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The narrative shifts on Iraq

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Rachel Wellford and Simone Pathe  June 20, 2014 at 9:06 AM EST
President Obama speaks about Iraq in the Brady Briefing room of the White House Thursday. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Obama speaks about Iraq in the Brady Briefing room of the White House Thursday. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • GOP holds fire toward Obama on Iraq
  • Why the shift in tone?
  • Obama’s still in a tough spot politically
  • Red state conservatives get their leadership spot
  • Walker accused of “criminal scheme”

Muted GOP reaction to Obama on Iraq: President Barack Obama’s announcement Thursday that he is sending about 300 military “advisers” to Iraq, but no combat “boots on the ground” (and reportedly also considering targeted air strikes), received a fairly muted Republican reaction. The toughest stance came in a joint paper statement from the more hawkish Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “We are deeply concerned that the president continues to make political change in Iraq the prerequisite for greater U.S. military and other actions…” they said. But making Iraqi political change an important qualifier for more of an American commitment was exactly what Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee said he wants. “Until the Iraqi government itself is willing to make some concrete steps to change the way they’re doing business with the Sunni people, I don’t think we overcommit,” Corker told reporters Thursday on Capitol Hill. He also called what Obama laid out “a reasonable step.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who tends to be more hawkish, said Obama offered “the beginning of an outline of what I hope will be a concrete plan we can all rally around.” And he added, “I’m not advocating any specific military action at this moment.” In fact, he said, “most of the goals I outlined [on counter terrorism] could be accomplished without American combat presence on the ground.” Even McCain and Graham called the president’s speech a “positive step.”

The Petraeus factor? After nearly a week of inaction, the president’s announcement seemed to quell those calling for it. You also wonder how much of the narrative shift has to do with Gen. David Petraeus’ remarks in London in which he said, “This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight.” That seemed to take the edge off those calling for even more U.S. intervention. It’s also interesting that the tonal shift is taking place the day after former Vice President Dick Cheney came out hitting the president hard and after nearly a week featuring the cable rejuvenation of many of the neo-conservative voices responsible for or supportive of the Iraq war in the first place. Rubio, for one, said he felt both sides were spending too much time “debating yesterday.” The shift also comes amid a climate when Americans are skeptical of intervention, as ABC’s Gary Langer reminds. President Obama, he writes, is “reflecting not only his own policy preferences but also a steady theme in U.S. public opinion. … Steadily from late 2004 forward, a majority of Americans in ABC News/Washington Post polls saw the war in Iraq as ‘not worth fighting.’”

Tough spot: But Americans aren’t convinced either of President Obama’s approach to these foreign hotspots. The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine have taken a severe toll on the president’s standing. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week found him with the lowest foreign policy approval of his presidency — just 37 percent, down from 52 percent in Dec. 2012 right after he was re-elected. The president is in a tough spot — he’ll get blamed for problems around the world, even ones with no tidy solutions, but there’s little indication war-weary Americans want the U.S., and specifically American troops, to do much about them.

Obama’s bad week – has he lost whatever influence he had left? Bigger than just foreign policy, the NBC/WSJ poll also found Obama’s presidency on the edge, if not worse. His approval rating at 41 percent is an all-time low for the president in the poll; Americans say they don’t have confidence in his ability to lead -– 54 percent say he can’t lead and get the job done; and they find him and his administration LESS competent than George W. Bush right after Hurricane Katrina -– 50 percent say he and his administration are not very competent, four percentage points worse the Bush administration in March 2006. Writing in National Journal, Charlie Cook concludes: “There was a point when voters hit the mute button and stopped listening to George H.W. Bush and then to his son George W. Bush. We now seem to have reached that point with Obama. Voters have thrown up their hands and lost hope that things will get any better.”

What it might or might not mean for the midterms: No one came out looking very good in the poll. Just 29 percent view the Republican Party favorably. And after Eric Cantor’s loss to a tea party opponent in Virginia and ahead of Tuesday’s Mississippi primary, in which incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran is in a fight for his political life against his own tea party opponent, a record 40 percent of Americans think the tea party has too much influence on the GOP. All this presents a cloudy picture for the midterms. Obama’s approval certainly doesn’t help Democrats, especially in the red states where much of this election is being fought. An NPR poll finds Obama’s approval at just 38 percent in 12 states with competitive Senate races. But if views of the president are already baked in, and Democrats are still leading in some key places, Obama’s coattails might not be AS bad as history shows. As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten wrote Wednesday, “What we’re left with is two unpopular entities — Obama and Congress — somewhat offsetting each other, leading to a national environment…in which neither party has that great of an edge.”

The conservative Southern faction gets its member of leadership: There’s an inherent irony in the fact that Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California with a congressional district that is more than one-third Hispanic, easily won the race for majority leader when the job was opened in the first place, because Cantor was ousted in his primary after being viewed, in part, as insufficiently conservative. But not all was lost for conservatives. Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise won on first ballot in a three-way race for whip, the No. 3 leadership post, over Peter Roskam of Illinois, the chief deputy whip. By the way, just how deader than dead is immigration? Even if House Speaker John Boehner and McCarthy wanted to move on something, Scalise is so hardline, he does not believe people born in the United States should be granted automatic citizenship. He boasts on his congressional website that he was “an original co-sponsor of legislation that would end birthright citizenship, the Birthright Citizenship Act.” How hard does anyone think someone like Scalise would whip on immigration reform?

Walker ‘criminal scheme’: Prosecutors are accusing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker of participating in a “criminal scheme” to get around a state law banning coordination “in an effort to illegally coordinate fundraising among conservative groups to help his campaign and those of Republican state senators fend off recall elections during 2011 and ’12,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports. There was even an email from Walker to Karl Rove indicating that one of his top deputies, R.J. Johnson, would lead the coordination. “Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin,” Walker wrote. “We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities).”

How it all came out and Walker’s response: The documents came out as a federal appeals judge weighs a lawsuit from the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which is trying to stop the investigation because the group believes it violates the club’s First Amendment rights. A U.S. District court judge temporarily halted it. The state bars campaigns from coordinating with outside groups, but the Wisconsin Club for Growth maintains the ban does not apply to it because in the club’s ads — supportive of Walker and hitting his opponent — never explicitly said to “vote for” or “vote against” anyone. Walker Thursday called the allegations “categorically false” and said the effort by prosecutors “is nothing more than a partisan investigation with no basis in state law.” He pushed back again Friday in an appearance on Fox News, noting that two judges had already ruled against the prosecutors and “actually shut the case down.” Walker, who is facing a close re-election fight against Democrat Mary Burke this fall, said the investigation is a result of his push in 2011 to curb collective bargaining rights for state employees. “This is a prime example of what happens when you take on the big special interests.” The Democratic National Committee said the alleged coordination by Walker “is not only troubling and potentially illegal — it is a clear violation of the public’s trust.”

What’s next for Walker?: Walker and his team have been the subject of scrutiny for alleged coordination as well as doing campaign work on the public’s dime for two years. Democrat Tom Barrett focused on the investigation of Walker aides during the June 2012 recall fight, but failed to unseat the Republican governor. Following the release earlier this year of a fresh wave of emails from Walker’s staff during his 2010 run for governor (while he was Milwaukee County Executive), a Marquette Law School poll found the episode had a limited impact. Two-thirds of people surveyed said they had read or heard about the release of documents, but 53 percent of those respondents said the emails made no difference in their opinion of Walker. Forty-three percent said it gave them a less favorable view of the governor. How much the latest round of headlines resonates with voters will not only affect Walker’s chances this fall, but a potential run for the GOP nomination in 2016.

The ‘Mac Attack’ and Brett Favre vs. Sarah Palin and the ‘Love Connection’: Politico puts it this way: “Ladies and gentlemen, the circus has come to Madison County.” The Mississippi runoff has divided conservatives and is drawing a host of political celebrities and outsiders. Brett Favre cut an ad for Cochran and McCain is campaigning for him on Sunday, while on the other side, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and even former Love Connection game show host Chuck Woolery are rallying around state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Politico’s Alexander Burns writes, “The names and faces crowding around McDaniel would be familiar to voters in any number of political battlegrounds, lending a “Wizard of Oz”-like quality to the race.” Just how heated are things getting? McDaniel got into a shouting match with a man at a campaign appearance. By the way, Cochran’s campaign is doing what it promised, reaching out beyond the GOP base, explicitly appealing to black voters. The New York Times calls it “a remarkable political science experiment, and it also may be the only path to victory left to Mr. Cochran.”

Quote of the day: “You better keep him away from my husband.” — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaking about former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The National Journal published a profile of Schweitzer on Thursday in which the former governor used graphic language to criticize what he saw as Feinstein’s closeness to the intelligence community. Schweitzer took to Facebook Thursday to apologize for his comments, calling them “stupid and insensitive.”

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced the suspension of U.S.-Palestine Liberation Organization dialogue, after an attempt by a Palestinian commando group to land in Israel. When did US-PLO dialogue finally resume? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. Congratulations to David Pasch (@DavidPasch) for guessing Thursday’s trivia: When Truman signed the Universal Military Training and Service Act, which extended Selective Service until July 1, 1955, how else did the act change military service? The answer was: The age for the draft was lowered to 18.

LINE ITEMS

  • President Obama will meet with Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand at 10:55 a.m. ET.

  • President Obama plans to deport the unaccompanied migrant children coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. The president spoke with Mexican President Enrique Nieto on the phone Thursday about working together to return the children to their families and curb the number of kids coming into the United States.

  • According to a survey released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 6 in 10 enrollees in the new health care exchanges were previously uninsured.

  • Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks Friday before the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference that continues in Washington through Saturday. It will also be interesting to see how New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is received by the religiously conservative crowd. Other speakers include: Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain.

  • Following leadership elections, Sen. Ted Cruz invited House conservatives to an “off the record gathering” and “an evening of discussion and fellowship” on June 24.

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry says that he doubts Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has the “staying power” to make a lasting impact on Texas. “The idea that a personality in the political arena can change Texas may be a little bit outside the realm of reality,” Perry told reporters. “At this particular point in time, it’s a little early to say that a junior senator would have substantively changed the state.”

  • The federal government Friday will extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples, meaning that most agencies will now treat same-sex couples the same as heterosexual married couples regardless of the laws of the state in which they live. On Thursday’s NewsHour, Judy Woodruff explored the shifting tide of public opinion in support of same-sex marriage with Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere and David Crary of the Associated Press.

  • And in a sign of how far things have shifted in politics, the GOP’s three gay congressional candidates are featuring their spouses in their campaign ads online and in print.

  • Roll Call reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $7.3 million in May.

  • In New Hampshire, a Suffolk University poll released Thursday found Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen leading GOP challenger Scott Brown 49 percent to 39 percent.

  • The Senate’s appropriations process stalled on Thursday from disagreement between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over requiring 60 votes to adopt amendments.

  • The Bergen Record’s John Reitmeyer takes a closer look at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s shifting rhetoric on the state’s public pension fund.

  • After facing attack ads for his past support of a so-called “personhood amendment,” Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner wrote an op-ed in the Denver Post advocating over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives.

  • In Georgia’s gubernatorial race, Gov. Nathan Deal’s and state Sen. Jason Carter’s ads have taken a negative tone as they attack each other on education.

  • GOP candidates in Iowa’s wide open 3rd Congressional District are scrambling to woo the 513 delegates who will determine the party’s nominee on Saturday.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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