Afghanistan's 'Forgotten Elections' Are a Test for U.S.

epa04153794 An Afghan worker of Independent Election Commission (IEC) waits to load ballot boxes and electoral materials on a truck to be transported to polling stations on the eve of presidential elections in Kabul, Afghanistan, 04 April 2014. The presidential vote has been slated for 05 April but campaigning has been marred by violence, with the Taliban vowing to disrupt the elections.  EPA/S. SABAWOON
epa04153794 An Afghan worker of Independent Election Commission (IEC) waits to load ballot boxes and electoral materials on a truck to be transported to polling stations on the eve of presidential elections in Kabul, Afghanistan, 04 April 2014. The presidential vote has been slated for 05 April but campaigning has been marred by violence, with the Taliban vowing to disrupt the elections. EPA/S. SABAWOONS. SABAWOON / EPA

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The “forgotten elections”

If Afghanistan has become America’s “forgotten war,” then the country’s elections on Saturday have become the “forgotten elections” -- because they’ve been overshadowed by other news events here in the United States. But make no mistake: How the elections go will determine, in part, whether America’s 13-year intervention in Afghanistan has been a success or failure, and whether they will be PERCEIVED as a success or failure. They also will play a role in determining if the U.S. continues to have any troop presence in the country after 2014. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon writes: “As Afghans head to the polls Saturday to elect their next president, those in Washington still pushing for a lasting United States commitment to the country are hoping fervently that things go well – or at least well enough – to keep both the Obama administration and the American public on board.” The main contenders running to replace the term-limited Hamid Karzai include former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah (who was Karzai’s top challenger in ’09), former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. Yet tragedy has already marred these elections. “A veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and an AP reporter was wounded on Friday when an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan,” the AP has reported.

192,000 jobs created in March, unemployment rate remains at 6.7%

Back in the United States, the latest jobs report is a good -- but not great -- report. Reuters writes, “U.S. employers maintained a solid pace of hiring for a second straight month in March, further evidence the economy was shifting into higher gear after being held back by a brutally cold winter. Nonfarm payrolls increased by 192,000 new jobs last month after rising 197,000 in February, the Labor Department said on Friday. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.7 percent, as Americans flooded the labor market." More: The payrolls count for January and February was revised to show 37,000 more job created during those months than previously reported.” Still, the acceleration in job creation, which has been predicted for months, if not years, now, just hasn’t occurred. Perhaps this is a new normal and because of innovation and downsizing, job creation during economic recoveries will never be what they were after previous recessions. Or perhaps things really take off later this spring/summer. But this continues to be a slow recovery. It’s not quite a jobless recovery, but it’s simply, well, “meh.”

Congress, in a nutshell (or two)

It hasn’t been a good last 24 hours for the institution of Congress -- at least when it comes to improving Americans’ perspective of the legislative branch. As NBC’s Frank Thorp notes, Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) made an embarrassing mistake on Thursday at little-covered hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee: He showed up at the WRONG hearing. Coats asked a question of Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen about a letter her sent regarding the Indiana National Guard, but just as he finished his question he was handed a piece of paper, after which he admitted his mistake. "I just got a note saying I'm at the wrong hearing," Coats admitted, per Thorp, "I've got the right room number, but the wrong hearing." He added, "Well, that would explain why I didn't know anything about this letter," Cohen said from the witness stand, laughing. It was a humorous episode (and response by Coats), but also emblematic of one of Americans’ frustrations with Congress: These folks have checked out. A second story about Congress isn’t as humorous: Retiring Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) said that the salaries members of Congress receive ($174,000) is too little. “I think the American people should know that the members of Congress are underpaid,” Moran told Roll Call. “I understand that it’s widely felt that they underperform, but the fact is that this is the board of directors for the largest economic entity in the world.” (Hat tip to NBC’s Bradd Jaffe for headline above.)

But what Moran said isn’t untrue

Yet because Moran’s “we’re underpaid” comment is politically tone deaf (just try telling that to your constituents who make less $174,000), it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (Remember, many of these folks with younger families, attempt to keep two homes in two cities or try to live in this one, which is pricier for families than where many of these folks serve.) But there is a bigger reason why Moran’s comment oddly resonates. One of the reasons why Washington is so warped is that a member of Congress sometimes makes a fifth of what his or her former chief of staff can earn as a lobbyist on K Street. What is truly startling isn’t a member of Congress complaining that he earns just $174,000 a year; it’s that his former aide can earn five times -- even 10 times -- that amount lobbying him after they’ve devoted three or four years working for them.

A rough time for two Tea Party challengers

It’s also been a rough last 48 hours for two Tea Party candidates who are challenging establishment Republicans later this year. First, as NBC’s Kasie Hunt reports, the chairman of Mississippi’s Republican Party said that Chris McDaniel -- who’s taking on Sen. Thad Cochran (R) -- needs to explain why he was listed as a keynote speaker at an event that included a group that sells “white pride” merchandise. From Hunt’s story: McDaniel “had been listed as a speaker at the Combined Firearm Freedom Day/Tea Party Music Fest in Guntown, Miss., on May 17. Listed as a vendor at the rally is Pace Confederate Depot, a group that ‘deals in Confederate, Tea Party, and White Pride Merchandise,’ according to its website. McDaniel spokesman Noel Fritsch said Thursday that McDaniel would not attend. ‘Chris McDaniel never agreed to attend the event and will not attend the event,’ he said.”

“White pride” merchandise in Mississippi, cockfighting in Kentucky:

Second, we learned this week that Matt Bevin, who’s challenging Senate Minority Mitch McConnell, attended a rally supporting the legalization of cockfighting on Saturday. “Bevin's campaign, however, described the event at the Corbin Arena in Corbin, Ky., as a 'states' rights rally,' and said that Bevin, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in the Republican primary in May, didn't know that it had any ties to cockfighting,” the Louisville Courier-Journal says. “But the event's organizer told the Corbin News Journal that the sole purpose of the rally was to gain support for legislation to legalize cockfighting in Kentucky. The newspaper reported that about 700 people attended.”

Where’s the backlash from the Tea Party?

There’s an even bigger story relating to the Tea Party: The party and powerful outside groups are beginning to coalesce around establishment GOP candidates -- and there's been little to no backlash from the Tea Party. Remember the FUROR from the Tea Party when the New York Times reported, back in early 2013, when the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads said it would be playing in GOP primaries to prevent future Todd Akins and Richard Mourdochs from winning? Well, American Crossroads is airing TV ad supporting establishment candidates in Alaska and North Carolina (see here and here), and we’ve hardly heard a peep from the Tea Party.

2016 Watch

Finally, some 2016 odds and ends. “Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday praised social media as a way to hold government accountable, fight corruption and promote economic opportunity around the globe,” NBC’s Alex Moe wrote yesterday. Politico reports that Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal are teaming up to support a Republican super PAC "focused on outlining a positive GOP agenda for the future." And speaking of Jindal, he unveiled his health-care plan earlier this week. But here’s something to chew on: By proposing changing the tax breaks that employers get for providing health insurance, Jindal’s plan is potentially MORE DISRUPTIVE to the system than President Obama’s health-care law. Here’s Part 1 of Jindal talking about his health-care plans on “Daily Rundown”; Part 2 airs today.

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