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So Long, Congress (And Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out)

As for productivity, only 203 bills have been signed into public law so far during the past two years.

Except for some final votes the U.S. Senate still needs to take, the work of the 113th Congress (2013-14) has come to an end. And we’re pretty confident that the reaction to the news -- from the public at large, as well as longtime observers -- is this: “Goodbye, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” According to Gallup, Congress’ approval rating this year averaged just 15%, one point above last year’s record-low average. As for productivity, only 203 bills have been signed into public law so far during the past two years -- down from the 112th Congress’ previous record low of 283. (Of course, some conservatives celebrate this number, because they believe Congress should prevent bad bills from becoming law.) Even the easy, low-hanging fruit that this Congress passed (the recent spending bill, the VA hospital reforms) turned out to be harder than expected. And remember the government shutdown from Oct. 2013? Well, that happened under the 113th Congress’ watch.

What’s new -- and what isn’t

To be sure, congressional gridlock, poor opinions of Congress, and frustrated American voters aren’t anything new. But what is new is that Congress -- as well as the presidency -- has become more polarized in recent years, especially compared to what we saw after World War II. As the political scientist Brendan Nyhan wrote in the New York Times, “The mid-20th century was a historical anomaly — a low point in polarization that was made possible by the ugly history of race in this country, which enabled the rise of a group of conservative Southern Democrats who functioned almost as a third party. After the civil rights movement, the parties realigned on the issue of race, setting in motion a return to the historic norm of polarization that prevailed in the late 19th and early 20th century. This process, which is transforming all of our nation’s political institutions, has been supercharged by the way the parties have become more closely aligned with ideological movements than ever before.”

NBC/WSJ poll coming first thing tomorrow morning

What are Americans’ thoughts on this Congress? Have their opinions on President Obama changed a month after the midterms? And how are they viewing the still-developing 2016 race? Well, first thing tomorrow morning (12:01 am ET), we’ll be releasing answers from our final NBC/WSJ poll of the year. And speaking of year-end polls, Washington Post/ABC is out with theirs. “A majority of Americans believe that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half the public says the treatment amounted to torture,” the Post says.

Jeb Bush and the importance of South Carolina

Turning to 2016, Jeb Bush -- who appears to be getting closer and closer to a presidential run -- was in South Carolina yesterday delivering a commencement address at the University of South Carolina. And as Politico writes, the Palmetto State will be important to him if he does end up running. “Few early primary states, people close to Bush say, will be as important to Bush as South Carolina — the same state that paved the way for his brother, George W. Bush, to win the Republican nomination in 2000 and for his father, George H.W. Bush, in 1988.” Remember, South Carolina is the state that has produced conservatives like Jim DeMint and Nikki Haley, but it’s also produced the likes of Lindsey Graham. So it’s a conservative state where an establishment figure CAN have success. Then again, it was the state in 2012 that overwhelmingly sided with Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney. Go figure.

Al Franken says he’s ready for Hillary

The latest liberal Democratic senator to back Hillary Clinton instead of pining for colleague Elizabeth Warren is Al Franken. “I think that Hillary would make a great president,” Sen. Franken (D-MN) tells MSNBC’s Ari Melber in an interview that will appear on “The Cycle” today beginning at 3:00 pm ET. “I think, I certainly feel I haven’t announced that I’m supporting her, but does this count? I guess, maybe this counts.” More Franken: “I think that I’m ready for Hillary. I mean, I think that we’ve not had someone this experienced, this tough, and she’s very, very impressive. People have asked me about Elizabeth Warren. She is great but she’s not running. She says she’s not running. So I don’t -- I think Hillary would be great.” Here’s a question for liberals and political reporters pining for an Elizabeth Warren run: If progressives like Franken are behind Hillary, where would Warren’s support come from?

Should Democrats be talking more about the economy?

As one of us wrote yesterday, Democrats pretty much agree that the party needs a MUCH better message than the one it had in the 2014 midterm elections. And today, the New York Times explores whether Democrats should begin to tout -- and take credit for -- the improving economy. Democrats here are divided, the Times says. “On the one hand, when we talk about the progress in the economy, most middle-class voters don’t feel that progress, and they believe we’re out of touch,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) told the paper. “On the other hand, if we don’t talk about progress on the economy, we cede the narrative to Republicans and lose.” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin is on the side of Democrats touting the economy. “After six years in office, you better have some positive outcomes to talk about,” he says. But fellow Dem pollster Stan Greenberg opposes it. “[I]t’s not a message for Democrats now. People are in trouble.” Democrats, however, might have a better answer to this question a year from now if -- and we stress the word “if” -- more and more Americans are beginning to feel the economic recovery.

Haslam supports Medicaid expansion in Tennessee

Here’s an interesting development: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam -- the new chair of the Republican Governors Association -- supports Medicaid expansion in his state. The Tennessean: “In a major policy move, Gov. Bill Haslam has announced the new Insure Tennessee plan, a two-year pilot program that would provide health care coverage to tens of thousands of Tennesseans who currently don't have access to health insurance or have limited options. The plan would be leveraged with federal dollars, said Haslam, who has been working for more than a year on a Medicaid expansion plan that could gain approval from both federal officials and the Republican-dominated state legislature.”

RIP, David Garth

Finally, David Garth, one of the pioneers of the modern-day political consultant, passed away yesterday. The New York Times: “David Garth, a pugnacious and indefatigable pioneer of the political commercial, who helped elect governors, senators and four New York City mayors, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84... Mr. Garth was renowned for elevating virtual unknowns into upset victors, beginning with Representative John V. Lindsay in his race for mayor of New York in 1965.” Garth worked for Democrats as well as socially liberal Republicans.

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