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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. 

Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Why Chuck Hagel is likely to squeak through as Defense secretary (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.01.13

Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is getting some very bad reviews for his performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. Mr. Hagel seemed unprepared for tough questions from Sen. John McCain and other Republicans and at times did not seem to grasp existing Obama administration policy.

“The result was a nominee who searched for words like he was trapped in a closet, grasping for a dropped flashlight,” wrote Slate’s Dave Weigel in a fairly typical summation after the hearing was (mercifully) over.

Senator McCain, a former friend and fellow GOP maverick, hammered Hagel over the latter’s nonsupport of the Bush administration’s military "surge" during the Iraq war. Hagel twisted and turned to avoid answering “yes or no” as to whether this disavowal had been proved wrong by history.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina went after Hagel for his perceived squishiness on US support for Israel. Hagel seemed flustered by Senator Graham’s demand that he name one lawmaker who’d been intimidated by the “Israeli lobby.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas did something with video clips of a Hagel appearance on Al Jazeera, while other Republicans went after him for signing on to a think-tank report that held out zero nuclear weapons as a laudable goal.

Overall, Hagel looked taken aback. There’s been “more attention paid to words in the last eight weeks than I ever thought possible,” he said.

Does this matter? The conventional wisdom is that it does not. Democrats control 55 votes in the Senate, and they’re a majority on the Senate Armed Services Committee, so Hagel's ride to the E-Ring seems open from here. As long as the party stays united, President Obama will get his pick for the Pentagon, right?

Plus, the issues Hagel fumbled – Iraq, Israeli relations, nuclear weapons – are for the most part not high on voter interest lists.

“Democrats appear to be still on board with Hagel,” writes Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post on The Fix political blog.

We’re not sure it will be that easy, though. After all, it’s possible GOP senators will make it clear that they may filibuster the nomination. That would be unusual – the Senate normally gives presidents the benefit of the doubt for executive branch nominees – but not unprecedented. If that’s the case, Hagel will actually need 60 votes. Five Republicans will have to jump on board.

Here’s why those five votes might be tough to tote up: The GOP may feel that Hagel is a teetering nominee and decide to make a stand. After all, the very thing Hagel appeared bad at – answering questions in front of cameras – is a basic skill necessary to be a national politician. That’s why his statement that he was surprised his words were parsed so closely is hard to fathom. That’s what Washington does! Yet Hagel was taken aback. It’s as if he’d taken a trip to Rome and after coming back complained that all the food there was Italian.

Plus, the secretary of Defense has to manage tough customers. The military services are headed by generals and admirals who have spent years learning their business and are backed by vast bureaucracies. Trust us – they’re already trying to figure out how then can get this Hagel guy to go on a long morale-boosting tour of bases that are very far away.

So conservatives are beside themselves.

Hagel’s “problem is a demonstrated, incredibly remarkable lack of competence,” said conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox News.

It’s more likely than not that Hagel still gets confirmed. But he needs to buckle up – the road before he gets there may be bumpy after all.

President Obama is pictured as he meets with police chiefs from three US communities scarred by mass shootings last year to talk about the administration's push to reduce gun violence, at the White House in Washington, Monday. Obama's statement in a recent interview that 'we do skeet shooting all the time' at Camp David, raised eyebrows amid gun control debate. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Amid gun control debate, does 'skeet-gate' matter?

By Correspondent / 01.31.13

As Washington engages in a fierce debate over gun control, does it matter whether President Obama has personally ever shot a gun? Would it change things to learn that he'd fired a weapon a total of five times in his life? Or 50? Or 500? 

We ask this, of course, because of the ongoing minicontroversy over Mr. Obama's statement in a recent interview with The New Republic that "we do skeet shooting all the time" at Camp David

It may have seemed at the time like a casual, offhand remark – Obama certainly didn't claim he's a hunter or a real gun enthusiast (though he made clear he has great respect for those who are). But it was immediately challenged by many who smelled, if not an outright falsehood, then a likely exaggeration.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tennessee challenged the president to a skeet-shooting contest. Reporters pressed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney for details of the president's adventures in skeet shooting – or better yet, a photograph of Obama engaged in said activity – to no avail. The New Republic briefly posted what it believed was an official photo of Obama wielding a gun at Camp David, but that turned out to be an Internet hoax.

The Washington Post's Fact Checker even weighed in, saying "we searched high and low through hundreds of news reports to see if there was ever any other mention of Obama engaged in skeet shooting," but reported being unable to find a single one. It gave the matter a "verdict pending" ruling. 

Eventually, Fox News tracked down one Camp David visitor who said they had, in fact, witnessed the president skeet shooting "a couple times" at most, during a traditional competition with Marine guards. The source added: "He stayed for about five minutes and couldn't leave fast enough."

So why has this subject received so much attention, and does it really matter? On one level, it's a tempest in a teapot. As the Post notes, skeet shooting is a common activity at Camp David. And nothing in Obama's statement has been proved false. Obama didn't claim to be a huge fan of skeet shooting, or even particularly good at it. In his response, he was careful to use "we" rather than "I," adding, "not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there." The phrase "all the time" could, technically speaking, have referred mostly to his guests rather than him personally.

On the other hand, as we've seen repeatedly, nothing causes politicians more trouble than when they are caught pandering to segments of the population by trying to appear to be something they're not. Remember when Mitt Romney talked about his love of shooting "varmints" during the 2012 campaign? Or when John Kerry went duck hunting in a borrowed camouflage jacket, with a borrowed shotgun, back in 2004? Both incidents probably wound up doing the candidates more harm than good.

During his political career, Obama has mostly avoided those embarrassingly fake "regular guy" comments and photo-ops – though he did have a memorably bad bowling incident during the 2008 campaign. But the gun debate has, like it or not, a cultural component that complicates the battle for the president. Maybe Obama's own lack of experience with guns shouldn't be relevant, but separating the personal from the political isn't always possible.  

That brings us back to our original thought exercise: Imagine if Obama had told The New Republic that he'd never fired a gun. It's hard to see how that wouldn't have become fodder for the National Rifle Association, and possibly done real damage to the president's efforts to push for gun-control legislation.

There's a reason the "Nixon goes to China" formulation is so often a necessary component of tough Washington battles. A leader who goes against his own side on a controversial issue has instant credibility that no one on the other side could ever match. Many gun owners don't trust Obama on the gun issue –even if, in theory, they might themselves be in favor of tighter regulations – simply because he's not "one of them."

But as we saw this week, letting them know he's gone skeet shooting a few times is not going to minimize that divide. Given the reaction Obama's comment has inspired, it might have even exacerbated it. 

Federico Paseiro (c.), his mother Patricia Sosa (r.), both illegal immigrants of Argentina, and his girlfriend Daysis Moraga, an immigration activist, hold signs in front of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, Monday. As lawmakers move forward in crafting an immigration reform bill, one widespread assumption has been that demographic political pressures are giving this effort a greater chance of passage than any in recent years. (Alan Diaz/AP)

Immigration reform: Will it win Republicans any new Hispanic votes?

By Correspondent / 01.30.13

As lawmakers move forward in crafting an immigration reform bill, one widespread assumption has been that demographic political pressures – specifically, the Republican Party's need to win over more Latino voters, or risk becoming a permanent minority – are giving this effort a greater chance of passage than any in recent years.

Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) minced no words on Monday when unveiling the broad outlines agreed to by a bipartisan group of eight senators: "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens," he said. "And we realize this is an issue in which we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens."

But increasingly, many others are arguing that fixing the GOP's so-called "Hispanic problem" won't be nearly that simple – and that Republicans shouldn't go along with immigration reform purely in an effort to win more votes, since that alone is unlikely to convert many Latinos to the Republican Party. Tellingly, one GOP Senate aide spelled out this political calculus for The National Review: "Don’t walk the plank on immigration because Romney only got 29 percent of the Hispanic vote, and sell out on deeply held conservatives principles to bump that up to 33 percent."

According to this line of analysis, even if a comprehensive immigration bill passes, Hispanics are likely to continue to align themselves politically with Democrats because of greater ideological compatibility on a whole range of issues – the biggest of which is a more liberal vision of government that includes support for more services.

Writing in The Washington Post this week, Jamelle Bouie argued: "Latinos are more liberal than the median voter. According to the most recent Pew poll on these questions (released last year), 75 percent of Hispanics say they support bigger government with more services, compared to 41 percent of the general population."

Nor is it just support for bigger government drawing Hispanics to the Democrats. Over at National Journal, Michael Catalini points out that pre-election polling showed Latinos preferred President Obama over Mitt Romney on everything from the economy to foreign policy to women's issues. He adds: "Even on social issues where there is perceived to be a natural fit among religious Hispanic voters and the GOP, a divide exists. A majority of Hispanic voters now back gay marriage, according to a Pew Research Center Poll, for instance." 

Increasingly, this argument – that passing a comprehensive immigration bill isn't likely to help Republicans win over Hispanic voters – is being echoed by those on the right who oppose reform.

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, in an interview Tuesday with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), said he saw little political upside for Republicans in offering a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, but a potentially huge benefit for Democrats, asking: "If 70 percent of the Hispanic vote went Republican, do you think the Democrats would be for any part of this legislation?"

So who's right? Those arguing that Republicans need to pass immigration reform because they need to win more Hispanic support, or those arguing that the bill won't really do anything to achieve that goal?

Frankly, probably both. Immigration reform alone won't create a new generation of Republican Hispanics. But for the GOP to continue to be seen as the party that's blocking reform is a political liability that Republicans can't afford any longer. And even if a bill only moves a relatively small number of votes in the short term, it still could be an essential component of a longer-term image makeover for the GOP, into a party that's more inclusive and minority-friendly.

As Senator Rubio, one of the group of eight senators working together to craft a bill, told Limbaugh: "Our argument about limited government is always harder to sell than a government program." But by getting the immigration issue out of the way, Republicans may have an easier time reaching out to Hispanics on economic matters – where Rubio believes there is a great deal of natural sympathy.

"I see it every day firsthand from people that have been here about eight to 10 years," he said. "All of a sudden, they have their own business, they have a bunch of permits that they have to comply with, a bunch of complicated laws. Their taxes just went up a couple of weeks ago even though President Obama has been saying it's only gonna go up on the rich – and the light bulb is going off that ... Big Government means less opportunity for them." 

If nothing else, passing immigration reform may create enough goodwill to give Republicans like Rubio a better chance to try to sell that vision.

From right to left, Sens. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, Charles Schumer (D) of New York, and John McCain (R) of Arizona listen to a question at a news conference on comprehensive immigration reform at the US Capitol in Washington Monday. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Immigration reform 101: How would Senate plan actually work?

By Staff writer / 01.29.13

On Monday a bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled a proposed overhaul of the US immigration system. The plan includes both increased border enforcement and an eventual path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Yet some important details of the effort remain undefined. According to what we know now, how would the immigration overhaul work?

We’ll give you a stripped-down, “Immigration 101” version of the plan so you can follow debate on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.

First, the senatorial plan calls for devoting increased resources to what it calls “the basic governmental function of securing our borders." Specifically, it calls for increasing the use of drones and other electronic surveillance equipment, improving radio interoperability, and in general raising the number of agents at and between US border crossings.

“The purpose is to substantially lower the number of successful illegal border crossings while continuing to facilitate commerce," says the proposal.

Second, the plan calls for completion of a system capable of tracking whether people who enter the United States via temporary visas have left the country before their visas expire. Most surveys find that overstays range from 31 to 57 percent of those in the country illegally, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Third, it would establish a commission of Southwestern governors, attorneys general, and community leaders “to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed."

The actual importance of this commission is unclear, as we’ll see in a moment.

Fourth, this approach to the problem would require individuals who are currently here illegally to register with the government while the security measures are being put in place. Those who pass a background check designed to weed out actual criminals, and who pay a fine and settle all back taxes, would earn a probationary legal status. 

Again, this would occur simultaneously with all the more-drones-along-the-Rio-Grande stuff. There’s been some confusion about that.

Fifth, citizenship! After the enforcement measures have been completed, those immigrants on probationary legal status could stand in the back of the line to get a green card and eventual US citizenship. They would not earn these coveted items until everyone who has played by the rules and is already legally waiting has been taken care of.

“Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America’s immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law,” states the proposal.

(Hmm. Haven’t they already received preferential treatment via the probationary legal status thing? What’s the difference between that and a green card? Isn’t legal status, probationary or not, what most illegal immigrants really want? Those are questions the plan’s proponents have yet to address.)

Now, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and some other Republicans are saying that the border commission plays a key role here, and that no current illegal immigrant will be able to emerge from probationary status until the panel says the border is secure. That’s unacceptable to many Democrats, who worry that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and others will simply refuse to issue that certification, blocking progress for the foreseeable future.

But Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona on Tuesday morning said on CBS that the group gets to make a recommendation, nothing more.

“The final decision will be made by the secretary of Homeland Security,” said Senator McCain.

It’s possible that this could be a highly contentious issue within the whole immigration debate going forward.

“This question is viewed as critical by people on both sides of the debate. Yet Senators appear to want to keep the answer to this question vague. Which tells us something about the politics of this fight – and about just how difficult the prospects for reform remain,” writes Greg Sargent on his left-leaning Washington Post Plum Line blog.

Other possible flash points include the plan’s favored treatment of agricultural workers, who get to stand in line ahead of many others. (So would undocumented children brought here by their parents, mirroring what President Obama has already ordered via executive action.)

The plan also calls for an “effective” system that allows employers to verify their employees’ immigration status. Presumably this would be either an update or a replacement of the current E-Verify government effort.

Currently, use of E-Verify is not mandatory for most employers. Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said Monday that the Senate immigration plan would “require employers to verify that all their employees are legal and make sure that there’s a means of verification that is quick and accurate."

Some opponents of the Senate effort question whether any such system will ever be fully implemented.

“E-Verify is the main enforcement bait the open-borders crowd holds out to attract naïve conservatives to back amnesty,” writes Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Finally, the Senate plan also calls for the issuance of automatic green cards to anyone who earns an advanced degree in science, engineering, math, or technology at a US university.

So there you have it. It’s a sweeping plan that for now is just general enough to attract widespread support. The real fights will occur over the details of this or any other immigration plan that gets serious consideration in Congress.

"We are only part of the way done. There are loads of pitfalls," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York at the press conference outlining the effort.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida takes a reporter's question as a bipartisan group of senators announce that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Immigration reform bill: GOP's Marco Rubio seizes opportunity, but also risk

By Correspondent / 01.29.13

(Updated at 2 p.m. EDT, after Senator Rubio spoke with talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh.)

2016 is years away. But for Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, the next few weeks could prove to be critical to shaping his presidential prospects.

As one of four Republicans in the group of eight senators behind the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform plan outlined Monday, as well as one of the party's most-buzzed-about potential White House contenders, Senator Rubio arguably has the most to gain – or lose – politically from the effort.   

If the bill gets through, it could mark an important step in changing the GOP's image to one that's more inclusive and minority-friendly, potentially helping Rubio and his party win over more Hispanics in future elections. And it could cement Rubio's reputation as a bridge-builder – someone who has the trust of the party's conservative base and can bring it along, or at least neutralize some of its concerns, on a hot-button policy measure its members have historically opposed.

On the other hand, if the bill fails – or if it passes but winds up simply granting legal status to people here illegally without following through on the promise to secure the border – Rubio may find some of those same bridges burned. He would then face the delicate task of having to repair relations with the party's base, for whom illegal immigration has often proved a key voting issue in primaries.

In 2008, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost the Iowa caucuses badly in large part because of his support for the failed 2007 comprehensive immigration plan. During the most recent presidential election cycle, Texas Gov. Rick Perry drew fire from the right over his support for in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants. By contrast, Mitt Romney took a strong no-amnesty stand, famously calling for illegal immigrants to "self-deport." That may have helped Mr. Romney win the nomination, but he went on to garner just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the general election – a big reason for his loss to President Obama.   

Rubio seems well aware of the potential pitfalls, and he has been careful to emphasize that he understands where those on the far right are coming from. He also isn't overpromising when it comes to what ultimately winds up in the bill (which has not yet been drafted), making clear that there's a chance he won't be able to support it in the end if, for example, adequate border-security triggers aren't included.

In an interview Tuesday with radio host Rush Limbaugh, Rubio said that if  Mr. Obama tries to set off a "bidding war" by putting forward a proposal with more lenient provisions, "then there won't be a solution." He added: "I'm just trying to do the best I can with what's already a tough situation. I pray it works out. I can't guarantee that it will, but we're going to do our best."

For his part, Mr. Limbaugh – who has made clear that he opposes the plan, which he calls "amnesty" – was nevertheless complimentary of Rubio, telling him: "What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy," but adding that he doesn't trust the president on the matter.

The bill's prospects will likely hinge on timing as much as anything else. Frustrated by recent electoral losses, Republicans have been openly discussing for months the need to moderate the party's hard-line stance on immigration. As Senator McCain put it bluntly Monday: "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize this is an issue in which we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens."

In addition, the rate of illegal immigration has abated in recent years – a phenomenon most analysts credit to the weak US economy – and that slowdown may be taking some of the passion out of the opposition, at least as compared with the last time the issue came up during the Bush years.

Rubio himself has evolved on the issue, since he has previously argued in favor of a "piecemeal" approach rather than one comprehensive bill. As Mickey Kaus of The Daily Caller tweeted this week: "If a pol had Rubio's convenient policy shifts + weren't a) moving 2 Dem side + b) Latino, what would MSM call him? #opportunisticflipflopper."

But if Congress passes a comprehensive reform package, will anyone really remember or care about Rubio's previous positioning? We doubt it. And it will provide a big stake to the claim that he represents the future of the Republican Party.

In this February 2012 file photo provided by Fox News, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin talks on Fox News Sunday in Washington. (Fred Watkins/Fox News/AP)

Is Sarah Palin's political career really over?

By Staff writer / 01.28.13

Is Sarah Palin’s political career really over? You’d sure think so by the tone of the mainstream media’s coverage of her and Fox News parting ways. Many headlines on this story have employed the past tense – “What Sarah Palin Meant” at the Washington Post’s political blog The Fix, for instance. Our Decoder colleague Brad Knickerbocker wrote up a career retrospective for Ms. Palin after the news broke.

“If this is sounding like a political obituary for Sarah Palin, it may well be,” he wrote.

Look, we get that Palin’s own electoral prospects are dim, to say the least. It wasn’t that long ago that one of the biggest questions in American politics was whether she’d run for president. Now the former Alaska governor has been surpassed by so many other tea party conservatives that Fox News chief Roger Ailes can’t be bothered to keep her on retainer. Her own actions damaged her political brand – remember the episodic bus tour? The stop at Paul Revere’s house, where she mangled the Revere story? The Alaska-based reality show?

But if cable news ubiquity really equaled electoral viability we might now be living through President James Carville’s second term. Plus – and this is something we think has been overlooked – Sarah Palin is sitting on more than a million dollars in political money. That alone could ensure she continues as a national player.

Yes, while you haven’t been watching SarahPAC has continued to pull in cash. That’s Palin’s leadership political action committee, a type of fundraising organization that allows politicians to collect funds for donation to other candidates or political committees, and to lay the groundwork for future candidacies of their own.

SarahPAC’s latest filing with the Federal Election Commission shows that it had $1,196,956.73 cash on hand at the end of 2012. Furthermore, its debts are zero. So that’s a stash of money free and clear that Palin can bestow on her favored candidates. A million bucks can buy you many friends in politics, particularly when you’ve already got a core of committed supporters.

Look at SarahPAC’s website to see what we mean. Right there fronted out is a big thank-you note from new Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. The Cruz campaign got the legal maximum of $10,000 from SarahPAC, and we would not be surprised if the group had promoted Senator Cruz to its own donors, bringing the underdog Texan lots more dough.

“The Governor’s vision and the support of patriots like you helped transform my long-shot candidacy into victory on election night,” writes Cruz.

He adds that he’s not the only senator to benefit from SarahPAC support, and cites as evidence Florida’s Marco Rubio, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, among others.

SarahPAC has long been an effective fundraiser. It brought in about $5 million in the 2012 cycle, which puts it near the top of leadership PACs in terms of total dollars. The question now is how Palin will use it going forward. In the past she’s spent much of its money on herself.

The invaluable Center for Responsive Politics has crunched the numbers, and it figures that Palin’s PAC donated $298,500 to other federal candidates in the run-up to last November’s election. That’s not a lot in the context of $5 million in receipts. (Palin did steer $5,000 to the Romney presidential campaign.)

It’s true that Palin donated $420,000 to other political committees. But she also used a lot of cash earlier in the cycle to pay for her bus tour, fundraising, and stuff that may fall in the category of “getting ready to run, if I decide to.”

In July 2011, for instance, Palin used more than $12,000 from her PAC to pay for a trip to Israel. Some $5,700 of that went to a tour company that specializes in custom “biblically oriented tours through the Holy Land,” according to the Open Secrets blog of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Of course, Palin’s own electoral future now seems settled, at least for the short term. So it will be interesting to see if she moves to donate a higher percentage of her political cash to other Republicans, or tries to use her donor list to support a low-level, continuing precampaign for herself.

President Obama (c.) and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speak with '60 Minutes' correspondent Steve Kroft (l.) in the Blue Room of the White House on Jan. 25. The interview aired Sunday on CBS's '60 Minutes.' (CBS/AP)

Obama and Clinton on '60 Minutes': What's the fallout? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 01.28.13

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sat for an unprecedented joint interview that aired on “60 Minutes” Sunday night. If you missed it, it was both jolly and elegiac, like a goodbye party for a valued employee. Which, in a way, is what it was.

Mr. Obama and Secretary Clinton talked about the bond they’d developed over the past four years – “very warm, close," according to the latter. They discussed how their staffs and spouses had taken some time to get over the way they’d fought in the 2008 Democratic primaries. Oh, and they dealt with foreign policy, too – a bit.

Both gave well-rehearsed answers to the inevitable question about the attack in Benghazi, Libya.

“We did fix responsibility appropriately. And we’re taking steps to implement that,” said Clinton, pointing to an internal Accountability Review Board report on the issue.

“It is a dangerous world,” added Obama.

Then, CBS interviewer Steve Kroft asked whether the United States had become too reticent on the world stage. Obama and Clinton easily parried this general question.

“You’ve got to be careful. You have to be thoughtful. You can’t rush in, especially now, where it’s more complex than it’s been in decades,” said Clinton.

Hmmm. “60 Minutes” remains a big platform, and the interview’s getting a lot of attention in Washington today. What’s the fallout from this unusual appearance?

Well, Republicans are not happy with what they think were easy questions. They’re grousing that most of the thing was about the Obama-Clinton relationship, like CBS was talking to two characters from a buddy movie.

Some in the mainstream media had a similar reaction.

“How relaxing was that interview? What a series of softballs. I remember when the scariest words in TV journalism were, ‘I’m from "60 Minutes" and I’m here to interview you,' ” said Bloomberg News columnist Margaret Carlson on Monday morning.

This got us thinking. The interview was the administration’s idea – Mr. Kroft noted that, and said he’d been allotted just 30 minutes for the talk. So what were White House press officials after with this? Given the restrictions, they must have had a specific something they were trying to accomplish.

One, Clinton gets a good send-off. (See “goodbye party," above.) She deserves as much after all those countries she’s visited. One hundred and twelve, in case you’re interested.

“Her conduct as secretary of State has been highly dignified. She does her homework,” judged Brit Hume of Fox News – though he added that he believes the case for her being great in her job is “exceedingly weak.”

Obama should be grateful. By appearing with her on CBS, he ensures that she gets a high-profile interview that is about the two of them, not Benghazi.

Two, the Obama-Clinton appearance may be an attempt to keep the Democratic Party united. Whatever Clinton decides to do as 2016 approaches, she and her ex-president husband represent a more moderate faction. This joint interview gives a picture of unity, dampens any talk that she’s being rushed out the door, and gives an impression that she’s going to continue to advise the administration in the months ahead. That’s all good for her political fortunes.

(Is that Joe Biden stifling a sob? Sure sounded like it to us.)

Third, Obama gets to build himself up. Yes, there’s nothing like appearing on a joint platform with the most popular politician in the country. And right now, that’s Hillary Clinton, not Obama himself.

Clinton’s stature is now such that if she wants to be the next Democratic nominee for president, she will be, writes David Rothkopf, a foreign- policy expert and chief executive officer and editor at large of the FP Group.

“Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, Mark Warner, Martin O’Malley and the others in the long list of commander-in-chief wannabes will go about their day jobs for the next couple years, but at the back of their minds will be only one question: Will she or won’t she?” Mr. Rothkopf writes.

In this file photo taken last July, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks in Hot Springs, Ark. Jindal called on the GOP to 'stop being the stupid party,' at a gathering Thursday of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in Charlotte, N.C. (Danny Johnston/AP/File)

The 'stupid party': Is GOP's concern what's said or how it's said?

By Correspondent / 01.25.13

It's the stupidity, stupid. That's essentially the warning to fellow Republicans from party heavyweights like former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

At a gathering Thursday of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in Charlotte, N.C., Governor Jindal – a potential presidential candidate in 2016 – called on the GOP to "stop being the stupid party." "I'm serious," he added. "It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.... It's no secret we had a number of Republicans that damaged the brand [last] year with offensive and bizarre comments. I'm here to say we’ve had enough of that."

Mr. Barbour, a former RNC chairman, made essentially the same charge Friday on "CBS This Morning," saying comments about rape and abortion in the past election cycle from several Republican Senate candidates hurt the entire party. "The comments they made were stupid comments, offensive comments, and in today’s world when a candidate in one state says something, the negative effect of that can spill over to other candidates," he said.

Both men were referring to the much-publicized, and much-derided, remarks of former Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri ("if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down") and former Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock ("even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, it is something that God intended to happen").

The comments contributed to – and may have been responsible for – Republican Senate losses in states that the party otherwise had very good chances of winning. Moreover, the media attention they received may even have played a part in Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama, by turning some moderate women from the Republican Party.

Jindal and Barbour are only the latest voices within the GOP to warn against alienating whole segments of voters. But hearing the warning is one thing, and heeding it appears to be quite another. Recently, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) of Georgia revived the controversy by defending Mr. Akin's comments at a local chamber of commerce breakfast in Georgia: "A scared-to-death 15-year-old that becomes impregnated by her boyfriend and then has to tell her parents ... might on some occasion say, ‘Hey, I was raped.’ That’s what [Akin] meant when he said legitimate rape versus non-legitimate rape. I don’t find anything so horrible about that."

All this has been damaging to the Republican Party brand, but the "stupid" charge in particular also raises some pointed questions. Are Republicans such as Jindal and Barbour saying they want the party to moderate its official position on social issues like abortion? Or are they saying they don't want candidates to talk in such explicit terms about what they actually believe, even if it largely comports with party policy?

On abortion, neither Akin, nor Representative Gingrey, nor the 2012 Republican Party Platform makes any exceptions for rape. "We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed," the GOP platform states. "We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children."

And this week in New Mexico, a Republican state lawmaker proposed a bill that would make it a felony – punishable by three years in prison – to get an abortion in cases of rape, by saying that terminating the pregnancy would be akin to "tampering with evidence."

That's out of step with most Americans on the issue. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out this week found that a majority of Americans now believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, and as many as 70 percent believe that Roe v. Wade – which guarantees a constitutional right to an abortion in the first trimester – should not be overturned.  

If Republicans want to win back moderate women and other voters who don't believe abortion should be criminalized – especially not in cases of rape and incest – then they will need to dispense with talk that many of their own describe as "stupid." But the more intriguing question is whether, to attract more voters, the party will rethink some of its policy positions. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California speaks in favor of legislation to ban new assault weapons and high-capacity magazines at a briefing on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Senator Feinstein's assault-weapon ban: How would it work? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.24.13

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California on Thursday introduced long-promised legislation aimed at controlling assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. As critics note, “assault weapon” is a category of firearm that’s difficult to define. Millions of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are already in the hands of private citizens. So how would Senator Feinstein’s new restrictions work?

First, a general definition: assault weapons are small-caliber, high-powered rifles, pistols, or shotguns that are styled to appear as if they belong in a military or law enforcement arsenal. They are semiautomatic, meaning that each pull of the trigger fires one bullet and then chambers the next round.

True military rifles, such as the M16A2, are automatic, capable of firing multiple bullets with one pull of the trigger. But civilian ownership of automatic weapons has been tightly controlled in the US since the 1930s.

Feinstein’s bill is not a flat ban on assault-weapon ownership. Instead, it would ban the manufacture, sale, transfer, or importation of new assault weapons, as well as all ammunition feeding devices capable of holding more than 10 rounds. The legislation grandfathers in existing weapons and high-capacity magazines in private hands as legal.

The legislation bans more than 150 firearms by name. According to the bill, these include all AR-15 types, which are civilian derivatives of the military M-16; all AK-47 types, which are derivatives of the famous Soviet assault rifle of the same name; and MAC weapons, Thompson weapons, and Uzis, among others.

Beyond that, the legislation would restrict weapons according to their characteristics. Falling into this category would be semiautomatic rifles that can accept a detachable magazine, and have at least one military-style feature from this list: pistol grip; forward grip, folding, telescoping, or detachable stock; grenade launcher or rocket launcher; barrel shroud; or threaded barrel.

Pistols and shotguns with similar features would also be covered by the legislation’s restrictions.

These restrictions are somewhat tougher than those contained in the assault weapons ban that was the law of the land from 1994 to 2004. Under that law, a weapon had to have two of the military style features, instead of one, to be categorized as an “assault” weapon. The new bill would also ban some of the stylistic workarounds that manufacturers used to get around the previous legislation, such as thumbhole stocks, which mimic a pistol grip.

“One criticism of the ’94 law was that it was ... too easy work around. Manufacturers would simply remove one of the characteristics, and the firearm was legal. The bill we are introducing today will make it much more difficult to work around,” said Feinstein at a Thursday press conference.

However, in some ways, the bill is most different than the old not for the way it categorizes new assault weapons, but for the manner in which it treats existing assault weapons and magazines in private hands.

If a current assault weapon owner wishes to sell or otherwise transfer the firearm, for instance, the new bill requires that the transferee undergo a background check carried out either by the FBI or a state-level agency. It is difficult to see how the federal government could enforce this provision without a registry of existing assault weapons – something gun-rights groups vehemently oppose as government intrusion on Second Amendment rights.

As for existing high-capacity ammunition feeding devices, the bill would prohibit their further sale or transfer, according to Feinstein’s summary of the legislation. That means they would remain lawful to own for those who already have them, but not to get rid of, except to destroy.

The bill would establish a safe storage requirement for grandfathered assault rifles. Feinstein has yet to specify exactly what this would entail, though in the past she has talked about wanting to require trigger locks for such weapons.

Finally, the new legislation would also allow states and localities to use certain federal funds to hold voluntary buy-back programs for grandfathered assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Gun owner groups said they would oppose all aspects of the proposed reinstatement of assault weapon and high-capacity magazine restrictions.

“Senator Feinstein has been trying to ban guns from law-abiding citizens for decades,” said the National Rifle Association in a statement.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton faces the Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as she answers questions about the September Benghazi attack on Jan. 23. GOP senators include: Rand Paul of Kentucky (l.) John Barrasso of Wyoming, John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rand Paul vs. Hillary Clinton: A preview of 2016? (+video)

By Correspondent / 01.24.13

Hillary Clinton's assured and assertive appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has only increased speculation about a possible Clinton presidential run in 2016.

But the hearing has also given an unexpected jolt of publicity to another possible 2016 contender: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R).

Senator Paul, of course, had one of the most biting – and most replayed – exchanges with Secretary Clinton, telling her at one point: "I'm glad that you're accepting responsibility. I think that ultimately with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11. And I really mean that. Had I been president at the time, and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post. I think it's inexcusable."

It was an eyebrow-raising moment, not only because Paul had the audacity to criticize Clinton so sharply to her face, but because he actually referred to himself, hypothetically, as the president. This is something senators are not typically in the habit of doing – at least, not in public (sample headline from The Atlantic Wire: "In Rand Paul's Imaginary Presidency, He Would Have Fired Clinton").

Paul's attack was so lacking in typical Senate deference that The Washington Post's Dana Millbank described an unnamed Clinton aide as unable to hold back a shocked, "Ohhh!" Mr. Millbank then wrote: "But Paul, a man of exotic opinions, is never going to be president, and Clinton deflected his provocation with a mild reply: 'I believe in taking responsibility, and I have done so.' ”

It's true that Paul – the son of offbeat former presidential candidate and recently retired Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas – would be a dark horse when it comes to 2016, and dark horses rarely wind up winning (just ask his father). As one measure of just how uphill the climb would be, a December poll taken by Public Policy Polling found Clinton beating Paul by 5 points in a hypothetical matchup in his own redder-than-red home state of Kentucky. 

But after Wednesday's performance, one conclusion seems inescapable: Paul certainly appears to be eyeing a run. And as one of the most unpredictable, attention-getting forces to hit the Senate in some time, it's impossible to know how Paul might shake up the race.

A former ophthamologist turned tea party favorite, he's quickly established himself as a politically potent blend of his father's independent libertarianism and more typical establishment Republican positioning. In recent weeks, he has voted "no" on the fiscal cliff deal, taken a prominent trip to Israel, and vowed to "nullify" President Obama's executive actions on guns. He missed the inaugural festivities to attend a meeting of conservatives in the key primary state of South Carolina, and was recently announced as a featured speaker at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

As Oxford historian Timothy Stanley recently wrote on, "Ever since the last presidential election, Rand Paul hasn't set a foot wrong." 

Does that mean Paul could actually succeed in wresting the nomination away from, say, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), another rising-star senator with tea party roots, whose relatively mild questioning of Clinton yesterday drew everything from yawns to charges of neophytism?

At this point, we wouldn't bet on it. But he could definitely make things interesting.

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