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JANUARY 13,  2012

SHORT TAKES ON THE DRIFTING WRECKAGE – AT 10:44 P.M. ET:

GINGRICH SURGES IN SOUTH CAROLINA – Three new polls show Newt Gingrich surging against Mitt Romney.  This contradicts national polls that show Romney gaining, especially among conservatives.  The South Carolina polls also show Rick Santorum losing support.  Gingrich is vastly better financed than Santorum, and is from a neighboring state, which may explain the polling.  Gingrich is working hard to emerge from South Carolina, which votes a week from tomorrow, as the only viable conservative alternative to Romney.

IRANIAN SCARE – News reports say that Iranian speedboats came within 500 yards of American naval vessels in an apparent provocation in the Strait of Hormuz.  The Iranians broke off, but that is a close distance in the naval combat scheme of things.  The Iranian boats did not respond to radio warnings before breaking off.  One threat our navy is concerned about is swarm attacks featuring a large number of small boats attacking a ship.  It was an attack by a small boat that damaged the USS Cole, which was dockside in Yemen in 2000.

EPA TO FORCE HIGHER GAS PRICES? – Senators of both parties are warning the Environmental Protection Administration about enacting rumored rules that, the senators say, can force gasoline prices up by 25 cents a gallon.  While no new rule proposals have been published, they are expected to be released shortly.  It's no secret that some members of the Obama administration have no problem with higher gasoline prices, which, they hope, will help force Americans away from dependence on gasoline and toward newer fuels...if they exist.

MONUMENT CHANGES – The Interior Department has approved changes to an abbreviated quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the new King monument in Washington.  The newer version more accurately reflects what King actually said.  That's fine, but no one seems to have an answer to a question that has hung over this major memorial:  Why did we allow a Chinese architect, rather than an American architect, to design it?  And why was it put together in Washington by Chinese labor, housed in a hotel, rather than American labor?  Nobody seems to want to know.

January 13,  2012     Permalink 

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POLL CONFIRMS UNPOPULARITY OF GOP IN CONGRESS – AT 9:33 A.M. ET:  A new Gallup poll confirms that President Obama remains more popular than congressional Republicans, which is one of the reasons that Obama is running against Congress.  From The Politico:

By a slim margin, Americans would rather President Barack Obama have more influence over the direction of the country than Republicans in Congress, according to a new Gallup Poll released Friday.

The survey finds that 46 percent would prefer that the president set the course of the country in the next year, while 42 percent said they would like congressional Republicans to do so.

Obama has been slightly more preferred on this question since the beginning of 2011, prior to which more Americans had thought GOP lawmakers should play the bigger role in directing the country.

COMMENT:  Republicans took control of the House in 2010, and what have they done with it?  Not much.  They botched the Social Security tax cut extension big time, giving Obama a boost in the polls. 

Democrats may not "win" the 2012 election, but Republicans are in danger of losing it, unless they can come up with creative solutions, good candidates, and a winning message.  So far, I give them a C.

January 13, 2012       Permalink

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CHRISTIE DOES SOME TRUTH TELLIN' – AT 9:14 A.M. ET:  Republican favorite and potential vice-presidential candidate, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, has done some truth tellin',  and it would be very wise for members of his party to take him seriously.  From The Politico: 

In a wide-ranging interview with Oprah Winfrey, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has kind words for President Barack Obama, calling him “charismatic,” “genuine” and “as good a politician as I’ve ever seen.”

Winfrey, who is a well-known friend of the Obama family, asked Christie what he thought of the president’s reelection chances. The New Jersey Republican responded with a raft of compliments, according to the AP, which has obtained a full transcript of the interview.

“Those who underestimate Barack Obama, underestimate him at their own peril. He’s as good a politician as I’ve ever seen,” Christie said. “I think he’s very charismatic. And I think he’s genuine. I think what he says he believes, he believes. That’s a very dangerous politician.”

Yup.  No doubt about it.  Obama's political machine is one of the best.  It will be relentless, and it doesn't accept second place.  Will Republicans understand?

And this little tidbit:

Christie also revealed to Oprah that he would be much more ready to run for president in 2016 than he was in this election cycle, noting that his “true compass” just didn’t signal that he was ready for a 2012 bid.

“Is that compass telling you that you may be ready four years from now?” Winfrey asked.

“Who knows? It depends on who wins. Is the president re-elected? Does a Republican win? I don’t know,” Christie said, reports the AP. “But in terms of me, I’ll be much more ready four years from now than I am now.”

COMMENT:  In the immortal words of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the most glorious sports team in history, "Wait 'til next year."

Now I wish the governor would take care of his health.  He is needed.

January 13, 2012       Permalink

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LET'S BE CAREFUL OUT THERE – AT 8:41 A.M. ET:  Mainstream news sources are reporting a possible change in Iranian policy, but two eyes and a magnifying glass are required for this one.  From Fox:

WASHINGTON – Iran has agreed to host a high-level team of United Nations nuclear inspectors later this month, according to Western diplomats.

The surprise development could help to curb building tensions with the West, The Wall Street Journal reported.

However, the U.S. warned Tehran against making good on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz -- a strategic waterway where 20 percent of the world's daily oil trade passes through -- The New York Times reported, adding that the Obama administration would consider such a move a "red line" and would respond accordingly.

The warning came as diplomats Thursday said Iran had tentatively agreed to receive a delegation from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headed by the agency's chief weapons inspector, Herman Nackaerts, The Journal reported.

The diplomats, who are based in Vienna, said the visit was tentatively set for Jan. 28. Unclear, said the diplomats, was whether Tehran would let the inspectors visit key nuclear sites and interview the Iranian official the U.S. and the U.N. agency believe may head a nuclear weapons program.

An Iranian diplomat in New York declined to comment to The Journal on the trip.

Fears of a conflict between Iran and the West have soared in recent weeks as the Obama administration and European Union began enacting sanctions targeting Tehran's oil exports and its central bank in a bid to persuade it to halt its nuclear program.

On Thursday, the U.S. raised pressure by sanctioned firms from China, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates for doing business with Iran's energy sector, the State Department said.

COMMENT:  "Caution" is the word.  The Iranians are absolutely expert at playing for time, which is what they're seeking right now.  The visit of UN inspectors means nothing unless the inspectors can go anywhere they wish.  And there may even be nuclear plants no one outside Iran knows about.

I must say – we give credit where it's due here – that there's been some very effective action by our State Department in recent days, getting some cooperation from Asian nations in reducing their purchases of Iranian oil.  And the Europeans are moving toward sanctions on the Iranian oil industry, the heart of the Iranian economy.

The sanctions are hurting.  No doubt about that.  A key question is whether they will hurt enough to get Iran to curtail its nuclear development.   Another question is whether Iran, under increasing pressure, will decide to strike first, possibly closing the Strait of Hormuz in an attempt at unifying its restless population around a nationalist cause.  Remember, the first step of many dictatorial regimes is to establish a foreign enemy and concentrate the public's attention on the "threat."

January 13, 2012       Permalink

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ELECTION YEAR CONVERSION – AT 8:32 A.M. ET:  President Obama, after deep thought and much prayer to the god of his choice, has decided that smaller government isn't a bad thing.  From AP:

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will ask Congress on Friday for greater power to shrink the federal government, and his first idea is merging six sprawling trade and commerce agencies whose overlapping programs can be baffling to businesses, a senior administration official told The Associated Press.

Obama will call on Congress to give him a type of reorganizational power last held by a president when Ronald Reagan was in office. The Obama version would be a so-called consolidation authority allowing him to propose mergers that promise to save money and help consumers. The deal would entitle him to an up-or-down vote from Congress in 90 days.

It would be up to lawmakers, therefore, to first grant Obama this fast-track authority and then decide whether to approve any of his specific ideas.

COMMENT:  A very shrewd and potentially effective political move.  I only wish the Republicans would learn to make shrewd, effective, political moves, but maybe that's asking too much.

Congress should grant the authority Obama asks, then make judgments on his proposals, demanding much greater streamlining of government and reform of the civil service.

January 13,  2012     Permalink

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JANUARY 12,  2012

SHORT TAKES ON THE DRIFTING WRECKAGE – AT 9:58 P.M. ET:

CONSERVATIVES LARGEST GROUP – Gallup reports that conservatives are the largest identifiable political group in America...again.  Some 40% of Americans call themselves conservatives, 35% moderates and only 21% are liberals.  This is the third straight year in which conservatives outpolled moderates.  What's interesting is the divide among Democrats.  Liberals and moderates have equal weight among Democrats, polling at between 38 and 40% each, while 20% call themselves conservatives.  This means that liberals are actually a minority in the Democratic Party, but you'd never know it by the party's image.

ROMNEY ROMPS NATIONALLY AND IN FLORIDA – Mitt Romney is picking up steam.  A  Gallup survey has Romney at 34% among Republican voters, to Santorum's 15% and Gingrich's 14%.  Ron Paul comes in at 13%.  For the first time in the Gallup survey, Romney has the support of more than a third of respondents.  Ron Paul's showing demonstrates once again that he really isn't that popular among Republicans.  Many of his primary votes come from those outside the Republican Party, especially libertarians and independents.  And a new Rasmussen poll shows Romney at 41% in Florida, 22 points ahead of the next competitor, Newt Gingrich, at 19%.

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT DEFENDS OBAMA RECESS APPOINTMENTS – The Department of Justice, otherwise known as the law firm of Obama & Holder, Ltd., is defending President Obama's extraordinary "recess" appointments to government agencies, made even though the Senate is not technically in recess.  Justice claims that the Senate's current pro forma sessions are not sufficient to offer the advice and consent required by the Constitution.  I suspect Republicans in the Senate will have a different point of view.  The matter may have to be adjudicated by the Supreme Court. 

HEAT ON IRAN – Saudi Arabia and several Gulf nations are assuring Japan, South Korea and China that they will supply extra oil if the Asian nations cut their purchases of Iranian oil.  This is part of an American-led campaign to squeeze the Iranian oil industry without driving up oil prices.  The issue, though, is whether Iran is willing to curtail its nuclear program.  Thus far, no amount of pressure has done that.

January 12, 2012       Permalink

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THE KEY IS KEYSTONE – AT 9:32 A.M. ET:   Major business groups are uniting in a campaign to get President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which will allow oil to flow from Canada to our Gulf Coast refineries.  From any energy or economic viewpoint, it's a no-brainer.  But the pipeline, while backed by labor unions, is opposed by "environmental" groups who dream of repealing the 20th century.  From The Hill: 

The nation’s most powerful business groups are dialing up the political pressure on the White House to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

December’s payroll-tax-cut deal gives the administration 60 days to approve or reject TransCanada Corp.’s pipeline to bring oil from Alberta’s tar sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue plans to highlight the pipeline in his closely watched annual speech Thursday on the state of American business.

“Keystone — and energy as a whole — will be a major element of Tom’s speech tomorrow,” a spokesman for the business group said Wednesday.

Separately, Business Roundtable President John Engler, a former GOP governor of Michigan, will hold a news conference Thursday touting what advocates call the jobs and energy security benefits of the project.

This week’s actions are part of a wider GOP and industry blitz in favor of Keystone. Republicans are using the pipeline as an election-season political weapon against President Obama, arguing he can create jobs and help the economy by approving it.

COMMENT:  The Republicans should continue using Keystone as an issue.  Americans understand the difference between intelligent environmental concerns and trendy environmental extremism.

Keystone is good for the U.S., and good for Canada, which, under Steve Harper, has been a stalwart ally.

January 12, 2012       Permalink

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED TO THE ECONOMY ON THE WAY TO RECOVERY – AT 9:01 A.M. ET:  After weeks of progress, the U.S. jobless claims number suddenly rose to 399,000, just 1,000 under the "danger" mark.  From Bloomberg:  

More Americans than forecast filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, raising the possibility that a greater-than-usual increase in temporary holiday hiring boosted December payrolls.

Jobless claims climbed by 24,000 to 399,000 in the week ended Jan. 7, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The median forecast of 46 economists in a Bloomberg News survey projected 375,000. The number of people on unemployment benefit rolls rose, while those receiving extended payments decreased.

Hiring by package delivery companies and retailers during the holidays to meet demand for gifts may now be giving way to an increase in dismissals. At the same time, claims figures are subject to greater volatility during this time of year, as the government has trouble adjusting the data for the seasonal swings in employment.

And...

Retail sales in December rose less than forecast, restrained by cheaper fuel prices and holiday discounting that helped hold down the value of goods purchased, figures from the Commerce Department also showed today. The 0.1 percent gain followed a 0.4 percent advance in November that was more than initially reported.

COMMENT:  We'll have to wait for three or more weekly reports to see if this is just a temporary problem, or indicative of a return to long-term doldrums.

Clearly, the state of the economy will have a profound influence on the election, and unemployment figures will probably have the most influence.  So figures like these are critical.

January 12, 2012       Permalink

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NAVY BOLSTERING IRAN-AREA FLEET – AT 8:42 P.M. ET:   The Navy, as is routine, denies that the shift has anything to do with events in the region, but American naval forces off Iran are being substantially reinforced.  From Fox:

A new aircraft carrier strike group has entered the Arabian Sea and another is on its way, a Pentagon official said in a news briefing Wednesday -- a shuffling of the U.S. fleet amid rising tensions with Iran.

Officials said there is no connection between the fleet movements and threats from Iran, however, the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson comes on the heels of Iranian military exercises in the Persian Gulf and threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil transit route.

And the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran on Wednesday further escalated tensions, as the Obama administration denied any role in the death.

The U.S. Navy announced Monday that the USS Vinson had arrived in the region to conduct missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts.

"We will work closely with our regional partners to demonstrate our commitment to security and stability in the region," Rear Admiral Thomas Shannon said in a written statement.

Captain John Kirby, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Media Operations, on Wednesday denied U.S. involvement in the killing of the Iranian scientist and said the incident has not changed the U.S. position in the Gulf region.

And the number of carriers in the region “does go up and down, but it's based on overall broad requirements in the region that the Central Command commander sets and establishes, [it’s] not necessarily … driven by a specific incident,” Capt. Kirby said.

Also, another warning about Iran's nuclear program:

VIENNA - Having switched production of higher-grade enriched uranium to a new, underground site, Iran is now just a year or so away from having enough such material for a nuclear bomb, a former head of UN nuclear inspections said.

However, Olli Heinonen wrote in an article published on Thursday that building a stock of some 250 kg of 20-percent enriched uranium - a form that could within weeks be further purified to the 90-percent weapons grade - did not automatically mean Iran could deploy a bomb without further engineering work.

And...

"If Iran decides to produce weapons-grade uranium from 20-percent enriched uranium, it has already technically undertaken 90 percent of the enrichment effort required," Heinonen wrote in a Foreign Policy magazine article.

"What remains to be done is the feeding of 20-percent uranium through existing, additional cascades to achieve weapons-grade enrichment ... This step is much faster from earlier ones."

COMMENT:  It's hard to see us getting through 2012 without a major confrontation, diplomatic or military, with Iran.  Europe is moving toward tougher sanctions on Iran's oil industry, and Japan is indicating it will cooperate more with the West on sanctioning Iranian oil.

January 12, 2012       Permalink

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TIGHTENING IN SOUTH CAROLINA – AT 8:27 A.M. ET:  The crucial South Carolina primary will be held a week from Saturday, and, according to a historically reliable new poll, the race is tightening as Newt Gingrich surges.  From Newsmax:

The InsiderAdvantage poll of South Carolina likely Republican primary voters shows Newt Gingrich surging, coming within a statistical tie of Mitt Romney.

The poll of 726 registered voters was completed Wednesday night and offered the following results:

Romney -- 23 percent

Gingrich -- 21 percent

Santorum -- 14 percent

Paul -- 13 percent

Huntsman -- 7 percent

Perry -- 5 percent

"New Hampshire and Iowa have had little impact on the race in South Carolina," Matt Towery, chief pollster of InsiderAdvantage, told Newsmax.

"In this survey Ron Paul is substantially less significant, freeing up independent voters to vote for other candidates who they consider more viable," Towery said, adding, "Gingrich has moved ahead of Santorum in competitive advantage."

COMMENT:  Romney had a much larger lead in polls taken only a week ago.  It was surprising because a former Massachusetts governor with a reputation as a moderate would not be expected to do well in this deep southern state.   Now the numbers look a little more realistic.

The key here is not only who wins, but who could be forced out of the race after South Carolina.  The likely dropouts are Perry and Huntsman.  Indeed, Perry came close to dropping out after Iowa.  If his faith-based message flops in South Carolina, what point would there be to stay in?  I think it's unlikely that Ron Paul will ever drop out, unless he plans to bolt the GOP and run as a third-party candidate.  In 2008 Paul refused to back John McCain.  He uses the Republican Party when convenient, then drops it when he feels the need.

That leaves Gingrich and Santorum.  Gingrich is very well financed, whereas Santorum is not.  If Gingrich could surge to a win in South Carolina, or even a strong second-place finish, an argument could be made that Santorum should withdraw, allowing the anti-Romney forces to coalesce around one candidate.  That candidate could be Paul or Gingrich, or they could split the anti- vote once again.

Romney of course benefits with the largest possible field, as that divides the non-Romney vote.

It's an exciting race.  And there still could be a dark horse out there.

January 12,  2012     Permalink

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"What you see is news.  What you know is background.  What you feel is opinion."
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