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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

First lady Michelle Obama speaks in Miami, Feb. 25, 2014. Michelle Obama plans a week-long visit, without President Obama, to China this month that includes meetings with China’s first lady and high school and university students. (Joel Auerbach/AP/File)

Michelle Obama to visit China. Do first ladies often travel solo abroad? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.03.14

First lady Michelle Obama will head to China for a week-long official visit on March 19, the White House announced Monday. She’ll be accompanied by her daughters, Sasha and Malia, and her mother, Marian Robinson, but President Obama won’t tag along. He’s got a trip of his own to Europe and Saudi Arabia planned for that time period.

Education will be a major theme of the trip, and Mrs. Obama will visit with Chinese high school and university students. She’ll also meet Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The first lady is encouraging US students to follow her progress via the White House website. She’ll be posting a daily travel blog and taking and answering kids’ questions.

Issues such as education, escaping poverty, and easing climate change are the same around the world, wrote Mrs. Obama in a message to students on the White House blog Monday.

“These issues affect every last one of us, so it’s critically important that young people like you learn about what’s going on not just here in America, but around the world,” she wrote.

On Tuesday Mrs. Obama will visit a District of Columbia charter elementary school with a Chinese-language international baccalaureate program, as preparation and publicity for her trip.

It’s not the first time the first lady has set out on solo diplomatic visits. In 2010 she assessed earthquake damage in Haiti, then continued to Mexico for meetings on getting youths engaged in important political and economic questions. In 2011 she traveled to Botswana and South Africa sans spouse.

In doing so, she’s continuing a modern tradition. First ladies are unique ambassadors for the US. They’re important in a political sense, but their visits aren’t as divisive or high-stakes as those of presidents can be.

Eleanor Roosevelt pioneered such trips, as she did with so many other aspects of the modern role of first lady. She was the first presidential wife to travel overseas on her own. As a representative of the Red Cross, she traveled to England and Ireland and US bases throughout the Pacific in World War II.

The Kennedy administration deployed first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to unique effect. Admired throughout the world, she built goodwill for the US in solo trips to Greece and Italy. In 1962 she was officially designated a “goodwill ambassador” for a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

More recently, Laura Bush traveled to the Middle East as first lady to promote breast cancer awareness. Hillary Rodham Clinton made a solo trip to China in 1995 to attend a UN Conference on Women, where she called on the host nation to do more to push progress in gender equality.

But first ladies are not immune from overseas missteps. During a solo foray in the Middle East in 1999, Mrs. Clinton listened as Suha Arafat, Yassir Arafat’s wife, gave a speech in which she falsely accused Israel of using poison gas on Palestinians.

Mrs. Clinton hugged Mrs. Arafat at the end of the lecture.

“The First Lady’s politeness was taken as substantive agreement with Arafat’s inflammatory charges,” Brookings Institution Vice President Darrell West wrote in 2010.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., March 16, 2013. Palin says she was right to predict that Russia might invade Ukraine. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Sarah Palin: 'I told you so on Ukraine'

By Staff writer / 03.01.14

It’s not true that Sarah Palin once said “I can see Russia from my house.” That was comedian and Palin impersonator Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live.”

But back in 2008 when she was the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, trying to establish her credentials on things like foreign policy, the ex-Governor of Alaska did say of Russia, “They're our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.”

Which is literally true – on a clear day if you stand on your tippy-toes and gaze from the Alaskan island of Little Diomede across the International Date Line to the unpopulated Russian island of Big Diomede two and one half miles away.

This running joke about Ms. Palin – who went on to become a Fox News commentator, star of her own brief reality show, and well-paid Obama scold on behalf of the tea party – came to mind when she went on Facebook to comment on the crisis in Ukraine:

“Yes, I could see this one from Alaska,” she wrote. “I'm usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did, despite my accurate prediction being derided as ‘an extremely far-fetched scenario’ by the ‘high-brow’ Foreign Policy magazine. Here’s what this ‘stupid’ ‘insipid woman’ predicted back in 2008: ‘After the Russian Army invaded the nation of Georgia, Senator Obama's reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence, the kind of response that would only encourage Russia's Putin to invade Ukraine next.’”

Then she went on Fox News to elaborate.

"Back in 2008, I accurately predicted the possibility of Putin feeling emboldened to invade Ukraine because I could see what kind of leader Barack Obama would be,” she said. “The bullies of the world are always emboldened by indecision and moral equivalence. We can expect more of this sort of thing in a world where America is gutting its military and 'leading from behind.'"

As usual, Palin is nothing if not controversial, and she delights in tweaking the “lamestream media.”

Earlier in the week, Palin won Newshound’s “most outrageous quote” reader poll for another Facebook post: “If he is good enough for Ted Nugent, he is good enough for me!” (Newshound’s motto is “We watch Fox so you don’t have to.”)

Ted Nugent, of course, is the geezer rocker who called President Obama a “communist-educated, communist-nurtured, subhuman mongrel.” Palin’s reference was in support of Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for Texas governor now serving as the state’s Attorney General, who has welcomed Nugent’s endorsement – or at least refused to say anything critical about “The Nuge’s” political pronouncements.

Meanwhile, fellow tea partiers have been chuckling over Palin’s Ukraine moment.

“Palin not only knows where Russia is, but she knew what Putin would do to Ukraine with Obama as president,” radio talk show host Mark Levin tweeted.

“In light of recent events in Ukraine … nobody seems to be laughing at or dismissing those comments now,” wrote Tony Lee at Breitbart.com.

Others note that Mitt Romney was accused of reviving the Cold War when, as the 2012 Republican presidential candidate debating Obama, he stated that Russia is "without question our number one geopolitical foe."

At the moment, Palin’s Facebook post on Ukraine has 66,684 “likes” and 15,442 “shares.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. faces reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, following a closed-door Democratic policy meeting. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Are Republicans right to call Harry Reid a liar?

By Staff Writer / 02.28.14

Are Republicans right to call Harry Reid a liar? This question arises in the wake of Senate Majority Leader Reid’s statement on the floor of the Senate Wednesday regarding horror stories about American’s experience with Obamacare.

“All are untrue, but they’re being told all over America,” said Senator Reid.

“All”? Republicans have leaped on this as a clear untruth of its own. Some have wondered aloud if the mainstream media will call upon Democrats to disown Reid’s comment, as it asked if Republicans would repudiate rocker/provocateur Ted Nugent after he campaigned for the GOP gubernatorial candidate in Texas.

Reid has a history of whoppers, according to other conservatives. Remember in the presidential campaign, when Reid said in an interview with the Huffington Post that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for 10 years? That was rated “Pants on Fire” incorrect by the fact-checking organization PolitiFact.

“Once a month, Harry Reid says something that would be a career-ender for your average Republican,” said Jim Geraghty of the right-leaning National Review this week.

Well, Reid’s assertion that all the stories about Americans who lost coverage, or had to pay more, or had to find new doctors under the Affordable Care Act are false, is wrong on its face. Any big change in social policy such as Obamacare will roil the status quo. While it provides benefits for many who didn’t have them, it also creates categories of losers whose situation will be worse off. For instance, people who live in rural areas with little medical competition, and make just above the threshold for government subsidies of their premiums, are quite likely to face steep premium hikes.

In fact, that statement is so off that Reid knew it and walked it back that same day. He returned to the floor and said he was focusing on anti-Obamacare ads produced by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a political group that has spent more than $30 million campaigning against Obamacare in recent months.

AFP gets lots of money from wealthy brothers Charles and David Koch. Reid referenced the Kochs by name.

“I can’t say that every one of the Koch brothers’ ads are a lie, but I’ll say this ... the vast, vast majority of them are,” said Reid.

This statement is partly true, partly not. Reid appears to have taken his cue here from Democratic bloggers and activists who have challenged many of the facts presented in AFP ads. In particular they have taken issue with an AFP-financed spot running in Michigan in which a leukemia patient says her new Obamacare coverage is “unaffordable” due to higher out-of-pocket costs.

The women’s health premiums have actually fallen under Obamacare, according to reporters who checked into her situation. They’ve gone down enough so that she’ll likely pay less, or about the same, for her health care even if her out-of-pocket expenses are higher.

“The bigger story here is that, in order to sell these Obamacare ‘horror stories,’ AFB needs to either shield the full stories form comprehensive scrutiny or actively mislead about them,” writes the left-leaning Greg Sargent on his Plum Line blog at the Washington Post.

That’s just one ad, though. Reid said the “vast majority” of AFP ads are a lie. That’s still a clear overstatement, according to Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. For this he gave Reid two Pinocchios on his four Pinocchio rating scale.

Reid “would have been on safer ground if he dropped the harsh rhetoric and had simply said that many of the ads have serious problems and even rely on actors, not real people,” Kessler writes.

Underlying this spat over Reid’s accuracy are pent-up tensions regarding his role as majority leader and the upcoming midterm election. Republicans say Reid has run the Senate like an autocrat, swatting away their attempts to propose legislative amendments on the floor while curtailing the power of the filibuster.

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters this week, went so far as to compare Reid to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

Reid, for his part, may be worried his days in power are dwindling. Right now polls indicate that it’s a better than even chance that Republicans will win control of the Senate this November. If so, Reid would be supplanted by the current minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

Reid’s “unacceptable rhetoric” and “astonishing behavior” are signs that Democrat’s are desperate, Senator McConnell said in a Fox News interview Thursday.

Susan Walsh/AP/File

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus speaks at the Republican National Committee winter meeting in Washington, Jan. 24, 2014. Priebus on Thursday announced the finalist cities for the 2016 GOP national convention, and has said he wants to hold the convention in June or July, as opposed to the traditional August. (Susan Walsh/AP/File)

Republican National Convention finalists: Which city is front-runner? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.27.14

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus on Thursday announced the finalist cities for the 2016 GOP national convention. Long story short, it’s Ohio versus rivals in the South and West for the economic and publicity benefits of hosting this big party presidential confab.

That’s because the list contains no fewer than three Ohio cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. (What, Akron’s busy that month?) The list is filled out by Denver; Dallas; Kansas City, Mo.; Phoenix; and Las Vegas. Yes, Las Vegas, a place occasionally described as “Sin City.” In fact, the early handicapping makes Las Vegas the pundit favorite to win the nod.

In part, that’s because Las Vegas should have little problem pulling together the money needed to ready for the influx of the RNC and its conventioneers. It can call upon such donors as billionaire gambling impresario Sheldon Adelson, who has given millions of dollars to Republican candidates and causes.

Vegas also has ample hotel space within a mile or so of the proposed venue, the Las Vegas Convention Center. Smaller cities can struggle with the scale of a national political convention, with some state delegations and media exiled to rooms far from the madding crowd (we’re looking at you, Charlotte, N.C., host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention). For Las Vegas, the GOP might not even be its biggest convention customer of the month.

RNC chair Priebus has said he wants to hold the convention in June or July, as opposed to the traditional August. This might also help Las Vegas, as its average August temperature tops 100 degrees. There is that temptation issue, however.

“Las Vegas is a terrible idea for the RNC convention,” tweeted popular conservative blogger Melissa Clouthier on Thursday. “100s of opposition researchers following idiot GOP-ers around. No.”

As for Ohio, its advantage is obvious. It’s America’s premier swing state, and conventional (groan) political wisdom holds that a national party gains an edge in states where it holds its quadrennial nominating celebration.

Thus the three Ohio finalists. Maybe they could all win, and Republicans just roam the state in a caravan over a week, visiting each in turn?

Denver is also in a purple state that’s key to party electoral strategies. Kansas City ditto, though Missouri leans somewhat more GOP than does Colorado.

Dallas and Phoenix would be safe choices in safe Republican territory.

Democrats chose Charlotte in 2012 in large part because they hoped it would help put North Carolina in play. It didn’t seem to have that effect: Mitt Romney won there by several percentage points.

In general, the conventional wisdom isn’t true, according to some political scientists. There’s no hard evidence that the location of the party conventions affects the presidential vote.

“Generally, parties do not derive significant electoral benefits in states selected to host the national convention,” concluded University of Maine political scientist Richard Powell in a 2004 journal article that looked at presidential elections from 1932 to 2000.

Candidates do get a bump in their home states, however, according to this study. So if the GOP really wants to win Ohio, maybe it should pick the state’s GOP governor, John Kasich, as its nominee, instead of packing hundreds of people in funny hats into a Cleveland arena.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File

Actor Seth Rogen has his photo taken as he enters the ballroom at the 19th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., Jan. 16, 2014. Rogen was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 to talk about challenges confronting families coping with Alzheimer's. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File)

Seth Rogen congressional testimony: Is he right to be mad at truant senators? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.27.14

Seth Rogen testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday on the difficulties of dealing with loved ones afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease.

Yes, that Seth Rogen – the actor who in his own words plays a “lazy self-indulged man-child” in movies such as “Knocked Up.” At the beginning of his opening statement, Rogen noted that the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, had told him he’d never seen this film.

“Mr. Chairman, that’s a little insulting,” said Rogen, to audience laughs.

But Rogen wasn’t in Washington just to crack jokes. He proceeded with a touching story about his experience with his mother-in-law, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in middle age, and how hard it is for her extended family to manage her tragic situation. Rogen has founded an organization, Hilarity for Charity, that raises funds to help others.

“I’ve personally seen the massive amount of strain this disease causes,” Rogen told the subcommittee. “I can’t begin to imagine how people with more limited incomes are dealing with this.”

By telling his story, Rogen said, he hoped to give hope to others in the same situation and to lessen some of the stigma still associated with the disease. He then pleaded with lawmakers for more government attention and funds.

“People look to their government for hope, and I ask that when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease you continue to take some steps to provide more,” said Rogen.

Rogen’s Washington appearance seemed effective, in the sense that it had a nice balance between substance and self-awareness and didn’t drag on too long. But it has raised several tough meta-issues about the mixture of celebrity and national politics.

Rogen himself has seemed miffed in its aftermath. He appears to believe that his issue was dissed by the lack of senatorial attendance during his testimony. Here's his tweet from Wednesday night.

He even called out one lawmaker by name, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois. Rogen tweeted to Senator Kirk that it was nice meeting him beforehand, then asked, “Why did you leave before my speech? Just curious.”

The short answer to that question, as any D.C. intern or badly dressed journalist hack knows, is because that’s standard operating procedure. Many congressional hearings feature only a handful of committee members. Lawmakers have got lots of other things to do, such as deal with other committees, constituents, lobbyists, and votes. Oh, they have to raise money, too – a lot of it. Sitting through a couple of hours of expert panels is not high on their to-do lists, even if one of the panelists is really funny.

Big hearings in which lawmakers' questions may show up on TV news get full attendance, but only at the start. After that, members drift in and out as the queries go on, appearing for their own five minutes, then leaving afterwards.

And here’s another thing Rogen may not get: The senators aren’t his audience, anyway.

The committee staff is his audience. They are well-represented in the room, even if he doesn’t recognize them. They draw up the bills, set the budget figures, and provide their bosses with the short memos that nudge them how to vote.

And in a larger sense, the audience for congressional celebrity appearances is off Capitol Hill entirely. They are there because they will draw extra attention from voters and the press. That’s good both for the committee and the celebrity’s issue.

Rogen may be correct that Alzheimer’s does not get the attention from the federal government that it deserves. And shaming senators for nonattendance could generate public pressure on those lawmakers. But it’s also possible it’s counterproductive.

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York October 2, 2013. (Mike Segar/Reuters/File)

Doge and Obamacare. Such anger. Very bewilderment.

By Staff writer / 02.26.14

It’s true: The federal government is using the Doge Internet meme to promote Obamacare. This is likely to be the most confounding and/or controversial means of pushing younger people to enroll in health insurance via the Affordable Care Act since “Pajama Boy.”

Remember Pajama Boy? The glasses-wearing semi-hipster wearing a plaid onesie and sipping hot chocolate in an ad that promoted talking about getting health coverage? A few people thought it was clever. Many did not.

OK, back to Doge. On Wednesday afternoon, the Health and Human Services' Twitter feed pushed out a tweet featuring a photo of a Shiba Inu dog playing in the snow.

In crayon script over the photo was written, “So health insurance. Very benefits. Wow. Many coverage. Much affordable. Such HealthCare.gov.”

This mimics Doge, a meme on Tumblr in which introspective-looking Shiba Inus are depicted with a dog-brain-level interior monologue, such as, “Wow. Who am I? Such unsure. So much mystery.”

Note: We fully realize that by describing this, we have sucked all joy and art from the process. It’s like explaining why a joke is funny, a process never funny in itself. But this is explanatory journalism, so give us a break.

Obviously, HHS is trying to push enrollment in health insurance among young people as Obamacare’s final deadline for 2014 coverage approaches. Younger people are generally healthier, and the more of them sign up, the better balanced insurance risk pools will be. And what better way to advertise to the wired Gen Y than on the Internet where they live? With the same memes they use?

That would work if it did not come across like George Will quoting Arcade Fire. On Twitter, the immediate early consensus about the Doge meme and HHS was simple: “make it stop.”

HHS “used the recently revived, three-year-old meme to flog Obamacare on Wednesday, which hopefully means that by Thursday, we’ll all sort of silently agree it’s over,” writes New York Magazine’s Adam Martin.

Others pointed out that anyone who has never encountered Doge will be mystified.

“When cable news picks up the @HHSGov Doge, it’s going to strike a lot of people who have never seen Doge as confusing and idiotic. #backfire,” tweeted Politico media columnist Dylan Byers on Wednesday.

There are a couple of further points on this subject worth mentioning. One is that HHS and its associated marketers might be cleverer than it seems on the surface. This could be back-flip marketing, in which messages are passed along by people making fun of them.

After all, lots of people made fun of Pajama Boy. But every joke mentioned “signing up for Obamacare” right alongside.

And finally, this isn’t the first time Doge and Washington have collided. Politicians have been doing Doge posts for some time, as The Huffington Post reported in December.

A post by Rep. Tom Massie (R) of Kentucky criticizing last year’s budget deal is typical: “Much bipartisanship. Very spending. Wow.”

So if this meme is one whose intellectual purity has been sullied by politics, that’s something that occurred some time ago.

Two US Air Force A-10A Warthogs, in flight during a NATO Operation Allied Force combat mission, April 22, 1999. Once again, the Pentagon aims to retire the venerable 'Tank Killer,' as defenders in Congress line up to extend its tenure. (Greg L. Davis/US Air Force/Reuters/File)

A-10 Warthog faces elimination. Will Congress save it again? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.26.14

The A-10 “Warthog” is facing elimination. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is proposing to eliminate funds for the venerable ground support aircraft in the Pentagon’s 2015 budget. The move would save $3.5 billion over the next five years, according to Secretary Hagel – money the Air Force needs to help pay for newer weapons, such as the F-35.

Is this finally the end for the A-10? Maybe – the plane is old, slow, and ungainly. It’s low-tech in a high-tech world, an ancient piece of US iron in an air combat environment vastly different from the one for which it was designed.

But it would be a mistake to write the Warthog off. It is a tough survivor, in both the skies and the halls of Congress. The Department of Defense has tried to kill the aircraft before, and failed.

Look at the reaction of Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan to see why this is so. Senator Levin is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, though he is retiring in the fall. There are 24 A-10s based at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in his home state. He also remembers how Congress pushed for the A-10's original production, over some military objections, and has voted to keep the plane alive over the years.

“The A-10 has a vital capability, and we must ensure that we maintain that capability,” said Levin, earlier this week. “Those who propose eliminating the A-10 have a heavy burden of proof. Any such proposal will receive close scrutiny.”

The Republic A-10 is officially named the “Thunderbolt II," after the ungainly ground support Thunderbolt of World War II. Designed in the early 1970s, it is a cross-shaped aircraft built around a 30-mm cannon, the heaviest such weapon in the air. The plane is heavily armored against ground fire. The pilot, for instance, sits in a titanium tub. It’s intended to attack enemy tanks and other armored vehicles.

The Air Force of the era was not enamored of the plane. It was slow and ugly, as opposed to the service’s fast and graceful fighters. Originally, Air Force leaders tolerated its development because they saw it as a way to keep the Army out of the close air support mission, according to a National Defense University student thesis written in 2003. Eventually they discovered that the A-10 “had picked up enough congressional and [Office of the Secretary of Defense] support to resist the dominant ‘high-tech’ USAF culture,” wrote NDU student Arden Dahl.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The A-10 had played a crucial role in the Gulf War, destroying more than 900 Iraqi tanks and hundreds more military trucks and other vehicles. It provided suppressive gunfire to support troops in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it was also 40 years old and increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain. The advent of precision-guided munitions meant that many Air Force aircraft could attack enemy ground forces engaged in combat.

That meant the plane’s time might be up.

However, in recent years Congress has repeatedly pushed back against Pentagon efforts to cut the aircraft and its associated Air National Guard units.

The powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Levin, has A-10s in his state, which has helped. In 2012, lawmakers rejected a plan to pull A-10s out of Michigan, for instance. The Arizona congressional delegation has also united in support of the aircraft, which is a mainstay at Davis-Monthan Air Base near Tucson.

One of the A-10s' most vociferous defenders is Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, whose husband flew the aircraft in the Gulf War. Last September, she blocked the nomination of Deborah Lee James as secretary of the Air Force until the service responded in writing to questions about the A-10’s future. She later relented but has continued to watch warily as the service decided to do away with the program.

She has pledged to fight the forced retirement.

“Instead of cutting its best and least expensive close air support aircraft in an attempt to save money, the Air Force could achieve similar savings elsewhere in its budget without putting our troops at increased risk,” Senator Ayotte said this week.

US Vice President Joseph Biden listens to President Barack Obama at a meeting with the Democratic Governors Association, in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, February 21, 2014. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Joe Biden says he's 'uniquely' positioned to run for president. His evidence? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.25.14

Joe Biden says his experience as a senator and vice president “uniquely positions” him to run for president if he so desires.

In an appearance Tuesday on ABC’s “The View,” Mr. Biden pointed in particular to his experience in foreign policy and his engagement with world leaders as his value-added qualities. President Obama has loaded him with foreign assignments, Biden said, such as figuring out how to get the United States out of Iraq. Plus, before Mr. Obama tapped him as veep, Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he’s got lots of experience in this area.

Of course, potential 2016 rival Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary of State, a job that consists of running US affairs around the world. Fortunately, none of the women on “The View” pointed this out. It might have been awkward.

In the context of unique experience, Biden also pointed to his belief that the middle class “is the single focus ... we should be looking at” in domestic affairs.

Again, that’s different from you-know-who in what way, Joe? Last we heard, Mrs. Clinton was not pushing for lower taxes on the rich.

OK, we’re being a bit snarky here. Talking about possibly running for president in a manner that leaves open the possibility of not running, without losing credibility or sounding strained, isn’t easy. Biden’s decent at it. He’s been all over talk shows this week, and he seems to have a good time swatting at the inevitable queries about 2016.

For instance on “The View,” Biden proffered a small gift to retiring panelist Barbara Walters and promised that if she sticks around, he’ll reveal his future plans on her show. Then again, he said kind of the same thing during a Monday night appearance on Seth Meyer’s new “Late Night” gig.

Biden joked that he’d planned to make a “major announcement” in front of Mr. Meyers but that he’d decided against it because he didn’t want to steal the spotlight on Meyers’s big night.

“So I hope you’ll invite me back,” Biden teased Meyers.

Biden looked like he was having a pretty good time on both shows. And he said something pretty revealing about the nature of his current job. After Jenny McCarthy told him that her son had said the job of a VP was “to attend a lot of funerals,” Biden laughed.

Then he said, “A vice president has no inherent power. It’s all reflective power. It all depends on the relationship with the president of the United States.”

That’s true. And Biden seems to have maintained a fairly good relationship with Obama. The VP said they were ideologically compatible and personal friends.

Biden’s problem going forward is that “ideologically compatible with Obama” is not exactly a campaign slogan. Vice presidents who run for president face a tricky balance: They have to establish a separate identity without trashing their former boss.

Some – such as Al Gore – don’t seem to manage it.

The fact is that it’s rare for vice presidents to run for and win the presidency on their own. Fourteen former VPs have become president, but of those, nine assumed the office upon the death or resignation of the Oval Office occupant.

In the modern era, only George H.W. Bush has won election to immediately replace the man under whom he served. (Ronald Reagan, in Mr. Bush’s case.) The last veep to pull that off prior to Bush was Martin Van Buren, in 1836.

And here’s a bit of VP trivia: One vice president defeated the sitting president with whom he served to claim the nation’s top political job. Who was this ingrate?

It was Thomas Jefferson, who beat John Adams in the election of 1800. Back then, nobody expected VPs to be the president’s chief assistant. The vice president was the person who came in second in the presidential election.

Jefferson and Adams were of different parties, and as VP, Jefferson basically spent much of his time preparing for his presidential run and writing a guidebook on legislative procedure, according to the Senate Historical Office.

By the way, on the substance of running for president, Biden this week continued to say what he's been saying for months. He might run, he might not, and what Mrs. Clinton does won't factor in that decision. He'll decide in coming months.

Former President Bill Clinton speaks in Charlottesville, Va., Oct. 30, 2013. Clinton is stumping in Kentucky to campaign for the Democrat who is trying to topple Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. (Steve Helber/AP/File)

Bill Clinton stumps in Kentucky. Will he help topple Mitch McConnell? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.25.14

Bill Clinton is riding into Kentucky to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who is trying to topple Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Will the Big Dog be the deciding factor in one of America’s most closely watched Senate races?

It’s possible. Mr. Clinton’s favorable ratings rank him as close to the most popular politician in the nation. He remains well liked in the Bluegrass State, which he carried twice in presidential campaigns. And Clinton’s ties to Ms. Grimes and her family are longstanding. He and Hillary Rodham Clinton counseled her before she decided to run. Her campaign website prominently features a Clinton endorsement video.

For the Clintons, the Grimes race isn’t just business as usual. It’s personal.

“At 35, Grimes is just 15 months older than their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and is practically the Clintons’ political offspring,” writes The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker. “A win in November would demonstrate the appeal of Clintonian centrism in Republican territory.”

Right now polls show Grimes, the current Kentucky secretary of State, tied or slightly ahead of Senator McConnell. In the RealClearPolitics rolling average of state surveys, the race is essentially a dead heat.

McConnell’s problem is that his personal favorable ratings are weak for a powerful incumbent. Kentucky voters see him as distant, perhaps a touch too Washingtonian. So with Clinton’s appearance, the race is nearing a tipping point, right?

Not so fast. McConnell has many strengths, among them lots of campaign cash and a demonstrated willingness to fight hard when threatened. You can bet that before the campaign is over, he’ll flood Kentucky airwaves with ads tying Grimes, not to Clinton, but to the chief executive she has no plans to appear with: President Obama.

Mr. Obama’s not popular in Kentucky, a red state where Mitt Romney took 60 percent of the vote in 2012.

Plus, right now it looks like McConnell won’t have to devote much time or energy to winning the Republican primary. He’s facing a challenge from tea party-backed businessman Matt Bevin, but so far that’s fizzled. Mr. Bevin has had to defend himself against charges that he once backed the federal government’s TARP bank bailout, a program loathed by many on the right. McConnell has hit Bevin repeatedly over the fact that the latter took state aid to rebuild a family bell factory after a fire. He’s “Bailout Bevin,” in McConnell ads.

Tea party groups from outside the state are moving to try to help McConnell’s foe. The Senate Conservatives Fund on Tuesday released a radio ad attacking McConnell’s vote to allow the debt ceiling bill to proceed, among other things.

“Mitch McConnell has betrayed Kentucky’s conservative values. That’s why it’s time to blow the whistle on Mitch McConnell and replace him with conservative Matt Bevin,” says the ad, to the sound of a whistle blowing.

But the group is putting only about $30,000 into air time for the ad, which is not a lot. And time is running out for Bevin. The primary is May 20, and polls show him anywhere from 26 to 42 points behind.

“Right now, Kentucky undoubtedly is the ‘most watched’ Senate race in the country. But does it deserve all that loving attention? Almost certainly not,” write University of Virginia political scientists Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik in Politico. “The odds of McConnell, even with his weak approval ratings, losing either the primary or general election are not impressive.”

A US Air Force U-2 jet takes off from the Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri in Cyprus, March 20, 2011. In the new defense budget unveiled Monday, the famed aircraft may be retired – finally – in favor of the long-range Global Hawk drone. (Andrew Winning/Reuters/File)

New defense budget: Will it ground famous U-2 spy plane? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.24.14

Is the Dragon Lady going to be grounded for good? That’s the implication of President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 military budget, outlined Monday by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Among the many trims it contains is the elimination of funds for the U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane. The famed aircraft would be retired – finally – in favor of the long-range Global Hawk drone.

We say “finally” because budgeters have been trying to get rid of the U-2 for years. But the plane has proved its versatility and importance again and again in real-world conflicts. In Afghanistan, U-2s with upgraded sensors could spot soil disturbances that hinted at the placement of roadside bombs. More recently, in Syria, U-2s tracked the regime's chemical weapon-related activity.

It’s possible the U-2 will yet avoid the budget ax. The plane flies higher than the Global Hawk, an important advantage in overhead espionage, and carries a wider array of sensing equipment. For these and other reasons, the Air Force leadership would prefer the manned aircraft over the drone.

But the Global Hawk can stay aloft for a day and is much younger. There isn’t enough money in the budget for both, according to the Pentagon, so one must go. So let’s pause for a second to recognize the greatness of the U-2, a design that has lasted half a century and is “one of the most famous and successful aircraft of all time,” in the words of aviation historian Walter J. Boyne.

The U-2 program dates from 1955. The US needed a spy aircraft that could fly to the edge of space, higher than the Soviet Union's interceptors, to try to discover the many military secrets in the vast interior of the USSR. It was a joint CIA-Defense Department program. In fact, a senior CIA official sent a $1.25 million check to the home of Lockheed “Skunk Works” chief engineer Kelly Johnson to get the program under way in secret.

In the end, the US got 20 aircraft delivered under budget at about $1 million each. In essence, the U-2 is a jet-powered glider, with long, thin wings unable to withstand the strain of combat maneuvers. It can fly higher than 70,000 feet, and it can carry a wide array of electronic and imaging sensors in under-wing pods.

It’s notoriously difficult to fly, in part because it pushes the edge on performance. At altitude, pilots have to keep speed within a window of about 12 miles per hour. Too fast, and structural damage may result. Too slow, and the plane might fall into a potentially fatal stall.

On landings (and takeoffs) the U-2 is followed by high-performance chase cars containing pilots who call out key information such as angle and altitude. It has only a bicycle landing gear, to save weight, so as it comes to a halt one wing will dip and scrape along the tarmac. Protective wing tips guard against damage.

It became famous in 1960, when Gary Francis Powers was shot down in a U-2 while overflying Soviet missile sites. In 1962, photos taken from the U-2 revealed Soviet missiles in Cuba, sparking the Cuban missile crisis. In the early 1960s, U-2s operating from India overflew China. In 1964 a U-2 was launched from an aircraft carrier in Operation Fish Hawk to provide clandestine reconnaissance of the French nuclear test site in the Pacific.

Since then, it has overflown pretty much every area of armed conflict in which the US has been engaged. The airframe’s adaptability is long proven – even today its payload is about 67 percent larger than that of the Global Hawk.

Air Force leaders may like it today, but that wasn’t always so. The legendary Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of Strategic Air Command, opposed it due its lack of weaponry or standard landing gear. Its “U” designation stands for “Utility” – a deception at the time, but apt now as it appears headed for retirement.

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