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First Thoughts: The Khaddafy question

Khaddafy: What’s the policy -- does he stay or does he go? … Obama again talks of handing off leadership on “no-fly zone;” hopes for Arab support … But U.S. is a war-weary nation … Congress doesn’t like feeling like its out the loop … Webb, Lugar keep up criticism -- Obama not in DC, can’t call them in … WH starts the pushback on congressional input … T-Paw gets in -- his path, his problem … Barbour gets NYT/WaPo treatment … McCaskill’s major plane problem … And if it’s Tuesday…

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Domenico Montanaro, Ali Weinberg, and Carrie Dann
*** The Khaddafy question: The news that broke this morning: An American F-15 fighter jet crashed in Libya, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reports. The U.S. says there was no evidence of hostile fire; the pilots detected mechanical problems they couldn’t fix and both ejected and are safe and suffered only minor injuries. The aircraft was on a mission to strike Libyan air defense systems, and the aircraft originated from "a base" in Europe, a U.S. spokesperson said. Yesterday in Chile, President Obama reiterated that the coalition forces’ objective was NOT to take out Khaddafy, but instead to protect the Libyan people and that the United States was standing up for their “legitimate aspirations” – something that “must be met.” Asked to defend his prior statements that Khaddafy must step down and how he squares that with saying the mission was not necessarily to remove Khaddafy from power, Obama said it was “easy to square” the military action with his stated policies and reiterated that Khaddafy needs to go.

*** ‘Isolation’ vs. ouster: He said the U.S. has at its disposal a “wide range” of initiatives to put Khaddafy in “isolation,” like freezing his assets, for example. He again tried to explain the distinction between U.S. policy, arguing for Khaddafy's ouster with the limited humanitarian justification of the military strikes. There are lots of reasons to cling to this distinction: (1) some key Arab allies couldn't support the mission if making Khaddafy a target was part of the plan; (2) don't forget the U.S. policy against assassination; (3) it's un-Bush, and when it comes to foreign policy postures, this administration never wants to be seen as doing something Bush-ian. The Bush team had a similar mindset in their first term when it came to comparisons to Clinton. Still the ambiguity lingers when on NBC’s TODAY Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stressed that U.S. policy IS to get Khaddafy out. By the way, speaking of Bush, Tom Ricks this morning on NPR laid out what he sees as the real difference between Obama’s foreign policy and Bush’s -- what he calls Obama’s "realistic ambiguity" vs. Bush's "false clarity.” He said military leaders do not express confidence in Obama’s leadership, but view him with "puzzlement.” Then again, they initially liked Bush's "false clarity," Ricks said, but by the end of the Iraq war, they were "swearing off the moonshine at that point."

*** On transitions and Arab countries: Obama also stressed yesterday that the U.S. will “transition” to others leading the way on enforcement of a “no-fly zone” and said he’s confident that Arab countries will be involved -- though there’s no sign of that happening as yet. Just one Arab country has signed on for now -- Qatar. And while the administration still hasn't provided details of the command structure that will oversee the “no-fly zone,” it is still confident they'll hand this off in "days not weeks." By the way, it’s been four days since the phrase “days not weeks” has been attributed to the White House. As for public opinion, not a lot of data out there. A CNN poll out yesterday, conducted over the weekend, showed American support for a no-fly zone has increased to 70%-27% up from 56%-40% last week. The president’s approval rating held steady at 51%-47%.

*** Congressional unhappiness: It's very hard to find a member of Congress completely supportive of the Obama administration’s handling of Libya. And judging by the slowness of the administration to pushback against the Congressional critics, it's safe to say, they underestimated this issue. For one thing, things moved faster last week than even they anticipated. The U.N. resolution push was seen, at first, as potentially a week-long project, but Amb. Susan Rice got it done in about 36 hours, and so the "consulting with Congress" stage became simply an "informing the Congress" program. But there are two other factors to consider:

*** A war-weary nation: (1) Congress, like many in the country and military has war fatigue. The Afghanistan war is unpopular, so the whole aspect of another war, another military operation is a tough sell. And it appears the administration underestimated the fact members of Congress, even the reliable foreign policy activists, were going to channel the public's war fatigue.

*** The trip problem: (2) Congress does not like being out of the loop -- and out of the decision-making -- and has a knee-jerk reaction against executive power. That’s particularly true for those that want to have a say in foreign-policy matters, like Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). Both were on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports yesterday continuing to be critical of the president’s handling of Libya. “This isn’t the way our system is supposed to work,” said Webb, who is not seeking reelection in 2012. He also criticized what he sees as the lack of clarity on the mission. Lugar was blunter: “I’ve said from the beginning that the plan is not simply there. The objectives, the end game is not apparent.” This is part of the problem with Obama conducting a war from overseas. He can’t mind his domestic flank. If he were in Washington, he’d be able to get some of the foreign policy realists into the Oval Office and personally make his case. Perhaps more phone calls could help, but the president appears to be using any time he has for calls to calm down allies who are also growing increasingly unhappy and growing increasingly more comfortable saying so.

*** The pushback: Administration officials began to push back yesterday in Chile on the notion that the White House did not consult with Congress. Exhibit A for them: a Senate resolution that passed March 1, which denounced Khaddafy's atrocities. The White House says the U.N. resolution authorizing force in Libya incorporates it. The resolution was adopted unanimously and urged, in part, “…the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.” BUT this is a “non-binding” resolution and does not amount to or have the legal standing of a declaration of war. The administration also made a few other weaker arguments claiming consultation, including a meeting Friday at the White House that smacked a lot more of "informing" Congress rather than "consulting."

*** T-Paw gets in: Yesterday, Tim Pawlenty became the first top-tier candidate to announce an exploratory committee in the 2012 election (Newt Gingrich announced a Web site and filed paperwork with the IRS but did not file with the FEC). Pawlenty did so on Facebook -- with a movie-trailer-like video. He’s the first candidate in history to announce on Facebook. Forming a committee allows Pawlenty to begin raising money, hiring staff, and renting office space. And it takes him a step closer to officially announcing his intention to run for president, which is expected later this spring, probably in May. In the next week, expect he will announce new staff hirings in Iowa and New Hampshire and name the leadership of the exploratory committee. Just asking… but didn't Pawlenty take away the effectiveness of the Facebook announcement by announcing BEFORE he did it that he was going to have a "special Facebook posting”? Why not simply do it, and allow the viral to happen? Isn't that the way to build Facebook trust?

*** Pawlenty’s path: Pawlenty will be one of the candidates vying to be the “Anti-Romney.” And the Anti-Romney needs to win Iowa -- though Pawlenty will also make a real push to win New Hampshire -- and yes, appear in some more hockey garb in the hockey-loving state. As we noted last week, Iowa seems to be the incredibly shrinking field, with Pawlenty and Barbour (and maybe Gingrich) as the only top-tier candidates who, at this point, look like they’re going to play strongly. A win there will give the “Anti-Romney” the necessary momentum to make a real go at it. As an ex-governor of a neighboring state, Pawlenty should be able to do well. As the Thunes and Daniels’s of the world fade out of this race, one could argue Pawlenty is now in the pole position to be the “Anti-Romney.” He's in a very good pre-announcement phase.

*** His potential speed bumps: Pawlenty has a consistent conservative record on lots of issues -- except one. Each of the candidates has their potential Achilles’ Heels -- Romney (health care and authenticity), Barbour (demographics), Gingrich (personal life), Huckabee (fundraising/organization), Palin (lack of discipline/self-reflection/intellectual curiosity). For Pawlenty, it’s climate change. This is someone who cut a radio ad with then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano urging Congress to “Cap greenhouse gas pollution, now!” He once touted his support of 2007 renewable energy legislation, “which established strict statewide greenhouse gas reduction targets of 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2015 and 80 percent below those levels by 2050,” as FactCheck.org points out. “Minnesota has been setting the pace for the country in terms of advancements in renewable and clean energy development,” Pawlenty said once. He now says it was a mistake.

*** And it’s on tape: A Democratic Minnesota state senator was happy to cut a video earlier this month and issue a press release laying out just how pro-change and cap-and-trade Pawlenty was. Pawlenty’s answer before conservative bloggers at CPAC, per a video posted on Hot Air: “Have I had a few clunkers along the way? Yes, but everybody who’s running who’s been in office has got a few clunkers. I think mine are fewer and less severe than most.” He added, “It’s one thing to be conservative when you have a full conservative state, a full conservative legislature, come on up to Minnesota and try it.” And: “Have I changed my position on it? Yes. But I’m not going to be cute about it … Yeah it was a mistake. It was stupid. I was wrong. I changed my position.” Will that be enough? By the way, Gingrich has a similar issue on climate change, see his TV PSA with Nancy Pelosi.

*** Dee plane! Dee plane! Part 2: Yet again, NOT a good headline for Claire McCaskill: “Claire McCaskill admits to $287,000 in unpaid taxes on private plane,” the Washington Post writes. “I have convinced my husband to sell the damn plane,” McCaskill told reporters on a conference call Monday afternoon, per the Post. “I will not be setting foot on the plane ever again.” This is just the latest in a string of problems for McCaskill involving her private plane. This is a MAJOR problem for her -- not just in how she used the plane, but that she owned one in the first place. The plane issue and her vocal support of President Obama during his 2008 will be her biggest vulnerabilities in trying for reelection in 2012 in a state that has trended away from Democrats. (Missouri is ranked No. 4 on First Read’s Top 10 Takeovers.) By the way, the NRSC has made a concerted effort to turn this plane flap into a major issue. That's how campaign committees can be effective early in the cycle.

*** DCCC targets Republicans on entitlements: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will announce this morning it’s targeting 10 Republicans for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) forthcoming budget that will likely propose cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits. The targets: Paul Gosar (AZ-1), Bill Young (FL-10), Allen West (FL-22), Dan Benishek (MI-1), Joe Heck (NV-3), Lou Barletta (PA-11), Blake Farenthold (TX-27), Ryan (WI-1), Sean Duffy (WI-7), and David McKinley (WV-1). The DCCC, which launched a Web site called, “StopBenefitCuts.com,” will run newspaper ads, robo-calls, make live calls, and send out e-mails -- all to begin tomorrow. File this under: “Reason No. 650 Why Ultimately Nobody Sitting In A Real Swing District Will Seriously Touch Entitlements."

*** On the trail: Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) is in Carson City, NV, where he holds a press conference (4:30 pm ET) with Republican leaders, including Republican darling, Gov. Brian Sandoval. … Rudy Giuliani (R-NY) is in Palm Beach, FL … Pawlenty participates in a public lecture (8:00 pm ET) with Christina Romer, the former chairwoman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

*** If it’s Tuesday: The next mayor of Tampa, the host city of the 2012 Republican National Convention, will be chosen today in a runoff election between former City Council member and public affairs executive Bob Buckhorn and pharmacist-turned-county commissioner Rose Ferlita, who edged out three other candidates during the March 1 election to replace outgoing two-term mayor Pam Iorio. While the election is nonpartisan by law, both major parties have endorsed the candidate who is a member of their party -- Buckhorn by the Democrats and Ferlita by the Republicans. Ferlita was ahead of Buckhorn by 10 points in a March 8 Tampa Chamber of Commerce poll, but the race may have tightened since then, as Iorio endorsed Buckhorn two days later, after initially saying she’d stay out of the race.

Countdown to continuing resolution’s expiration: 17 days
Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 143 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 231 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 321 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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