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First thoughts: The Afghan-Pak strategy

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The Afghan-Pak strategy: At 9:25 am ET, President Obama will announce that he's sending an additional 4,000 military trainers and advisers to Afghanistan, on top of the 17,000 he's already deployed there. As NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reported last night, the president's new strategy will focus on accelerating the training and doubling the size of Afghan security forces to take over the fighting. But this isn't just about Afghanistan; today's policies will also be about neighboring Pakistan. As Bloomberg News notes, "Obama also would support legislation to triple economic aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year in exchange for that country cracking down on Taliban and terrorists hiding out along border… The goal is to weaken and ultimately destroy al-Qaeda's havens and sanctuaries in Pakistan and prevent the terrorist group from returning across the border to Afghanistan, the officials said." Some might see today's announcement as a ramping of activity in Afghanistan, but is sending 4,000 trainers/advisers an acknowledgement of the opposite? Everything about this announcement today, in fact, has the feel of trying to minimize the military aspect of the conflict. To put it another way, this is a dramatic shift away from the philosophy some in the Bush administration pushed -- which was democracy for Afghanistan.

Video: NBC's David Gregory joins Morning Joe to discuss the usuage of bailout funds and the Republican Party's alternative budget proposal.

*** Dude, where's my budget? Let's be honest: Yesterday's House Republican budget rollout was a P.R. disaster for the GOP. "Here it is, Mr. President" was the title of the GOP Leader blog touting that they had answered Obama's dare to produce a budget. The problem -- their budget rollout didn't contain any hard budget numbers or deficit projections. They say those hard numbers will come out next week. But now we learn that Reps. Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan objected to unveiling yesterday's "blueprint," but were overruled by Reps. John Boehner and Mike Pence. But bigger than any internal disagreements or any criticism about a lack of details is the fact that yesterday's GOP non-announcement moved the attention away from the Obama-vs.-congressional Democrat storyline to the GOP's lack of a budget. In fact, after yesterday, the White House and congressional Democrats can agree on one thing: The GOP -- at least until next week -- is the "Party of No." What's more, it puts more pressure on Ryan to truly put out a comprehensive budget alternative; Also, this episode could end up creating a rift in the GOP over how to combat the Obama White House. After all, Senate Republicans wanted nothing to do with an alternative, and now Mitch McConnell, et al are either laughing at their House GOP colleagues, furious at them, or both.

*** And where's the money? We've suggested that the economic downturn could affect political fundraising, and today's Washington Post has numbers to back up that assumption. "In January and February 2005, the six national party committees collected a total of almost $49 million in individual contributions, according to an analysis of FEC records," the Post writes. "In the first two months of this year, those same committees collected $30.7 million, a drop of nearly 40 percent."

*** The magic circle: Speaking of political contributions, one of us on TODAY followed up on the recent reporting that several members of Congress who have been critical of the federal government's bailout of U.S. companies have received campaign contributions from these very firms just in the last six weeks, in the midst of the congressional venom directed toward the bailouts. Campaign-finance-reform advocate Fred Wertheimer says the government's been bailing out banks and other major "too-big-to-fail" firms -- as these same companies continue to use their PACs to make contributions. "It all adds up to kind of a magic circle involving the government, TARP recipients, members of Congress, and campaign contributions."  The reality, of course, is that these contributions, individually, aren't a lot of money. But many members of Congress (including Speaker Pelosi and Financial Services Chair Barney Frank) have decided against taking any of the money. The optics of this for both the banks and for the members of Congress is bad, and only feeds the credibility problems both entities have with the American public.

*** More tough news for Gillibrand? New York liberals have criticized Sen. Kristen Gillibrand over her past views on guns and immigration. And now they might have another beef  -- her past attorney work for Phillip Morris, according to the New York Times. "Now in the Senate seat formerly held by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ms. Gillibrand plays down her work as a lawyer representing Philip Morris, saying she was a junior associate with little control over the cases she was handed and limited involvement in defending the tobacco maker. But a review of thousands of documents and interviews with dozens of lawyers and industry experts indicate that Ms. Gillibrand was involved in some of the most sensitive matters related to the defense of the tobacco giant as it confronted pivotal legal battles beginning in the mid-1990s."

*** Obama makes an appearance in NY-20 -- sort of: Turning to Gillibrand's old congressional seat, the DNC has announced that it's airing a new TV ad that notes President Obama's endorsement of Scott Murphy (D) in the NY-20 special election. "In the worst recession in a generation," the ad goes, "upstate New Yorkers deserve someone with the right skills to represent them in Washington… In Congress, he'll work with President Obama to spur investment and create jobs right here at home." As Roll Call puts it, the DNC's ad is the "strongest attempt yet to link Obama with Murphy."

*** Man of Steele? As we've previously noted, Tuesday's special election in NY-20 contains plenty of good storylines. The race has turned into a battle over Obama's stimulus (Murphy supports it, while GOPer Jim Tedisco opposes it). It has become a barometer of the Republican Party's health in the post-Bush era (a loss would be devastating for the Republicans in this GOP-leaning district). And here's a third storyline: The contest has become a test for embattled RNC Chairman Michael Steele, given that he has made it a personal crusade of sorts. The RNC says it has transferred $200,000 to help Tedisco, and Steele has campaigned for him. What's more, Steele had said that a win in the race "will send a powerful signal to the rest of the country and especially those folks in the elite media who think they know so much more than the rest of the us." But what happens if Republicans lose this toss-up contest? As one GOP strategist told First Read, "Part of being an effective party leader is winning races we can win or should win. And this is a race we very much should win." (Click here for more.)

*** If it's Sunday… : Be sure to watch "Meet the Press" this Sunday, which will have Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in his first live Sunday morning interview, as well as John McCain.

Countdown to NY-20 special: 4 days
Countdown to Obama's 100th day: 33 days 
Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 67 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 74 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 221 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 585 days

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