct.

"Often times, the more power and prestige a person achieves, the more arrogant a person can become," Mr. Ensign, a Nevada Republican who is retiring on Tuesday, said as he spoke for the last time on the Senate floor. [...]

The senator, first elected in 2000, said he had grown "blind to how arrogant and self-centered that I had become." He said he regretted calling for the resignations of two former Republican colleagues -- Ted Stevens of Alaska and Larry Craig of Idaho -- for transgressions of their own when he served as his party's Senate campaign chief.

"My caution to all of my colleagues is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you about how you really are and what you are becoming and then make them promise not to hold back," said Mr. Ensign, considered a rising Republican star before his career imploded. "I wish I had done this sooner, but this is one of the hardest lessons that I've had to learn."

Those who've followed this story closely know how absurd this is -- Ensign's friends, including other Republican colleagues in the Senate, were honest with him, and urged him to clean up his act. Ensign refused.

He added, "I even tried not to become caught up in my own self-importance. Unfortunately, the urge to believe in it was stronger than the power to fight it."

I might note that the last thing the senator should be talking about are his "urges."

For what it's worth, fellow senators traditionally turn out to hear fellow members' farewell speeches. Ensign spoke yesterday to an empty chamber.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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STANDARD INTERROGATION.... So far, Republican attempts to spin the killing of Osama bin Laden in the GOP's favor haven't gone well.

Like so many memes that persist in politics, this one started on the Internet. The morning after President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan, conservatives started crowing that credit should be given to President George W. Bush -- specifically, for having the foresight and courage to torture the people who provided the initial scraps of intel that ultimately led the CIA to a giant compound just north of Islamabad.

The most prominent of these conservatives was Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who took to Twitter to ask sardonically, "Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?"

The idea made the rounds yesterday based on one important piece of the larger puzzle: several years ago, intelligence agencies obtained the pseudonym of OBL's favorite courier from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi.

Republicans and like-minded activists -- including Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, assorted Tea Partiers, and others -- jumped to a conclusion: U.S. officials gained the information via torture.

Except, that's not what happened.

Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, threw cold water on the new talking point yesterday, noting that Bush-era torture policies weren't responsible for obtaining the information.

The Associated Press further set the record straight, reporting, "Mohammed did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation."

Brian Beutler added, "Thus, a big chunk of the rationale for giving the Bush credit for bin Laden's death falls apart. It took officials until Obama's presidency to locate this courier, and well into Obama's second year in office before they found the compound. Only then was the raid itself designed and, on Sunday, implemented."

Joan McCarter has more on this, offering an even more detailed debunking of the argument.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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WHAT MADE IT A 'GUTSY CALL'.... John Brennan, assistant to the President for Counter-Terrorism, spoke to reporters yesterday about the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. He noted that there had been some disagreement among advisors about whether to greenlight the operation before the president gave the order, a move Brennan called "one of the ... gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."

I got an email last night suggesting this was needless hyperbole. The reader said, "Anyone would have given the order to kill bin Laden. What's so 'gusty'?"

This must-read, tick-tock piece in the New York Times helps flesh out the answer.

As more than a dozen White House, intelligence and Pentagon officials described the operation on Monday, the past few weeks were a nerve-racking amalgamation of what-ifs and negative scenarios. "There wasn't a meeting when someone didn't mention 'Black Hawk Down,' " a senior administration official said, referring to the disastrous 1993 battle in Somalia in which two American helicopters were shot down and some of their crew killed in action. The failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 also loomed large.

Administration officials split over whether to launch the operation, whether to wait and continue monitoring until they were more sure that Bin Laden was really there, or whether to go for a less risky bombing assault. In the end, President Obama opted against a bombing that could do so much damage it might be uncertain whether Bin Laden was really hit and chose to send in commandos. A "fight your way out" option was built into the plan, with two helicopters following the two main assault copters as backup in case of trouble.

About a week ago, the president asked his national security team for options, and Defense Secretary Bob Gates was skeptical about a helicopter assault, preferring an aerial bombardment using smart bombs. The result, however, would have been a crater -- with no physical remains.

On Thursday, Obama led another meeting with his top national security officials.

Mr. Panetta told the group that the C.I.A. had "red-teamed" the case -- shared their intelligence with other analysts who weren't involved to see if they agreed that Bin Laden was probably in Abbottabad. They did. It was time to decide.

Around the table, the group went over and over the negative scenarios. There were long periods of silence, one aide said. And then, finally, Mr. Obama spoke: "I'm not going to tell you what my decision is now -- I'm going to go back and think about it some more." But he added, "I'm going to make a decision soon."

Sixteen hours later, he had made up his mind. Early the next morning, four top aides were summoned to the White House Diplomatic Room. Before they could brief the president, he cut them off. "It's a go," he said.

Obama, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "rolled the dice."

Is it reasonable to call this "one of the gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory"? It seems fair to me.

To reiterate a point from yesterday, there's a difference between talking tough and being tough, just as there's a difference between chest-thumping rhetoric and getting the job done.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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A POTENTIAL INTELLIGENCE 'MOTHER LODE'.... The Abbottabad compound that housed Osama bin Laden did not have telephone or Internet connections, but the raid did turn up plenty of computer equipment.

To put it mildly, that creates some opportunities.

The assault force of Navy SEALs snatched a trove of computer drives and disks during their weekend raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, yielding what a U.S. official called "the mother lode of intelligence."

The special operations forces grabbed personal computers, thumb drives and electronic equipment during the lightning raid that killed bin Laden, officials told POLITICO.

"They cleaned it out," one official said. "Can you imagine what's on Osama bin Laden's hard drive?"

The official added, "It's going to be great even if only 10 percent of it is actionable."

It's exciting to even consider the possibilities.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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WITH GOP INVITING A DEBT CRISIS, GEITHNER STARTS JUGGLING.... At first blush, yesterday's news on the debt ceiling appeared encouraging. After all, when a countdown to a catastrophe is pushed off, and a deadline is delayed, everyone gets a little breathing room. A temporary reprieve is still a reprieve.

That said, word from the Treasury Department offered more clouds than silver linings.

A greater-than-expected increase in tax revenue has extended by about a month, until early August, the federal government's ability to pay its bills without an increase in the debt ceiling, the Treasury Department said Monday.

The new estimate creates a significant grace period for Congress to consider an increase in the maximum amount that the government can borrow, a step that House Republicans say they will not take without an agreement to curb spending.

Federal borrowing is still likely to hit the legal limit on May 16, the Treasury said, so this week it will begin to take emergency steps to buy additional time under the cap. Those steps, plus the increase in tax receipts, which have reduced the need for borrowing, will delay a crisis by about a month -- to August from July.

What we're looking at is basically two separate-but-related deadlines. The first is hitting the debt limit itself, and that deadline hasn't changed. We've known for a while that this was projected to happen in about two weeks, and the clock will, in fact, run out on May 16.

The second deadline is the more important one. It's been assumed that we'd reach the debt limit on time without congressional action, at which point the Treasury Department starts juggling the books, taking "extraordinary measures" to avoid a catastrophe. We thought this deadline was coming in July, but Geithner projected yesterday that policymakers now have an extra month to do the right thing.

And what do the new emergency steps include? The Treasury will first suspend a program "under which it borrows money from state and local governments to help those governments meet legal obligations to invest in tax-exempt bonds." (Treasury has done this before, whenever debt-ceiling problems have popped up.) In two weeks, additional measures will kick in.

Geithner added yesterday that members of Congress should not use the debt limit increase as a "bargaining chip to advance partisan policy agendas," which echoes Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's advice, but which Republicans will ignore.

Indeed, despite the potential for devastation, GOP leaders continue to explore new ways to play reckless and dangerous games. Avoiding a catastrophe couldn't be easier, but congressional Republicans, at least for now, don't seem to care.

The new drop-dead deadline? August 2.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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A WELL-TIMED CHARM OFFENSIVE.... In recent weeks, some prominent political voices, including David Brooks and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) argued President Obama needs to schmooze more. Bloomberg, in particular, argued, "The president's got to start inviting people over for dinner. He's got to play golf with them... He has to go build friendships. That's what an executive's job is, and the president is a people-person. He knows how to deal with people."

I've argued that this suggestion is a little silly, but it seems the president took it to heart. Last week, Obama invited the bipartisan leadership of Congress over to the White House, not for a meeting or policy negotiations, but as part of "a get-to-know-you effort in the spirit of bipartisanship and collegiality." Members accepted the invitation.

The dinner was last night, and as it turns out, was very well timed.

President Obama told members of Congress on Monday that because of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, America on Sunday "experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11."

Making brief remarks at a dinner whose aim had been to bring members from both parties to the White House for a purely social dinner, Mr. Obama said the coincidence of the successful raid the day earlier made the occasion "especially fitting."

The president said he was mindful of the tough debates likely to occur in the months ahead, but said that "several moments like this during the course of this year that have brought us together this year as an American family.

"Last night was one of those moments," he said.

Obama added that he sees bin Laden's demise as an opportunity for some political healing. "I know that that unity that we felt on 9/11 has frayed a little bit over the years, and I have no illusions about the difficulties, the debates that will have to be engaged in in the weeks and months to come," he said. "But I also know there have been several moments like this during the course of this year that have brought us together as an American family, whether it was the tragedy in Tucson or, most recently, our unified response to the terrible storms that have taken place in the South.

"Last night was one of those moments. And so tonight it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face."

It was a social gathering, but the president nevertheless received a standing ovation from attendees.

I'll concede that the timing couldn't be much better. The president, by all appearances, genuinely wants policymakers to find some common ground and work together with a sense of common purpose. If killing bin Laden offers an amorphous boost to the national psyche and inspires a renewed sense of unity and optimism, then sure, it's an opportunity.

But at the risk of sounding cynical, I'd still recommend keeping expectations low. The differences between the parties is just too great and the partisan divisions run too deep. As Paul Krugman recently explained, "The point is that the two parties don't just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes, with Republicans in particular having a stable of supposed experts who reliably endorse whatever they propose. So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about? Where's the common ground?"

I don't blame the president for trying, but when it comes to Washington dysfunction, I'm not sure if anything can help.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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May 2, 2011

MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* POTUS: "'The world is safer,' Mr. Obama said as he appeared at a White House ceremony bestowing the Medal of Honor to two soldiers killed in the Korean War. 'It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden.'"

* Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton made brief remarks this morning: "Our message to the Taliban remains the same, but today, it may have even greater resonance: You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us. But you can make the choice to abandon al Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.... Let us remind ourselves: This is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere, and we get the job done."

* This is a pretty great shot taken in the Situation Room yesterday.

* The woman who was killed in yesterday's raid was apparently a wife to bin Laden, whom he used as a shield to try to protect himself.

* ABC News appears to be the first major news organization to have video footage of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The footage was taken after the raid.

* Like many Republicans today, Dick Cheney suggested Bush-era torture may have produced information that ultimately led to yesterday's developments. There's ample reason to be skeptical of this claim.

* A new conspiracy-theory cottage industry is born: "the deathers."

* In Libya on Saturday night: "The government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi said he survived an airstrike in Tripoli late Saturday night that killed one of his sons and three grandchildren, in the sharpest intensification yet of the NATO air campaign intended to pressure the Libyan leader from power."

* The recovery of American auto manufacturers: "For the first time in nearly seven years, Detroit's car companies are all making money. Chrysler, the last of the three to return to profitability, said Monday it made a $116 million net profit in the first quarter on revenue of $13.1 billion. The company, which emerged from bankruptcy protection a little less than two years ago, hadn't reported a net profit since 2006."

* Presidents' favorite community college: "Miami Dade College is apparently the number one destination for Florida poor people, high school dropouts, and, well, U.S. presidents."

* On a related note, even when the economy is good, dropping out of high school is nearly always a spectacularly bad idea.

* And Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was asked to reflect on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) crediting Bush's "vigilance" for contributing to yesterday's success. "For Eric Cantor to phrase it that way, to say [President Obama] followed the vigilance of President Bush is a degree of key partisanship that exceeded what I even expected from Cantor," Frank said. "That's just sad."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE 'HEARTSTOPPING' MOMENTS.... It's probably going to be a while before we a complete picture of what transpired in Abbottabad -- and the White House Situation Room -- yesterday, and some of the details will probably remain classified indefinitely.

But what we do know sounds pretty extraordinary. MSNBC noted some "heartstopping" moments earlier.

The first was when the operation's helicopters first arrived at the scene. The plan was for the choppers to hover and lower 12 Seals to the ground rather than land. But one of the choppers stopped working due to a lack of air within the high compound walls.

It made a soft landing (not a crash) on the ground and the raid went forward. At that point a third "emergency" chopper on standby came to the scene.

As the team returned with bin Laden's body, they blew up the broken chopper, which resulted in a "massive explosion." The team exited in two helicopters.

The other tense moment came when the choppers were leaving the country but remained within Pakistani airspace. The Pakistanis, seeing the choppers and not knowing if they were friendly or not, scrambled their fighter jets, causing white knuckles before the helicopters were able to leave.

Half a world away, in the Situation Room (the real one, not that one), President Obama and his national security team were actually able to watch the Navy SEALs conduct the raid in real time on secure video screens and in radio bursts.

John Brennan, assistant to the President for Counter-Terrorism, told reporters today, "It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people who were assembled here."

Brennan also noted that there had been some disagreement around the table about whether to greenlight the operation before the president gave the order, a move Brennan called "one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."

Marc Ambinder, meanwhile, has a fascinating piece on the "specially trained and highly mythologized SEAL Team Six, officially called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group," part of "the Joint Special Operations Command, an extraordinary and unusual collection of classified standing task forces and special-missions units."

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE SUBTLETIES OF SARCASM.... One of the lead stories on Mark Halperin's "The Page" this afternoon ran photos of Rush Limbaugh and President Obama alongside a headline that read, "Donkeys Fly."

Limbaugh says he must open show "congratulating" president Monday, lavishes praise on Obama for OBL mission.

"Thank God for President Obama. If he had not been there, who knows what would have happened?"

Obama "single-handedly" came up with technique to kill OBL and was the "only qualified" person in the room to think up "extremely effective" method. "No one else thought of that."

"I can't tell you how happy and proud" it made me.

Around the same time, Politico ran a similar story. The headline read, "Rush: 'Thank God' for Obama," and the lede told readers, "You heard that right: 'Thank God for President Obama,' Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show Monday afternoon. Limbaugh credited the president with the strategy that led to the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden."

The Hill also has a front page piece this afternoon, touting Limbaugh's "praise" for President Obama.

In case anyone sees all of this coverage and thinks these media professionals know what they're talking about, let's clarify matters: Rush Limbaugh was being sarcastic. The way sarcasm works, someone says one thing, but they mean the exact opposite. Sarcasm is generally intended to be humorous, and not to be taken literally.

Limbaugh, in other words, was mocking, not praising, the president. These reporters have it backwards. (Indeed, the right-wing host is now laughing at these news organizations on the air.)

What amazes me about all of this is the fact that, even now, after all these years, many in the media don't yet understand Rush Limbaugh. They still think he's capable of decency, willing to honor a Democratic president he hates when the situation warrants it.

This just amazes me. Do these guys even know who Rush Limbaugh is? When he said on the air, "Thank God for President Obama," did it not occur to them Limbaugh may not be sincere?

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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'HOW ABOUT A SMILE?'.... I've seen all kinds of conservative responses to the killing of Osama bin Laden over the last 15 hours, but only one literally made me laugh out loud.

Sarah Posner flags this remarkable item from David Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, created by radical TV preacher Pat Robertson. Brody wrote:

I know President Obama understands that getting Bin Laden doesn't mean an end to the war on terrorism but how about a smile? How about showing a little joy? How about a word or two saying something about how this is no doubt a happy or joyous occasion for Americans? We got nothing like that at all. Instead, we got Mr. Monotone. Mr. Bars and Tone. Mr. Non-Emotion. President Obama missed an opportunity to connect with Americans last night.

So why did he announce the big news like he was reading the dictionary? You know the answer. It's because his speech wasn't so much aimed at Americans. He was being careful of how the "Arab Street" would interpret his remarks. Any hint of gloating or happiness might be rubbing it in the face of some of the crazies in the Arab World and heaven forbid we get them upset! How dare we Americans look like we're celebrating his death! The travesty of it all!

Give me a break. Isn't it time to stop catering to thugs?

I swear this isn't satire. Brody thinks, by killing Osama bin Laden, and then not smiling about it during a speech, the president was "catering to thugs."

Anyone hoping for a more sensible, more mature discourse about the president and national security going forward is likely to be disappointed.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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THE FUTILE EFFORT TO DOWNPLAY BIG NEWS.... For Republicans responding to the killing to Osama bin Laden, there are a few options. The first is gracious non-partisanship, applauding President Obama and military, law enforcement, and intelligence agency officials. This response is not exactly in large supply.

The second is to ignore recent history and give George W. Bush credit for Obama's success. Some are pretending Obama isn't even president right now

And the third is to just pretend the news isn't all that important.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum -- who's been running hard lately as the foreign policy guy in the prospective 2012 Republican presidential field -- told a reporter in Iowa today that when you really think about it, taking out Osama Bin Laden's not really that big a deal in the scheme of things.

"Congratulations, well done, well orchestrated," Santorum told the Des Moines Register before an event with voters. "That's one isolated area as opposed to the president's foreign policy and how it's affecting our security. The president's foreign policy with respect to our security is to make our allies less confident in us and has resulted in them in distancing themselves from us."

Of course, the notion that allies are distancing themselves from the United States is ludicrous, but then again, so is Rick Santorum.

I'm not surprised, though, that some Republicans would downplay the news. Indeed, it fits into a larger pattern -- leading GOP voices have been downplaying Osama bin Laden for many years. President Bush, for example, admitted he didn't much care either way about the al Qaeda leader was caught.

And in the 2008 campaign, John McCain put restrictions on how/whether he'd pursue OBL; Mitt Romney said taking OBL out wasn't especially important; and Fred Thompson said, "Bin Laden is more symbolism than anything else."

After years of rhetoric like this, Santorum's attempt to downplay bin Laden's death is predictable. It won't work -- I get the sense the public considers this much more important than Republican presidential candidates do -- but if Santorum wants to push the line that last night's news wasn't a big deal, he's welcome to knock himself out.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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THE POLITICAL/ELECTORAL IMPACT OF KILLING BIN LADEN.... U.S. forces killing Osama bin Laden is clearly a national security victory, but under the circumstances, it's also a victory for President Obama. Given that his re-election bid is next year, it's not unreasonable to consider the developments in the context of the president's standing -- which may soon improve.

Opinions, not surprisingly, differ. Mark Halperin, not exactly a Democratic ally, calls the news a "triumph for Obama," adding, "[T]his is a great day for Obama's re-election effort." Jonathan Chait, meanwhile, believes the political ramifications will be "minimal to nonexistent." Kevin Drum is also skeptical about the effect.

Nate Silver is closer to Halperin, arguing, "[T]his is good news for Barack Obama's re-election campaign. I can't imagine a single, atomized piece of news, foreign or domestic, that would be better for the President."

Although the Republican candidates had not seemed especially interested in making an issue out of national security -- perhaps because Mr. Obama's foreign policy has been fairly hawkish and not clearly differentiated from theirs -- it at the very least neuters the issue for them. It presumably will become a significant talking point for the President -- the sort of thing that swing voters will be reminded of in a commercial on the eve of the 2012 elections.

The news will also, almost certainly, trigger a significant improvement in Mr. Obama's approval rating.

The sense in which I'd urge caution is that the former is not equal to the latter. Yes, this is going to help Mr. Obama -- to some degree or another -- in November 2012. And yes, it's also going to make Mr. Obama look much more formidable in the near-term.

But I'm not sure that the magnitude of the bump that Mr. Obama might get in the Gallup tracking poll is going to be especially predictive of how much the residue of this news might produce for him 19 months from now.

Right. It's called a "bounce" for a reason -- the president seems likely to see his standing improve almost immediately, but the bump in the polls seems likely to subside soon after. Making assumptions and predictions from this is generally a bad idea, especially if the election is not primarily about national security. In other words, will the OBL news set Obama's popularity on a new, semi-permanent trajectory? Probably not.

The common comparison today is to George H.W. Bush riding high in 1991 after the first Gulf War, only to see his fortunes falter badly a year later. I'm not sure I buy the comparison -- Obama's a better candidate than Bush, and if there's a Bill Clinton in the GOP field, he or she is hiding well -- but the point about unpredictable reversals is worth remembering.

But if we're laying odds on the president's re-election, the bin Laden news, I'd argue, bumps the likelihood up, at least a little. What I'm imagining is Obama and his supporters offering voters a list of accomplishments from his first term, and it's going to be a doozy: ended the Great Recession, health care reform, Wall Street reform, student loan reform, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, New START, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the biggest overhaul of our food-safety laws in 70 years, new regulation of the credit card industry, new regulation of the tobacco industry, a national service bill, expanded stem-cell research, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, net neutrality, the most sweeping land-protection act in 15 years, health care for 9/11 rescue workers, and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices.

Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden, too.

Is that a winning message? I've heard worse.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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AL QAEDA'S LOSING STREAK.... The terrorist network has taken a beating recently. Good.

Analysts said Bin Laden's death amounted to a double blow for Al Qaeda, after its sermons of anti-Western violence seemed to be rendered irrelevant by the wave of political upheaval rolling through the Arab world.

"It comes at a time when Al Qaeda's narrative is already very much in doubt in the Arab world," said Martin S. Indyk, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "Its narrative was that violence was the way to redeem Arab honor and dignity. But Osama bin Laden and his violence didn't succeed in unseating anybody."

Right. Al Qaeda told the Muslim world that the only way to be free is to commit acts of violence. The terrorist network's message has been proven false in recent months, rejected by the very people it was intended to influence.

It's against this backdrop that al Qaeda was "diminished," even before this year's developments.

Indeed, the Guardian had a report in September 2009 on al Qaeda "finding it difficult to attract recruits or carry out spectacular operations in western countries." Counter-terrorism officials said the terrorist network "faced a crisis that was severely affecting its ability to find, inspire and train willing fighters."

The New York Times had a related report soon after, which reached a similar conclusion: "[I]n important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline."

Emile Nakhleh, who headed the CIA's strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006, noted that al Qaeda is finding it "harder to raise money." Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College in Washington, added, "I think Al Qaeda is in the process of imploding. This is not necessarily the end. But the trends are in a good direction."

And that was long before U.S. forces took out Osama bin Laden himself.

This is not to say the threat is gone; it's not. The point is that the terrorist network that executed the attacks of 9/11 is weaker and is less capable, and this larger trend is clearly heartening.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MONDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP.... 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:

* Unless it's yet another head-fake, disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) will kick off his presidential campaign next week. He told National Journal over the weekend, "I'll be in by the 10th or 11th."

* Rep. Mike Pence (R) was scheduled to launch his gubernatorial campaign in Indiana this morning. He postponed, however, in light of the Osama bin Laden news.

* A year ahead of his re-election fight, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, apparently intends to fulfill his annual Guard training in Afghanistan. Details are a little sketchy, but Brown said yesterday, "I'm going to be going over at some point to do some missions."

* The New Hampshire Democratic Party believes it's found evidence of federal election law violations from GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is accused of funneling "soft money" through a state PAC and into his federal presidential campaign. Circumventing federal campaign contribution limits is illegal.

* With Rep. Dean Heller (R) being appointed to the Senate, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has announced a special election in the 2nd congressional district be held on September 13, 2011. The protocol remains unclear, and the race may be a multi-candidate free-for-all, with multiple Democrats and Republicans on the ballot at the same time.

* On a related note, defeated Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R) has already made clear she intends to compete in the special election, and told supporters late last week she intends to defeat the "left wing" of the Republican Party. (That's not a typo.)

* On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ruled out serving on the 2012 Republican ticket. Pressed on how firm his position is, Rubio said "under no circumstances" would he be a national candidate.

* And don't forget, there's a big election in Canada today.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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DOES JOE SCARBOROUGH KNOW ANY DEMOCRATS?.... MSNBC's Joe Scarborough offered some praise for President Obama this morning, in light of the announcement regarding Osama bin Laden, but in the process, made an odd observation about the Democratic base.

"Here, you know, I think Republicans should stand up and certainly salute Barack Obama for making some -- again, for making some very tough choices that his own base did not want him to make. That takes courage, that takes leadership, and we saw the results of that courage and leadership saying no to his own base yesterday. [...]

"[These are] decisions that he probably did not believe as a candidate he didn't think he'd have to make.... Going against his own ideological leanings to do what he believes he has to do."

I just don't understand what reality Scarborough is living in.

On the first point, has the Democratic base been clamoring for the president to call off the hunt for Osama bin Laden? I like to think I'm pretty well plugged in to what Dem activists are up to, and this would be a new one for me.

On the second, President Obama, as a candidate, talked repeatedly about targeting bin Laden and other terrorists. His "ideological leanings" weren't a secret, and included his desire and intention to combat terrorism aggressively.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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EXCEPTIONALISM.... Towards the end of his remarks last night, President Obama took a few moments to offer a big-picture view of what America is capable of.

"[T]oday's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

"The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it's the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

"Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

There's a phrase for this kind of sentiment. It's often known as "American exceptionalism."

As John Dickerson put it, "Thus did the president both answer his conservative critics and rise above them. Yes, he was saying, I do believe in American exceptionalism -- and so should any terrorist who would wish America ill."

I can only assume this won't satisfy the Kathleen Parkers of the world, who are needlessly literal about Obama and use of the word "exceptionalism," but the principles here are plainly evident for anyone who cares to hear them.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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IF CANTOR REALLY WANTS TO GO THERE.... House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), shortly after President Obama's remarks on Osama bin Laden, issued a related statement. It included this gem:

"I commend President Obama who has followed the vigilance of President Bush in bringing Bin Laden to justice."

There's a fair amount of this rhetoric bouncing around this morning, and it's not especially surprising -- Republicans aren't going to credit President Obama, regardless of merit, so it stands to reason they'll try to bring George W. Bush into the picture.

If this is going to be a new GOP talking point, we might as well set the record straight.

In March 2002, just six months after 9/11, Bush said of bin Laden, "I truly am not that concerned about him.... You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, to be honest with you."

In July 2006, we learned that the Bush administration closed its unit that had been hunting bin Laden.

In September 2006, Bush told Fred Barnes, one of his most sycophantic media allies, that an "emphasis on bin Laden doesn't fit with the administration's strategy for combating terrorism."

And don't even get me started on Bush's failed strategy that allowed bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora.

I'm happy to extend plenty of credit to all kinds of officials throughout the government, but crediting Bush's "vigilance" on bin Laden is deeply silly.

Update: Donald Rumsfeld added this morning that Obama "wisely" followed Bush's lead. He either has a very short memory, or he's lying and hopes you have a very short memory.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THE 2008 DEBATE, REVISITED.... In July 2008, CNN's Larry King interviewed then-presidential candidate John McCain. The host asked the Republican senator, "If you were president and knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan, you know where, would you have U.S. forces go in after him?"

McCain said he would not.

"Larry, I'm not going to go there and here's why: because Pakistan is a sovereign nation."

This point of contention from the 2008 campaign has generally been forgotten, but for a couple of months, this was a major area of debate. Barack Obama declared he would pursue high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan, launching limited attacks based on actionable intelligence. Republicans insisted this was not only the wrong policy, but that the position was evidence of Obama's inexperience in matters of national security.

Even Mitt Romney tried a similar tack during a nationally televised GOP debate:

"[Obama] went from going to sit down to tea with our enemies, but then he's going to bomb our allies. I mean, he's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."

With the benefit of hindsight, I'm comfortable concluding now that Obama was right and his Republican critics were wrong.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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PLENTY OF CREDIT TO GO AROUND, STARTING AT THE TOP.... The amount of work that went into tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden is pretty extraordinary. It took years, and involved military, law enforcement, and intelligence agency officials, most of whom we'll never know and won't be able to thank.

And while many patriots made this happen, it's President Obama who'll get much of the credit -- and given the circumstances, he'll deserve it. Slate's John Dickerson had a good piece overnight on how Obama's "focused, hands-on pursuit of Osama Bin Laden paid off."

At approximately 11:30 p.m. Sunday, President Obama announced to the nation that on his orders U.S forces had killed Osama Bin Laden. His reputation for lawyerly inaction may never recover.

Obama's critics have said that he is a weak leader in general and in particular does not understand what must be done to combat terrorism. "They are very much giving up that center of attention and focus that's required," said former Vice President Dick Cheney in March 2009, in a typical remark. Yet what emerges from the details of Bin Laden's killing (offered, like the heroic accounts of the Bush years, entirely by officials who work for the sitting president) is that from early in his administration Obama was focused on killing Osama Bin Laden and that he was involved in the process throughout.

In June 2009, Obama directed his CIA director to "provide me within 30 days a detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice" Osama Bin Laden. By August 2010 intelligence officials had identified the suspicious compound where Osama lived.

Dickerson's description of the president's efforts as "hands-on" seems especially apt given what we know. It was Obama who instructed the CIA to make targeting bin Laden a top priority, breaking with his predecessor. It was Obama who oversaw five national security meetings to oversee plans for this operation. It was Obama who chose this mission, made final preparations, and gave the order.

There's a difference between talking tough and being tough, just as there's a difference between chest-thumping rhetoric and getting the job done.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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HOW THE OBL MISSION CAME TOGETHER.... Reports that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden broke last night, culminating in President Obama's national address and spontaneous celebrations in New York and D.C. We've since learned more about how the successful mission came together.

After years of dead ends and promising leads gone cold, the big break came last August.

A trusted courier of Osama bin Laden's whom American spies had been hunting for years was finally located in a compound 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, close to one of the hubs of American counterterrorism operations. The property was so secure, so large, that American officials guessed it was built to hide someone far more important than a mere courier.

What followed was eight months of painstaking intelligence work, culminating in a helicopter assault by American military and intelligence operatives that ended in the death of Bin Laden on Sunday and concluded one of history's most extensive and frustrating manhunts.

Apparently, detainees at Guantanamo Bay provided officials with the courier's pseudonym, and U.S. intelligence agencies learned his real name four years ago. It was not until two years ago that American officials knew the general area to look for him.

And it wasn't until August of last year that agencies tracked the courier to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, built in 2005. Soon after, the CIA suspected bin Laden was inside.

In mid-March, President Obama held the first of five national security meetings to oversee plans for this operation. As it turns out, the meetings were ongoing during negotiations with congressional Republicans, who were threatening to shut down the government.

Friday, just 72 hours ago, the president assembled his national security team and signed off on the plan to raid the compound. The decision was not shared with Pakistani officials.

Yesterday, carrying out the mission, a firefight broke out. Bin Laden was shot in the head, and four others -- including one woman who'd been used as a human shield by an al Qaeda operative -- were also killed. No Americans were injured.

A series of DNA tests confirmed it was OBL yesterday afternoon at 3:50.

At the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday night, the president joked at the outset, "What a week."

What a week, indeed.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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FROM THE WEEKEND.... We covered a fair amount of ground over the weekend. Here's a quick overview of what you may have missed.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* U.S. forces kill Osama bin Laden.

* We know exactly how we ended up with the current budget mess, but the facts are awfully inconvenient for Republicans.

* Continuing with a trend, congressional Republicans seem to be personally offended by the very existence of the unemployed.

* Pollsters asking Americans whether they want to "cut spending," with no additional details about what will get cut, is practically useless.

* There's just something amazing about congressional Republicans who hate the Affordable Care Act trying to take credit for provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

* The governmental response to the disaster in the Southeast is a reminder of what competent governance looks like.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said she wouldn't compare the Nazi Holocaust to the national debt. Then she compared the Nazi Holocaust to the national debt.

* There are all kinds of reasons not to like the White House Correspondents' Dinner. But a finny speech is still a funny speech.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) wanted a "truce" on the culture wars. Then he announced he'd turn down federal funds and block all funding for Planned Parenthood in his state.

* Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) of Montana is worth tens of millions of dollars. So, when he says he's "struggling like everyone else," it's pretty hard to swallow.

* The only thing worse than policymakers fighting over the debt ceiling is policymakers fighting over the debt ceiling every other month.

* In "This Week in God," we covered, among other things, what happened to the Shiloh Baptist Church after President Obama worshipped there, and Sean Hannity decided he didn't like the pastor.

* With Alabama getting attention after its deadly tornadoes last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is apparently feeling jealous.

* Friday night in New Hampshire, an Americans for Prosperity gathering was supposed to be Mitt Romney's coming out party as a presidential candidate. It didn't go well.

Steve Benen 7:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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May 1, 2011

U.S. FORCES KILL OSAMA BIN LADEN.... Nearly 10 years after the terrorism of Sept. 11, the man responsible for orchestrating the attack has been killed.

In just a few moments, President Obama will announce that Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces. More soon.

First Update: On March 13, 2002, George W. Bush said of bin Laden, "I truly am not that concerned about him." I get the feeling this evening that much of the country never really bought into this attitude, and feel a great sense of satisfaction now that the monster is dead.

Second Update: In October 2008, during the second presidential debate, Obama declared, "We will kill Bin Laden." Promises made...

Third Update: Watch President Obama's remarks live. (I've swapped out the live feed for a full clip of the president's speech.)

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Fourth Update: The president's remarks included some surprise details. He noted, for example, that he directed the CIA, shortly after taking office in 2009, "to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority." It was, in other words, a shift from the previous administration.

Obama also explained the speed with which these developments occurred. U.S. officials had a lead, and POTUS determined just last week that "we had enough intelligence to take action." At the president's direction, U.S. forces "launched a targeted operation" in Pakistan today, and "after a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden." No Americans were harmed in the operation.

"Justice," the president said, "has been done."

Fifth Update: It appears a huge, celebratory crowd has gathered spontaneously outside the White House. The Washington Post has a live feed, but the video quality isn't great.

Sixth Update: Did Bush really deliver the "Mission Accomplished" speech eight years ago today? Actually, yes, he did.

Seventh Update: George W. Bush issued a statement this evening. An excerpt: "Earlier this evening, President Obama called to inform me that American forces killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al Qaeda network that attacked America on September 11, 2001. I congratulated him and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission. They have our everlasting gratitude."

Eighth Update: The jubilation in Lower Manhattan is pretty extraordinary, too.

Steve Benen 10:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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IDENTIFYING THE CULPRIT.... In recent months, there's been a renewed push among many Republicans to assign blame for the federal budget deficit they claim to be concerned about. The GOP consensus: the hole we're in is the Democrats' fault.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) recently said, "We're here mopping up their spilled milk, to be honest." Karl Rove insisted two weeks ago, "Republicans are not to be blamed for Mr. Obama's spending."

Lori Montgomery has a worthwhile piece in the Washington Post today, stating the facts.

The nation's unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis.

In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed.

Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes, jack up spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars solely with borrowed funds.

Now, I'd note that the budget deficit, in the short term, really isn't the crisis Republicans and many in the media make it out to be. We still have the ability to borrow at low interest rates, and I think we should do so, spending more to create jobs and improve the economy.

But for those who consider this a problem -- or worse, a "crisis" -- and want to know how we ended up in this mess, the facts are incontrovertible, even if Republicans find them inconvenient.

Polls show that a large majority of Americans blame wasteful or unnecessary federal programs for the nation's budget problems. But routine increases in defense and domestic spending account for only about 15 percent of the financial deterioration, according to a new analysis of CBO data.

The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts. Together, the economy and the tax bills enacted under former president George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent by President Obama, wiped out $6.3 trillion in anticipated revenue. That's nearly half of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt. Federal tax collections now stand at their lowest level as a percentage of the economy in 60 years.

It seems hard to believe that, just a decade ago, the deficit didn't exist and there were surpluses as far as the eye could see. Had it not been for the Republican agenda of the last decade, we'd be on track to eliminate the national debt altogether. (Yes, it is ironic the party that complains most about the mess is the party responsible for having created the mess.)

But as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) explained, reflecting on the Bush/GOP decade, it was an era in which "it was standard practice not to pay for things." It was, of course, the Republican Party that came up with this "standard practice."

I suspect some on the right will say the finger-pointing and blame game is unseemly, and that we should all just let bygones be bygones.

Well, no. For one thing, Republicans continue to play their own version of the blame game, except in this case, they're lying. For another, credibility counts -- when those who screwed up demand that we keep taking their judgment seriously, it's wise to do the opposite.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE GOP STILL DOESN'T LIKE THE UNEMPLOYED.... At an event in his Texas district this week, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) explained how he perceives those Americans struggling to find work.

"We've gotta, you know, nobody wants to starve anybody. Everybody wants to help folks out. But we've got a system where you can stay on unemployment for an awfully long time. And I think we need to create a system of decreasing benefits over time to encourage you to get a job. I think anybody who's had an alcoholic in their life or somebody with a drug problem, realizes that until things get bad enough there's no incentive to change."

Republican media personalities continue to make similar remarks.

I mention this in part because it's so offensive, and in part because it speaks to a larger truth. We can talk about Republican opposition to job creation, and we can marvel at the GOP's "so be it" attitude when told that the party's economic agenda would make unemployment worse.

But one of the more remarkable developments of the last couple of years is the number of Republicans who've shown outright hostility towards those who've lost their jobs.

Look at Farenthold's quote again. He not only thinks the jobless are struggling on purpose -- he's apparently unaware there are roughly six unemployed Americans for every job opening -- the GOP congressman also equates the unemployed with alcoholics and drug addicts.

Farenthold looks at those Americans struggling to find work in a weak economy and he's almost annoyed with them.

And it's not just Farenthold. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) dismissed jobless aid as money that offers "a disincentive" to getting a job, a sentiment endorsed by Sen. Richard Burr (R), among others.

Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) compared the unemployed to "hobos"; Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said those without jobs won't look until their benefits run out; and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) said the unemployed choose not to work because of the benefits.

Several other Republicans, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, want to impose mandatory drug testing for the jobless -- because if you can't find work, you're not only to blame, you're also a suspected addict.

The moral of the story seems to be that Republicans just don't like the unemployed. What did the unemployed ever do to offend the GOP this much?

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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THE LIMITS OF PUBLIC OPINION.... A Gallup poll released Friday asked a question that seems pertinent to the fiscal fight in Washington. The question read:

"As you may know, Congress can reduce the federal budget deficit by cutting spending, raising taxes, or a combination of the two. Ideally, how would you prefer to see Congress attempt to reduce the federal budget deficit -- only with spending cuts, mostly with spending cuts, equally with spending cuts and tax increases, mostly with tax increases, or only with tax increases?"

The results were all over the place, and varied widely by party affiliation. Overall, a 37% plurality supports the balanced approach, 28% wants "mostly" spending cuts, and 20% wants "only" spending cuts. Only 9% wants "mostly" tax increases, while 2% backs "only" tax increases.

Matt Yglesias noted in response, "Of course this raises the question of whether people really mean this, which I doubt."

So do I. In fact, it's pretty safe to assume folks don't mean this at all, and the evidence is overwhelming that asking the question this way -- i.e., asking whether Americans want to reduce the deficit through "spending cuts" -- is almost certain to generate results that tell us nothing.

It's one of the most consistent truths in all of politics: Americans, when asked, love the idea of spending cuts in the abstract. Those same Americans, when pressed, hate the idea of spending cuts in specific.

We know this in part because Gallup has told us. Just a few months ago, the pollster found most of the country balked at the notion of cuts to education, Social Security, Medicare, programs for the poor, national defense, homeland security, aid to farmers, and funding for the arts and sciences. A month later, a Bloomberg poll found that most Americans don't want to see budget cuts to education, community renewal programs, medical and scientific research, or public television and public radio. A month ago today, a CNN poll showed most Americans want to see spending go up, not down, in many key areas of the budget.

What cuts are popular? Foreign aid is a perennial favorite, but other than that, practically no cuts enjoy public support.

Polls that simply ask about "spending cuts" offer results with no meaningful value. Something to keep in mind.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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REPUBLICANS HATE HEALTH CARE REFORM -- EXCEPT FOR ALL THE GOOD PARTS.... It was remarkably common for about a year to see congressional Republicans railing against the Recovery Act at every available opportunity, insisting that economic stimulus is pointless and ineffective, only to show up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at projects in their districts. The same public investments that drew scowls in DC sparked smiles back home.

Of course, the hypocrisy isn't limited to the Recovery Act.

Like many Republicans, freshman Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) campaigned for office last year on a promise to repeal health reform. He accused his Democratic opponent, Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-TN), of attempting a "smoke-and-mirrors ploy to implement socialized medicine." And once joining Congress, DesJarlais voted to repeal the entire bill.

However, only four months into office, DesJarlais' office appears to be touting a successful health reform program. According to the Crossvile Chronicle, a representative from DesJarlais' district office was on hand last week for a groundbreaking ceremony to hand over nearly $4.5 million in grant money -- entirely funded by the Affordable Care Act -- for the construction of a community health clinic in Cumberland County, Tennessee. Gregg Ridley, a staffer for DesJarlais, even posed for a photo-op with a giant ceremonial check to local officials to take credit for making the grant possible.

This is a glaring example -- DesJarlais deserves some kind of Chutzpah of the Week award -- but this happens all the time. Republicans who consider the Affordable Care Act some kind of Nazi/communist/satanic plot still run home to their constituents to brag about what's actually in the law, as if they had something to do with its passage, and request that ACA funding be directed to their communities.

It's one of the reasons the "repeal" push has largely been a sham. Republicans know it's a risk-free move -- there's no way the White House or a Democratic Senate would go along, and they don't have to worry about killing provisions they actually want and brag about.

Ideally, voters in DesJarlais' district would know better, but I suppose that's asking too much.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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COMPETENT, EFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT STILL EXISTS.... In general, the ability of government agencies to respond to a natural disaster only draws attention when agencies fall short. The media tends to look for "the next Katrina" to demonstrate that feckless bureaucracies and government incompetence are the new norm.

But they don't have to be, and with an effective administration, they're not. The New York Times has a report today on the emergency response in the Southeast, where the death toll stands at 349 people, with most of the victims in Alabama. It is the deadliest natural disaster on American soil since Hurricane Katrina, but in this case, the governmental response is earning praise, not condemnations.

Top federal officials, including Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, were in touch with [Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley] shortly after the tornadoes landed Wednesday, according to a timeline from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA officials contacted the White House about the need for a federal emergency declaration even before Alabama had submitted a formal request that evening, said Art Faulkner, the state's emergency management director. It was quickly granted.

Mr. Obama spoke to Mr. Bentley, a Republican, on Wednesday night and to the governors of four other affected states on Thursday. He sent the FEMA administrator, W. Craig Fugate, to Alabama on Thursday. Five members of the cabinet are expected in the state on Sunday. [...]

By late Thursday, Mr. Obama had signed the disaster declaration for Alabama, and later did the same for Georgia and Mississippi.... As of Friday afternoon, FEMA had placed liaison officers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, according to a spokesperson.

In Alabama, as in other affected states, the White House was winning early praise from state, local and Congressional leaders of both parties.

President Obama and the First Lady were also on the ground in Alabama barely 40 hours after the storm struck.

One local resident, whose house was obliterated by a tornado, told the NYT, "It ain't like Katrina. We're getting help."

What's more, Kevin Drum notes some larger context: "Under Bush Sr., FEMA sucked. Under Clinton, FEMA was rehabilitated and turned into a superstar agency. Under Bush Jr., FEMA sucked again. Under Obama, FEMA's doing great and responding quickly. I know, I know, we're not supposed to politicize natural disasters. Not when that politicization makes Republicans look bad, anyway. So I'll just let you draw your own conclusions from these four data points."

I don't imagine we'll hear much about the Obama administration's response in the Southeast; the media tends to only find these stories interesting if the government is failing instead of succeeding.

But it's worth keeping in mind anyway. If it's important when a federal response falls short, it's worth appreciating what competent governance is capable of.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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BACHMANN DRAWS HOLOCAUST-DEBT PARALLEL.... In general, the rhetoric from prospective Republican presidential candidates starts off as mildly offensive, and grows increasingly ridiculous as the process unfolds.

If this is what we're hearing from Michele Bachmann in April, I can only imagine what we'll hear in December.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann on Saturday described the loss of "economic liberty" that young Americans face today as a "flash point of history" in which the younger generation will ask what their elders did to stop it.

In a speech to New Hampshire Republicans, Bachmann recounted learning about a horrific time in history as a child -- the Holocaust -- and wondering if her mother did anything to stop it. She said she was shocked to hear that many Americans weren't aware that millions of Jews had died until after World War II ended.

Bachmann said the next generation will ask similar questions about what their elders did to prevent them from facing a huge tax burden.

"I tell you this story because I think in our day and time, there is no analogy to that horrific action," she said, referring to the Holocaust. "But only to say, we are seeing eclipsed in front of our eyes a similar death and a similar taking away. It is this disenfranchisement that I think we have to answer to."

I don't imagine the right-wing Minnesotan will understand this, but when one says "there is no analogy," and then makes the analogy anyway, the first half doesn't automatically negate the second half.

I'm tempted to respond to the comments with some kind of substantive analysis, but honestly, I'm not even sure what she was trying to say. Bachmann thinks, at some point, taxes will go up to pay for the debt her own party was largely responsible for, and that this future tax burden will be "a similar death" to the Nazi Holocaust?

Bachmann's ideas are frequently hopelessly insane, but these are the kind of remarks that make me wonder if she's some sort of performance artist, and the rest of us just aren't in on the joke.

If the congressman was sincere, and her comments yesterday weren't intended as a plot to make conservatives look ridiculous, Bachmann's presence as an elected lawmaker in the United States Congress is a national embarrassment.

Postscript: There was a related piece on this on Politico, which ran this headline: "Bachmann compares debt crisis to Holocaust." For the record, there is no debt crisis, and when the media pretends there is, it only contributes to national confusion and a counter-productive debate.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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FINDING HUMOR AT AN UNSEEMLY EVENT.... For the record, I think the criticism of the White House Correspondents' Dinner is more than fair. The event is increasingly unseemly, and as Dana Milbank noted this week, "out of control."

But as unbecoming as the dinner has become, that doesn't mean President Obama's remarks weren't funny.

Early on, the president announced he was prepared to resolve any lingering conspiracy theories by showing his "birth video," at which point attendees were shown a clip from The Lion King. Obama quickly noted, "I want to make clear to the Fox News table -- that was a joke. That was not my real birth video. That was a children's cartoon. Call Disney if you don't believe me, they have the original long form version."

But it was the president's skewering of a certain reality-show host that stood out. "Donald Trump is here tonight. Now, I know that he's taken some flak lately, but no one is prouder to put this birth certificate to rest than The Donald. Now he can get to focusing on the issues that matter. Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened at Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?"

Obama added, "All kidding aside, we all know about your credentials and experience. "In 'Celebrity Apprentice,' the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha steaks, but you recognized that this was a lack of leadership, so you fired Gary Busey."

"These," the president added, "are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well-handled, sir. Well-handled."

By all accounts, Trump didn't laugh at any of this. As near as I can tell, he was the only one.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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HOUSEKEEPING NOTE.... Just a reminder, the Monthly's tech team will be some server maintenance over the weekend. I'll still have a normal weekend posting schedule, and you'll still be able to comment, but there's a small chance any comments left over the weekend may not permanently survive. Just FYI.

Steve Benen 7:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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