Swing State Pres

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

March Month in Review: Obama Takes a Backseat in the News to Ryan, Rubio, Rand Paul and the Supreme Court (April 2, 2013)


It’s not often that the President is eclipsed in the news by both of the other branches of government, but that’s a fair assessment of the month of March.  President Obama embarked on a relatively staged and substantively unsuccessful “charm offensive’ with Capitol Hill Republicans, then fared better in another kind of charm offensive, in Israel, a first-time visit.

Anyone who thought that Obama might be able to swing a “Grand Bargain” with a few dinners and lunches simply hasn’t been paying attention.  The personal approach had to be tried (since it so obviously had not been tried before), but the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill slapping each other’s Irish backs, telling off-color jokes and hammering out backroom deals are over.  Obama is no extrovert – though, as he might say, he’s charming enough -- but charm is simply not the “coin of the realm” in 21st century Congressional relations.

So off Obama flew to Israel, where he and Bibi made nice, cracked some jokes at each other’s expense, and agreed to agree on almost everything.  Most notably, they agreed on the definition of the “red line” in Iran’s nuclear production capability that would trigger a military response, and Obama affirmed the U.S.’s unconditional support of Israel and Israel’s right to act as it sees it must with respect to self-defense.  Reports that Syria had used chemical weapons threatened to trip a line of its own, but Obama was quick to defuse, for the moment, this potential game-changer by saying that much confirmation was required before a military response in Syria was triggered.  Obama ended his trip by brokering an apology from Israel to Turkey for the former’s attack on a flotilla to Gaza that resulted in 9 Turkish deaths, the so-called Mavi Marmara incident.

But the big news of the month, politically, involved the dueling Budgets released by the House and Senate early in March, and the DOMA/Prop 8 arguments in the Supreme Court last week.

Paul Ryan released his latest Budget, and anyone who thought that being on the losing ticket in the last election might move the Veep-That-Wasn’t toward the center to forward his own presidential ambitions got a re-awakening.  Ryan’s budget now balances in 10 years, not 20, due to even more draconian cuts, and also his sly adoption of the Obama tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.  The Senate Democrats, meanwhile, passed their own Budget – no mean feat, it’s the first one they have passed in four years.  There is not a prayer that these two Budgets can or will be reconciled, so Congress failed once more to do the one thing that would truly help stabilize our U.S. economy:  reach an agreement, any agreement.

The Prop 8 and DOMA cases brought gay marriage front and center to the national consciousness.  To say that support for gay marriage is increasing is an understatement.  Today a majority of Americans support gay marriage, up from one-third only one decade ago.  But reading the tone of the court’s questioning, they don’t seem to be in any kind of mood to dramatically further the cause.  Look for them to toss out DOMA and decide not to review the Prop 8 case after all, which would thus leave Prop 8 tossed out as well based on the appellate court ruling.  But the bold move – to use the Prop 8 case to rule that gay marriage is constitutionally protected, opening up legal gay marriage in all 50 states – seems unlikely.

Senator Rob Portman, a finalist in the Romney Veep Sweeps, made news by coming out in favor of gay marriage, conceding that his own son’s admission that he was gay deeply influenced his change on this issue.  He stands alone among Republican Senators in supporting gay marriage (and only two House Republicans do so).  Why is it that the Dick Cheney’s and the Rob Portman’s suddenly decide their policies need revision when the issues hit close to home?  Might they feel this way about other parts of their agenda if similarly confronted?

Presidential Politics

What I found fascinating this month was the emergence of Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as the highest profile Republican presidential hopefuls, and how different their approaches appear to be.  Rand Paul may be almost completely crazy, but he is the one staking the position that the GOP is “stale and moss-covered."  Rubio, on the other hand, supposedly the freshest face of the party, sounded quite, well, stale and moss-covered with his statement that “we don’t need a new idea...the idea is called America…and it still works.” 

While those two duked it out at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), offering their different visions for the party, I was left with some modest whiff of a changing of the guard.  Jeb Bush got off to a very bad start in his tentative first steps to re-emerge on the national stage, publishing a book that contained some not-very-progressive-anymore immigration policies (notably offering no path to citizenship for the 12 million current illegal immigrants).  And Chris Christie, of course, was not even invited to CPAC, which may not be a bad thing.  But I do wonder if the Chris Christie boomlet is over, that he passed on running in 2011 when it was actually “his time,” and that he will never be “hotter” than he was then.  Barack Obama knew when it was his time – did Chris Christie blow it?

2013/14 Congressional Races

There are a number of March tidbits related to Congressional races worth noting:

·         There is a Senate election this year, in Massachusetts, to replace Secretary of State John Kerry.  First, there are primaries on April 30, and Representative Ed Markey has a double digit lead in March polling over various Democratic contenders, while Michael Sullivan (for U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts) holds a comfortable lead over his opponents.  Markey leads Sullivan by 17/18 points in recent polling, so it looks like the Democrats will hold Kerry’s seat, unlike two years ago when they lost Ted Kennedy’s seat.

·         Early in the month, Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) announced that his current sixth term will be his last.  While Levin has won his last two elections with over 60% of the vote, his retirement does leave an opening for the GOP.  Levin is the fourth Democrat to announce his retirement, following Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Tom Harken of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Tim Johnson of South Dakota.  Two Republican Senators are also retiring, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.

·         Also in Senate race news, Ashley Judd announced she would not pursue a challenge to Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat.  Judd, a Democrat, may not have had much of a chance to unseat McConnell, but she certainly would have pushed him to spend more.

·         And I call your attention to another 2013 special election, this one in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional district.  When Senator Jim DeMint resigned late last year, Governor Nikki Haley named the Representative Tim Scott to fill his seat.  This set up a rather high profile race to replace him in the 1st between Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch – the sister of Steve Colbert – and former Governor Mark Sanford, the guy who ran off to Argentina a few years ago with his mistress, while going silent with his staff and the news media for four days.  (Sanford finished first in the Republican primary but still needs to win a runoff before the May 7 general election.)  I can hardly wait to see how John Stewart covers this one!



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