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First Thoughts: Chuck Hagel's big day

Chuck Hagel’s big day… Confirmation hearing begins at 9:30 am ET… Conservatives begin to push back on immigration reform… Obama comments on gun violence in Chicago… GDP news complicates everyone’s talking points… John Kerry and Al Gore -- two different paths after losing the presidency… On Bob Menendez and violating Crisis Management 101… Breaking the glass ceiling in NYC and LA?... And Cuccinelli echoes Romney’s “47%” comment?

*** Chuck Hagel’s big day: Yesterday the theatrics on Capitol Hill were all about guns. Today they’re about Chuck Hagel. As Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee begins at 9:30 am ET, the former Nebraska senator’s chances to be President Obama’s next defense secretary look better than at any point since his name was first floated. It’s likely that every Senate Democrat -- due to Chuck Schumer’s support -- will back Hagel. And right now, there’s at least one Republican (Thad Cochran) who’s planning to vote for his former GOP colleague. That’s 56 votes, which is enough for majority passage but not enough to prevent a filibuster. But do Republicans really pursue a filibuster against their former colleague? Talk about some story if they do. All that said, Hagel also has little margin for error. A bad performance today could undo all the positive momentum his nomination has had over the past couple of weeks. Bottom line: As long as there are no surprises, Hagel is likely to make it. But it also isn’t going to be easy. The most contentious questioning today is likely to come from GOP Sens. Jim Inhofe, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz.

*** Conservatives push back on immigration reform: After the bipartisan Senate framework and after Obama’s speech in Las Vegas, some conservatives are beginning to push back. Here is Sen. David Vitter (R-LA): “I love and respect Marco [Rubio]. I think he’s just amazingly naïve on this issue.” And here was the National Review yesterday: “Republican immigration reformers with an eye to political reality should begin by appreciating that Latinos are a Democratic constituency. They did not vote for Mitt Romney. They did not vote for John McCain. They did not vote for George W. Bush, and in the election before that they did not vote for George W. Bush again... Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies. Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey.” Wow. But National Review is forgetting some recent history. In 2004, W. Bush won 40% of the Latino vote -- up significantly from McCain’s 31% in ’08 and Romney’s 27% in ’12. Folks, getting 40% of the Latino vote (vs. 27% to 31%) could be the difference between winning a close election or losing it. By the way, Rubio today addresses the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors in DC.

*** Rubio’s full-court press: Meanwhile, Marco Rubio’s full-court press to at least neutralize conservative critics continues. Within hours of RedState’s Erick Erickson publishing a diary against Rubio’s immigration compromise, Rubio responded with his own diary. Rubio’s message was similar to the one he had for Rush Limbaugh the day before -- he’s reluctantly come to the conclusion he has no choice but to try and forge a compromise. Trying to make the best of a bad situation is his message to these skeptical conservatives. What we found intriguing is that comments in response to Rubio while universally skeptical of the immigration plan were almost all personally praiseworthy of Rubio. So, so far, this strategy is working for him. By the way, Rubio today addresses the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors in DC. That’ll be a fairly friendly audience as many business groups want action on immigration.

*** Obama comments on gun violence in Chicago: Yesterday’s Senate hearing on guns was everything we thought it would be. It packed emotion (see Gabby Giffords) and conflict (Sen. Dick Durbin vs. Wayne LaPierre), and it suggested just how hard the debate will be. In addition to telling Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart that he’s going to “put everything I’ve got behind” immigration reform, President Obama commented on guns. When Diaz-Balart asked Obama why there’s so much gun violence in Chicago despite its tough guns laws, the president replied: “Well, the problem is that a huge proportion of those guns come in from outside Chicago. I mean, what is absolutely true is that if you are just creating a bunch of pockets of gun laws without having sort of a unified, integrated system, for example of background checks, then you know it's gonna be a lot harder for an individual community, a single community, to protect itself from this kind of gun violence. That's precisely why we think it's important for Congress to act.”

*** GDP news complicates everyone’s talking points: Wall Street didn’t overact to yesterday’s drop in GDP, and it’s quite possible that tomorrow’s government jobs report could be a strong one. Yet what appeared to have slowed down the economy in the last quarter was a decline in government spending -- especially defense spending and this was PRE-sequester. And that has thrown a wrench into everyone’s talking points. Obama and the Democrats want to point to a steadily growing economy, which the GDP news complicated. And Republicans want to say that cutting spending is the path to economic prosperity, which the GDP news also complicated since it’s clear it’s the LACK of government spending that slowed the economy last quarter.

*** John Kerry and Al Gore -- two different paths: In the past week, we’ve seen a confluence of events surrounding the last two defeated Democratic presidential nominees. John Kerry, who lost the 2004 election, overwhelmingly won confirmation to be secretary of state, and he delivered his farewell speech to the Senate as his colleagues (Democrat and Republican) celebrated him on the way out. And then there’s Al Gore, who lost the 2000 election (but won the popular vote), as he’s been giving numerous TV interviews to sell his new book. In her own interview with Gore, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked him about his sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera, which made Gore million and millions of dollars. “Well, I think it's important to focus on Al Jazeera itself. I completely understand the criticism and the point of view that you're reporting,” Gore told Mitchell. “But the fact is that Al Jazeera stands all around the world as a highly respected international newsgathering organization.  And its climate reporting has been outstanding far better than what's available now.” As the saying goes, there are always second acts in politics. And it’s interesting to see the two VERY different paths Kerry and Gore have taken. The other aspect of watching these two men who both came so close to the presidency: Kerry appears to be the same guy he was in 2004. Gore, on the other hand, seems quite different.

*** On Bob Menendez… : Per NBC’s Jonathan Dienst, Michael Isikoff, Pete Williams, and Tom Winter, the FBI on Tuesday night searched the offices of a West Palm Beach eye doctor who -- together with his family -- has donated more than $200,000 to Democratic candidates. He also has served as a fundraiser for Sen. Robert Menendez. FBI agents were seen carrying out boxes of materials from the offices of eye doctor Salomon Melgen. Law enforcement officials told NBC News there is an investigation underway, but declined to detail its focus. Last fall, New Jersey Republicans filed a complaint with the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee against Senator Menendez, alleging he accepted free flights to the Dominican Republic on a private jet and stays at Melgen's villa there at the Casa de Campo resort in violation of Senate rules.  The ethics complaint also questions whether some laws might have been broken. Yesterday, Menendez’s office issued this statement: "Dr. Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Sen. Menendez for many years. Senator Menendez has traveled on Dr. Melgen's plane on three occasions, all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately. Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false."

*** … And violating Crisis Management 101: But Menendez violated a cardinal rule of Crisis Management 101: In this denial, he repeated the charge against him. It may seem like a small thing, but the fact is no major news organization -- including ours -- has been able to confirm any of the allegations on the prostitution stuff. And the evidence right now is so tenuous on the prostitution allegation that we decided it was irresponsible to even allude to it by saying “there are reports,” etc. However, the senator’s statement about the prostitution allegations has resulted in a lot of bad press on this front -- more than he would have gotten simply for his connection to the donor/friend under investigation.

*** Breaking the glass ceiling in LA and NYC? While this off-year features the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, don’t lose sight of the 2013 mayoral races in New York City and Los Angeles. The reason: The glass ceiling in these two most-populated U.S. cities could be shattered. As it turns out, neither has ever had a female mayor before. But with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D) perhaps the front-runner in New York and with two Democratic women running in LA (City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Council member Jan Perry) that distinction could change this year. Here’s something else to chew on: Unlike in past years, neither mayoral field features a Latino candidate, so that means that Latinos will be the swing vote in these two races. In Los Angeles, the free-for-all primary is on March 7, and the general election is May 21 (if no one receives 50% in the primary). In New York, the dates haven’t been set yet.

*** Cuccinelli echoes Romney’s “47%” comment? Lastly, speaking of that gubernatorial race in Virginia, Democrats are pouncing on Ken Cuccinelli’s new book, arguing that some of the language in it isn’t too far removed from Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comments. An excerpt from the book, per the Washington Post: “One of their favorite ways to increase their power is by creating programs that dispense subsidized government benefits, such as Medicare, Social Security, and outright welfare (Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, and the like). These programs make people dependent on government. And once people are dependent, they feel they can’t afford to have the programs taken away, no matter how inefficient, poorly run, or costly to the rest of society.” More: “Citizens will vote for those politicians who promise more benefits each year, rather than the fiscally responsible politicians who try to point out that such programs are unsustainable and will eventually bankrupt the states or the nation.” No one can accuse of Cuccinelli of trying to do an election-year makeover. He is who he is, which is one the messages in his book. The question remains, though: Can Cuccinelli’s brand of conservatism win in swing-state Virginia. Every successful Republican candidate for governor in recent history has moderated to win (McDonnell, Allen, Gilmore etc), Cuccinelli does not appear to be following that same path.

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