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First Thoughts: Where are the cuts?

How the political conversation has changed from “Where are the jobs?” to “Where are the cuts?”… And how the White House is still talking about (targeted) spending… Walker seems more isolated today than he did yesterday… Did Boehner blink?... Mayor-Elect Rahm… With Thune not running, we might not have a sitting U.S. senator in the presidential field… Thune’s decision benefits T-Paw, Santorum, and Barbour… And Dems create their Super PAC.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Where are the cuts? Yesterday, President Obama was in Cleveland, OH talking about small business and the economy -- and thanks to a number of big news events, it went largely unnoticed. But elsewhere in the Midwest and the country, the political debate is no longer about the economy but rather the budget. In his televised speech last night, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) didn’t back down from his plan that would force public employees to pay more for their benefits and strip their collective-bargaining rights. In Indiana yesterday, Democratic lawmakers, following the lead of their peers in Wisconsin, fled to Illinois to avoid voting on similar union-rights legislation. And yesterday, New Jersey Chris Christie delivered a heavily covered speech on the budget situation in his state, which landed him an interview on “TODAY” this morning. The question the Obama White House and Democrats need to be asking themselves is this: How did the political conversation so quickly turn from jobs to cuts? 

*** How the GOP and Tea Party have changed the dialogue: According to the 2010 midterm exit polls, 63% said the economy was the most important issue facing the country. In our NBC/WSJ poll last month, 49% said unemployment was the nation’s top economic concern, while the federal budget deficit was second at 17%. But “Where are the jobs?” has been replaced by “Where are the cuts?” As E.J. Dionne wrote on Monday, "No matter how much liberals may poke fun at them, Tea Party partisans can claim victory in fundamentally altering the country's dialogue." Indeed, many might be surprised to discover that overall employment actually DECREASED in New Jersey in Christie’s first year as governor. Yet that hasn’t stopped Christie from becoming the GOP’s biggest star right now and the inspiration to the new governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The political danger for Republicans is that they aren’t talking about creating jobs right now; in fact, the cuts they’re proposing -- and the infrastructure projects they’re eliminating -- would only increase unemployment.

*** And how the White House is still talking about spending: The White House has an opening, but is struggling to grab it. They’ve been trying, thanks to the creation of this new jobs advisory board, but other than press releases announcing the addition of another CEO to the list, it's looking like a little more than simply cheerleading the economy. And as long as the conversation is about cuts and not the economy, that’s a conversation that Republicans are going to win. Indeed, the White House is the only one talking about targeted spending -- in “winning the future” -- but we’ve barely heard it brag about a spending cut. They wonder why the public that does care about spending and the deficit gives the president very little credit? Find a single event about the budget held by the White House that's been about a spending cut in the last three months.

*** All by myself: Turning back to the budget standoff in Wisconsin, it’s worth pointing out how Walker appears more isolated today than he did yesterday. Consider: Indiana Gov. (and possible presidential candidate) Mitch Daniels refused to back the legislation in his state that would limit union negotiations. "For reasons I've explained more than once, I thought there was a better time and place to have this very important and legitimate issue raised," Daniels said, and it appears the state Democrats have won that battle -- for now. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott passed on a fight with organized labor. “My belief is as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine,” he said. What’s more, a new USA Today/Gallup poll shows that Americans oppose stripping away public employees’ collective bargaining rights, with 61% opposing a law like Wisconsin’s and 33% supporting it. Walker still seems like he will win the legislative fight -- the state Democrats have to return at some point -- but increasingly it seems that he’s losing the PR war.

*** Did Boehner blink? In a statement yesterday, House Speaker Boehner said, “If Sen. Reid refuses to bring it to a vote, then the House will pass a short-term bill to keep the government running -- one that also cuts spending.” Now, you have to read between the lines there, but it appears that House Republicans will accept any kind of temporary fix, as long as it cuts some kind of funding. It’s pretty clear they don’t want a government shutdown, and the statement by Boehner underscores that. It's amazing that one statement by Senate Majority Harry Reid was enough to get Boehner to pledge to send ANOTHER continuing resolution plan to the Senate before their initial offer was even taken up. If you are setting odds on a government shutdown this year, you should lower them today. Boehner's actions are making it crystal clear he'll do whatever it takes too avoid one.

*** Mayor-Elect Rahm: Last night, former White House Chief of Staff and former Congressman Rahm Emanuel won Chicago’s mayoral election, surpassing the 50% needed to avoid an April 5 run off. With 99% of precincts reporting, Emanuel grabbed 55% of the vote. The second-place finisher, Gery Chico, got 24%; Miguel Del Valle got 9.3%; and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun finished in fourth at 9%. (One has to ask: Could CMB even win her old job of "Cook County recorder of deeds" back?) Per the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel “won the predominantly white wards of his former congressional district on the North and Northwest sides. And the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama also scored substantial margins in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.”

*** Where are the senators? If you’ve spent enough time on Capitol Hill, you’ve probably heard this saying: “Every U.S. senator looks in the mirror and asks, ‘Why not me for president?’” Yet when John Thune yesterday said he won’t run for president next year, it raised the possibility that -- for the first time since at least 1904 (so in the modern era) -- no sitting U.S. senator will make a bid for the White House. In ’08, we saw a slew of senators like Obama, Hillary, McCain, Biden, Dodd, and Brownback all run. In ’04, we had Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, and Graham. In 2000, it was McCain. In 1996, it was Bob Dole. Etc. So just three years after Obama became the first sitting senator since JFK to be elected president, we probably won’t see one in the 2012 field. It says a lot about the baggage of D.C. Thune voted for TARP; it's likely a non-starter with most Republican primary voters.

*** Benefiting Pawlenty, Santorum, and Barbour: The big winners from Thune’s decision are the folks who seem likely to run for president and plant their flags in Iowa: Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Haley Barbour. In fact, the big winner might be Pawlenty, since he could very well be the only Midwesterner in the GOP field (if Mitch Daniels doesn’t run). Thune’s no-go clears some space and should help someone like Pawlenty financially in a VERY big way, as Thune was getting a lot of interest (along with Daniels) with Wall Street Republicans looking for a Romney alternative.  

*** The Dem response to American Crossroads: “Top Democratic operatives are quietly building an aggressive campaign machine to battle huge Republican third-party spending and sway critical Senate races in 2012,” Politico reports. “The strategists, including pros like longtime advisers to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, are putting the finishing touches on a group called the Majority PAC, a ‘super PAC’ that can raise unlimited money to attack or support candidates. It is modeled on the third-party operation, Patriot Majority PAC, which ran bruising TV ads against tea party candidates like Reid’s opponent, Sharron Angle, last year and mocked one of his prospective challengers, Sue Lowden, for suggesting she would be open to bartering chickens for health care.”

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 9 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 258 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 348 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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