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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. 

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

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

By Staff writer / 02.26.14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That meant the plane’s time might be up.

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

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

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

She has pledged to fight the forced retirement.

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

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

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

By Staff writer / 02.25.14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Staff writer / 02.25.14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Staff writer / 02.24.14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this Feb. 18, 2014 file photo, Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, foreground left, visits with supporters during a stop in Denton, Texas, to promote early voting with rock musician Ted Nugent, wearing cowboy hat, center. (Ron Baselice, The Dallas Morning News/AP)

Who needs Ted Nugent? New poll shows Greg Abbott up big in Texas. (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.24.14

Republican Greg Abbott has a comfortable lead in the Texas governor’s race, according to a just-released poll. In fact, Mr. Abbott’s margin is so wide over both primary and general-election opponents that it raises again the question of why he thought that campaigning with shock rocker/political provocateur Ted Nugent earlier this month was a good idea.

Mr. Nugent may light enthusiasm in the party’s conservative base, particularly among gun rights activists. But his over-the-top insults fire up Democrats as much as Republicans and could give Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis a subject with which to deflect attention from her own political missteps.

The new University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey finished gathering data on Feb. 17, just prior to the Abbott-Nugent appearances.

According to the survey Abbott, Texas' attorney general, is the overwhelming favorite to capture the March GOP gubernatorial primary. He’s the choice of 90 percent of likely Republican voters in the poll. The second-place Republican, media personality Miriam Martinez, is way, way back with only 5 percent support.

In a potential general election matchup with state Senator Davis, Abbott leads by 11 percentage points, according to the UT poll. He’s the choice of 47 percent of respondents, while Davis gets 36 percent.

That’s a jump from October, when the same pollsters found Abbott only six points up.

If there’s any silver lining for the likely Democratic candidate, it is that a healthy chunk of Texans, 17 percent, say they have yet to make up their minds as to their gubernatorial choice.

But Abbott enjoys higher favorable ratings among state voters than does Davis. Forty-five percent of respondents said they have a somewhat or very favorable opinion of Abbott; the comparable number for Davis is 36 percent.

Davis’s corresponding unfavorable ratings were higher.

Even though Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky has warned Texas Republicans that their state may turn blue if they don’t change, that’s not happening yet. In the University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey, 45 percent of respondents said they would vote in the Republican primary, and only 32 percent said they would vote in the Democratic primary.

That result points to the partisan leaning that makes any Democratic governor hopeful face an uphill climb.

As always, we’d caution that this is just one poll. But the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys puts Abbott on top by 11.3 percent, about the same margin.

Three-month-old James Bodiford of Lavon, Texas, is photographed with rocker Ted Nugent, who is visiting with fans during a stop Feb. 20 at a local restaurant in Denton, Texas. Nugent and Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott stopped to promote early voting. (Ron Baselice/The Dallas Morning News/AP)

Ted Nugent apologizes to President Obama. Sincere? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.21.14

Ted Nugent has apologized for calling President Obama a “subhuman mongrel.” The shock rocker/political provocateur on Friday told conservative radio host and CNN commentator Ben Ferguson that he “did cross the line” with those words, uttered in an interview with in January.

At first Nugent did not apologize directly to Mr. Obama himself. Instead, his main regret seemed to be that the controversy over his unrestrained rhetoric was affecting the man he campaigned with in Texas this week, state Attorney General and presumptive GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, as well as other top GOP figures such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

“I apologize for using the term. I will try to elevate my vernacular to the level of those great men that I’m learning from in the world of politics,” said Nugent.

Pressed further, Nugent answered “yes” to the question about whether he was actually saying he was sorry to the president.

That doesn’t mean he’s changed his political views, though. He added that instead of “the street fighter terminology of ‘subhuman mongrel,’ ” he should have used more understandable words, such as “violator of his oath to the Constitution.”

The apology was also tempered somewhat by the fact that it followed an epic Twitter rant in which Nugent listed in great detail the many, many aspects of the Obama administration that he says he finds offensive.

“Are words really more offensive than 5 dead Americans on Obama’s watch?” Nugent tweeted early Friday morning. He then followed this “Are words really more offensive than …” pattern for another 40-plus tweets, ending the sentence with “a gunrunning attorney general,” “engineered recidivism,” “trampling the US constitution,” and “Obama Mao redistribution,” among other things.

We’d guess this means he and the president won’t be meeting over beverages in the White House for a quiet discussion of their respective political philosophies.

Nugent’s friends and allies in the GOP may have pressed him to take back his words to give Abbott and others a little breathing room. The Texas gubernatorial hopeful has been avoiding reporters’ questions about why he appeared with Nugent, and whether he agrees with Nugent’s sentiments.

Some Republicans have been even more direct – Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky denounced Nugent’s racially charged invective as “offensive” and “having no place in politics.” Sitting Texas Gov. Rick Perry told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he does “have a problem” with Nugent’s strong language.

Abbott is heavily favored to win the GOP Texas gubernatorial primary and a favorite to win the general election. In that context, the Nugent flap was an unwelcome distraction that allowed Democratic contender Wendy Davis an opportunity to change the subject from her own missteps. Press accounts have accused Ms. Davis of making her ascent from childhood poverty sound more difficult and dramatic than it really was.

Rocker Ted Nugent (l.) introduces Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott (R) on Feb. 18, during a stop in Denton, Texas, to promote early voting. Wendy Davis is the Democratic opponent. (Ron Baselice/The Dallas Morning News/AP)

Ted Nugent: Why can't GOP quit 'Motor City Madman'? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.21.14

Shock rocker Ted Nugent’s campaign appearances with Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott have roiled the US political firmament. Democrats have called on Texas Attorney General Abbott and other top Republicans to denounce Mr. Nugent for calling President Obama a “subhuman mongrel," among other things. Abbott, hasn’t done that, saying the Motor City Madman is a strong supporter of the Constitution and Second Amendment gun rights.

Among Republican national figures, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky has unambiguously censured Nugent. The Nuge’s “derogatory description of President Obama is offensive and has no place in politics. He should apologize,” Senator Paul tweeted on Thursday.

Another possible 2016 presidential contender, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, said he did not agree with Nugent’s sentiments and wouldn’t use Nugent’s words. But he noted “there are reasons ... people listen to him," in an interview with CNN.

We’ve opined that Nugent’s political persona may help Democrats as much, if not more, than Republicans. He’s a useful bogeyman with which to fundraise and fire up the left. He’s a distraction that can deflect attention from Democratic candidates’ own problems.

Given that, what’s his appeal to presumably rational Republican politicians? Mitt Romney sought Nugent’s endorsement in 2012, too. Why can’t they leave such a forceful political provocateur alone?

Enthusiasm. One reason is that he generates excitement on the right, particularly among gun rights proponents. In Texas, Abbott is almost certain to win the Republican gubernatorial primary, and he’s a heavy favorite against Democrat Wendy Davis for the general election. But his aides have noted that attendance at the two Abbott rallies featuring Nugent was triple their predictions. That sort of crowd draw is hard for any politician to turn down, even one who’s cruising to victory.

Anger. After six years of Mr. Obama as president, many Republicans are fed up and can’t take it anymore. They’ve seen him push through a sweeping health-care law they vehemently oppose and, in general, change the country in ways they resent. Nugent is the id of this mind-set, someone who expresses the anger many in the GOP feel, however harshly.

Nugent is co-chair of Republican Sid Miller’s campaign for Texas agriculture commissioner. Mr. Miller’s website prominently features a video of Nugent asking donors to give his “blood brother” $20. Asked for comment about Nugent’s statements, spokesman Todd Smith said Miller would not “use the same words," according to the Dallas Morning News. But the candidate “shares a mutual disdain for [Obama’s] policies” with the rocker, said Mr. Smith.

Polarization. It’s no secret that US politics is perhaps more polarized than ever before. That’s a process that began in the 1960s when conservative Southern Democrats started migrating into the GOP, even though it was the party of Lincoln. In that environment, partisan identity is a powerful indicator of attitude. The more sorted and separate our political teams become, the more we see our opponents as not just wrong but destructive and possibly illegitimate.

Lilliana Mason, a visiting scholar at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., has a very interesting piece on this at the "Monkey Cage" political science blog. She writes that political polarization is making us prejudiced. Team victory is becoming all.

“The more sorted and powerful our political identities become, the less capable we are of treating our political opponents with fairness and equanimity.... This means that no matter what the political debate of the day is officially about, it’s rooted in the partisan bias, eager action, and exaggerated anger that come directly out of our political identities,” Mason writes.

That’s a fertile environment for the provocateurs, posers, and professional trolls of both political parties.

From left: Host Jimmy Fallon, actor Will Ferrell, first lady Michelle Obama during the 'Ew' skit on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 during comedian Fallon's inaugural week as the new 'Tonight Show' host. (Lloyd Bishop/NBC/AP)

Michelle Obama does sketch comedy with Jimmy Fallon: 'Ew!' (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.21.14

How do you get Americans to pay attention to a healthy-living initiative for kids four years after it’s launched?

Take it to New York City, and join Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell – both in drag as teenage girls – on a basement couch, a la “Wayne’s World,” and pull out the kale chips. That’s what first lady Michelle Obama did Thursday night on NBC’s “Tonight Show,” demonstrating her comedy chops in a sketch called “Ew!”

Mrs. Obama played herself, and that meant promoting fitness, saying “ew” to jelly doughnuts, and getting up off the couch for an “ ‘Ew’ dance party.” It wasn’t “The Evolution of Mom Dancing” – perhaps the most eye-popping TV performance ever by a first lady – but Mrs. Obama showed, once again, that she can move.

And that was the point. Her Let’s Move! campaign, four years old this month, is Mrs. Obama’s main initiative as first lady, and Fallon has become a regular stop on her circuit. Two years ago, she competed with the comedian in feats of strength at the White House – push-ups, dodgeball, a potato sack race – for the second anniversary of “Let’s Move!," back when he was host of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Last February, it was mom dancing.

This year, the fourth anniversary coincided with Fallon’s debut as host of “The Tonight Show,” a week packed with A-list guests. After the “Ew!” sketch, she joined Fallon on the regular interview couch for some conversation about her girls, who we’re guessing may have taught her a bit about things that are “ew.”

Now 15 and 12, Malia and Sasha Obama aren’t as into hanging out with their parents as they used to be.

“They want nothing to do with us,” the first lady said. “I am so serious.”

Mrs. Obama also warned the people of Washington, D.C., that Malia is getting close to one of the dreaded (to parents) milestones of adolescence: learning to drive.

After the Obamas leave Washington in a few years, the girls “have got to be able to function as normal people, and driving is a part of that,” she said. “Ladies and gentlemen of D.C., watch out!”

Mrs. Obama also made a push for enrollment in health insurance, and came up with a new term for “young invincibles,” the 20-somethings who don’t think they need coverage: “knuckleheads.”

“They’re the ones cooking for the first time and slicing their fingers,” she said. And “dancing on the barstools.”

While in New York, Mrs. Obama promoted another of her healthy-living initiatives, the Drink Up campaign, which encourages drinking water. She visited the New Museum in Manhattan, which has an exhibit of street art that encourages people to drink more water. She also appeared at a private fundraiser, reportedly at the home of Obama “bundler” Maneesh Goyal.

Rocker Ted Nugent introduces Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott during a stop in Denton, Texas, on Tuesday to promote early voting. But the appearance also raised questions about whether the GOP hopeful is also associating himself with Nugent's most incendiary comments. (Ron Baselice/The Dallas Morning News/AP)

Ted Nugent on Texas campaign trail. Does he help Democrats more than GOP? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.20.14

Shock rocker/political provocateur Ted Nugent is a new hot issue in the Texas gubernatorial race. The Motor City Madman has appeared onstage with GOP candidate Greg Abbott, and Democrats say they’re livid about this use of Nuge as a campaign prop.

After all, Nugent has said stuff about ex-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that’s not printable in a family blog because of its explicit references to her anatomy. In January, he called President Obama a “communist-raised subhuman mongrel." CNN’s Wolf Blitzer has noted that this is the sort of language the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust – a rebuttal one fact-check group this week rated as “true."

So here’s our question about the controversy: What was Mr. Abbott thinking? For him, the upside of a Nugent appearance may be small, and the downside considerable. The rocker’s flaming words may sell his eponymous ammunition, but as Mitt Romney discovered in 2012, the uproar Nugent leaves in his wake may help Democrats as much or more than the GOP.

“It reveals Abbott, at the very least, as someone who doesn’t have acute political judgment,” writes Paul Burka of the Texas Monthly, the acerbic dean of the Lone Star State’s political press corps.

Why was enlisting Nugent a questionable tactic? Here’s why:

Abbott is winning anyway. In all likelihood, Abbott is going to succeed Gov. Rick Perry (R) after the 2014 vote. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, in his "Crystal Ball" blog, rates Abbott’s race as “safe Republican." Look at the "Crystal Ball" map – Texas is colored in about as deep a shade of red as you can find.

In the RealClearPolitics rolling average of polls for the race, Abbott leads by almost 10 percentage points. (State polling can be iffy, though, and the data here are a little old.)

Nugent changes the subject. The Democratic candidate, state Sen. Wendy Davis, hasn’t had a great winter image-wise. Press reports have accused her of distorting aspects of her biography to make her account of rising from childhood poverty sound more dramatic and difficult than it actually was.

In that context, Nugent is a lifeline. It gives her a matching, ethically charged subject to talk about. She’s already using the rocker’s appearance to raise money. As the Dallas Morning News reports Thursday, she’s fired off a fundraising appeal to supporters that charges the Abbott-and-Nugent show insulted “every father, every mother, every family in Texas."

Meanwhile, Abbott is “fleeing reporter questions about Ted Nugent," writes Wayne Slater of the Morning News.

Cannon, loose. You never know what Nugent is going to say in a political context, which, to a politician, makes him both a formidable foe and a dangerous friend. After all, this is a guy who, after the State of the Union address in 2013, criticized both Mr. Obama and the Republican Party leadership, saying of the latter that they did not fight the president “because somehow they have lost their [deleted]."

And once you appear with him, the press is going to endlessly inquire whether you agree with the stuff he says. (Yes, comedian Bill Maher has said reprehensible things about Sarah Palin, and that should go for him, too. But he’s not campaigning with Democrats on the 2014 ballot.) Plus, Nugent nationalizes. That means reporters will ask other Republican figures if they agree with him, given his past statements. It also means Democrats across the country will share the latest Nugent outrage on social media and get all fired up.

Bottom line: We agree with NBC’s "First Read," which calls the Nugent appearance on “unforced error” on Abbott’s part.

“Neither Abbott nor Davis seems to be running a Texas campaign right now; instead, they appear to be hijacked more by national politics,” write NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro.

President Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 as he boards Marine One helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., for his trip to Mexico. Obama apologized in a letter to one art history professor who took exception to remarks last month in which he jabbed the discipline as less lucrative than skilled manufacturing or a trade. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Obama apologizes to art historian. Why did he diss her discipline? (+video)

By Staff writer / 02.19.14

President Obama has apologized for dissing art history majors. At least, he’s apologized to one art history professor who took exception to remarks last month in which he jabbed the discipline as less lucrative than skilled manufacturing or a trade, such as plumbing.

“Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history,” said Mr. Obama in a hand-written note to Prof. Ann Collins Johns at the University of Texas at Austin, according to Politico.

Obama went on to say that art history had been one of his own favorite subjects in high school and that he’d learned a lot about culture he might otherwise have missed. Such as, how hard it is to stay awake when art history is right after lunch, and they dim the lights and show a million slides on the differences between Byzantine and Romanesque architecture.

Sorry, the president didn’t actually say that last bit. That was our own memory leaching into the narrative.

Anyway, here’s the background to this story: Late last month, Obama gave a speech at a General Electric plant in Waukesha, Wis., on the need to improve job training programs nationwide. To bolster his argument, at one point he said, “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

After that, the Botticelli hit the fan. Obama’s larger point was uncontroversial: It’s true that a well-trained manufacturing worker or plumber can make a pretty decent middle-class wage. Not everybody needs four years at a liberal arts institution. But in demeaning one liberal arts discipline in particular, the president annoyed a passel of professors and students.

In response they made two points. One – art history teaches you appreciation for beauty, details, and critical thinking. It enlarges your understanding of life. (This is the argument Professor Johns made in a letter to the White House, which drew Obama’s response.) Two – majoring in art history is not the same as becoming an art historian. Lots of people spend their college years looking at art history slide shows and then enter other, more lucrative professions.

About 6 percent of people with art history degrees make it into the lofty top 1 percent of US earners, for instance, according to census data. That’s a better success ratio than the one facing finance and business economics majors! Prince William was an art history major, and he’s going to be King of England. Can’t do much better than that.

Thus the apology. Maybe Obama realized that in arguing against college generally, he’d picked on one particular college discipline that perhaps produces Obama voters. Johns told the art blog "Hyperallergic" that she’s a fan of the president, for instance.

Meanwhile, some critics of the president had gone all mea culpa on a point where he was actually right. College is expensive. Why spend so much money to not prepare yourself for life after graduation?

“If you don’t want to take on fifty grand or more in debt, skip it and learn a trade instead,” writes Allahpundit at the right-leaning "Hot Air" site.

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