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First Thoughts: Like sands through the hourglass...

Like sands through the hourglass, the latest in the Petraeus sex scandal… Will this reflect poorly on the military as an institution?... Obama meets with labor and progressive leaders at 11:30 am ET to talk about upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations… John Kerry as defense secretary?... Will Pelosi stick around?... And sifting through the exit polls: GOP lost on the issues, too… But there were two bright spots for the party (on role of government and health care).

*** Like sands through the hourglass…: Just when we thought the Petraeus sex scandal couldn't get any more bizarre, here are the new developments we’ve seen in JUST the last 12 hours: Last night we learned, via the Wall Street Journal, that the FBI agent who started the investigation that uncovered the affair between CIA Director David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell had apparently sent a shirtless photos to Jill Kelley. Kelley, you remember, is the woman Broadwell allegedly sent threatening emails to because she feared Kelly was a rival for Petraeus' affections. Then we learned that Gen. John Allen -- the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan who has been nominated to be head of U.S. forces in Europe and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO -- sent 20,000 to 30,000 pages of documents to Kelley (most of them emails). And then comes the news that Petraeus didn’t want to resign, at least until it became clear his affair with Broadwell would become public. Folks, you can't make this up; it sounds like "Young and the Restless," “Days of Our Lives" or an absurd episode of “Real Housewives.”

Handout / Reuters

General John R. Allen, left, incoming commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)/U.S. Forces- Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and General David H. Petraeus, commander, ISAF/USFOR-A, attend a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan in this July 9, 2011 file photograph.

*** Will this reflect poorly on the military as an institution? The question is whether these are isolated incidents or something more systemic within the military’s culture, especially its top commanders. In our May 2012 NBC/WSJ poll, respondents rated the U.S. military as the institution they had the most confidence in -- a combined 74% said they either had a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence in it. That’s was compared with just 42% who said the same about the presidency, 33% who said that about the Supreme Court, 25% who said that about religious leaders and organizations, 17% who said that about large corporations, 16% who said that about the federal government, and 15% who said that about the news media. As we’ve said before, we’ve become a society that has lost faith in its institutions. Is the military the next to go? This scandal, if it continues to deepen, could do what the Iraq war did NOT: erode trust in the military, at least with the leadership.

*** Latest in the fiscal cliff negotiations: At 11:30 am ET, President Obama and Vice President Biden meet with labor and progressive leaders to talk about the upcoming “fiscal cliff” negotiations. A reminder: The actual talks have not yet started; everyone has to get their politics out of the way first, and that’s what today’s White House meeting is all about. The question: How much leeway is the left going to give Obama, especially when it comes to entitlements? That’s what today’s meeting is about for the president, find out what the left’s breaking point is on Social Security and Medicare, for instance. Here’s more fiscal-cliff reporting from the White House’s side: Team Obama says that its last offer in July 2011 is not even a remote starting point. Their starting point is what they outlined afterward: raising tax rates for the wealthy back to the Clinton levels. And from the GOP’s side: Their starting position is that they are open to changing tax code, but not raising rates. But what they REALLY want are changes to Social Security and Medicare. Politico’s David Rogers makes a very good point: What comes first in the negotiations -- locking down a revenue target or actual tax rates? You can’t really debate rates until a revenue target is agreed upon.

*** Kerry as defense secretary? As one of us reported on “TODAY” on Friday, defense secretary is an option for John Kerry – if the White House decides to have Susan Rice succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. And the Washington Post picks that up today: “President Obama is considering asking Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to serve as his next defense secretary, part of an extensive rearrangement of his national security team that will include a permanent replacement for former CIA director David H. Petraeus. Although Kerry is thought to covet the job of secretary of state, senior administration officials familiar with the transition planning said that nomination will almost certainly go to Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.” But do note that tapping a new defense secretary might not be something we see for months, especially with the Petraeus/Allen news. The transition at State is expected a lot sooner. By the way, many Republicans, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, are promising a brutal confirmation fight if Rice is picked as they want to re-litigate her role in the Benghazi aftermath.

*** Will Pelosi stick around? Politico: “House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will meet with top Democrats on Tuesday night — followed by another leadership-only session early Wednesday as she prepares for a meeting with all House Democrats — but it is still unclear whether she will stay or go after nearly a decade in power. Pelosi has declined to discuss her plans since Democrats picked up as many as eight seats on Election Day. During an interview Sunday with San Francisco-based reporters on Sunday, Pelosi wasn’t giving anything away.”

*** Sifting through the exit polls: GOP lost on the issues, too: For all the talk about how Romney and the Republicans lost when it came to demographics, the turnout, and the tactics, the exit polls also show that they lost when it came to a slew of issues. For years, the GOP has branded itself as the party that supports low taxes (especially for the wealthy) and opposes abortion and gay marriage. But according to the exit polls from last week’s presidential election, a combined 60% said that tax rates should increase either for everyone or for those making more than $250,000. Just 35% said the tax rates shouldn’t increase for anyone. What’s more, 59% said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And by a 49%-to-46% margin, voters said that their states should legally recognize same-sex marriage.

*** But two bright spots for the GOP: Even on comprehensive immigration reform -- a subject that some Republicans (like George W. Bush) once supported, but most no longer do -- 65% said most illegal immigrants should be offered a chance to apply for legal status. (And since the election, GOP senators like Lindsey Graham and John McCain are now signaling renewed support of comprehensive immigration reform.) But there were two bright spots for Republicans on the issues: A majority of voters -- 51% -- indicated that the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and the individuals. By comparison, 43% said government should do more to solve problems.  That’s a reversal from 2008, when 51% said the government should do more and 43% said it is doing too much. And a plurality of voters -- 49% -- said all or some of the health-care law should be repealed, versus 44% who said it should be expanded or left alone. So even with this pro-Obama electorate, the president cannot claim a mandate on health care or role of government.

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