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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. 

In her first public statement since stepping down as secretary of State Hillary Clinton has issued an official declaration of support for gay marriage. (Human Rights Campaign/AP)

Hillary Clinton backs gay marriage. A sign she's serious about 2016? (+video)

By Correspondent / 03.18.13

She may not be a declared candidate for president (yet). But Hillary Clinton is making it clear that she intends to continue to be part of the national political conversation. 

In her first public statement since stepping down as secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton has issued an official declaration of support for gay marriage.

In a video released by the Human Rights Campaign, she says: "LGBT Americans are our colleagues, our teachers, our soldiers, our friends, our loved ones, and they are full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes marriage. That's why I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. I support it personally and as a matter of policy and law."

This is not an unexpected position for Clinton to take, nor is it likely to be controversial. If anything, she's just a bit late to the party. President Obama, of course, has already endorsed gay marriage, as has Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – along with pretty much every Democrat currently eyeing a 2016 run.

Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, made clear that he supported gay marriage back in 2009. Mr. Clinton also recently published an op-ed declaring that he now believes the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – which he signed into law back in 1996, and which is now being challenged before the Supreme Court – is unconstitutional. 

When Mrs. Clinton ran for president in 2008, her official position (like Mr. Obama's) was to favor civil unions, not gay marriage, saying she thought the matter should be left to the states. In response to a Human Rights Campaign questionnaire in 2007, she said she favored repealing the plank of DOMA that would deny federal benefits to couples in states that recognize gay marriage.

Since then, however, public opinion has continued to shift rapidly. With recent polls showing a majority of Americans overall now support gay marriage outright – including nearly three-quarters of Democrats – it's probably safe to say that all Democratic candidates for president will have to support gay marriage going forward, if they want to win their party's nomination.

Still, it's noteworthy that Clinton chose this moment to make her support for marriage equality official. It's been just over a month since she left the State Department, and while she is officially "taking time off," she also seems to be making it clear that she does not intend to lay low for long. Polls show she'd be a formidable – perhaps unbeatable – candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016, and her uber-heavyweight status has essentially frozen the race for other Democratic hopefuls, who are waiting to see what Clinton decides before making their own plans.

Former Obama adviser David Plouffe echoed that view in a talk over the weekend, saying of Clinton: "She is, in both parties right now by far, I think, the most interesting candidate, probably the strongest candidate."  

One reason Clinton is seen as so strong, aside from her personal popularity, is her fundraising prowess. But it's worth noting on that front that making her support for gay marriage official was almost certainly going to be a necessary step for many of her wealthy Hollywood donors. Now she's checked that box. 

The issue of gay marriage is far more contentious for Republicans. The party's base is still strongly opposed to gay marriage, but many party strategists recognize that the issue is hurting the GOP among young voters, who tend to support it, and who will, by definition, play a larger and larger role in future elections.

The Republican National Committee's much anticipated "autopsy," released Monday, stated flatly: "For the GOP to appeal to younger voters, we do not have to agree on every issue, but we do need to make sure young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view. Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be. If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."  

Recently, more and more Republicans have been expressing support for gay marriage. Last month, dozens of top GOP officials signed on to an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in favor of overturning California's Proposition 8, a ballot initiative barring gay marriage. Just last week, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman – who had been on Mitt Romney's short list for the vice presidential nomination – announced he now supports gay marriage, explaining that his son is gay and that he wants him to be able to experience the "joy and stability of marriage."

Ironically, the "leave it up to the states" position that was once held by Democrats like Clinton is now being increasingly adopted by Republicans. As Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – seen as a frontrunner for his party's 2016 nomination – said over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): "Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot."

Republican strategist Karl Rove gestures while at a luncheon at the California Republican Party convention, in Sacramento, Calif., earlier this month. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Rove mocks Palin. Who'll win this feud? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.18.13

Karl Rove on Sunday hit back at Sarah Palin for suggesting he’s a clueless apparatchik who should stop trying to vet GOP candidates and instead run for office himself.

Mr. Rove on “Fox News Sunday” sarcastically thanked Ms. Palin for her encouragement that he should throw his hat in the ring in his native Texas but added, “I don’t think I’m a good candidate: [I’m] kind of a balding, fat guy. And second, if I did run for office and win, I would serve out my term, and I wouldn’t leave office midterm.”

We see what you’re doing there, Karl. You’re calling ex-Governor Palin a quitter. She resigned her office midway through her first term, in 2009, in case you’ve forgotten. She’d had a taste of the political big time via the losing 2008 McCain-Palin campaign and decided it was time to leave Alaska to get ready for her next political adventure – which, as Rove noted, does not appear to involve running for office herself.

So it’s on! Why does this feud seem particularly prone to framing as a high school spat, as if it’s the head cheerleader versus the student-body president?

Anyway, here’s the background: Rove, President George W. Bush’s political adviser, has long been a ferocious competitor who puts winning as perhaps the highest political virtue. Because of that, he has often complained out loud about Republican candidates who win primaries but he feels are unsuited for general elections.

Remember Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware tea party activist who was a surprise winner of the state’s 2010 Senate primary and then got clocked in November? Remember her “I am not a witch” ad? Rove was her vocal foe from the beginning.

“This is not a race we are going to be able to win,” Rove said on Fox while she was still celebrating her primary win.

Rove similarly complained about Todd Akin, the losing Missouri Senate candidate whose “legitimate rape” comments turned off many swing voters.

More recently, Rove has suggested that his American Crossroads group will bankroll opponents to such tea party-backed politicians as a means to get more Republicans actually elected. It’s his view that right now, the GOP might well control the Senate as well as the House if the party had been more ruthless in candidate selection.

That’s the real split here, of course. It isn’t cheerleaders versus the math club. It’s Palin and her tea party ideology versus a more traditional Washington GOP establishment.

In her highly entertaining Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) speech over the weekend, Palin took on Rove over this issue without mentioning him by name.

“If these experts who keep losing elections and keep getting rehired and getting millions, if they feel that strongly about who gets to run in this party, then they should buck up or stay in the truck. Buck up or run,” Palin said. “[They] can head on back to the great Lone Star State and put their name on some ballot – though for their sakes, I hope they give themselves a discount on their consulting services.”

The CPAC crowd, which leans toward libertarian tea party types, ate that up. (They also loved it when she drank from a Big Gulp and made fun of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but that’s another story.)

So there you have it. This split is about more than two people. In a way, it represents the struggle now going on for the heart of the Republican Party. Does the GOP have to tack with the winds, adjust its position on such issues as immigration to meet voter preferences, and become more like the Democrats to win? Or should it double down on conservative positions to better motivate America’s true believers?

All we can say is we’d love to see Palin and Rove argue this over face to face. Perhaps they could do a home-and-home reality series. In the first episode, they’d go deer hunting. First to bag a buck wins. In the second, they’d be tested on the nation’s congressional districts and the percentage of the GOP vote in each, while sitting in a D.C. office without windows or fresh air.

In the third and last episode, they’d just sit there, and viewers would phone in pledges to their favorites. The one with the biggest political-action committee at the end wins and is congratulated by the host, Stephen Colbert.

First lady Michelle Obama speaks to the quarterly meeting of member Chief Executive Officers of the Business Roundtable in Washington, Wednesday. Mrs. Obama is the focus of a new Vogue piece about the first couple. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Michelle Obama on Vogue cover. Running for something? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.14.13

Michelle Obama is on the cover of the new issue of Vogue looking very much like an icon of American fashion. She’s sporting her new bangs and a cerulean sheath next to a vase of cherry blossoms that are just beginning to open. Vogue writer Jonathan Van Meter interviewed both her and President Obama, but it’s Mrs. Obama who’s the focus here. She dominates the word count of the article inside, and the cover readout is, “How the first lady and the president are inspiring America.”

Is she running for something? Hillary-Michelle (or Michelle-Hillary?) 2016!

OK, it hasn’t escaped our attention that “Hillary-Michelle” has been a hot search term this week. There’s no real reason why that’s so, in the sense that there isn’t a speck of news on this front. The whole notion of Hillary Rodham Clinton teaming up with Mrs. Obama in a journalists’ dream team seems driven by speculation, idle and otherwise.

But what struck us about the Vogue piece was the degree to which it promoted the first lady and examined the nature of first couplehood.

Yes, it’s a fashion magazine: None of its readers want to see those old photos of the president in dad jeans or read about why the United States is hesitant to help Syrian rebels. Instead, the article inside frames the Obamas not as the first African-American first family, but as a symbol of today’s highly involved parenting style – a husband and wife who focus after-work energy on their kids and think about how they complement each other’s personalities.

They’re helicopters parents with a Marine helicopter, in Mr. Van Meter’s telling.

“They are ... exemplars of a new paradigm – the super-involved parenting team for whom being equally engaged in the minutiae of their children’s lives is paramount,” he writes.

The thing we find interesting about this is the generational question it raises.

In the piece, the Obamas talk about the old Washington they’re not part of, the Georgetown dinner-party/Kennedy Center box/Middleburg weekend crowd. Actually, they talk about not being part of it because it no longer exists.

Congressional families don’t live in Washington anymore: Lawmakers face tremendous pressure to scurry back to districts and home states on weekends. Also, the president and top leaders of the other party don’t socialize because the city’s too partisan.

And then there's the broader reason: They also don’t socialize because parents in modern families don’t have time for that.

“The culture in Washington has changed in ways that probably haven’t been great for the way this place runs,” Mr. Obama says at one point.

As anyone who’s watched today’s sitcoms knows, the center of the modern family is the mom. The dad may be president, but he’s probably still a bumbler at heart. Thus the first lady notes that the small apartment her husband rented when he was a US senator once caught on fire.

And she draws a laugh from the press handlers assembled to watch the interview when she notes that the leader of what used to be called the free world is the sort of guy “who still boasts about, ‘This khaki pair of pants I’ve had since I was 20.’ ”

That’s what we mean when we say the piece almost seems to be pushing Mrs. Obama for something. What it does is place her at the emotional heart of the Obama presidency – in a way that even Jacqueline Kennedy, despite the huge amount of coverage she got, never was.

President Barack Obama, escorted by House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving (r.) arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, for closed-door talks with House Speaker John Boehner and the House Republican Conference to discuss the budget. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Obama argues a balanced budget isn't necessary. Can he convince the public?

By Correspondent / 03.13.13

Are Republicans wrong to make balancing the federal budget a priority? That's essentially what President Obama said Tuesday in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

"My goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance," Mr. Obama said. "My goal is, how do we grow the economy, put people back to work." 

He added: "We're not going to balance the budget in 10 years, because if you look at what Paul Ryan does to balance the budget, it means that you have to voucherize Medicare, you have to slash deeply into programs like Medicaid, you've essentially got to either tax middle-class families a lot higher than you currently are, or you can't lower rates the way he's promised."

Obama's comments mirror what left-leaning economists like Paul Krugman have been arguing for a while: that while Washington will need to tackle its debt problem at some point down the line, doing so right now is not only unnecessary but could actually damage the economy. With the private sector still weak, the argument goes, reducing government spending could cause a contraction that could potentially send the economy back into recession.

Nevertheless, Democratic politicians have until recently been somewhat wary of dismissing a balanced budget out of hand – because polls show the public strongly approves of the idea, at least in the abstract (when presented with actual choices for cuts to reach a balanced budget, not surprisingly, the picture changes).

But now, Democrats are being forced to try to argue the other side of the argument – since the budget proposal from Representative Ryan (R) of Wisconsin achieves balance in 10 years, while the Democratic version put out Wednesday by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington does not. Obama is expected to release a proposal of his own next month, and given the president's comments, it seems unlikely that he will be offering a path to a balanced budget, either.

Republicans clearly think the politics favor their position. In a news conference Tuesday, Ryan essentially dared Obama to balance the budget, saying: "This is an invitation. Show us how to balance the budget. If you don't like the way we are proposing to balance our budget, how do you propose to balance the budget?" Or as Republican strategist John Feehery put it this week in The Hill: "House Republicans have seen the polling data and they know that balancing the budget in 10 years is by far their best political message."

Indeed, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from December found that 58 percent of Americans agreed that the deficit "needs to be solved now," compared with 37 percent who said it is something the United States needs "to continue to address" and just 4 percent who said it could be "addressed in the future." Likewise, polls in recent years asking about the prospect of a balanced-budget amendment have found support among roughly three-quarters of Americans.

One interesting question is what, exactly, is driving this fervor for balancing the budget, given that there's little evidence the deficit is currently affecting average Americans' lives in any sort of measurable way. Typically, the biggest economic downside to running high deficits is the impact on interest rates. But interest rates in the US are historically low, and while they may rise in the future, data suggest that's not necessarily going to be the case. 

Instead, it seems that the public's horror of deficits is mostly a product of political rhetoric – rhetoric that Americans have been listening to for decades, from both Republicans and Democrats. During the Reagan years, it was Democrats who railed against spiraling deficits. During the 1990s, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich made it a rallying cry for Republicans, pushing President Clinton to make balanced budgets one of his signature achievements. During President George W. Bush's tenure, Democrats – as well as some conservatives – renewed their focus on the debt and deficits.

In short, politicians on both sides of the aisle have spent years convincing voters that balancing the budget is both the moral and fiscally wise thing to do. There have been repeated warnings about borrowing on the backs of our grandchildren and calls to "live within our means," as well as misleading comparisons between the federal budget and household budgets – despite the fact that government borrowing can actually be an essential tool for a healthy economy. 

As The New York Times's Annie Lowrey wrote Tuesday: "As sensible as a balanced budget might sound – much like a balanced checkbook for a family – countries are generally able to run modest deficits for years on end while still keeping debt stable as a share of economic output. One year’s deficit is effectively paid off by later economic growth, especially if a government is investing in public goods like roads and schools."

Obama may have plenty of economic data points to back up his argument that a balanced budget, for its own sake, isn't necessarily desirable right now. But whether he can convince the public of this – after years of politicians arguing the reverse – remains to be seen.

Sixth-grade students at St. Paul's Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa, pose for a photo on March 6. The class had their upcoming visit canceled as the White House suspended all tours under across-the-board sequester spending cuts. The disappointed class posted a video on Facebook asking for the tour to be reinstated. (Karen Thalacker/St. Paul's Lutheran School/AP)

White House may reopen for school tours. Is Obama feeling sequester heat? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.13.13

President Obama may be backtracking on ending White House tours because of “sequester” budget cuts. He’s talking about restarting some executive mansion visits for some deserving groups, in any case.

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News aired on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said that the decision to cancel the popular tours was made by the Secret Service.

“This was not a decision that went up to the White House,” he said.

Now he’s gone back to Secret Service officials and asked whether they might rethink their decision. Obama said that, in particular, he’d like to make sure tour groups that perhaps raised money to visit D.C. via such things as bake sales don’t end up standing outside the White House gates in a disappointed scrum.

“Can we make sure that kids potentially can ... still come to tour?” Obama asked rhetorically.

Hmm. Is the administration feeling the heat from criticism that it’s overblown the impact of sequester cuts? After all, lots of critics hit the White House tour closures as a bit over the top.

Well, we’ve got a few points to make that we think might help explain this matter. To start with, we’ll answer Obama’s question: Yes, you can make sure deserving school groups still get in. You’re the president. It’s your house.

It’s true that the sequester is a blunt instrument and the Secret Service probably does have to cut agent activities somewhere. But we’re pretty sure they’ll move their numbers around if the Big Boss asks.

Second, Obama should not have been surprised by the tour closures. It’s possible that he didn’t know about them in advance, as he implied to Mr. Stephanopoulos – missed connections, sloth, and ineptitude explain many generic Washington snafus. But the president should have been informed about something some so symbolic. If he wasn’t, we’ll bet that yelling was involved when he found out.

And finally, Obama would not be talking about this as he is unless he and his officials knew it was a mistake. In the face of the sequester, his approval ratings are sliding. For instance, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll has his approval rating at only 50 percent, down from 55 percent in mid-January.

In the same survey, only 44 percent of respondents said they approve of the way the president is handling the economy. Obama spent a lot of time prior to the sequester warning the public about fiscal pain to come; most voters have yet to feel it, and that seems to be taking a toll on the president’s numbers.

One thing is certain: Donald Trump won’t be sponsoring any tour revival. On Monday, he offered to pay to reopen the White House to visitors, but on Tuesday, administration adviser Dan Pfeiffer said, no thanks.

“The Donald Trump option is not an option; what we have to do is deal with the sequester,” Mr. Pfeiffer said Tuesday on CNN.

President Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, last week. Obama's approval rating is slipping downwards, polls show. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Why President Obama's approval ratings are falling (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.12.13

Is President Obama’s approval rating slipping downwards amid the back and forth of "sequester" politics? That’s the conclusion of a just-released McClatchy-Marist poll. The survey finds that just 45 percent of voters are happy with Mr. Obama’s job performance, down from 50 percent in November and December. A plurality of 48 percent of respondents disapproves of the president’s actions, according to the McClatchy-Marist numbers.

Not all new polls are in agreement here. Tuesday’s Rasmussen tracking survey shows Obama’s approval rating above water at 52 percent, up one percentage point from last week.

But the medium-term trend for the president’s numbers is generally downward. The RealClearPolitics rolling average of Obama’s approval polls peaked at 53.8 percent on Christmas Day. Since then it’s steadily fallen to 48.8 percent, with 45.3 percent of respondents disapproving of the presidential performance.

What’s going on here? One thing pushing this sliding trend may be the quick end of the electoral honeymoon. The president’s reelection image machine has stopped churning, and the partisan glow his voters felt at his second-term victory is starting to fade.

Paradoxically, Obama may also be paying a price for attempting to appear as strong as possible in the recent series of D.C. fiscal crises.

“This may be the downside of him coming out of the box stronger in the second term,” Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, told his McClatchy partners. “People are now looking for him to lead us out of this stalemate, provide more leadership. People see him as a strong figure and in the driver’s seat. During the election, it was him versus Romney. Now it’s him versus people’s expectations for the country.”

Then there’s the sequester itself. Gallup notes that its daily tracking poll showed the president’s approval rating dropping when the cuts took effect March 1. Since then, Obama’s Gallup numbers have bounced around day to day, but at the moment the firm has his approval rating at 49 percent, down from 53 percent in late February.

Obama’s “approval rating will likely remain in a precarious state until he and Congress can reach accord on federal spending and the budget deficit,” wrote Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones earlier this month.

Congress does not seem to be in a similar position. So far the sequester has had little effect on what Americans think about their legislature.

But in part that’s because it would be hard for opinion about Congress to sink any lower. In a March 11 Gallup survey, only 13 percent of respondents approved of Congress’s job performance. That’s just a few points higher than the all-time low of 10 percent hit last year.

“These low ratings could improve if Congress does something the public respects, but leave little room for a further drop if Americans continue to perceive Congress’ activities negatively,” writes Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, walks to a waiting vehicle as he leaves the Capitol after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Thursday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Rand Paul filibuster fallout: Are Democrats his real allies?

By Staff writer / 03.11.13

Who are Rand Paul’s real allies? That’s a question D.C. political types have been chewing over since the GOP senator from Kentucky's filibuster about his objections to the Obama administration’s drone policies last week.

In particular, Senator Paul wanted clarification about whether the White House thinks it has the power to target with a drone a US citizen within the territorial US who is not engaged in combat. (“No”, said Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter responding to Paul’s public query.) That’s a question about civil liberties that hits the sweet spot where the progressive left wing and the libertarian right meet.

The US ideological spectrum isn’t always a line. Sometimes it’s a circle. Thus Paul was hailed by one of the Tea Party’s favorite new lawmakers, conservative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow alike.

Yet only one Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, stood to help Paul during his hours of talking. All his other helpmeets were GOP, including many who support an expansive definition of executive authority when it comes to national security. What explains that?

In a word, partisanship, according to Georgetown University assistant professor of political science Hans Noel.

The proximate issue on the floor was the Obama administration’s nomination of counterterror adviser John Brennan to be director of the CIA.

“Liberals, especially those elected to office, have little to gain from blocking the president’s choice. Conservatives, even those who might have tolerated a drone program run by a conservative, have much to gain,” wrote Mr. Noel on the Mischiefs of Faction political science blog.

That does not mean that “partisanship” and “ideology” are synonyms, however. The antiwar left has been quiet since President Obama was elected but it still exists. The most common GOP criticism of Mr. Obama’s antiterror policies is that he is too soft, not too aggressive.

“It is convenient to think about ideology as a single liberal-to-conservative dimension.... But we would do better to understand the true variety within ideology more than we do. The drone program is just the sort of case that illuminates that variety,” writes Noel.

That said, is it possible that Paul could change the GOP’s mind on this issue? In other words, might the partisanship he sparked alter the very nature of Republican ideology?

Well, maybe. Over at The New York Times opinion page the conservative-leaning Ross Douthat has been arguing that the Paul filibuster presents an opportunity to widen the Republican conversation on national security.

That may be what Paul was really after last week. 

“Anyone who listened (and listened, and listened) to his remarks, and put them in the context of his recent speeches and votes and bridge-building, recognized that he was after something bigger: a reorientation of conservative foreign policy thinking away from hair-trigger hawkishness and absolute deference to executive power,” Douthat writes.

It’s possible that Paul has at least broadened the spectrum of permissible GOP national-security opinions. As the conservative Jennifer Rubin writes at her conservative Right Turn Washington Post blog, traditional GOP hawks such as Sen. John McCain have tried to dismiss Paul as someone who does not defend US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and a generally interventionist American foreign policy. But that may misread the opinions of US society at large.

“Paul’s ideological opponents on the right only made him appear bigger and more attractive by their cluelessness as to the war weariness and privacy and civil libertarian concerns to which some have rallied,” writes Rubin.

Snow falls on tourists stopping in front of the White House in Washington, last week. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Should White House let Donald Trump pay for axed tours? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.11.13

Should the Obama administration allow Donald Trump to pay for the resumption of White House tours? That’s an issue today because the popular walk-throughs have been canceled due to the "sequester," and the mogul/TV star has indeed offered to keep the doors open at the nation’s executive mansion.

“It sounds reasonable to me ... why not? It’s not a lot of money,” Mr. Trump said Monday morning on his regular Monday appearance on “Fox & Friends.”

The Secret Service ordered the suspension of the tours to save on agent overtime, according to White House officials. It’s true that the money at issue isn’t that much in the context of the federal budget or a billionaire’s balance sheet: only about $72,000 a week, at most.

This has led to lots of Republicans charging that the White House is playing a variation of the old Washington Monument game by denying school kids their preplanned White House visits. Previously an administration, facing budget cuts, announces with great fanfare that the Washington Monument will be closed until further notice. The White House can’t do that this time because the monument is already shut because of earthquake damage. So they’ve moved on to another popular D.C. symbol, the White House, for the same political effect, in the GOP view.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas offered an amendment on the floor the other day to ban President Obama’s golf games in the name of restarting the tours. Rush Limbaugh complained that the White House closed the tours, then spent lots of Secret Service money for a caravan that drove the president half a mile to an outreach dinner with GOP lawmakers.

“They wanted people sad and let down, and they wanted people blaming the Republicans for it. And it’s backfiring, not working,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show.

The “we’ll pay for it” meme started late last week. First Fox host Eric Bolling said he’d pay for a week of tours. Then fellow talking head Sean Hannity said he’d do the same. Newt Gingrich on Twitter suggested Trump could keep the doors open for school kids indefinitely.

Some news reports suggested over the weekend that Trump had agreed – if nemesis Bill Maher chipped in, too. But during Monday’s Fox appearance, Trump said he’d heard about Newt’s suggestion only when the Friends asked him.

“I don’t think it’s a big deal frankly, but it makes us look awfully bad and awfully pathetic,” Trump said.

White House officials have said that in general, they’re not sure they could accept “White House Tours Sponsored by Trump National Golf Club." 

“I don’t know if it’s technically possible,” deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest said late last week.

The sequester, Mr. Earnest pointed out, mandates across-the-board cuts that administrators have little flexibility in carrying out. With a political jab, he noted that many of the people calling for private tour funding also called the overall imposition of the sequester cuts a victory for Republicans.

Others note it’s possible that the offer to pay for the tours could backfire.

For one thing, if tours, why not education funds for poor kids? Lots of things are being cut, fairly or not. Democrats might start asking if the GOP’s offers reflect a socioeconomic bias.

And even if (though?) the White House has been overly dramatic about the impact of the sequester, real hardship will eventually occur at federal installations across the country. In the National Journal, national correspondent Jill Lawrence notes that local media across the country are beginning to report on the effects of the cuts on local airports, food banks, parks, and schools.

While the administration has been maladroit, “the barely suppressed GOP glee at the White House fumbles, and the cavalier acceptance of the sequester by some Republicans, is also bound to backfire,” Ms. Lawrence writes.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Austin, Texas, last month. (Eric Gay/AP/File)

Rand Paul rises, Jeb Bush jockeys: a big week for possible 2016 contenders (+video)

By Correspondent / 03.08.13

The 2016 presidential race may be a long way off – but, as NBC's First Read notes, there was a striking amount of maneuvering among potential candidates this past week. While Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky probably "won" the week with his now-famous filibuster, he wasn't the only one who may have helped himself in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.

Here's a look at some of the possible contenders jockeying for position, and how they may have scrambled the race:

Rand Paul 

The junior senator from Kentucky set the rest of the field on notice that he is a force to be reckoned with by staging an old-fashioned talking filibuster, protesting the Obama administration's drone policy. Critics called it a political "stunt," but as stunts go, this one clearly worked. On a snow day when little else was going on, the unexpected spectacle of a legislator embracing physical discomfort to make a point drew unabashed praise from partisans on both the right and the left, and it put Senator Paul squarely in the media spotlight.

He earned a piece in Thursday's Politico saying that he was now in "the top tier of Republican power players" – and Paul himself "confidently" acknowledged that he was seriously considering a White House run.

Still, we're not sure this really changes things as much as it might seem. We've been saying all along that we think Paul will be a player to watch in 2016, since he has the potential to take his father's campaign apparatus and elevate it to another level. But we still aren't willing to remove the "dark horse" label from Paul – since so many of his views are outside the Republican mainstream, and some may prove deal breakers for GOP primary voters. 

Jeb Bush 

The former Florida governor inserted himself into the 2016 conversation in a big way in a series of interviews promoting a new book on immigration, in which for the first time he openly expressed interest in a possible presidential run. While not yet declaring himself a candidate, Mr. Bush's comments were direct enough to set donors and operatives on notice that they might want to wait before aligning themselves with anyone else (like, say, the junior senator from Florida).

But Bush also got into a bit of trouble on the issue of immigration, by appearing to change his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He'd previously expressed support for creating such a path – which is a key plank in the bipartisan legislation being hashed out on the Hill – but in his new book, he explicitly opposes it.

It remains unclear whether his positioning on immigration will simply wind up offending both sides or whether, despite charges of inconsistency, it will give him cover on an issue that remains tricky for Republicans (particularly if the legislation currently being crafted fails to pass).

Hillary Rodham Clinton 

While the most overt maneuvering may be happening on the Republican side, Mrs. Clinton has the ability to make news even when she does nothing. This week, we got a reminder of how formidable a candidate she would be. A new Quinnipiac poll found that Clinton would handily defeat New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R) in head-to-head matchups (the latter two by double digits).

Maybe even more interesting, she'd beat Senator Rubio by an eye-popping 36 percentage points among Hispanics – a demographic that Republicans know they need to do better with, which is a big reason Rubio, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, has been considered a top-tier candidate.  

As for the rest ... 

Rubio didn't exactly have a bad week (at least, not compared to his "water break" during his State of the Union response). Yet as the closest thing the GOP has to a "front-runner," he took some hits from his potential rivals. The biggest headache for Rubio was undoubtedly the presidential talk coming from his fellow Floridian, Bush – who could steal donors and supporters and, according to some, potentially even force Rubio to put his own ambitions on hold for another cycle or two (though we're not so sure about that).

Also not great for Rubio was the above-mentioned poll showing that he would lose Hispanics (as well as the vote overall) to Clinton. And while Rubio was quick to jump on the Paul bandwagon, joining his filibuster with a short speech quoting rappers Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z – well, let's just say at this point, we think he's in danger of overdoing the pop-culture references. 

Representative Ryan had lunch with President Obama at the White House, reminding everyone of the crucial role he will play in any deficit-reduction deal that emerges between the White House and congressional Republicans. His profile will rise further later this month when he is set to release a new GOP budget proposal.

Governor Christie had a bigger week last week, with the very public "diss" he received from CPAC (which we'd argue was a net plus for him). Still, in that poll with Clinton, it's worth noting that he performed the best of all the Republicans tested. And he continued to bolster his outsider, blunt-talking credentials this week by scolding Washington over the sequester: "Seems to me it should be pretty easy to fix," he said. "Get everybody in a room and ... don't let them leave until you fix it."

Finally, Vice President Joe Biden didn't get as much attention as some of the other possible contenders, but then again, he was pretty much everywhere this week. Speaking about the administration's commitment to Israel before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Walking across the bridge in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the famous 1965 civil rights march. Quietly stopping by a dinner for hunters in his home state of Delaware. (On the other hand, this week also brought a Roger Ailes interview in which the Fox News chief called Mr. Biden "dumb as an ashtray.")

We agree with most pundits that it's hard to envision Biden and Clinton running against each other. But if she opts out, he appears to be getting ready.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky walks to a waiting vehicle as he leaves the Capitol after his filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director early Thursday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Did Rand Paul fear-monger in filibuster? (+video)

By Staff writer / 03.08.13

Did Rand Paul in his filibuster this week mischaracterize administration policy on drone strikes, willfully or otherwise? That’s a question raising lots of expert discussion in Washington and the national-security blogosphere at the moment.

The talkathon by the GOP's junior senator from Kentucky won him lots of attention and kudos from libertarians and leftists alike. As we noted Thursday, it could well have boosted his 2016 presidential hopes and made him a rising national political star.

But some experts complain Senator Paul was sounding a clarion warning about a danger that doesn’t exist.

Long story short, Paul’s main point was that he wanted clarification about the administration’s policy regarding use of armed drones against US citizens within the United States. He said that Attorney General Eric Holder had, in essence, said that the administration had no plans to do that but could foresee extraordinary circumstances where it might be necessary.

“I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court,” Paul said at the filibuster’s start. “That Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Ky., is an abomination.”

The cafe reference was what drove some critics wild. The Washington Post editorialized that this was a “paranoid fantasy." Mr. Holder and others had made clear that the exceptional circumstances they were discussing involved a 9/11-like scenario. Given a warlike situation on domestic soil, the US could respond with all the weapons it could muster, in the White House view.

“From that answer, Mr. Paul and allies such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) somehow concocted the absurd notion that Americans 'sitting quietly in cafes' could be blasted by Hellfire missiles. No, they couldn’t be, as Mr. Holder made clear in a letter to Mr. Paul on Thursday,” the Post editorialized.

Worse, by distorting the dangers inherent in drone warfare, Paul missed an opportunity to confront other actual dangers about the nation’s expanding use of unmanned aircraft to target terror suspects, according to other critics.

For instance, what about the administration’s demonstrated willingness to target American citizens overseas with drones? That’s the general issue raised by the targeted killing of radical cleric and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, as well as the death of his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, in another drone attack two weeks later. (The US has indicated the teenager was an inadvertent target caught next to more-important Al Qaeda-linked figures.)

The administration apparently has a broad definition of the dangers that terror suspects must pose to be targeted in drone warfare. How is the target list developed? How imminent must suspected terror actions be to warrant a drone response?

“Debate ought to focus on what’s actually at stake, not some implausible parade of horribles involving non-threatening people at coffeehouses or Vietnam-era peace activists. In opting for the later approach, Senators Cruz and Paul needlessly cheapen a worthy and exceedingly important debate,” write legal experts Wells Bennett and Alan Rozenshtein at the Lawfare national-security blog.

Paul’s defenders note that this debate is already occurring – and that what the Kentucky libertarian has done is kick it up a notch, bringing it far more national attention than it has been getting.

Prior to Holder’s Thursday letter, administration policy in this area had been vague, writes The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. By refusing to settle for imprecise statements, Paul has in fact accomplished something, in Mr. Friedersdorf’s view.

“His success means that it will be harder for any future president to argue that he or she can kill Americans not engaged in combat,” Friedersdorf writes.

This argument is not about the possible behavior of the Obama administration per se, but about limiting all future presidents, according to Paul’s defenders. It may be a “paranoid fantasy” to think that a chief executive might attack an American sitting at a cafe. But at one time, it might also have been a paranoid fantasy to think a president would use the FBI as a tool against personal enemies or to cover up Watergate break-ins done in his name, as did Richard Nixon.

Similarly, Friedersdorf points to the Bush administration’s defense of enhanced interrogation techniques that many label “torture."

“Now I’ll take every specific executive-branch statement of what the law doesn’t permit that I can get,” he concludes.

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