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James Cole

The fight over clemency

04/24/14 04:08PM

In terms of the real-world impact and the ability to change the lives of many Americans, the Obama administration's new policy on presidential clemency is quietly going to be one of the year's biggest political stories. The politics surrounding the policy, however, is more nuanced.
The Justice Department announced a plan on Wednesday to canvass the entire federal prison population for the first time to find inmates who committed low-level crimes and could be released early.
 
The move, which expands a plan announced in January, is expected to generate thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applications for clemency. It represents the Obama administration's latest break from the criminal justice policies created to fight drugs.
 
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said Wednesday that the department would consider recommending clemency for nonviolent felons who have served at least 10 years in prison and who would have received significantly lower prison terms if convicted under today's more lenient sentencing laws.
President Obama has changed the national conversation in a more progressive direction on a variety of major issues, but arguably the most profound change has been on U.S. drug policy. After nearly a half-century of a costly and needlessly punitive "war on drugs" -- a "war" fought by both parties -- it was this president that forced a dramatic change of course.
 
There's no great mystery as to why it took so long. As we've discussed before, the political environment has been, to put it mildly, inhospitable -- Democrats who dared to question the wisdom of U.S. drug policy risked being labeled out-of-touch liberals and "soft" on crime.
 
For the most part, the political conversation has matured and the Obama White House has faced very little partisan pushback. Indeed, following the president's lead, it's no longer uncommon for even prominent Republicans to decry the "failed war on drugs" and endorse sentencing reforms.
 
But as Rachel noted on the show last night, the new clemency policy has sparked more pushback than most recent initiatives in this area.
A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Hampshire in this October 27, 2012. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

When ACA attacks turn on themselves

04/24/14 12:57PM

Steve Doocy told Fox viewers the other day how distressed he is about the Affordable Care Act. He even tried to bolster his concerns by citing the Congressional Budget Office: "The CBO said yesterday at the end of this year, 42 million people will still be uninsured. 42 million! We blew up everything for one or two million while 42 million are still going uninsured? That's not what we were sold."
 
Evan McMurry did some fact-checking on Doocy's rhetoric and concluded, "Everything about that is bollocks."
 
McMurry is correct, of course, but what I found interesting about Doocy's plainly silly ACA criticism was his underlying point: the Fox News host seemed to be suggesting that "Obamacare" isn't nearly ambitious enough when it comes to covering the uninsured. It's an almost comical line of attack: the Affordable Care Act has extended coverage to millions of previously uninsured Americans, but since the uninsured rate is not yet 0%, the law is obviously flawed.
 
But ridiculous or not, it's becoming increasingly common. A variety of Republican pundits are pushing this line of criticism, as are leading Republican lawmakers. Jonathan Cohn noted yesterday that the attacks are "a bit much" given the circumstances.
House Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare 50 times. They have voted on serious Obamacare alternatives exactly zero times. They haven't even made a serious attempt to get a bill out of committee, let alone hold a floor debate. [...]
 
In addition, a major reason the Affordable Care Act isn't reaching more people is that Republicans have done their best to limit the law's reach -- primarily, by blocking expansions of Medicaid in states where conservative Republicans hold sway.
Cohn added that the House Republican budget blueprint not only wants to make the rate of the uninsured worse by repealing the Affordable Care Act, they also want to gut Medicaid, which would make it that much more difficult for struggling Americans to access medical care.
 
And it's against this backdrop that the right has decided to complain that the ACA isn't covering the uninsured fast enough?
 
In the larger context, note how conservative arguments against the law are starting to turn on one another.
Haydee Perkal shows her support for the Affordable Care Act during a rally, October 10, 2013 in Miami, Florida.

GOP can't even win the healthcare argument in the South

04/24/14 11:43AM

We've grown accustomed to thinking about the politics of health care lately in a rather binary, red-state/blue-state sort of way. In Democratic-led states, policymakers are creating effective exchange marketplaces, competition is helping consumers, Medicaid expansion is offering new hope to struggling families, and the uninsured rate is dropping quickly. In Republican-led states, progress is sporadic and slow.
 
But below the surface, looking at the debate this way is misleading, or at least, incomplete. As new polling from the New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests, even in the deep South, voters aren't actually buying what Republicans are selling on health care.
Despite strong dislike of President Obama's handling of health care, a majority of people in three Southern states -- Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina -- would rather that Congress improve his signature health care law than repeal and replace it, according to a New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
 
The poll also found that a majority of Kentucky residents -- and a plurality in a fourth state, Arkansas -- said they thought the health care marketplace in their state was working well, even as they expressed strong disapproval of the health care law.
The article quoted one Louisiana woman who said, "I'm a Republican, but I'm tired of them saying 'Repeal, repeal, repeal.'"
 
Indeed, while the Affordable Care Act is not at all popular in these deep Southern states, locals hold surprisingly progressive views on health care policy in general. Repealing "Obamacare" in its entirety -- the official line of the Republican Party -- is the minority position in all four states. A majority of residents in these states, meanwhile, support Medicaid expansion and requiring private insurers to cover the full cost of contraception.
 
This stood out for me as perhaps the most interesting question: "Which comes closest to your view about the government's role in providing health insurance for middle-income people under the age of 65 who don't get insurance at work?"
David Koch

AFP finances rival those of a major political party

04/24/14 11:05AM

Reporting on campaign fundraising is difficult and often unsatisfying. It's just too easy to get lost in a sea of zeroes and acronyms, with competing campaign committees and candidates filing monthly and quarterly reports that few pay any attention to. The numbers seem pointless.
 
That said, I hope folks will pause to look at one number is particular: $35 million.
Americans for Prosperity is definitely putting its money where its mouth is.
 
The conservative non-profit political advocacy group backed by the deep pockets of billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch announced Wednesday that it will spend around $2.5 million over the next two weeks to run television commercials critical of the federal health care law in four states where Democrats face a challenge in keeping Senate seats in party hands.
 
The ad buys in Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan and New Hampshire bring to more than $35 million in AFP spending this election cycle on TV spots that highlight how the group says Obamacare has negatively impacted average Americans.
It matters a great deal that these AFP ads include claims that aren't true. Indeed, Americans for Prosperity have established an unsettling pattern of investing in attack ads that too often crumble when subjected to routine fact-checking.
 
But when it comes to the finances, note that that the report says these latest ad buys raise the total of AFP spending this cycle to $35 million.
 
Independently, that number probably doesn't have any meaning as a stand-alone figure, so let's add some context.
Early voters fill out their ballots as they cast their vote in the presidential election on the first day of early voting, on Oct. 27, 2012 in Miami, Fla.

In 2014, it's like deja vu all over again

04/24/14 10:19AM

The New York Times published some new polling yesterday, showing Democrats in better-than-expected shape in U.S. Senate races in the South. Indeed, the results showed Dem incumbents ahead in Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina, and a Dem challenger looking very competitive in Kentucky.
 
Discouraged Republicans had a few choices. They could argue, for example, that individual polls are less important than larger averages based on multiple surveys. The GOP could also respond that it's early in the cycle and there are still structural elements in place that still favor Republicans. They could even credibly claim that some of the results may have been an outlier.
 
But that's not what happened. Bill Kristol, the Republican National Committee, and conservatives everywhere instead dug into the internals to declare the poll is ... skewed. It's as if 2012 has already escaped their memories.
 
As a substantive matter, Brian Beutler argued persuasively that the critique is misguided.
The obvious error here is an apples-oranges comparison between Romney's recorded share of the vote total with this after-the-fact, reported share of the voting-age population. In 2012, just over 30 percent of registered voters in Arkansas and over half of the voting age population didn't vote in Arkansas. Since the question was asked of all adults, it appears many people who didn't vote are now actually claiming to have voted for one of the candidates. And many adults, whether they voted or not, are claiming to have voted third party when they actually didn't. Eight percent of those surveyed say they voted for someone other than Obama or Romney. In reality third party candidates mustered a combined 2.5 percent of the vote (and a much smaller percentage of the voting age population) in Arkansas that year.
 
And as the Times' Nate Cohn notes in a strong defense of the poll, "there's a well-known bias toward the victor in post-election surveys. Respondents who voted for the loser often say that they don't remember whom they supported, or say they supported someone else."
In the larger context, though, what matters just as much as the reliability of the data is the right's instincts -- the polling results told Republicans what they didn't want to hear, so they immediately went with their old standby. Discouraging polls must have a biased sample.
 
It's one of several reasons it seems like we're still stuck in 2012, no matter what the calendar says.
Rancher Cliven Bundy gestures at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada on April 12, 2014.

Bundy: 'I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro...'

04/24/14 09:13AM

Political figures who rallied to defend Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy must have known they were taking a risk. Indeed, much of the Republican establishment chose to do the exact opposite precisely because they were afraid to gamble on a man who doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the United States government.
 
But some prominent GOP officials rolled the dice anyway. Fox News and Glenn Beck celebrated the rancher as a hero, while U.S. senators like Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) cheered Bundy on, calling him a "patriot," even as he declared an ability to ignore laws and court orders he doesn't like.
 
It's become increasingly difficult to maintain this posture. For one thing, anyone relying on the threat of violence to act above the law hasn't earned the backing of anyone in the American mainstream. For another, some of the basic elements of Bundy's claims now appear to be false.
 
Making matters considerably worse, the New York Times' Adam Nagourney reports that Bundy spoke with supporters over the weekend about his views on a variety of societal issues.
"I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, "and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids -- and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch -- they didn't have nothing to do. They didn't have nothing for their kids to do. They didn't have nothing for their young girls to do.
 
"And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?" he asked. "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."
Congratulations, Sean Hannity. You really know how to pick 'em.

Seasonal factor pushes jobless claims higher

04/24/14 08:37AM

After a couple of weeks in which initial unemployment claims hovered at seven-year lows, economists expected the new figures from the Labor Department to be more discouraging. They are, though there's a seasonal catch.
The number of people who applied for U.S. unemployment benefits jumped by 24,000 to a three-week high of 329,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected claims to rise to a seasonally adjusted 315,000 in the seven days ended April 19 from a revised 305,000 in the prior week. Claims often rise around Easter because the holiday falls on different dates each year and makes it harder for the government to conduct seasonal adjustments. The average of new claims over the past month rose by 4,750 to 316,750, just one week after falling to a six-and-a-half-year low.
To reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it's worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it's best not to read too much significance into any one report.
US President Barack Obama speaks alongside Colorado Senator Mark Udall and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (R) at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, July 22, 2012.

The line even the Kochs' AFP can't cross

04/24/14 08:00AM

Four years ago, then-Gov. Joe Manchin (D) was running for the Senate in his home state of West Virginia, where President Obama wasn't especially popular. Republicans thought they'd have a better shot against the popular governor if they tied him to the man in the Oval Office. That proved to be a tricky task.
 
The GOP could apparently only find one photo of Manchin and Obama together, so they quickly inserted it into an attack ad. But there was a problem: the image was from the late Sen. Robert Byrd's memorial service. The Byrd family condemned the cheap shot, insisting there must still be some lines of decency, even in contemporary politics, after someone dies.
 
Four years later, it's a lesson the Koch brothers' American for Prosperity temporarily forgot.
President Obama and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall stand together looking dismayed in Americans For Prosperity's latest ad attacking Udall over his vote for Obamacare.
 
There's a reason for that, though a viewer wouldn't guess it from the picture AFP, an outside group funded by the Kochs, uses in the ad. The image is from a July 2012 appearance Obama made with Udall, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and other state officials at a hospital treating victims of the July 20, 2012, Aurora movie theater shooting.
In the attack ad AFP subsequently pulled, viewers were shown Obama and Udall, side by side, looking heartbroken, as if the Affordable Care Act had left them depressed. The truth was more gut-wrenching: the president and senator were speaking from a hospital in the wake of a mass murder.
 
AFP simply edited out the parts of the image that might have provided context.
 
Victims' families were not pleased, calling the AFP's attack ad, among other things, an "utter disgrace."
 
In recent months, we've grown accustomed to AFP airing ads that struggle when subjected to even casual fact-checking, but yesterday, the conservative group broke new ground.

Americans killed and other headlines

04/24/14 07:53AM

Afghan hospital guard kills three American doctors. (LA Times)

Putin warns Ukraine as 5 militants reported killed. (USA Today)

Pres. Obama: more Russia sanctions 'teed up.' (The Hill)

FCC to propose new 'net neutrality' rules. (WSJ)

Republicans set to roll out .GOP web addresses. (WSJ)

Jury awards Texas family nearly $3 million in fracking case. (LA Times)

How much of the world's best sushi did Pres. Obama eat? (The Hill)

1888 shipwreck found in San Francisco Bay. (AP) read more

State pot vote a likely boon for Democrats

State pot vote a likely boon for Democrats

04/23/14 11:19PM

Rachel Maddow explains how a peculiarity in the Alaska state legislative calendar could result in both marijuana legalization and raising the minimum wage being put on the ballot in November, two popular issues likely to boost voter turnout. watch

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