Reports just emerged around 12:30 p.m. Eastern time that the Tunisian dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has fled the country and the Army has taken power. (Also: We have a scoop about how Washington Media Group, the DC public affairs firm that Tunisia hired to rehab its image, abruptly booted the country from its client roster last week.)

Want to know what's happening in Tunisia? Let me explain:

What is Tunisia? Tunisia is a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country in North Africa. It is on the south side of the Mediterranean sea, east of Algeria and west of Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. Its capital is Tunis, and it has been ruled by dictators since it won independence from France in 1956. The current ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has ruled since 1987. He is the kind of ruler who gets re-elected with 90 percent of the "vote."

What's happening? Violent riots and protests have spread across the country over the past four weeks. Now Ben Ali's totalitarian government seems to be collapsing. (Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official who unfortunately is rarely right about anything, thinks that if democracy can take hold in Tunisia, it could spread elsewhere in the Arab world, too.)

Why are Tunisians unhappy? Well, they don't have much freedom. But there also just aren't enough jobs. Official unemployment is 13 percent, but it's probably actually much higher. The combination of a repressive regime and a faltering economy is often bad news for the regime. Plus, the regime has diverted a lot of the country's wealth to Ben Ali's family and friends, so people are really upset about official corruption.

How did it all start? On December 19, authorities in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid seized the produce cart that 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was using to make a living. So Bouazizi set himself on fire. Young people in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid rioted, and police moved to seal the city. In early January, Bouazizi died, becoming an early martyr for the cause. Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian and a Tunisia expert, has a good article explaining how Bouazizi and Sidi Bouzid got the ball rolling on revolution. 

What's the WikiLeaks connection? Foreign Policy's Christopher Alexander explains:

Shortly before the December protests began, WikiLeaks released internal US State Department communications in which the American ambassador described Ben Ali as aging, out of touch, and surrounded by corruption. Given Ben Ali's reputation as a stalwart US ally, it mattered greatly to many Tunisians—particularly to politically engaged Tunisians who are plugged into social media—that American officials are saying the same things about Ben Ali that they themselves say about him. These revelations contributed to an environment that was ripe for a wave of protest that gathered broad support.

Hackers affiliated with Anonymous, a vaguely defined, loosely organized group that has defended WikiLeaks, hit Tunisian websites in early January.

What's the latest news? A visibly shaken Ben Ali appeared on national television Thursday night, promising reforms and indicating that he would step down in 2014. But protests only grew larger on Friday. The very latest—i.e., what happened Friday afternoon—is that Ben Ali has fired his cabinet and promised legislative (but not presidential) elections in six months. Then he declared a state of emergency. He's trying to buy time. But the regime is clearly reeling, and there are unconfirmed reports of gunfire in the capital. Police are definitely shooting at protesters, according to an American quoted in this New York Times report. Whatever is going to happen could happen soon. The very very latest is that Ben Ali has fled the country, according to Al Jazeera, and the Army has taken power.

How do I follow what's happening in real-time? Your best immediate resource is the Twitter feed of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a columnist for The National, the United Arab Emirates' leading English-language newspaper. The hashtag to follow (or "feed," as the Times mistakenly dubbed it) is #sidibouzid, after the city where the first riots took place. #tunisie is another good option. Al-Bab, a blog written by Brian Whitaker, the Guardian Middle East editor mentioned above, is indispensable. Whitaker's latest posts—"Tunisia: Double or Quits," and "Tunisia: The Last Days of Ben Ali" are must-reads. If you're looking for a more US-centric view, you should also check out "Tunisia on the Brink of Revolution?" and "When Pro-Western Regimes Fall: What Should the US Do?" over at Democracy Arsenal.

Michael Steele, the gaffe-prone, soon-to-be-ousted chairman of the Republican National Committee, has left the committee's reputation in tatters. But what may truly seal Steele's downfall is his abysmal stewardship of the RNC's finances.

The committee is buried under $20 million of debt, and the RNC's financial health is in the worst shape it has been in three decades, the Washington Post reported on Friday. Hundreds of donors are fleeing the turmoil-ridden RNC, and the $7 million raised by the committee for the midterm elections was a small fraction of what it raked in during the 2006 midterms. (The Democratic National Committee raised $38 million for the 2010 elections.) Surely part of the RNC's woeful fundraising is due to the rise of powerful outside groups like Crossroads GPS and American Action Network, which have big-name organizers and scant disclosure requirements. But Michael Steele's error-filled tenure at the RNC's helm no doubt contributed to the flight of donors.

Here's what one donor told the Post:

"You can't even dream of winning in 2012 with that kind of operation," said John Dowd, a Washington lawyer and longtime RNC donor who decided against contributing in the past two years because of the "mess" at the party. "As long as it's in that kind of shape, I can't even think of giving."

With Steele's ouster all but assured, it'll be up to his replacement—the odds favor Reince Priebus, the head of the Wisconsin GOP—to revive the RNC's fundraising machine. In a letter announcing his entrance into the RNC race in December, Priebus wrote, "We will work to regain the confidence of our donor base and I will personally call our major donors to ask them to rejoin our efforts at the RNC." That'll be the next chairman's true test: Can he or she lure back donors from the independent outside groups that so heavily influenced the 2010 midterms, or is the RNC's long-term influence diminished for good? 

After President Barack Obama's eloquent speech in Tucson, I wondered how the Obama haters would react. After all, it seemed that after that particular speech it would be more difficult to demonize him as a secret Muslim/Kenyan-born socialist who hates America and is plotting its demise. But it seems the Obama Hate Machine is not going to slow down—especially not if there's a buck to be made. On Thursday morning, Townhall, the conservative website that features the work of prominent rightwing commentators, sent out an email advertisement to its readers revealing the latest Obama conspiracy: he wants to steal your retirement account. Literally.

The ad is adorned with an illustration of a smiling Obama holding a small person (a white male, if you're curious) in his hand and squeezing money out of the poor fellow. The headline in big and bold letters: "Your IRA'S and 401K's ARE STILL At RISK Of Government Confiscation." The claim:

The Labor and Treasury department, along with the Obama Administration ARE MOVING FORWARD with The Nationalization-Confiscate IRA's and 401K's.

Why do they Want Your Retirement Accounts?

The-YOUR equity will be used as collateral; in an attempt to balance the Trillion Dollar U.S. Deficit.

This will be done in an effort to once again make the United States credit worthy to China and other buyers of our debt.

The proof: the Labor and Treasury Departments last September held a meeting with an agenda called "Lifetime Income Options for Retirement Plans"—and somehow this means the US government intends to transform retirement plans into government property.

Obama nationalizing everyone's IRAs and 401(K)s—it's kind of surprising that the entire media has missed that. Even Fox News. But a Department of Labor fact sheet describes what it is up to:

An ever increasing number of workers are looking to their defined contribution plans for their retirement security, but at the same time many workers are receiving their retirement benefits in lump sum distributions. This could increase their risk of not having an adequate income during retirement. Recent reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Labor’s ERISA Advisory Council, a 15-member council representing employees, employers, the general public, and industry, have documented this risk.

[The Department is] exploring ways that the Agencies and the private sector can work together to ensure that workers have the tools they need to help ensure their retirement savings last a lifetime.

Sounds perfectly innocent, right? But isn't such bland rhetoric what the Obama administration would disseminate were it scheming to nationalize retirement accounts?

To understand what's behind this latest exposé of Obama misdeeds, a recipient of this email ad need only look toward the bottom and discover that it's a pitch for Goldworth Financial, a gold seller. After all, if Obama's about to snatch your retirement fund, wouldn't it be better to cash it out and use the funds to buy gold and precious coins from this firm? That is, unless the Obama administration has plans to confiscate gold. And it does.

U.S. Army Spc. Jamus Grandstrom of Reading, Pa., and Spc. Daniel Collazo of Newport, Va., Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, run communications equipment from a sandbag bunker in the Daymirdad District Center, Wardak province, Afghanistan, Jan. 9, 2011. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Sean P. Casey

Last week, Pentagon budget "cuts" were in the headlines, often almost luridly so—"Pentagon Faces the Knife," "Pentagon to Cut Spending by $78 Billion, Reduce Troop Strength," "US Aims to Cut Defense Budget and Slash Troops." Responding to the mood of the moment in Washington ("the fiscal pressures the country is facing"), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen made those headlines by calling a news conference to explain prospective "cuts" they were proposing. Summing the situation up, Mullen seconded Gates this way: "The secretary's right, we can't hold ourselves exempt from the belt-tightening."

Republicans may have found a blueprint for slashing government spending: Politico's David Rodgers reports that the GOP is hoping for an eventual return to George W. Bush's 2008 budget. The cuts to appropriations alone would be "nearly $100 billion less than Obama’s 2011 request and $84 billion, or 18 percent, below current levels."

Republicans had originally aimed for a "back-to-Bush" budget in 2012, but the Democrats' failure to pass a 2011 budget in December could give them a head start. Congress must now vote on a new budget in March, and the House's newly empowered GOP majority has loudly trumpeted its pledge to slash spending and has already made it harder for certain spending increases to go through. What are they likely to go after? Bush's final budget gives some clues, Rodgers explains:

[F]or many departments and agencies, including the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Small Business Administration and Indian Health Service, the Bush 2008 spending levels mean reductions of far larger than 18 percent.

The maximum Pell Grant for low-income college students, an Obama priority, could drop 24 percent below what it is today. Federal support for training new nurses — a source of jobs and a prerequisite for expanded health care — would be 36 percent less than current spending and half of what Obama asked for in his 2011 budget.

What's less likely to be touched? Bush's 2008 budget mostly excludes the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs, and it doesn't include Pentagon spending. Interestingly, though, there are signs that the GOP could be under pressure to go after even sacrosanct military spending. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority whip, vowed last week to keep defense cuts "on the table." And on Thursday, the center-left New America Foundation released a poll showing that 67 percent of conservatives and tea-party supporters were worried about the cost of the war in Afghanistan.

But whether the Republican Party is willing—or able—to deliver on its budget-slashing promises any time soon is another question. Already, the House GOP has scaled back its promise to cut $100 billion in spending in the first year, and individual members demurred from describing any specific cuts they'd make. And any budget would also have to make its way pass the Democrat-controlled Senate. For the moment, at least, the GOP's hope for a Bush-era budget will probably remain a pipe dream.

 Here's President Barack Obama's speech about the Tucson shooting:

And here's what folks are saying:

  • Mother Jones' own David Corn"President Barack Obama's speech in Tucson was undeniably a high moment of his presidency. But you can judge that for yourself. (As the father of a nine-year-old daughter, I could not imagine delivering such an address—and keeping it together.)"
  • The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan: "To rate this address on any political meter would be to demean it. The president wrested free of politics tonight and spoke of greater things. I pledge myself to try and follow his advice and debate with vigor and spirit and candor and bluntness, but with more civility, more empathy, and, yes, more love."
  • Time's Joe Klein: "And in summoning the community and the nation and the Congresswoman that Christine Taylor Green imagined we are, he summoned for us the country that we should be. On this night. certainly, he was the President she—and we—imagined he might be. On this night, finally, he became President of all the people. It was a privilege to behold."
  • National Review's Rich Lowry: "President Obama turned in a magnificent performance. This was a non-accusatory, genuinely civil, case for civility, in stark contrast to what we've read and heard over the last few days. He subtly rebuked the Left's finger-pointing, and rose above the rancor of both sides, exactly as a president should. Tonight, he re-captured some of the tone of his famous 2004 convention speech. Well done."
  • Slate's Dahlia Lithwick: "President Obama’s speech in Tucson last night should be ranked with his greatest oratorical moments, largely because in the end he was brave enough to sidestep politics and ideology, and speak instead of love, and family, and the need for kindness. He answered two years of enraged Mama Grizzly with 30 powerful minutes of quiet Papa Bear."
  • The Atlantic's James Fallows: "The standard comparisons of the past four days have been to Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster and Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City. Tonight's speech matched those as a demonstration of "head of state" presence, and far exceeded them as oratory—while being completely different in tone and nature. They, in retrospect, were mainly—and effectively—designed to note tragic loss. Obama turned this into a celebration—of the people who were killed, of the values they lived by, and of the way their example could bring out the better in all of us and in our country."
  • National Review's John Pitney: "President Obama gave a fine speech reminding us that there is more to life than politics, and more to politics than self-interest."
  • Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein: "Obama or any president represents us—makes us present even though we are not present—because we have contended with him, because he's had to make so many promises to us about what he will do, how he will act, who he will be. Barack Obama is, as we all know, a talented speaker. The Barack Obama who gave the speech in Tucson, however, is one who has built himself through his interactions with the electorate, who has become our representative in a rich sense, not a narrow one. That's why even the worst of them, even a Jimmy Carter or a George W. Bush, are usually able to deliver when the occasion calls for it. Put a little oratorical skill into the mix, and, well, you're going to get what you heard last night in Tucson."
  • Blogger Andrew Sprung: "In building his image of a national family, embodied in the people whose lives he sketched, Obama moved miles behind his 'no red state/blue state —> United States' credo of 2004. In evoking the reactions of the bereaved, he spoke as husband, father and son. He made me proud to be part of his family."
  • The New York Times' Nate Silver"President Obama’s speech in Tucson tonight seems to have won nearly universal praise. I suspect it will be remembered as one of his best moments, almost regardless of what else takes place during the remainder of his presidency."
  • National Review's John Miller: "I think it may be the best speech he’s ever given."

Watch it.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is taking heat for blasting out a fundraising email based on the gruesome shootings in Tucson over the weekend that left six people dead and at 14 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Sanders' email read in part, "In light of all of this violence—both actual and threatened—is Arizona a state in which people who are not Republicans are able to participate freely and fully in the democratic process?" The Hill's Brent Budowsky wrote in response, "I like Bernie and respect him, but there is absolutely no excuse for turning this tragedy into a fundraising opportunity."

But Sanders isn't the only one who leveraged the Tucson tragedy into cash. On Monday, the Tea Party Express fired off an email asking contributors to "stand with Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh + Tea Party" and fight "liberals" who were linking conservatives to the weekend's shootings. "We want to have our largest fundraising day in the history of our organization and we need your help to achieve this success," the email read.

And there's more. Another Tea Party Express email from Monday accuses liberals of "trying to exploit this shooting for their own political benefit, and they used deception and dishonesty to try and smear all of us and our beliefs." The heated message goes on to say, "Well guess what: to those liberals in the news media and on the political Left who think you can silence us, you are wrong! Your efforts to try and smear us and shut us up will fail." Then, at the very end of the 600-word email, this:

"We ask you to please stand with the Tea Party Express and show your support for our efforts.

You can make a contribution online right now to the Tea Party Express - CLICK HERE TO CONTRIBUTE."

Enough said.

(h/t First Read)

Flickr/illuminea (Creative Commons)Flickr/illuminea (Creative Commons)

What began as the ugliest of government bailouts—the rescue of General Motors, Chrysler, and the financing company GMAC/Ally—is now shaping up to be one of the success stories of financial crisis. In its latest report, released on Thursday, the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) revisits the $60-billion dollar bailout of two of the US' "Big Three" auto companies, and its findings, in many ways, cast the GM and Chrysler rescues in a favorable light. 

For one, the ultimate cost to taxpayers, the panel notes, has been almost halved in the last 16 months. In September 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projected taxpayers would lose $40 billion; that figure has since been revised down to $19 billion—still a massive loss, but not as bad as initially feared.

Both GM and Chrysler are now on the road to recovery, the COP's report found, thanks to a whopping $63.1 billion of taxpayer money injected into the two automakers to avert their collapse, giving taxpayers 61 percent ownership in GM and 10 percent in Chrysler. Since then, a restructured GM has conducted an initial public offering, raising $20.1 billion and signalling a rebirth of sorts for GM. Chrysler's recovery has progressed at a slower pace, but it nonetheless looks set to regain its place in the US auto market.

On one hand, the Treasury Department, which crafted and manages the auto bailouts, has just about met its goal of rescuing an ailing industry and the millions of jobs that come with it, the COP concludes. But when it comes to fully recouping taxpayers' money, the COP's findings are less rosy. While the CBO's loss estimate has been significantly reduced, the COP found that when Treasury offloaded $13.5 billion of its stake in GM, it did so at $33 a share. The price needed to fully repay taxpayers, however, was $44.59 a share. "By selling stock for less than this break-even price, Treasury essentially 'locked in' a loss of billions of dollars and thus greatly reduced the likelihood that taxpayers will ever be repaid in full," the panel wrote.

The panel finds similar decisions in Treasury's handling of its Chrysler investments, and questions whether taxpayers will ever get all their money back. So although you can call the auto bailouts a success on some fronts, it's a decidedly mixed story overall. This paragraph, from the report's executive summary, sums it up nicely:

Treasury is now on course to recover the majority of its automotive investments within the next few years, but the impact of its actions will reverberate for much longer. Treasury's rescue suggested that any sufficiently large American corporation—even if it is not a bank—may be considered "too big to fail," creating a risk that moral hazard will infect areas of the economy far beyond the financial system. Further, the fact that the government helped absorb the consequences of GM's and Chrysler's failures has put more competently managed automotive companies at a disadvantage. For these reasons, the effects of Treasury's intervention will linger long after taxpayers have sold their last share of stock in the automotive industry.

U.S. Army Soldiers from 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, fire their weapons as part of the “stress shoot” at Forward Operating Base Sharana Jan. 9. The stress shoot is the final phase of the Toccoa Tough resiliency training class hosted by the Task Force Currahee resiliency team to give Soldiers the opportunity to take a break from their daily routine and help them refocus on their physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Luther L. Boothe Jr., Task Force Currahee Public Affairs