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Labor Day, 2014

09/01/14 08:00AM

It's likely to be pretty slow today, so readers should expect a very light posting schedule. That said, I'll be around in case there's breaking news of interest.
 
As for Labor Day, President Obama is emphasizing the need for a minimum-wage hike; Republicans are talking up the "jobs bills" passed by the GOP-led House (they're not actual jobs bills); E.J. Dionne Jr. presents Market Basket as an example of a Labor Day tale with a happy ending; and msnbc's Tim Noah argues that liberals must "recommit themselves to labor unions."
 
The New York Times' editorial board, meanwhile, notes some recent progress on the labor front, though there's so much more work needs to be done.
There has been progress since last Labor Day. Mr. Obama has signed executive orders to improve the pay and working conditions of employees of federal contractors. The Labor Department is revising rules on overtime pay; simply updating them for inflation would make millions of additional workers eligible for time-and-a-half for overtime.
 
What is still lacking, however, is a full-employment agenda that regards labor, not corporations, as the center of the economy -- a change that would be a reversal of the priorities of the last 35 years.
Also take a look at Jared Bernstein's latest: "If you hear a Labor Day speech today, you'll probably and appropriately hear a call for replacing some of what American workers have lost over the years: bargaining power, wages, robust job opportunities, a fair social compact. And those are all highly relevant things to call for. But I think what's missing from our national debate over labor and the condition of working families -- those who depend on paychecks, not stock portfolios -- is something more fundamental: courage."
Jesse Benton, arrives at a campaign event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, on Dec. 28, 2011.

McConnell campaign manager resigns amid bribery scandal

08/30/14 02:18PM

The controversy started, oddly enough, six days before the 2012 Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa.
 
In a development that was simply unheard of, state Sen. Kent Sorenson (R), the chair of Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign in Iowa, announced just six days before the caucuses that he was quitting Team Bachmann to support Ron Paul's presidential campaign.
 
At the time, the move seemed inexplicable, but this week we learned that the Ron Paul campaign paid Sorenson a $73,000 bribe to switch teams. Following a federal investigation into the incident, Sorenson pleaded guilty to two criminal counts associated with the bribe and the lies told to cover it up.
 
But the broader effects of the scandal didn't end with Sorenson's guilty plea. We know who received the bribe, but there's the unresolved matter of who paid the bribe.
 
The investigation remains ongoing and its effects have now reached Kentucky, where Jesse Benton resigned late yesterday as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) campaign manager, after Benton "emerged as a figure" in the controversy.
In an emailed statement Friday evening, Benton denied any involvement in the scandal.... Benton was Paul's political director at the time. [...]
 
Benton as well as former McConnell campaign consultant Dimitri Kesari -- who also worked for Paul -- were mentioned in documents gathered during an Iowa state ethics probe of Sorenson, a complaint to the Federal Election Commission and emails purported to be from the Paul campaign obtained by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors federal campaign finance issues.
For his part, Benton blasted "unsubstantiated media rumors" and insisted that the allegations surrounding his role in the Sorenson bribery scandal are "false."
 
If Benton is guilty of no wrongdoing, why resign late on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend? The Republican operative's statement added he feared "becoming a distraction" to Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign.
 
Benton's sudden resignation from the Senate Minority Leader's campaign, however, does not mark the end of the controversy.
Supreme Court Hears Susan B. Anthony List v Steve Driehaus Case

This Week in God, 8.30.14

08/30/14 09:23AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the real-world consequences of a Supreme Court ruling on the separation of church and state.
 
Remember Greece v. Galloway? The case dealt with local council meetings in Greece, N.Y., a Rochester suburb, which hosted an informal "chaplain of the month" to deliver an invocation before the board dealt with official business. Nearly all of the invited chaplains were Christian, and "more often than not," the Christian clergy "called on Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to guide the council's deliberations."
 
Some local citizens sued, arguing that the First Amendment should prevent local government from incorporating Christian prayers into official community meetings. In a 5-4 decision handed down in May, the high court's conservatives disagreed, reversing a unanimous appellate court and concluding that "ceremonial prayer" is permissible.
 
This week, as Sahil Kapur reported, officials in Greece adopted a formal policy to put its prayer practices in place.
Less than four months [after the high court ruling], the town of Greece has adopted an invocation policy that excludes non-religious citizens and potentially shuts out faiths that aren't well-established in the town, according to a top secular group.
 
Seeking to "avail itself of the Supreme Court's recognition" that government prayer is constitutional, the new policy restricts opening remarks to "assemblies with an established presence in the Town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective."
In practice, this suggests non-believers -- who lack "established" meetings to discuss religious perspectives -- may be deliberately excluded. The same is true for minority faiths who lack enough local members for an established congregation.
 
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (and a long-time friend), told Kapur, "They said they're open to anybody. Now they're not open to anybody. It's really a scam.... They only want religious people -- frankly they only want Christians -- to participate. This is a step backward."
 
If atheists and other religious minorities submit requests to lead invocations and are rejected, it may very well lead to a new round of litigation.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:
Former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine speaks during a reception prior to the Jefferson Jackson Dinner Saturday. Feb. 19, 2011 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center in Richmond, Va.

The TRMS running tally of calls for congressional responsibility

08/28/14 09:59PM

The Rachel Maddow Show has decided to start a running whip-count for members of Congress who have signed letters, or said publicly, that Congress must vote on authorization for the use of military force in Iraq or more recently for potential U.S. military action in Syria. Below is our running tally so far.

We hope that you can help us keep our running tally up-to-date. If your member of Congress joins or drops off this list, please let us know. We hope this can be an authoritative source of members of Congress who are not wussing-out of their constitutional responsibilities to take a vote on these matters. Keep us posted!

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Friday's Mini-Report, 8.29.14

08/29/14 05:10PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Ukraine: "Backed by Russian troops and weaponry, hundreds of Ukrainian rebel militiamen mobilized on Friday in [Novoazovsk], vacated by the Ukrainian military two days ago, and began to push toward the strategic seaport of Mariupol 27 miles away. The leader of the rebels called the advance a broad new effort to wrest control of a wide swath of coastal territory from the central government."
 
* Tough sell: "Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday hailed pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine as 'insurgents' battling an army that he likened to Nazi invaders during World War II, and the Ukrainian government raised the prospect of joining NATO as it seeks help in repelling what it calls an outright Russian military invasion of its territory."
 
* This seems likely to get Moscow's attention: "The U.K. will press European Union leaders to consider blocking Russian access to the SWIFT banking transaction system under an expansion of sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine, a British government official said. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, known as SWIFT, is one of Russia's main connections to the international financial system."
 
* Sensible: "Rep. Tom Cole on Friday praised President Barack Obama for being 'commendably cautious' about potential military action in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Appearing on MSNBC, the Oklahoma Republican downplayed criticism that White House lacks a plan to combat ISIL militants, a concern stemming from a White House press briefing Obama gave the day before."
 
* I guess that's the end of the Mississippi dispute? "Special Judge Hollis McGehee has decided to dismiss an election challenge filed by Chris McDaniel. Friday in Gulfport, the judge announced his decision putting an end to the months of legal battles between the two candidates."
 
* Palestinian divisions: "Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas on Friday for extending fighting with Israel in the Gaza Strip, casting doubt on the future of the Palestinian unity government that the Islamic militant group backs, while Israel's premier said the end of the war could mark resumption of peace talks with Abbas."
 
* Iran: "Amid signs that Iran's military is resisting efforts to open up its nuclear program to deeper inspection, the Obama administration on Friday imposed sanctions on several Iranian organizations, including one run by the reclusive scientist who is widely believed to direct research on building nuclear weapons."
 
* If only the decision was theirs to make: "Another government shutdown isn't going to happen next month -- at least if you ask Republican leaders."
 
* Another policy dud for Sen. David Vitter (R-La.): "A government probe into the metric used by federal agencies to measure the 'social cost of carbon' found no evidence that it was improperly developed, investigators said Monday.... The review concluded that a federal working group convened to revise the economic measurement of carbon pollution based its decisions on a consensus of its members' thinking and relied heavily on peer-reviewed science."
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Rep. Peter King, Obama's new fashion critic

08/29/14 03:34PM

Political commentary on President Obama's clothing choices started almost immediately after his inauguration. Just two weeks after the president took the oath of office, Republican critics started complaining about photographs showing Obama in the Oval Office without a jacket on. Democrats responded by showing pictures of Reagan dressed in similar Oval Office attire, and the right quietly moved on.
 
But over the years, the complaints lingered -- about the president's jeans, the president's neckwear, etc.
 
Yesterday, interest in presidential attire reached a level that was hard to believe, with the political world going a little bonkers over Obama's tan suit. Andrew Kaczynski flagged the latest from Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) whose apoplexy about the color of the president's suit was so over the top, it's tempting to think this is satire.
"There's no way any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday," King said of President Obama on NewsMaxTV. "When you have the world watching ... a week, two weeks of anticipation of what the United States is gonna do. For him to walk out -- I'm not trying to be trivial here -- in a light suit, light tan suit, saying that first he wants to talk about what most Americans care about the revision of second quarter numbers on the economy. This is a week after Jim Foley was beheaded and he's trying to act like real Americans care about the economy, not about ISIS and not about terrorism. And then he goes on to say he has no strategy."
 
King said Obama's comments and actions showed "foreign policy was not a major issue" for President Obama.
Note, this isn't a joke. Kaczynski posted the clip of King's remarks, which seem to be entirely sincere.
 
An actual member of Congress -- the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's panel on counter-terrorism, no less -- believes there's "no way" to "excuse what the president did." And in this case, what the president did was put on a tan suit.
Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, March 8, 2014.

Ben Carson stands by U.S., Nazi comparisons

08/29/14 02:10PM

Remember neurosurgeon-turned-conservative-activist Ben Carson? He's apparently still around, still making needlessly provocative remarks, and still moving forward with his presidential plans.
 
In fact, Ben Terris reported from Iowa yesterday on a Carson event in Des Moines.
He's inside this meeting hall, before a sellout crowd of nearly 400 people at the Polk County Republicans' end-of-summer fundraiser, to discuss bullies of a different order. He wants to talk about the "secular progressives" in the news media, politics and academia who will stop at nothing to change the nation as we know it. He also wants to do this in Iowa, while raising money for local Republicans, coinciding with the start of his new PAC, which will "lay the groundwork" should he decide to run for president. [...]
 
He speaks softly, almost as though he's reading a child to sleep. But this is a scary story. If Republicans don't win back the Senate in November, he says, he can't be sure "there will even be an election in 2016." Later, his wife, Candy, tells a supporter that they are holding on to their son's Australian passport just in case the election doesn't go their way.
Just so we're clear, the implication here is that Carson believes President Obama, tyrant that he is, may not allow elections in 2016. It's why Carson's family is preparing to flee the United States, just in case.
 
As for Carson arguing earlier this year that contemporary American life as "very much like Nazi Germany," the right-wing doctor told Terris, "You can't dance around it.... If people look at what I said and were not political about it, they'd have to agree. Most people in Germany didn't agree with what Hitler was doing.... Exactly the same thing can happen in this country if we are not willing to stand up for what we believe in." 
 
I guess that means he's not sorry?
 
Fox News' Chris Wallace said yesterday that Carson, himself a Fox contributor, probably doesn't have a "serious chance" to actually be elected president, but Wallace added he'd "love" to see Carson run anyway.
 
It's not clear why.
Gov. Nathan Deal speaks at a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday, July 5, 2011 in Atlanta.

Nathan Deal stumbles on Dream Act question

08/29/14 12:44PM

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is in the middle of a tough re-election fight, which is coinciding with some unresolved ethics allegations. Stories like these probably won't help.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is being strongly criticized after he told a Hispanic student that he "presumed" she was an undocumented immigrant who came into the U.S. as a child.
 
Addressing the topic of immigration at a University of Georgia forum Tuesday night, Deal reportedly looked at Lizbeth Miranda when he made his remarks.
 
"There's a fundamental problem that can only be solved at the Congressional level and that is to deal with the issue of children, and I presume you probably fit the category, children who were brought here," Deal said, according to CBS 46.
Well, "presumptions" can be dangerous in this line of work.
 
In this case, the student at the University of Georgia forum quickly explained, "I'm not an illegal immigrant. I'm not," she said. "I don't know why you would have thought that I was undocumented. Was it because I look Hispanic?"
 
The governor, backpedaling, replied, "I apologize if I insulted you. I did not intend to."
 
Deal's spokesperson later said the governor was directing his comments to a different student at the time.
 
A video of the exchange is below, and while the camera angle isn't ideal, the audio is pretty clear. Even if we give the governor the benefit of the doubt on which student he was speaking to -- a contentious point, to be sure -- there's a substantive problem to keep in mind: Deal's eagerness to pass responsibility onto Congress is flawed.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.29.14

08/29/14 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:
 
* How competitive is Kansas' gubernatorial race? Gov. Sam Brownback (R) released an internal poll yesterday that showed him leading Paul Davis (D) by only one point, 43% to 42%.
 
* Moving quickly, MoveOn.org has a new ad targeting Joni Ernst (R) in Iowa's U.S. Senate race, making use of her recent remarks crediting the Koch brothers' network for her political standing. That news only came to public light a few days ago.
 
* On a related note, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has launched a new ad of its own in Iowa, highlighting Ernst's support for Medicare cuts.
 
* In Michigan's U.S. Senate race, the EPIC-MRA poll shows Rep. Gary Peters (D) maintaining his lead over Terri Lynn Land (R), 45% to 39%.
 
* The increasingly erratic Boston Globe poll in Massachusetts' gubernatorial race shows Charlie Baker (R) edging past Martha Coakley (D) for the first time, 38% to 37%.
 
* Democrats on the national level haven't shown any interest in Maine's U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Sen. Susan Collis (R) is a heavy favorite, but Democracy for America is nevertheless launching some new ads in support of Shenna Bellows (D), Collins' progressive challenger.
This photo posted on the website freejamesfoley.org shows journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in November, 2012.

ISIS believed to have waterboarded hostages

08/29/14 11:34AM

NBC News reported this morning that American journalist James Foley was tortured by his ISIS captors, and the abuses included the use of waterboarding. The initial reporting came yesterday from the Washington Post.
At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including an American journalist who was recently executed by the group, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners.
 
James Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA's use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
NBC News added that the terrorists "appeared to be deliberately imitating" the torture technique embraced by the Bush/Cheney administration, which came up with the "enhanced interrogation technique" euphemism to justify waterboarding detainees.
 
President Obama outlawed the use of waterboarding and related torture techniques in his administration soon after taking office in 2009.
 
The Post's report, quoting a person with direct knowledge of what happened to the hostages said of the Islamic State militants, "They knew exactly how it was done."
Women hold up signs during a women's pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill, July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.

GOP poll: women see Republicans as 'intolerant,' 'stuck in the past'

08/29/14 11:09AM

In the 2012 elections, you didn't need to be a polling expert to realize Republicans struggled with women voters. After the "war on women" became a commonly recognized phrase, driven entirely by the GOP's actual policy agenda, Democratic candidates thrived thanks in large part to a growing gender gap.
 
Republican Party leaders were determined to do better. So far, they've failed.
A detailed report commissioned by two major Republican groups -- including one backed by Karl Rove -- paints a dismal picture for Republicans, concluding female voters view the party as "intolerant," "lacking in compassion" and "stuck in the past."
 
Women are "barely receptive" to Republicans' policies, and the party does "especially poorly" with women in the Northeast and Midwest, according to an internal Crossroads GPS and American Action Network report obtained by POLITICO. It was presented to a small number of senior aides this month on Capitol Hill, according to multiple sources.
The sponsors of the poll matter -- the right isn't in a position to complain about "skewed" results when it's Republicans conducting a poll about perceptions of Republicans.
 
Reading the report, it's clear that neither party in Washington is especially popular right now, but the Politico report added, "Female voters who care about the top four issues -- the economy, health care, education and jobs -- vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Most striking, Democrats hold a 35-point advantage with female voters who care about jobs and a 26 percent advantage when asked which party is willing to compromise."
 
Asked about the findings, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus told msnbc yesterday that his party should approach women's issues with a better "tone."
 
It suggests he's still missing the more salient, substantive point.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., July 10, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The Dems' unexpected dilemma in Kansas

08/29/14 10:27AM

There's no shortage of competitive U.S. Senate races to watch this year, and with control of the chamber on the line, the stakes are obviously very high. But arguably the most interesting race is one that few even considered when the 2014 cycle got underway.
 
The political landscape in Kansas is already unexpectedly volatile, with incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback (R) struggling badly in his bid for a second term, despite Kansas' ruby-red reputation. But more striking still is longtime incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R), who was assumed to be a shoo in, but who finds himself in a messy contest.
 
After narrowly avoiding a primary upset against a political novice, the 78-year-old incumbent, who's been in Congress for over three decades and who no longer owns a home in the state he represents, is in a close, four-way contest. The latest PPP poll found Roberts ahead with 32%, followed by Democrat Chad Taylor at 25%, independent Greg Orman at 23%, and Libertarian Randall Batson at 3%.
 
In case it's not obvious, when a multi-term Republican incumbent is polling at 32% -- in a red state, in a strong year for the GOP -- he has a problem.
 
The question is what Democrats can and should do about it. Sean Sullivan explained today that the unexpected circumstances have presented Dems "with an intriguing, if delicate, opportunity to shift the race in their favor, and help themselves in the battle for the Senate majority."
Roberts's Democratic challenger is Chad Taylor, a little-known Shawnee County district attorney who has waved off help from national Democrats, despite raising little money on his own. Independent candidate Greg Orman, a former Democrat who says he is open to aligning himself with either party in the Senate, has raised more money and has the potential to tap his personal wealth for further reinforcements. [...]
 
Therein lies the Democratic dilemma: Do they passively help Orman, as they did with now-Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) in 2012 -- or perhaps more aggressively encourage Taylor to end his campaign? Or is neither option worth the risk, since Orman -- who also happens to be a former Republican -- could still caucus with GOP, if elected?
This isn't an easy call.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks during The Family Leadership Summit, Aug. 9, 2014, in Ames, Iowa.

Louisiana's Jindal sues over Common Core, despite previous support

08/29/14 09:45AM

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) loved the Common Core education standards. He embraced them, decided to implement them, persuaded his state's education officials to adopt them, and even sought federal funds to incorporate them into Louisiana's curricula.
 
Then, however, Jindal discovered just how much the Republican Party's far-right base disliked Common Core, at which point the governor (and likely presidential candidate) decided it was time for a reversal: Jindal abandoned the same education policy he'd previously championed.
 
But apparently, a rhetorical reversal only goes so far. This week, the conservative Republican went just a little further to demonstrate his opposition to the standards he recently supported.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday accusing the U.S. Department of Education of illegally coercing states to adopt the Common Core academic standards by requiring states that want to compete for federal grants to embrace the national standards.
 
Jindal also accused the department and Education Secretary Arne Duncan of forcing states to adopt the Common Core standards to win a waiver from some of the restrictive aspects of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law.
The governor now claims Louisiana has been illegally coerced, but as the Washington Post's report added, 'When Louisiana applied multiple times for a grant under Obama's Race to the Top program, Jindal never mentioned overreach, illegality or coercion. His state superintendent of education at the time wrote to the U.S. Department of Education "we proudly submit this application to Race to the Top because Louisiana's children can't wait.'"

If Jindal is so opposed to the standards he used to support, why doesn't he just pull out of Common Core altogether? The governor tried that, but state lawmakers wouldn't let him -- Jindal was so persuasive in pitching Common Core on the merits, the legislature, the state education board, and the Jindal Administration's education superintendent all remain Common Core backers.

Of course, none of them are preparing a run for national office and looking for ways to pander to far-right activists.
Tom Corbett

Pennsylvania's Corbett strikes deal to expand Medicaid

08/29/14 08:45AM

Republicans expect to have a successful year in 2014 congressional races, but the gubernatorial terrain looks far less favorable. A fascinating analysis this week found that incumbent GOP governors who've accepted Medicaid expansion are in far better electoral shape than Republicans who refused to embrace the health care policy.
 
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) has been in the latter category -- the Republican had balked at Medicaid expansion and he's trailing badly in most polls -- though as Greg Sargent reported yesterday, the governor just announced a big shift.
In another sign that the politics of Obamacare continue to shift, the Medicaid expansion is now all but certain to come to another big state whose Republican governor had previously resisted it: Pennsylvania.
 
The federal government has approved Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's application for the state's own version of the Medicaid expansion, without a handful of the conditions Corbett had hoped to impose.... Corbett just announced that he will accept the expansion that has been offered, perhaps with some last-minute changes -- expanding coverage and subsidies to as many as half a million people.
As a substantive matter, this is an important breakthrough. Pennsylvania is the nation's sixth-largest state by population, and with a stroke of the governor's pen, nearly 500,000 low-income adults are poised to gain access to medical care. For many, this may ultimately be a life-saving policy.
 
Corbett's move also means there are now 27 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have embraced Medicaid expansion, including every state in the Northeast except Maine.
 
As for the politics, it's fascinating to see the degree to which health care politics have been turned on their ear. Here we have a Republican governor, down in the polls, looking to improve his standing with voters. What does he do? Corbett runs towards the Affordable Care Act, not away from it. For all the assumptions about "Obamacare" being an electoral albatross, the evidence to the contrary keeps getting in the way.
 
Indeed, this is arguably part of an important emerging pattern.

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