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Monday's Mini-Report, 1.26.15

01/26/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Greece: "Alexis Tsipras, the leftist political maverick who swept to power on Sunday in Greece in a popular rebellion, formed a new coalition government on Monday with a right-wing fringe party that will charge immediately into the task of reversing wrenching austerity policies and negotiating with European leaders to reduce Greece's debt burden."
 
* Yemen: "A C.I.A. drone strike on Monday on a car in eastern Yemen, the first since the resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, killed three suspected Qaeda fighters, American officials said, in a signal that the United States will continue its targeted killing operations in the country despite the apparent takeover by Houthi fighters."
 
* A new thing for the Secret Service to worry about: "The owner of a drone that landed on the White House grounds early Monday told authorities that he was testing how it would perform in bad weather but lost track of it, law enforcement sources told NBC News. The drone's owner, who is cooperating with a Secret Service investigation, said that he did not realize it had landed in a tree on the lawn of the White House until he saw news reports describing the incident, the sources said."
 
* Espionage: "A banker and two diplomats were charged Monday with spying for the Russian government in the New York area, using coded messages and secret handoffs to gather intelligence and send it back home."
 
* Leak case: "Jeffrey A. Sterling, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, was convicted of espionage charges Monday, for telling a journalist for The New York Times about a secret operation to disrupt Iran's nuclear program."
 
* Marriage news from late Friday: "A federal judge in Mobile, Alabama, today struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage, bringing the number of gay marriage states to 37.... The judge did not put a hold on the effect of her ruling, but the state's attorney general, Luther Strange, said he would seek one."
Barack Obama, Edna Pemberton

Making room for morality in the health care debate

01/26/15 04:53PM

One of the things that makes the debate over health care policy so interesting is that it has such sweeping implications. We can look at the issue, for example, and ask economic questions, such as, "How much is the Affordable Care Act helping the economy?" We can look at the same issue and ask fiscal questions, such as, "How important is it that 'Obamacare' is reducing the national deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars?"
 
We can look at the issue from a political perspective. And an ideological perspective. And a sociological perspective. And given extreme circumstances, maybe even a national security perspective.
 
But at its root, for many involved in the debate, the angle that matters is a moral one. Policies like the ACA tend to do extremely well on substantive questions, and quite poorly on political ones, but when we strip away the layers, we're often left with the morality of either providing or denying families access to basic medical care. Confronted with the question, either the dial on your moral compass spins or it doesn't.
 
This came up in a big way over the weekend, when the American Enterprise Institute's Michael R. Strain made a curious argument about mortality rates in the Washington Post. The headline on the piece read, "End Obamacare, and people could die. That's okay."
In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals -- including more cash for other programs, such as those that help the poor; less government coercion and more individual liberty; more health-care choice for consumers, allowing them to find plans that better fit their needs; more money for taxpayers to spend themselves; and less federal health-care spending. This opinion is not immoral. Such choices are inevitable. They are made all the time.
In fairness to Strain, he almost certainly did not write the jarringly callous headline, but he did write this quoted excerpt. In fact, his piece went on to say that if Republican policymakers successfully repealed the federal health care reform law, it "could" result in more American deaths, "but it clearly would not be immoral."
 
I can appreciate why Strain feels the need to make this case. For proponents of reform, there's considerable focus on consequences: if Republicans -- either on the Supreme Court or in Congress -- destroy the law, the potential for catastrophic shockwaves are quite real. As a practical reality, if millions of families are stripped of the benefits, an untold number of Americans will die unnecessarily. Their crime? They got sick.

'Even if it worked, I would oppose it'

01/26/15 03:51PM

As hard as it may be to perceive right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson as a credible presidential candidate, he received a very warm welcome at Steve King's "Iowa Freedom Summit" over the weekend, and Carson arguably delivered one of the more polished presentations of the gathering.
 
But on the substance of Carson's remarks, one thing jumped out at me.
On the Affordable Care Act -- which Carson has on several occasions compared to slavery -- the famous former surgeon said he opposed any government intrusion in health care. "Even if it worked, I would oppose it," Carson said of Obamacare. "It doesn't."
 
"I don't believe in taking the most important thing a person has, which is their health and their health care, and putting it in the hands of the government," he later added....
For a brief argument in a speech, there's quite a bit to this. We know, for example, that Carson's mistaken when he says the Affordable Care Act isn't working; the evidence to the contrary is simply overwhelming. We also know that when it comes to his preferred model, Carson used to believe largely the opposite of what he's arguing now.
 
What's more, when Carson argues that government shouldn't have a hand in matters related to health care, it would seem to suggest the Republican candidate is against the VA health care system for active-duty and retired military personnel, Medicare, and Medicaid. That's not too surprising -- a guy who draws a parallel between modern American life and Nazis isn't going to be a moderate -- but it's a pretty extreme position for even today's GOP.
 
But the true gem is, in reference to the ACA, "Even if it worked, I would oppose it."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) listens as U.S. President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol February 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. Facing a divided Congress, Obama focused his...

Boehner's misplaced polling prediction

01/26/15 02:15PM

In early December, quite a few conservative pundits, and even a couple of congressional Republicans, floated a radical idea:  President Obama should not be invited to deliver the State of the Union address.
 
The chatter grew loud enough that the issue came up during House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) weekly press conference on Dec. 5. Asked if he planned to extend an invitation to Obama, Boehner replied, "Listen, the more the president talks about his ideas, the more unpopular he becomes. Why would I want to deprive him of that opportunity?"
 
Republicans laughed; the proponents of the idea largely gave up, and the political world moved on. But a week after the president's big speech, it's worth pausing to ask whether Boehner was correct. The more the president talks about his ideas, does he become more unpopular?
The stage is seen inside Air Force One Pavilion before the start of the Ronald Reagan Centennial GOP Presidential Primary Candidates Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sept. 7, 2011 in Simi Valley, Calif. (Photo by David McNew/Getty)

What we're learning about the GOP's 2016 field

01/26/15 12:59PM

A debate for the Republican presidential candidates in August 2011 featured one of the more memorable moments of the race. Eight GOP hopefuls shared the stage and were asked an interesting question: would they accept a debt-reduction deal in which Democrats would give up $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases? Every Republican on the stage said they'd reject the deal.
 
Jon Huntsman later conceded he regretted how he handled that moment and wished he'd answered differently, but what about his party? As the 2016 cycle slowly starts to get underway, the question still seems relevant, and at a Koch brothers' donor forum last night, ABC's Jonathan Karl put the same challenge to Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
All three senators indicated that they would reject a deal that would cut $10 in spending for every $1 in new taxes, though none of them directly answered the question.... "When and if any of the people up here run for president, there should be an absolute rule: No yes or no answers," Paul said. He then indicated that he wouldn't like such a deal. "I think we have plenty of taxes in this country."
 
Cruz said that while it's a question "the media likes to ask," it represents a false choice. "That trade-off has proven historically to be a fool's errand," Cruz said. "It's a little bit like Lucy and the football. One element of the promise never happens."
 
Rubio chimed in: "The only way you can get out of this problem is spending discipline, holding the line on spending, and rapid and dynamic economic growth."
A lot of people forget this, but in March 2011, following the big Tea Party wave of 2010, Republicans on the Joint Economic Committee released a report on deficit reduction. In it, House GOP officials outlined their ideal cuts-to-revenue ratio, and concluded that "successful" attempts to cut the deficit meet a specific goal: "85% spending cuts and 15% revenue increases." Roughly speaking, that's about a 5-to-1 ratio in Republicans' favor.
 
Four years later, however, leading Republican presidential candidates are apparently well to the right of where House GOP officials were in 2011. The fact remains that a Democratic 10-to-1 offer would never happen -- there's nothing fair or just about a "compromise" tilted so heavily in the GOP's favor -- but the point is most leading Republicans wouldn't accept the gift anyway.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.26.15

01/26/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
 
* The DNC announced late last week that the 2016 Democratic National Convention will begin July 25, 2016, just a few days after the Republican convention ends, and just a week before the start of the Olympics. Democratic officials have not yet announced the location of the event. 
 
* The band Dropkick Murphys has urged Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to stop using their music at his campaign events. The band told the far-right presidential hopeful, "[W]e literally hate you."
 
* New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will move one step closer to the presidential trail today, launching a new political action committee called "Leadership Matters For America," while also hiring an eight-member team to help head up his national operation.
 
* On a related note, Christie has reportedly brought on Phil Valenziano to lead his Iowa operation. Valenziano, a New Jersey native, was Mitt Romney's Iowa field director during the 2012 nomination fight.
 
* And speaking of campaign hires, Scott Walker has picked up David Polyansky for his Iowa operation.This was no small feat as  Polyansky, Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) top strategist last year,  was in demand.
Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., having done an about-face on the filibuster since President Obama took office, looks over the shoulder of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 21,

'Selective amnesia' on the nuclear option

01/26/15 11:25AM

When Senate Democrats executed the so-called "nuclear option" in 2013, Senate Republicans were apoplectic, insisting that Dems had gone too far. Nearly two years later, the GOP has apparently changed its mind, concluding that Democrats may not have gone far enough.
 
The gist of the story is probably familiar to regular readers. After Senate Republican abuses reached untenable levels, pushing obstructionist tactics never before seen in American history, the then-Democratic majority had no choice but to try the nuclear option -- a procedural scheme first cooked up by Republicans a decade earlier. By doing so, Dems restored majority rule on nearly all confirmation votes -- if a majority of the Senate supports a nominee, he or she is confirmed, just like the Senate used to operate.
 
There was, however, one big catch: in addition to leaving filibuster rules intact for all legislation, the nuclear option didn't apply to Supreme Court nominees. A Senate minority could, in theory, still block a nominee for the high court, even if he or she enjoyed majority support.
 
Politico reported the other day that leading GOP senators have decided to take the nuclear option another step further.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who's spearheading the proposal with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said the change would bring the Senate back to the way it operated before the presidency of George W. Bush, when the Democratic minority elevated the use of filibusters as a tactic to stymie judicial nominees. Alexander is a Senate institutionalist and deal maker, while Blunt is a member of leadership; both are confidants of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
 
"What we would like to do is adopt by rule the way the Senate has always operated," argued Alexander, who said he is writing the plan with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). "The history of the Senate has been up-or-down votes, as I call them, at 51."
Amazing.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul address attendees during the Republican National Committee spring meeting at the Peabody hotel in Memphis, Tenn., on May 9, 2014. (Photo by William DeShazer/The Commercial Appeal/AP)

Rand Paul's dad isn't making his task any easier

01/26/15 10:46AM

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist violence in Paris, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) saw an opportunity to make a political point: maybe it's time, the Republican senator argued, for France to rethink its immigration policies.
 
As a rule, libertarian-minded officials don't believe in immigration crackdowns, but Paul has Republican presidential primary voters to consider, and this apparently seemed like the right call.
 
Around the same time, however, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) had an entirely different concern. The senator's father, known for his deeply strange beliefs, was questioning whether the attack at Charlie Hebdo's offices was a false-flag operation. Ron Paul didn't specifically argue that it was a false-flag, but he considered it a legitimate question, adding that he's "determined to try to get truth out" about the terrorist acts.
 
Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on a similar set of circumstances in which Rand Paul made one pitch while his father made another.
Rand Paul wants to lead the United States. On Saturday in Texas, his father was speaking at a conference about how to leave it.
 
"A lot of times people think secession, they paint it as an absolute negative," said former representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.). After all, Paul said, the American Revolution was a kind of secession. "You mean we should have been obedient to the king forever? So it's all in the way you look at it."
The senator was in California, trying to curry favor with the Koch brothers and his allies, while the former congressman was in Texas, delivering a speech at "a one-day seminar in breaking away from the central state."
 
Of course he was.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama talk in the gardens between meetings at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Jan. 25, 2015. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Obama advances U.S. goals in India

01/26/15 10:00AM

One of the more common criticisms of President Obama's foreign policy from the right is that he's scaled back U.S. efforts to influence the world, withdrawing America from its traditional leadership post. The Republican whining has always been more ironic than credible, largely because Obama has spent six years doing the exact opposite.
 
For example, consider this New York Times report covering the president's trip to India and his attendance at India's massive, annual Republic Day celebration.
The parade was the visual centerpiece of Mr. Obama's three-day trip, a colorful mélange of modern-day military hardware, soldiers in traditional turbans and costumes riding camels, and a series of floats from myriad states capturing different aspects of India's rich and complicated cultures. The invitation to Mr. Obama to attend in the position of honor was an important diplomatic gesture. [...]
 
Mr. Obama's decision to accept the invitation to be chief guest was seen here as a great tribute to India, heralded by politicians and the news media as a sign of the country's importance on the world stage. An announcer told the crowd that it was "a proud moment for every Indian."
Of course, Obama's diplomatic emphasis -- he's the first sitting president to ever visit India twice during his term -- was about more than symbolic celebrations. As msnbc's Benjy Sarlin reported, Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced "progress on nuclear energy and climate change negotiations during their talks in New Delhi," with the U.S. president declaring a "breakthrough understanding" on the former.
 
What's more, the NYT report added that Obama and Modi "renewed the 10-year defense pact between the two countries on Sunday and agreed to cooperate on aircraft carrier and jet engine technology. They also agreed to work on joint production of small-scale surveillance drones."
 
There's also the broader, geo-political landscape to consider. Clearly, Obama has prioritized improved relations with India, seeing it as an important goal on its own, but there's also a context to remember.
US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Sept. 30, 2013.

Unexpected critics pan GOP/Netanyahu gambit

01/26/15 09:15AM

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced last week that he'd invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver remarks to Congress, it quickly became an important international controversy. Not only had Republican lawmakers ignored U.S. protocol, circumventing the executive branch to partner with a foreign head of state, but the GOP had hatched a plot to sabotage American foreign policy, siding with a foreign government over the White House -- just weeks in advance of Israeli elections.
 
Last week, Obama administration officials, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, and the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman all criticized the Boehner/Netanyahu scheme. Over the weekend, Michael Oren, Netanyahu's former ambassador to the U.S. urged the Israeli leader to cancel. "The behavior over the last few days created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran," Oren said.
 
Even some Fox News anchors are siding with the White House's position (thanks to reader F.B. for the heads-up).
[T]wo prominent Fox News hosts, Chris Wallace and Shepherd Smith, harshly criticized Boehner and Netanyahu on Friday for secretly arranging a Netanyahu speech to Congress that is transparently aimed at undermining President Obama, and set up without the White House's knowledge.
 
The White House, State Department, and many foreign policy observers, including prominent former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, expressed outrage over the move. And, in a sign of just how many lines Boehner and Netanyahu crossed, so did the two Fox News hosts. "I agree 100 percent," Wallace said when Smith read a quote from Indyk criticizing the Boehner-Netanyahu maneuver.
Wallace, hardly an ally of President Obama, noted that Secretary of State John Kerry met on Tuesday with Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, for two hours, and Dermer never mentioned the Boehner/Netanyahu scheme announced a day later. The Fox News host said "this whole thing" is "wicked."
 
Shep Smith went on to say that the Netanyahu administration seems to think that Americans are "just a bunch of complete morons."
Conservatives Gather For Voter Values Summit

Palin sees Obama as 'an overgrown little boy'

01/26/15 08:35AM

Sarah Palin knows a little bit about generating attention for herself. The former half-term Alaska governor surely realized, for example, that when she declared she's "seriously interested" in running for president -- of the United States, no less -- it'd cause a stir.
 
And that's arguably a shame. There's literally nothing to suggest the right-wing personality is serious about a political campaign, and Palin very likely makes comments like these as a sad little ego exercise.
 
But more important was Palin's cringe-worthy speech at Rep. Steve King's (R) Iowa Freedom Summit, fairly characterized as a "bizarre improvised rant," in which the Alaska Republican came up with a new condemnation of President Obama.
"An impatient president doesn't just get to trample our Constitution and ignore Congress just because he doesn't get exactly what he wants every time he wants it," Palin said. "It's like an overgrown little boy who's just acting kind of spoiled. And moms, we don't put up with that, do we?"
Republican rhetoric that infantilizes the president is more common than it should be. It's also creepy.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal talks about recent Republican party gains and the road ahead for their party during a press conference at the Republican governors' conference in Boca Raton, Fla., Nov. 19, 2014.

Jindal finds new ways to pander to far-right

01/26/15 08:00AM

Why would Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) spend several days repeating discredited nonsense last week? Because it's apparently working for him. Byron York reported over the weekend:
You know what Bobby Jindal said about Muslim "no-go zones" in Europe, a statement that resulted in Jindal being criticized and mocked by mainstream commentators? It turns out many social conservatives in Iowa really liked it.... [Jindal] not only did not suffer from his remarks but instead benefited from them.
This is, alas, how the game is played in the Republican presidential nominating contest -- say things that aren't true in order to impress activists who don't know better. It creates an unfortunate set of incentives in which cynical would-be presidents are encouraged to make stuff up, confident that electoral rewards will follow.
 
But for the GOP governor, the question is not how to deal with the fallout of getting caught making ridiculous allegations, but rather, what Jindal can do for an encore. Over the weekend, the dynamic led the governor to turn his attention to marriage equality.
 
The broader context is worth appreciating, because as recently as Tuesday, President Obama noted in his State of the Union address last week, "I've seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country."
 
Jindal must have missed this. Yesterday, he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos what his reaction would be to a court ruling supporting marriage equality:

Drone at the White House and other headlines

01/26/15 07:42AM

Drone lands inside White House grounds. (NBC News)

Somebody prank called the British Prime Minister. (New York Times)

Obama to propose new wilderness protections in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Alaska leaders irate. (Alaska Dispatch News)

Senate GOP may abolish Supreme Court filibusters. (Politico)

Foreign policy divides 2016 hopefuls at Koch forum. (The Hill)

Chris Christie launches a PAC. (AP)

Romney's consideration of candidacy is closely tied to his faith, allies say. (New York Times)

Boko Haram attacks northeastern Nigerian city, scores killed. (AP)

There's a big blizzard about to hit the northeast. (Weather.com)

Watch jumbo asteroid zip past Earth. (National Geographic)

read more

U.S. President Barack Obama waves at the start of his State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

This Week in God, 1.24.15

01/24/15 09:04AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected complaint from the religious right about, of all things, President Obama's State of the Union address.
 
At first, I thought conservatives might complain about the way in which the president ended his remarks. While most SOTU addresses conclude with a president saying, "God Bless America," Obama this week wrapped up by saying, "God bless you. God bless this country we love." The subtle shift seemed like the sort of thing conservatives might not like, and as it turns out, some on the right did take note.
 
What I didn't expect was this.
The American Family Association's Sandy Rios enjoys promoting bizarre conspiracy theories to imply that President Obama is a secret Muslim, and [Wednesday] she even managed to find proof of Obama's hidden faith in his State of the Union address.
 
On Rios' radio program ... she did use the opportunity to claim that Obama was spreading Muslim messages in his speech when he used the word "pillar" to describe the foundations of American leadership in the world: "The other thing he said that I caught, he has done this before, you know there are five pillars of Islam, and he used the term 'pillars' again in his speech last night."
According to the Right Wing Watch report, Rios, who seems a little preoccupied with the idea that the Christian president is a secret Muslim, added, "It is just really interesting, language can actually give us some insight, choices of words."
 
It's probably worth noting that the president did use the word "pillar" in his speech, but last week, Mitt Romney used the same word. Former President George W. Bush referenced "pillars" several times when discussing U.S. policy in Iraq, and former President Ronald Reagan referenced "pillars" while promoting government-sponsored religion in public schools.
 
One can only wonder whether the American Family Association, a co-host of Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) "The Response" prayer rally today, sees secret Muslims everywhere.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

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