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First thoughts: Specter's shocker

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Specter's shocker: Arlen Specter's defection yesterday to the Democratic Party was big news for several reasons. First, it gave Democrats a possibility at a filibuster-proof majority (even though Specter said he wouldn't be an automatic 60th vote for Dems, he'll be more reliable than Ben Nelson). It also gave Specter a MUCH greater chance at winning re-election (he admitted that was the reason for the switch, rare frankness from a politician). But perhaps the biggest news from the switch -- at least in the short term -- was that it served to kick a GOP that's already down. As Specter said in his statement yesterday, "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right… I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans." Translation: There's no longer room in the GOP for someone like Specter, even though he resides in a state Obama carried by TEN percentage points last November. While plenty of Republicans are bidding good riddance to Specter, we have this question: Can the Republican Party regain control of Congress without moderates like Specter? Don't forget this truism in American politics: Winning races often comes down to winning the middle (see: Obama, Barack). 

*** A wake-up call for the GOP? So will a majority of the folks who help run the Republican Party -- be it in Congress, on the campaign trail, or even on talk radio -- realize that Specter's loss is a problem, not an extraction of some sort of moderate or liberal cancer? It will be interesting to monitor talk radio and the conservative blogosphere to read and hear what they are saying about Olympia Snowe's op-ed in the New York Times, particularly this line: "We can't continue to fold our philosophical tent into an umbrella under which only a select few are worthy to stand. Rather, we should view an expansion of diversity within the party as a triumph that will broaden our appeal. That is the political road map we must follow to victory." The Washington Post's Balz also puts it well: "The question now is whether Specter's departure will produce a period of genuine introspection by a party already in disarray or result in a circling of the wagons by those who think the GOP is better off without those whose views fall outside its conservative ideological boundaries."

Video: Former Speaker of the House discusses Specter's decision to become a Democrat.

*** The ultimate Obamacan: Obama, Specter, and Vice President Biden made statements about Specter's party switch at the White House earlier this morning. Said Obama, "I'd like to think his decision is a reflection that this White House is open to many different points of view ... and [will] work together to find common ground." Make no mistake about it: Specter's defection is a huge gift to Obama -- for the sole reason that it creates the perception to the American public that he not only wants to work with the other side; he's also willing to expand his tent to take them in. Remember, most folks don't "know" Specter that well outside of Pennsylvania and Washington. And all it looks like to the average citizen in Denver or in Raleigh or in Orlando is that a Republican decided that Obama's Democratic Party was a good home for him.

Video: Obama welcomes the news that Specter plans to switch parties.

*** Obama as Reagan? To mark his 100th day in office today, President Obama makes his 13th trip as president (to yet another battleground state!) when he travels to Arnold, MO to conduct his eighth town hall at 11:20 am ET. Then, about nine hours later, Obama heads back to Washington to hold his 11th press conference (his third in primetime). Yet perhaps the most revealing number of the president's first 100 days comes via our brand-new NBC/WSJ poll: A whopping 81% say they personally like Obama, including 30% who disagree with his policies. That kind of number not only seems to give him extra political capital, it also forces our pollsters to compare him to another political figure who was well-liked, even by those who didn't always agree with him -- Ronald Reagan. We'll say it again: Obama's parallels so far with Reagan are uncanny. The country likes him (61% approve of his job, 64% view him favorably); the nation feels better despite the uncertain times we're living in (the right track number in our poll is up 31 points since October); and the political opposition is being reduced to a regional party (just like the Phil Gramms left the Dems in the 1980s, the Arlen Specters are leaving the GOP).

Video: TODAY correspondent Jamie Gangel takes a look back at some of the most memorable moments from Obama's first 100 days in office.

*** The L-word: Despite those high marks for Obama, there are a few warning signs in the poll for the president. A majority think he's taking on too many other issues rather than staying focused on the economy; another majority disapprove of his order closing Gitmo; there are concerns about government spending and the size of the deficit; support for his stimulus has declined; and the number who view him as "very liberal" or "somewhat liberal" has jumped up 10 points, from 49% in January to 59% now. That liberal number, however, has to scare and excite both parties. Here's one way to look at it: More and more Americans view Obama as liberal, especially after unveiling his budget, and that will eventually come back to bite him. Or here's the other way to look at it: More Americans view him as a liberal, but that isn't affecting his popularity. If it's the latter, that draws yet another Reagan comparison. Is Obama re-defining liberalism the same way as Reagan re-defined conservatism? Republicans believe if the word "liberal" remains a dirty word, they can drag Obama down. But if Obama makes the word "liberal" something not to run away from (as Reagan did with the word "conservative"), watch out.

*** A torturing issue: Another set of cautionary numbers for Obama comes on the tricky subject of interrogation. A majority (53%) disapprove of his decision to release the Bush administration memos detailing its controversial interrogation practices. In addition, a plurality (46%) believe that those interrogation techniques helped extract important information to stop terrorism. And 61% say there shouldn't be a criminal investigation into whether torture was committed during the Bush administration. (While other national polls have shown that respondents favor a commission, note the word "criminal" in this particular NBC/WSJ question; words matter in polling.) Despite those results, a majority (53%) say that torture was practiced during the Bush years. These numbers paint a nuanced picture about the public's views on interrogation/torture. "What people are saying is, 'Bad things may have happened… But whatever happened, it is in the past," observed NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). Bottom line: The president's initial instinct to "move on" is where the public is; he seemed to move away from that "move on" decision later on this issue. No doubt, this will come up at tonight's press conference, and the president will get another opportunity to button-hole the issue.

Video: Tapes show Bush calling for tough tactics in investigating torture, which may shed light on the current debate. MSNBC political analyst Eugene Robinson discusses.

*** Bush's freefall continues: George W. Bush has been out of office for 100 days, has stayed out of the news (even made a point to SAY he'd stay out of the news), and get this -- his numbers went DOWN in our NBC/WSJ poll, from 31% positive in January before he left office to 26% now. Cheney's numbers also went down, from 21% positive in January to 18% now. Cheney's drop makes sense to us, because he's been in the news battling the Obama administration. But Bush? He hasn't done a thing…

*** A consequential presidency: With Obama's 100th day in office, there are a ton of analyses out there. Be sure not to miss what one of us wrote on MSNBC.com: "[C]onservatives and liberals alike can agree on one thing after 100 days of President Barack Obama: This guy is going to be consequential. Now, how one defines "consequential" depends on the point of view.  Nothing about the first 100 days indicates that the president wants to be judged on his incremental achievements. And while we've probably never elected a president whose goal was to tread water and simply not screw up the country, one can sense that we're at a crossroads in the American story." Also, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, who broke yesterday's Specter story, has a good look at the winners and losers during Obama's first 100 days. 

*** Is the Voting Rights Act outdated? Per NBC's Pete Williams, the U.S. Supreme Court today hears a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get the federal government's permission before changing election practices. Under the law, any changes those states want to make are presumed suspicious, because of their histories of blatant racial discrimination. But Williams notes that challengers from Texas are asking the court to rule that the pre-clearance section of the law is so seriously outdated that it's unconstitutional and should be overturned. Why do we need this law, they ask, when we now have a black president -- proving that whites and blacks alike will vote for black candidates? By any measure, they say (registration, turnout, election of candidates, membership in Congress) that blacks have made huge gains at the polls, and the southern states have made enormous strides in eliminating the practices that for so long suppressed the black vote.   
 
*** Did Obama's victory change everything? But according to Williams, the NAACP and other groups say now is not the time to dismantle the most important civil-rights law in U.S. history. They say many areas of the South are still trying to pull the old tricks to suppress the minority vote. If the Voting Rights Act is gutted, they say, that kind of discrimination will re-emerge. Obama's election is an important symbol, they argue, but the hard-won progress can slip away unless the law is upheld. One more note from Williams: In a sign of the prominence of this case, the court will release the audio of today's oral argument shortly after it concludes in late morning. Our take: The numbers are interesting, a ton of ways to slice it. Obama under-performed Kerry among white voters in quite a view Voting Rights Act states. Then again, Obama over-performed Kerry in some of those same states overall, thanks to an increase in turnout among non-whites.

Countdown to NJ GOP primary: 34 days
Countdown to VA Dem primary: 41 days
Countdown to Election Day 2009: 188 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 552 days

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