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First Thoughts: The Politics of Terror

Terror threats have politicians spooked, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t politicking amid ominous new warnings....Could there be a sequester breakthrough in exchange for entitlement reform?.....Fancy Farm puts McConnell on defensive -- and so does Lindsey Graham’s new challenger....In Virginia, it’s McAuliffe who’s back on the defensive as GreenTech comes under SEC investigation....And a look ahead to what the next two months mean for immigration reform.

The U.S. State Department has extended the closing of 15 diplomatic posts and added four more to a list that will remain shut at least through Saturday, as a senior official says Al Qaeda militants have been discussing a "significant event" or "simultaneous attacks." NBC's Richard Engel reports.

***Terror politics return. Washington and the government is still consumed today with this yet-undefined terror plot that’s now closed at least 19 U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Africa through Saturday, August 10. There isn’t a government official who’s seen some form of this intelligence who isn’t spooked by it. The threat is from AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, aka Yemen) but officials have been careful not to identify what kind of plot they think they’ve stumbled on. Essentially, just about every member of the country’s national security apparatus has called this warning the most dire since before the president took office in 2009. On NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Senate Intelligence Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) called the chatter “very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.” It was interesting to watch the weekend chatter and see many members of Congress and others use the terror warnings to advance their own agendas.  Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CNN that the new threats were evidence of why the phone surveillance program was needed. "To members of the Congress who want to reform the NSA program, great,” said Graham. But if you want to gut it, you make us much less safe and you’re putting our nation at risk.” Former PA Sen. Rick Santorum, who admitted he was eyeing another presidential bid, saw the warning as another chance to bring up the administration’s failures in last year’s attack on the Libyan consulate. “This is to me a direct response to what we saw in Benghazi and the general program the administration has which is not being aggressive.” A few questions we don’t have the answers to -- Did the administration go public because they didn’t know specifics, so CYA (over) learning the lessons from Benghazi? Was this about using tactics from the Bush era, which was, go public and hope it breaks up the plot, scares the terrorists off for a time? Or something else?  Either way, no one, left or right, appears to be criticizing the Obama administration’s extra caution.

***Budget battles gone, but not forgotten. With Congress gone, the president will get much of this week to himselfto try and shape the fall budget debate. He’s going to Arizona tomorrow, then L.A. to do “Leno” then (if history is a guide) hold an end of the summer press conference. But it’s worth noting a few things we think we learned this weekend about where the GOP leadership may be on the budget. On “Fox News Sunday,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Republicans are open to a sequester compromise if the president and Democrats are open to talks on entitlement reform. “The House really is the only one who has consistently engaged in trying to address the spending problem,” said Cantor. “And this fall is going to give us a great opportunity, I think, to all come together and try and tackle the real problem, which is the entitlements.” Left unsaid by Cantor is what entitlement reform has to look like. There’s been some chatter in GOP circles that it’s about simply taking the president’s offer on chained CPI.  The argument by some Republicans on this strategy is that Republicans would be able to claim victory on stopping the sequester and getting an opening to begin entitlement reform without capitulating to the president’s demand that chained CPI (which would change Social Security benefits among other things) come with some new tax increases. But would the president be open to this?  Chained CPI in exchange for turning off sequester? Seems reasonable now… but who knows.

***Shutdown politics. But it’s not just the sequester driving worry in the states -- GOP threats, however hollow or real, of shutting down the government over health care funding, aren’t amusing to even GOP governors, and they’re clearly worried their D.C. counterparts’ risky strategy could backfire, big time. If rebellious lawmakers were looking for cover on their threats, they won’t get it from even some of the most conservative state executives.  NYTimes’ Jonathan Martin, from the NGA meeting in Milwaukee has the scoop: “A range of Republican governors, including some who have refused to implement elements of the health initiative in their states, said in interviews that a standoff in Washington before the new fiscal year this fall could backfire on the party if it is seen as being responsible for bringing the government to a halt.” It’s not a new knock from the chief executives, who know they have to have something to show for in their states, even if they’re opposed to Obamacare and have even refused to implement some of its provisions. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant: “Many of the members of this party do not want to fund Obamacare, but what we have to do as governors who work with our legislators is realize the reality of being able to get something passed.” And WI Gov. Scott Walker, another outspoken opponent of the bill: ““I have made the case that Obamacare is not good for the economy, but I have some real concerns about potentially doing something that would have a negative impact on the economy just for the short term — I think there are other ways to pursue this.”  By the way, the pressure on Ted Cruz now? When governors like Scott Walker, a hero to many of the same conservatives Cruz is trying to appeal to, say his strategy threatening a gov’t shutdown over health care is not a good one, it’s going to give the Texas newcomer pause, right?

***What we learned from Fancy Farm. The 2014 Kentucky Senate race officially kicked off with one of the country’s premiere political events in tiny Fancy Farm, Ky., as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came face to face with his two opponents -- sort of -- with the political debuts of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and tea party challenger Matt Bevin.  And if one is to judge simply by the speeches, then Kentucky really is going to be ground zero for political junkies in 2014. All three were very good. Yes, there are other senate races that will be as competitive (and are important to decide which party controls the chamber) but all of the issues the GOP has inside its own party and that Democrats and the White House have with Republicans on Capitol Hill are all wrapped up in this race.  McConnell made clear he wants to, and believes he can win, by running against Obama, both in the primary and the general. He didn’t even mention Grimes by name once, and completely ignored Bevin, and his one allusion to Grimes-- a joke slamming Grimes’ father, former state party chairman Jerry Lundergan for donating to Anthony Weiner, fell flat. McConnell fleshed out his strongest argument in the red state though -- that his election could be the difference between a Republican or a Democratically controlled Senate, and that his seniority has actually been a boon for the commonwealth. McConnell: “We’re deciding who’s going to run the Senate: A Nevada yes man from Barack Obama who believes coal makes you sick, or the other guy you’re looking at.” Grimes did what she needed to do -- she was poise, on message, and sacked McConnell on his weaknesses. She painted the Republican and his nearly three decades in Washington as part of the problem and as one of the instigators to the obstruction that’s paralyzed Congress. Her most well-received zinger of the day: “If the doctors told Sen. McConnell that he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it.” And while the Secretary of State has been criticized for her less than two years in that office, she joked, “Do I need to apologize for having more government experience than Rand Paul?”  Bevin is also getting good reviews from his debut -- though McConnell has already left before Bevin spoke at the end. The Louisville Courier Journal’s Joseph Gerth noted that "Bevin delivered what may have been the sharpest attack of the day, urging McConnell to 'be a man' and stand up to the President. 'I don't intend to run to the right of Mitch McConnell. I don't intend to run to the left of Mitch McConnell. I intend to run straight over the top of Mitch McConnell and right into the U.S. Senate,' Bevin said in his speech." Bevin was good enough that he is likely to be a vehicle that some on the right use to pressure McConnell this fall during the budget fights.

***Graham’s new challenge. A good question to watch over the next few months -- who is more endangered, McConnell or Graham, who just got a sharp new challenger from Nancy Mace, the first female Citadel graduate. Mace, in her announcement speech, per the Charleston Post & Courier: “We cannot change Washington unless we change who we send to Washington.”  Graham certainly hasn’t made things easy for himself in the conservative Palmetto State, where he’s particularly alienated voters on his votes for immigration reform and working across the aisle every chance he can. To Graham, that’s the point of legislating and using his influence. Graham’s allies in the state point out he’s well-prepared for the fight ahead of next June’s primary, with $6.3 million in the bank and a super PAC forming on his behalf. Some may think that a crowded primary could help him -- Mace’s decision to run wasn’t all that surprising to observers in the state, and Upstate businessman Richard Cash was already running, and state Sen. Lee Bright is expected to announce soon. But if he is under 50% in the June contest, the two week runoff sprint will be nothing but free media for whoever his challenger is, and give conservatives another chance to coalesce against him.  On Sunday on CNN, Graham didn’t signal he’d change with the new challenger in the race: "I will continue to be Lindsey Graham, a solid fiscal and social conservative who wants to solve problems. That’s the future of the Republican Party."

***Virginia governor: Race to the bottom. Every other week in the Old Dominion contest, either Ken Cuccinelli or Terry McAuliffe is on the ropes. Last week, Democrats were gleeful when Cuccinelli said he wouldn’t return gifts he received from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, even as Gov. Bob McDonnell said he would. But Friday brought some of the worst news yet for the Democratic nominee -- a Washington Post bombshell that the SEC was investigating McAuliffe’s former GreenTech car company over its dealings with foreign investors. The new revelations only bolster the whole argument Cuccinelli has been trying to drive home -- Republican’s belief that McAuliffe is nothing but a phony businessman and his car company was only a shell.   But this isn’t just about the Virginia race. These new revelations have a trickledown for Hillary-world too, and it was her brother, Anthony Rodham, whose company helped McAuliffe get the visas for investors now in question. And speaking of the Clintons, the Post took another look at just how this is playing for her 2016 hopes, and lots of blind quotes from Hillary allies who say they’re “furious” with the thought that somehow McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign is her campaign-in-waiting-- something they may start to distance themselves further from even now. If these investigations go deeper, do the Clintons campaign for McAuliffe? How much help do they give? It’s much easier to distance themselves from Anthony Weiner in New York -- who has little chance of winning now -- and McAuliffe, who was so closely linked to Bill Clinton’s presidency.   

*** Not Every Member Of The Progressive Left Is Jumping On Clinton Bandwagon:  Finally, on this same topic, don’t miss this little Frank Rich warning shot at the Clintons, connecting the dots to various members of Bill’s old circle. It’s near the bottom of his piece railing against DC elite: “The ubiquitous Clinton fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe ... is currently running for governor of Virginia even as a Department of Homeland Securityinvestigation into a disputed visa has ensnared a company with ties to both him and Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham. Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin, best known now for her marital martyrdom,was discovered by Politico in May to have taken on other clients, including Teneo, a business and banking “global advisory firm” co-founded by the Bill Clinton majordomo Doug Band, in her final months in the taxpayers’ employ as a part-time consultant at the State Department.” //Ouch… it’s something some on the right have been pushing for some time now.


***Monday’s “The Daily Rundown” line-up: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif), NBC’s Richard Engel and NBC’s Pete Williams discuss terror threat latest, The Washington Post’s Dan Balz previews his new book “Collision 2012” and will join us for our gaggle segment along with executive director for the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles Alfonso Aguilar and former CBC director Angela Rye.

***Monday’s “Jansing & Company” lineup: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on terror threats, former Amb. Marc Ginsberg & Reuters Foreign Affairs columnist David Rohde on what’s next for embassies overseas & Edward Snowden, NBC7 San Diego reporter Brandi Powell & clinical psychologist Patricia Saunders on San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s future as he begins rehab in the wake of his sexual harassment scandal, NBC Sports Radio Network’s Rob Simmelkjaer on the pending A-Rod suspension announcement, and Republican strategist Rick Tyler & Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons on 2016 presidential politics.

***Monday’s “NOW” with Alex Wagner:  Buzzfeed’s John Stanton, Maya Wiley, Founder and President, Center for Social Inclusion, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Contributing Editor, New York Magazine, Michael O’Hanlon, Senior fellow and Director of research for the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution. Marc Morial, President, National Urban League and Chris Russo, Host, SiriusXM's Mad Dog Radio.

*** Monday’s Andrea Mitchell Reports: NBC’s Pete Williams, former Amb. Christopher Hill on embassy closure, the Daily Fix with Chris Cillizza and Kasie Hunt. NBC’s Ron Mott and Bob Costas on MLB suspensions, NBC’s Ann Curry from Tehran and many more.

***Monday’s News Nation with Tamron Hall: Terror analyst Evan Kohlman, USA Today's Bob Nightengale, The Chicago Sun Time's Lynn Sweet, and The Boston Globe's Mike Bello on the Whitey Bulger trial.


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