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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. 

President Barack Obama speaks to workers about the economy during a visit to Daimler Detroit Diesel in Redford, Mich., earlier this week. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Taxing the rich: why $250,000 became the benchmark

By Staff writer / 12.14.12

What is the definition of “wealthy”?

This matters, especially now, as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner try to come to terms on a package of tax hikes and spending cuts that will keep the nation from going over the "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1.

Over the years, Democrats have gone back and forth on the “wealth” question, as they have sought ways to raise more federal tax revenue. For a time, it was a taxable family income over $250,000 a year. Then last year, Democratic leaders – with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer leading the charge – decided it should really be $1 million. That’s a pretty big difference, no matter how you slice it.

After all, as Senator Schumer likes to point out, there are pricey neighborhoods in his state (and others), where $250,000 is a comfortable income, but hardly extravagant. The $250k threshold would also mean higher taxes on some small businesses, which is politically awkward.

“I think we feel millionaires – that’s the fairest way to go,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California told Politico in October 2011.  

But then the presidential campaign kicked into gear, and Mr. Obama went back to $250,000. It was one of his mantras on the stump: The wealthiest households in America should pay modestly higher taxes on annual incomes over $250,000, the same rate they paid during the prosperous Clinton era. The million-dollar benchmark might have been easier to sell politically, but it would have meant giving up a whole lot of tax revenue – $68 billion a year, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

For the same reason, Warren Buffett’s suggested benchmark of “maybe $500,000 or so,” as the billionaire investor wrote in The New York Times last month, also wouldn’t work.

So the $250,000 family threshold (and $200,000 for individuals) looks as locked in as Obama’s insistence that the rich pay a higher tax rate, not just that they kick in more revenue to the feds. This week, Obama lowered his revenue goal from $1.6 trillion over 10 years to $1.4 trillion, a small move toward what is expected to be a final revenue number in the $1 trillion to $1.2 trillion range.

The president’s allies on Capitol Hill are in lock step behind him on the $250k benchmark.

“I originally believed a million dollars was the right place to draw the line,” Schumer told the Monitor Thursday. “The president campaigned on $250,000, the voters ratified that, and that’s where we are.”

It’s also worth noting that the $250,000 benchmark would end up being higher than that, as the Obama administration has bent over backwards to make sure people below $250k in taxable income don’t end up paying a higher marginal rate.

A Dec. 5 report in the Times concludes that, in fact, “a large majority of families making up to $300,000 – as well as hundreds of thousands of families with even larger incomes – would not pay taxes at a higher marginal rate.”

There are multiple reasons, according to reporters Catherine Rampell and Binyamin Appelbaum.

“To guarantee that tax rates do not increase for any family making less than $250,000, the Obama administration proposed in 2009 to raise marginal rates on taxable income above roughly $230,000 – because the minimum amount of income a family is entitled to shelter from taxation is roughly $20,000,” they write. “But the average amount families in that income range are entitled to shelter from taxation is much larger, closer to $60,000. In other words, families with taxable income of $230,000 on average earned about $290,000 in 2009.”

Furthermore, they add, the administration is adjusting the numbers for inflation – that is, $250,000 in 2009 dollars. In effect, the Times reporters say, Obama is “now proposing to raise marginal rates on families with taxable incomes above $246,000 – meaning, on average, families earning more than about $305,000.”

They cite an analysis by the Tax Policy Center that says the president’s rate hike would affect only the top 1 percent of taxpayers, instead of the 2 percent Obama often cites.

Also worth noting: People below the $250,000 benchmark will be subject to other tax increases, such as those in the Affordable Care Act.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio points to a chart while speaking to reporters in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13. Congressional leaders and the Obama administration are attempting to negotiate a deal to avoid the so-called 'fiscal cliff' and work toward a deficit reduction package in the next session of Congress that begins in January. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

How bad is the GOP's image problem?

By Staff writer / 12.13.12

How bad is the Republican Party’s image problem? Pretty bad, according to the latest polls. A just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey put the GOP dead last in the ratings of 11 political figures and institutions, for instance. Fully 45 percent of respondents said their feelings about the party of Abraham Lincoln were now “somewhat” or “very” negative.

Part of the GOP’s problem is that losing a presidential election isn’t good for your brand. Many voters probably still see the Romney campaign as the face of the party as a whole. Part of it stems from the fact that there are now more self-identified Democrats in America than Republicans. Partisans usually disapprove of the other US political team.

But there’s no escaping the fact that in general, voters now see the GOP as an unappealing product. Asked an open-ended question about which word would best describe the party, 65 percent of respondents to the NBC/WSJ poll said something negative, such as “bad” or “outdated”. It’s as if it was a Ford Pinto, or bottled water for pets.

'FISCAL CLIFF' 101: 5 basic questions answered

A Pew Research poll released Thursday had similar results. Only 25 percent of respondents approved of the way Republican leaders in Congress are doing their jobs. Democratic congressional leaders had a 40 percent approval rating in the Pew survey, while President Obama’s comparable figure was 55.

It thus appears the administration has public opinion on its side in the negotiations over ways to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts. Fifty-five percent of Pew respondents said Mr. Obama was making a serious effort to reach agreement on the budget deficit, while only 32 percent said the same thing of GOP leaders.

But Democrats shouldn’t start hiring the DJ for the victory party just yet. There are indications within these surveys that the GOP’s image is in part cyclical – and that the Democratic Party would not escape blame if no agreement is reached and Obama and House Speaker John Boehner plunge together over the fiscal cliff’s Reichenbach Falls.

On the cyclical point, there’s one striking part of the NBC/WSJ poll in which respondents rate their feelings about Obama’s reelection. Thirty percent say they are “optimistic,” 23 percent say they are “satisfied,” 17 percent say they are “uncertain,” and 30 percent say they are “pessimistic.”

Those responses are virtually identical to the ones voters gave in 2004 when the same pollsters asked how people felt about George W. Bush’s reelection.

We’re not saying that Republicans don’t need to reach out to Hispanics, or try to appear less the party of plutocrats, or develop new leaders. We’re just saying that the tide of US politics ebbs and flows. By 2016, we’re fairly certain the GOP will not appear as if it’s about to march off the stage of history, as did the Whigs.

As for blame, it’s true that more voters say they’d blame Republicans than say they’d blame Democrats if the United States plunges over the fiscal cliff. That disparity is 24 percent to 19 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll.

But that is not a huge difference. And the real story in that answer may be that fully 56 percent of respondents said that both sides would be equally to blame if no deal is reached.

Stephen Colbert presents an award onstage at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles in this Sept. 23 file photo. (John Shearer/Invision/AP/File)

Is Stephen Colbert trying to buy Senate seat in South Carolina?

By Staff writer / 12.11.12

Is Stephen Colbert trying to buy a US Senate seat from South Carolina? It kinda sorta sounded like he was during Monday night’s “Colbert Report," as he speculated about transferring nearly a million dollars in untraceable former "super PAC" cash into a secret Palmetto State slush fund.

“That would be horrible if that came out. Which it wouldn’t, because like I said it’s impossible to trace,” said Mr. Colbert on the Senate subject.

Let’s back up and explain the context here, shall we? Last week Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina announced he’ll resign to run the Heritage Foundation, a conservative D.C. think tank. Senator DeMint’s term runs until 2014, and GOP South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gets to pick a replacement to fill the seat until then. South Carolina native Colbert immediately launched a tongue-in-cheek effort to persuade Governor Haley to pick him – although “tongue-in-cheek” is a pretty mild descriptor for Colbert’s comedic style.

“My network contract prohibits me from taking on another full-time job. So the Senate would be perfect,” he said Monday night.

Here’s where the money thing comes in. Colbert used to have a super political-action committee, which he used, among other things, to mount a notional run for “president of South Carolina” during the GOP primaries. But last month, he suddenly shut down the super PAC, even though it still contained almost a million dollars.

What he was doing was taking things a step further to continue to illuminate the netherworld of US campaign finance law. With on-air advice from his personal lawyer, former Federal Election Commission head Trevor Potter, he legally laundered his super PAC stash through a couple of 501 (c)(4) nonprofit groups, essentially making it disappear.

But you just know that money is going to surface in a comedy bit in some manner. The South Carolina Senate situation offers a perfect opportunity. During Monday’s episode, Colbert brought up ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who in 2009 was convicted of trying to essentially sell President Obama’s old Senate seat.

“I certainly don’t want this Senate appointment to turn into a Blagojevich scandal,” said Colbert. “Where, and I’m just spit-balling here, an ambitious would-be senator with a secret stash of nearly a million completely untraceable former super PAC dollars uses that money to buy political influence by transferring all of it to a shadowy fund located in the governor’s state of South Carolina that no one would be able to trace.”

Wink wink, nudge nudge, knowwhatImean?

Don’t hold your breath – Colbert’s not going to be a senator.

Yes, there’s a Public Policy Polling survey out showing he’s the top choice of South Carolina voters for the post. But that poll was not exactly rigorous, in that Colbert’s name came first in the question and the other choices were GOP politicians with generally lower name recognition in the state. Also, it was of all voters. Colbert ran strongly with Democrats and independents. Only 6 percent of Republicans said they wanted a Colbert appointment.

More to the point, Governor Haley has reportedly drawn up a short list of potential appointees, and he’s not on it. On her Facebook page she charged that when she appeared on his show Colbert couldn’t correctly identify South Carolina’s state drink (milk), calling into question his Palmetto bona fides. Colbert’s shot back that she couldn’t identify the state amphibian (spotted salamander).

South Carolina’s other US senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, said on Tuesday that it might be a good thing to have somebody as funny as Colbert in the Senate. “Anybody that could make us laugh might lead to better dealmaking,” Senator Graham told the Huffington Post.

But Graham added that Colbert needs to earn the spot, as comedian Al Franken earned his Senate seat from Minnesota in 2008.

“If Steve Colbert wants to run, then he should go run,” said Graham.

Jenny Sanford (r.) campaigned for now-Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina (l.) in 2010 when Haley was running for office. Mrs. Sanford, ex-wife of ex-Gov. Mark Sanford, may be on Haley's short list to replace retiring Sen. Jim DeMint. (Bruce Smith/AP/File)

Senator Jenny Sanford? Why it might be a smart pick.

By Correspondent / 12.11.12

You could call it The First Wives Club Comes to Washington.

CNN reported Tuesday that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) has finalized a short list of candidates to fill GOP Sen. Jim DeMint’s soon-to-be-vacant seat – and that one of those currently under consideration for the post is Jenny Sanford.

Governor Haley later said only her husband knows the actual list. But she did not dispute any of the specific names mentioned. And while the job may still ultimately go to Rep. Tim Scott (R) – seen by many as the leading candidate and Senator DeMint’s preferred choice – there are several reasons Jenny Sanford could be a politically smart pick.

Mrs. Sanford is, of course, best known as the former wife of the state’s former governor, who briefly captivated the nation back in 2009, when he mysteriously disappeared for several days. His aides at first claimed he’d gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail. It turned out he was visiting his mistress in Argentina. Mr. Sanford then went on to compound the situation when he laid bare his feelings in an excruciating, rambling press conference.

A former investment banker, Jenny Sanford stood out for her handling of the incident. Unlike so many political wives, she did not appear with her husband at the press conference when he confessed his infidelity (though it was later revealed that she had known about the affair and had initially hoped to work things out). She wound up moving out of the governor’s mansion and filing for divorce. She also later wrote a memoir.

We have no idea if she's truly interested in serving in the US Senate – though she told the Columbia Free Times she would be “honored” to be asked. She was, by all accounts, a fully engaged partner in her husband’s political career, even managing his gubernatorial campaign.

What we do know is this: Given the number of male politicians who have gone on to rehabilitate their careers after public martial missteps, it would be refreshing should it turn out in this case to be Mrs. Sanford who gets the second act.

In some ways, it’s not unlike the career path of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who turned spousal humiliation into a high-powered political career of her own, first as a senator and then in a high-profile presidential run that drew the support of legions of women (though of course, unlike Mrs. Sanford, she did not leave her husband). Mrs. Clinton is now the subject of widespread speculation about a possible 2016 presidential run.

More to the point, Republicans in particular could use a “girl power” narrative right now – after an election in which they were trounced on women’s issues and lost the vote of single women by an eye-popping 38 percentage points. The party drew additional criticism recently when not a single female lawmaker was appointed to chair a committee in the House.

In Mrs. Sanford’s case, there could be an extra element of just desserts, because her ex-husband has expressed interest in the Senate seat himself. “You don’t invest 20 years of your life into the conservative cause and the political process unless you care deeply both about the direction of the country and those themes,” Mark Sanford told The Wall Street Journal, adding: “What we all pray for is redemption in many different ways in life. Whatever we get wrong, we want that much more to get it right the next time.”

There's at least some evidence that Mrs. Sanford's selection would be a popular one: A recent PPP poll found she was the choice of 11 percent of South Carolinians. Of course, the No. 1 choice among voters in that same poll was comedian Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native. But if Colbert’s name were removed, Mrs. Sanford became the top choice, with 17 percent.

Either way, it seems South Carolinians – and perhaps Governor Haley – are thinking about symbolism.

This September file photo shows former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaking, in Kirkwood, Mo. On NBC's 'Meet the Press' Sunday, Mr. Gingrich flatly proclaimed his party 'incapable' of beating Hillary Clinton in a potential 2016 matchup. (Jeff Roberson/AP/File)

Are Republicans really 'incapable' of beating Hillary Clinton in 2016?

By Correspondent / 12.10.12

If Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to run for president in 2016, would she be unbeatable? That’s the pronouncement of former GOP Speaker and onetime presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Mr. Gingrich flatly proclaimed his party “incapable” of beating Mrs. Clinton in a potential 2016 matchup.

“[I]f their competitor in ‘16 is going to be Hillary Clinton – supported by Bill Clinton and presumably a still-relatively-popular President Barack Obama – trying to win that will be truly the Superbowl,” Gingrich said. “And the Republican Party today is incapable of competing at that level.”

Wow. We realize Gingrich has been rehabilitating himself as a Republican wise man of sorts – and for partisan pundits, provocative critiques of one’s own party are always a great way to generate attention (we’re writing about it, aren’t we?). But to blithely write off the chances of the entire 2016 GOP field a full four years in advance is eyebrow-raising, even for a politician as prone to “grandiose” (as he once put it) statements as Gingrich.

We agree that Clinton would, indeed, be a formidable candidate, but we’re not sure she’d be as impossible to beat as Gingrich suggests.

True, she’s currently more popular than every other candidate considering a run. Clinton holds a 60 percent favorability rating – higher than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (39 percent), Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (33 percent), Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (47 percent) and Vice President Joe Biden (46 percent), according to a new George Washington University/Politico Battleground poll. 

And she’d probably be unstoppable in a Democratic primary. As Democratic strategist and Clintonite James Carville said on ABC’s "This Week" Sunday, “Every Democrat I know says, ‘God, I hope she runs. We don't need a primary. Let's just go to post with this thing.’ ”

Frankly, the argument being made by some that Clinton was just as much a heavyweight front-runner in 2008 and still wound up losing the nomination ignores the fact that Barack Obama was at that point already an acknowledged political superstar. He didn’t have Clinton’s network or name recognition, but most insiders saw him as a once-in-a-generation kind of orator. He was clearly a real threat.

This time around, there’s no one like that on the Democratic horizon to challenge Clinton. To put it bluntly, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is no Barack Obama. Neither is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. If Clinton wants the nomination, there's a good chance it will be hers for the taking.

But whether she’d have as easy a time in the general election is another matter. It’s not hard for us to envision Governor Bush or Senator Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie giving Clinton a real run for her money. Yes, the party has some fundamentals to work out. It needs to improve its image on immigration and women’s issues. It needs to raise its turnout game. But many of those eyeing 2016 runs know that – and they’re already working to do it.

Clinton's current popularity, as we've written before, is in part a reflection of the nonpartisan role she's taken as secretary of State, as well as the nostalgia surrounding her husband's now-well-in-the-past White House years. If she were to become an official candidate – coming under attack from rivals, subjected to much harsher scrutiny in the press – it probably wouldn't take long for much of that warmth to fade.  

The real question may be whether Clinton ultimately decides to run at all. As The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor wrote over the weekend: “For her last presidential run, Mrs. Clinton declared her candidacy nearly two years before Election Day – but the timing did not feel right to her, because it made the race endless, say former aides who hint she would wait much longer if she made a bid again.”

That means we’ve got two-plus years left of this kind of speculation. If, in the end, she winds up deciding not to take the plunge, Democrats would really have to scramble to find a new candidate to rally behind.

The bow of the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Michael Murphy passes by the USS Arizona Memorial Friday, Dec. 7, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Many of the Pearl Harbor Veterans gathered at the World War II Valor In The Pacific National Monument remembering the 71st anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. (Eugene Tanner/AP)

Pearl Harbor resurrection: the warships that rose to fight again (+video)

By Staff Writer / 12.07.12

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a shocking defeat for the United States military. Japanese aircraft left a wrecking yard of burning and shattered warships in their wake. It’s a story every US school child still learns today.

But it’s not the whole story. Even as the smoke cleared the US Navy was hard at work untangling the mess and salvaging the fleet. Many of the sunken warships rose again to fight the Axis. Only three were damaged beyond repair.

“The salvage and restoration of those ships is a saga of expertise, tenacity, hard work, and invincible optimism,” wrote University of Maryland historian Gordon Prange in his classic history of Pearl Harbor, “At Dawn We Slept.”

When the waves of Japanese torpedo planes and aerial bombers swept over the US Hawaiian naval base their primary targets were seven battleships berthed alongside quays in Pearl Harbor proper and the Pacific fleet flagship USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock at the time.

Five of these battleships were sunk outright. That does not mean they were all blown apart by a rain of Japanese munitions.

“The available documentary evidence suggests that, of those five, the Oklahoma and Nevada were lost because of design defects, the West Virginia was simply overwhelmed by force her defenses were not meant to thwart, and the California was sunk because of the performance of her officers and crew,” wrote Thomas C. Hone in a Naval History Magazine survey of the damage republished in 2012.

The USS Arizona was destroyed by an explosion in its forward magazine that thoroughly wrecked the vessel. It lies on the floor of the harbor to this day, serving as a memorial to those who died on Dec. 7, 1941.

Three US cruisers, three destroyers, a target ship, and a minelayer were also sunk or heavily damaged.

Recovery work started immediately. Within three months most of the smaller ships and three of the battleships – the USS Pennsylvania, the USS Maryland, and the USS Tennessee – were either returned to service or refloated and steamed to the continental US for final repairs.

Resurrection of the rest of the fleet took longer. The shallow water of the anchorage made work on the battleships possible, but not easy. The USS Nevada, for instance, had one large and many small holes in her hull. Her interior was full of water and many compartments were burned out.

“Most significantly, her deficiencies in watertight integrity, which had led to her sinking in the first place, now had to be made good under very difficult circumstances,” notes the official Navy History and Heritage Command account of the effort.

Two men lost their lives after breathing poisonous gases that had accumulated in the ship’s interior. Eventually she was refloated and shipped to Bremerton, Wash., for repairs. She rejoined the active fleet in late 1942.

The USS California was even more damaged than her sister the Nevada. She had been holed by two torpedoes and a bomb and was fully submerged to the main deck level. Salvage teams built a wooden cofferdam on her superstructure, above the waterline, to aid in recovery and pumping efforts. Divers closed manhole covers and doors. After refloating and an extensive rebuild at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, the ship returned to the combat fleet in early 1944.

The USS West Virginia was the most severely damaged battleship that lived to fight another day. Her port side had been ripped up by eight Japanese torpedoes, according to the official Navy account, and her rudder had been ripped off by another.

The ship’s contents, from 800,000 gallons of fuel oil to projectiles for her guns, had to be removed before the ship could be patched and refloated. Work continued at Pearl Harbor until April, 1943. Extensively refitted at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, the West Virginia returned to service in July 1944 “and took an active part in the Pacific War’s final year,” according to the Navy.

The target ship USS Utah, and the battleships USS Arizona and Oklahoma, were the only ships the Japanese left beyond repair. The Utah remains on the Pearl Harbor floor along with the Arizona. The Oklahoma was raised after a massive effort but proved to be too damaged to return to service. [Editor's note: The original version of this story mischaracterized the Oklahoma's status.]

The effort to reclaim the fleet was, as the Naval History and Heritage Command says, “One of history’s greatest salvage jobs.” Divers spent over 20,000 hours underwater. Even in dry areas workers often had to wear gas masks to protect against the risk of toxic fumes.

The US Navy’s ability to limit the material damage of the Pearl Harbor attack was one of the reasons why Japanese military leaders later came to understand that on that fateful December day they had won a battle, but lost the war.

But in the end, time accomplished what they could not. All the recovered ships were eventually sold for scrap, or blown apart in target or atomic weapon tests, or otherwise decommissioned. (The USS Arizona is no longer a commissioned warship, but retains the right to fly the US flag as if she were on active duty.)

However, of the 101 US fighting ships present in Hawaiian waters on Dec. 7, 1941, one lives on. It is not a battleship, or a cruiser, or even a destroyer. It is the US Coast Guard Cutter Taney, which fired at attackers with its anti-aircraft guns from its Honolulu Harbor pier.

Today USCGC Taney is a museum ship located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It is the last warship survivor of one of the nation’s darkest days still afloat.

In this September file photo, President Obama speaks at a campaign event at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. At the same time Friday brought a better-than-expected jobs report, a new poll shows Obama with his highest approval rating since the killing of Osama bin Laden. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File)

Will high approval ratings boost Obama's leverage in 'fiscal cliff' talks?

By Correspondent / 12.07.12

As if to bolster the argument that President Obama has the upper hand in "fiscal cliff" negotiations with congressional Republicans, Friday’s news brought both a better-than-expected jobs report and a new poll showing Mr. Obama with his highest approval rating since the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The jobs report showed, contrary to expectations, almost no negative impact from hurricane Sandy or the looming fiscal cliff, with 146,000 jobs created in November. The unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent – although that was in part because more job-seekers dropped out of the hunt. 

At the same time, an Associated Press/GfK poll shows Obama’s approval rating now stands at 57 percent, up 13 percentage points from this time last year.

To some extent, that’s probably just the impact of the election (a winner always tends to look more appealing in the eyes of the public). But that doesn’t mean the president can’t leverage that popularity in the current negotiations. He could also plausibly argue that the public backs his vision for the economy, since the poll showed 54 percent of Americans believe Obama will be able to improve economic conditions in his second term – though only 40 percent now expect it to improve over the next 12 months, down from 52 percent before the election.

Of course, 63 percent of Americans still describe the economy overall as “poor.” But that number has dropped from an eye-popping high of 86 percent back in August 2011, after the debt-ceiling debacle – something neither party wants to repeat.

In terms of what else the public believes Obama will be able to accomplish in his second term, strong majorities expect the president will be able to implement his health-care law and remove all US troops from Afghanistan. But in a sign that Americans remain skeptical about the likelihood of a true “grand bargain” with Congress on deficit reduction, only 40 percent say Obama will be able to reduce the federal budget deficit over the next four years. And only 37 percent now describe him as an “outstanding” or “above average” president – far below the 65 percent who described him in those terms after he first took office.

One big second-term stumbling block for most presidents, Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning wrote this week, tends to be contentious relations with Congress – an area where Obama has so far shown little inclination for real improvement. And in general, second terms tend to be far less productive for most modern presidents, in part because term limits effectively make them into “lame ducks” almost from the get-go. That means if there's a window for Obama to accomplish much of anything, it's probably in the next year or so. The fiscal-cliff talks could be one of the few opportunities he has this term to leave a big mark – if he's able to wrangle a long-term deal.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (right) talks with Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming as they walk to meet reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday following a GOP strategy luncheon. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Debt ceiling debate twist: Sen. Mitch McConnell filibusters himself

By Staff writer / 12.06.12

Just in case the pending political apocalypse of the "fiscal cliff" wasn't enough to satisfy America's attention span, the US Senate on Thursday conspired to remind voters that another equally apocalyptic fiscal issue is looming out there on the horizon.

Yes, the debt ceiling will be making a comeback no later than early 2013, and senators decided to talk about it Thursday.

Not surprisingly, it illuminated the complicated politics and policy that go along with raising the national borrowing limit these days. And also not surprisingly, perhaps, it went nowhere, concluding with the somewhat comical scene of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky filibustering his own proposal.

Welcome to Capitol Hill.

The story begins with President Obama's own debt-ceiling proposal. Essentially, on Wednesday, his Treasury Department asked Congress to cede its power over the debt ceiling to him.

This is how it would work: The president would ask to raise the debt limit and Congress would have 15 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval. The president could then veto their disapproval and require Congress to override his veto with 60 percent majorities in both bodies.

The proposal was important for two reasons.

First, it mirrored a plan originally proposed by Senator McConnell back in 2011 for raising the debt ceiling, giving Democrats the slim political cover to call it the “McConnell Provision.” 
 
Second, it would shift effective control of the debt-ceiling debate from Capitol Hill to the White House – and would give Congress a very high vote threshold to block the measure, to boot.

Democrats – and some in the business community – like this approach because it would almost certainly prevent political confrontation from pushing the US into a default on its debts. When Congress and the White House tip-toed up to that possibility last summer, stock markets, consumer confidence, and business investment tanked. Actually defaulting could be catastrophic, economists warn.

But there’s another view on the debt ceiling.

On Wednesday night, Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio sent a letter to the White House cosigned by 43 GOP Senators (enough to sustain a filibuster and block the legislation) telling the president, in short, to forget about his debt ceiling dream.

Senator Portman and his colleagues argue that the debt limit has helped focus Washington’s attention on the issue of debt and deficits, and that significant debt-reduction deals in the past have been attached to hikes in the debt ceiling.

“In short, nearly every significant deficit reduction law of the past 27 years has been linked to a debt limit debate,” the letter said. “For Congress to surrender its control over the debt limit would be to permanently surrender what has long provided the best opportunity to enact bipartisan deficit reduction legislation.”

But never underestimate the congressional urge to make your opponents look silly.

Out of the blue, McConnell came to the floor Thursday and asked for a vote on the president’s proposal.

McConnell was hoping to put Democrats in the awkward position of having to vote for ceding Congress’s authority over the debt ceiling to the president. As he put it in his morning remarks, “by demanding the power to raise the debt limit whenever he wants by as much as he wants, he showed what he’s really after is assuming unprecedented power to spend taxpayer dollars without any limit.”

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada objected, putting Democrats in the position of blocking a vote on their president’s proposal. Yet within hours, Democrats sensed a way to turn the tables – and were ready to call McConnell’s bluff.

They returned to the floor and offered to bring the matter up for a vote immediately, concluding that, politically speaking, they would be happy to argue that fixing the debt ceiling permanently was the fiscally responsible thing to do – even at the cost of congressional authority.

“Our downgrade of America’s credit rating was not based on the state of our economy but the debt-ceiling debate,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois to reporters after the affair. “We are paying dearly for that already. So the Republicans are creating a situation which makes reducing the debt and deficit extremely difficult by creating this uncertainty about the debt ceiling.”

So what did Mitch McConnell do, facing a vote on his own suggestion from just hours before?

He offered two magic words – “I object” – and filibustered his own suggestion.

With that move, the threshold to pass the bill jumped from a simple majority to 60 votes and the vote was abandoned, though Senator Reid promised to push for a vote on the matter in the weeks to come.

The result? The entire debt-ceiling debate had gone no further than it started the day.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina speaks to the Values Voter Summit in Washington in this file photo. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File)

Does Sen. Jim DeMint's departure spell doom for conservatives on the Hill? (+video)

By Correspondent / 12.06.12

It may have been a coincidence, but it certainly seems highly symbolic that, on a day when the chattering class is increasingly buzzing about a likely Republican “cave” on taxes in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint announced he is leaving the Senate to head up the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The announcement was unexpected: Senator DeMint's term wasn't scheduled to expire until 2016. But in a way, the move isn’t all that surprising.

Consider: DeMint has been one of the Senate’s most far-right members, a tea party stalwart who, more than almost anyone else in that body, worked to recruit ideological allies and challenge those in his party he deemed insufficiently conservative.

He was known for his early championing of conservative stars like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. But in 2012, he also had some high-profile embarrassments – including Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, two candidates who lost Senate bids in states many Republicans felt they should have won. As Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) told NBC’s First Read when asked about the “lessons” of DeMint’s tenure: "I think if you're interested in having Republicans control the Senate, you have to back Republicans who fit their state and who can win in a general election, not just in the primary.”

More to the point, DeMint may have decided that changing government in the way he envisions may actually be easier for him to do from the outside than the inside. Lately, some of the most effective pressure on Republicans has come from outside groups like the tea party, the Club for Growth, and of course, the ubiquitous Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the famous no-new-taxes pledge.

As DeMint himself said in his statement announcing his departure: “I’m leaving the Senate now, but I’m not leaving the fight. I’ve decided to join The Heritage Foundation at a time when the conservative movement needs strong leadership in the battle of ideas.” 

Similarly, former DeMint adviser Matt Hoskins told The Fix’s Chris Cillizza: “He sees his role now as working with the grass roots on the outside to bring out real change in Washington.”

Of course, DeMint’s decision may also reflect more practical considerations: Republicans failed to recapture the majority in the Senate, and it's a simple fact that it’s just not as fun to be in the minority. There is also a likely substantial difference in salary (the current president of Heritage reportedly makes more than $1 million a year).

But for now, it seems inevitable that the move will be cast as both a sign of the conservative movement’s limited clout on the Hill – as well as the growing power of its grass-roots networks.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is shown through the blue glow reflecting from stage light framing as he hosts a town hall meeting, in Murray, Ky, in this January file photo. He talked about Actress/activist Ashley Judd's activism in a radio interview Wednesday. (John Wright/The Paducah Sun/AP/File)

Rand Paul slams Ashley Judd as too liberal for Kentucky. Is he right? (+video)

By Staff writer / 12.06.12

Is actress/activist Ashley Judd positioned too far to the political left to get elected as a senator for Kentucky? That’s the charge one of her potential political opponents is making. Sitting Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, in a radio interview Wednesday, said that Ms. Judd is “way too ... liberal for our country” and lives much of the time in the United Kingdom with her Scottish husband, race-car driver Dario Franchitti.

“I heard she lives in Scotland; I thought she was running for Parliament,” Senator Paul joked during his WMAL appearance.

He went on to point out that Judd has long opposed mountaintop-removal coal extraction, in which summit ridges are scraped off to allow easy access to coal seams beneath. Environmentalists say this method is polluting and destructive, but it is widespread in Appalachia, where mining is an economic mainstay.

“She hates our biggest industry, which is coal, so I say, good luck bringing the ‘I hate coal’ message to Kentucky,” Paul said.

In terms of the politics here, Paul has a point. Whether she’s too liberal for Kentucky may be an open question: Lots of Kentuckians don’t like their mountaintops ripped up, either. But her political involvement to this point has certainly focused on national issues as opposed to state concerns. That can be a problem in statewide elections.

Even incumbents get into trouble when voters think they’ve lost touch with home concerns. Remember Richard Lugar? He’s the most senior Republican in the Senate, or was. He got beat in 2012’s GOP primary, partly because of perceptions that he’d gone native in D.C.

Judd’s spoken out on a long list of causes that, however worthy, are national as opposed to Kentuckian in scope. She’s big on protecting young women against sex trafficking, for instance. She’s been a global ambassador for YouthAIDS, a group dedicated to raising awareness of this scourge among those ages 15 to 24.

She’s filmed public-service announcements for World Malaria Day and abortion-rights groups.

Yes, Paul isn’t exactly focused like a laser on local issues, either. He’s the emerging voice of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. But prior to running for the Senate in 2010, he’d been head of a state antitax group, the Kentucky Taxpayers United, for decades.

As we recently pointed out, Judd is also involved in state-level politics – but not in Kentucky. She was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention from the Volunteer State, and she read out Tennessee’s vote totals during the roll call.

During that mini-speech, she spoke proudly about her adopted home: At the moment, she lives on a Tennessee farm when she’s not in Scotland. She promoted it as “home of former Vice President Al Gore,” among other things. We’re pretty sure that clips of this speech might find their way into GOP attack ads if she does decide to run for the Kentucky Senate seat.

To sum up, if she wants to jump into electoral politics, Judd’s got to do some bridge-building back in the state where she grew up and her family has deep roots. She’s getting talked up as an opponent for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in 2014, but if she decides she needs more time, she could run against Paul in 2016.

Some conservatives have another suggestion for someone they paint as a Hollywood liberal.

“Maybe Judd should think about running in California,” writes Ed Morrissey on the right-leaning Hot Air website. “She could hardly be worse than Barbara Boxer.”

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