First up from the God Machine this week is some curious advice Oklahoma school districts have received from their state Attorney General's office.
At a national level, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) is perhaps best known for his unsettling partnerships with the oil and gas industry, but this week, the far-right A.G. made headlines for a very different reason. The Tulsa Worldreported:
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has sent a letter to public school superintendents across the state vowing to defend religious freedom amid "veiled legal threats" over the distribution of Bibles on campus.
"Few things are as sacred and as fundamental to Oklahomans as the constitutional rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion," Pruitt wrote Tuesday. "It is a challenging time in our country for those who believe in religious liberty. Our religious freedoms are under constant attack from a variety of groups who seek to undermine our constitutional rights and threaten our founding principles."
At issue is an organized effort on the part of local Christian activists to distribute Bibles to public-school children in several Oklahoma districts. The Freedom From Religion Foundation apparently followed up, contacting school officials with a reminder about the First Amendment. It led the state A.G.'s office to weigh in with guidance of his own, telling school district that current law protects "distribution of religious literature in public schools."
To be sure, controversies like these pop up from time to time nationwide, but it's quite unusual for a state Attorney General to directly intervene with dubious and unsolicited advice.
The details in cases like these make all the difference: courts have never said schools can give specific outside groups special access to children to promote Bibles or any other materials. What is legal, however, are open forums -- if a school is going to allow distribution of one group's materials, it has to open the door to everyone.
In a practical sense, that means if an Oklahoma public school allows the distribution of Bibles, it can either (a) also allow the other groups, including Satanists, the same access; or (b) face an expensive lawsuit the district is guaranteed to lose, bombast from the state Attorney General's office notwithstanding.
Perhaps most importantly, this is hardly a question of "religious liberty." No faith has an affirmative, exclusive legal right to enter public schools and provide religious books to kids. To point this out to school districts is to defend our civil liberties; it's not an example of freedoms being "under constant attack."
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Senator Reid, thanks so much for your time today. Thanks for being here.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: ...pleasure to be here.
MADDOW: I have to ask you about the glasses. How's your injury? How's your recovery from that?
REID: Well, I hurt myself on January 1st and I'm making a recovery. I'm sightless in my right eye at this time, probably not going to much to correct that. So I have to do everything at hand to protect my left eye. But Rachel, I tell everybody's that watching, things happen but this was a freak accident and I'm now blind in my right eye. I'm so grateful that it didn't brain - damage to my brain. I almost got smacked in the temple there. And I accept where I am and I'm just out there. I look around, it's easy to do, people are always - have a few more problems than you have.
MADDOW: The injury is obviously such a surprise. It came out of nowhere. It ended up being a very serious injury with long-lasting effects. Did that have an impact on your decision to not run for reelection?
As Rachel pointed out last night, recent spate of oil train crash explosions are the result of a sudden increase in the transporting of hazardous cargo, largely because of the boom in volatile shale oil production in North Dakota. The increase has been so sudden that safety regulators are having to play catch up. You might say they suffered a...
* Iraq: "An American is among eight people wounded when a car bomb exploded outside the U.S. Consulate in the Iraqi city of Erbil, a State Department official and Kurdish medical official said. Two people were killed in the blast."
* Republican judges, Republican lawsuit: 'The Obama administration faced stiff odds Friday in swaying a conservative-leaning appeals court to lift the freeze placed on the president's sweeping executive actions on immigration. It was a critical test for President Obama's Nov. 20 unilateral measures, which are imperiled by a lawsuit brought by Texas and 25 other states."
* He's right: "President Barack Obama on Friday slammed the Senate's exhaustive process in confirming Loretta Lynch as attorney general as 'embarrassing,' adding that it's 'gone too far.'"
* Yemen: "International aid agencies expressed rising alarm Friday over the humanitarian disaster consuming Yemen, as airstrikes and street fighting have intensified and nearly paralyzed essential services."
* Sometimes, appearances matter: "House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster is dating a top lobbyist for the leading U.S. airline trade association, an organization that spends millions of dollars trying to influence his panel."
* Good move: "Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the Department of Health and Human Services enlisted the help of Elmo on Friday to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. Murthy revealed a 30-second public service announcement with the Muppet Friday in a blog post published on the HHS website, in which he discusses the importance of vaccines."
* Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, likes the nuclear deal with Iran (sort of): "The nuclear agreement between the international community and Iran already stands as a remarkable if incomplete achievement. As in all such deals, the devil surely lies in its details and in implementation. I like the phrase "Distrust but Verify." And yet the real significance of this agreement is broader. If successful, it portends historic opportunities for change, not only in Iran but in the Middle East as a whole."
It was about a year ago when New Jersey's debt was downgraded for the sixth time since Gov. Chris Christie (R) took office in 2010. The announcement came soon after the Republican governor scrapped his state pension-reform plan.
Four months later, the Garden State was hit with another downgrade. Then another. Late yesterday, it happened yet again.
Moody's Investors Service has downgraded New Jersey's debt rating, dealing the Garden State its record ninth ratings cut since Gov. Chris Christie took office.
The ratings drop by one notch, from A1 to A2, on $32.2 billion worth of bonds underscores the state's "weak financial position and large structural imbalance, primarily related to continued pension contribution shortfalls," Moody's said in a statement Thursday.... Credit downgrades make it more expensive for the state to borrow money to pay for things like road improvements and school construction.
The agency warned that the state's structural finances are in a precarious enough condition that future downgrades may be necessary.
Christie not only holds the state record for the governor with the most downgrades, he holds a comfortable lead in this ignominious competition against his next closest rival.
In the larger context, I don't doubt that the governor will kick off his presidential campaign soon, but I'm honestly not sure what he'll say.
It was just last week when Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) completed a rarely seen flip-flop-flip, denouncing Medicaid expansion, then embracing it, and then condemning it. The consequences matter: 800,000 low-income Floridians were poised to have access to medical care, but they'll now go without.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday that he will sue the federal government for allegedly coercing Florida to expand Medicaid.
"It is appalling that President Obama would cut off federal healthcare dollars to Florida in an effort to force our state further into Obamacare," Scott said in a statement.
By late yesterday, the far-right governor was reduced to comparing the White House to the mafia. "This is the Sopranos," Scott said. "[Administration officials] are using bullying tactics to attack our state. It's wrong. It's outrageous they are doing this."
This is actually one of the more amazing political fights in the country right now, and it's worth appreciating why.
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:
* Fresh proof that the left may have reason to like the Democratic frontrunner after all: "Hillary Clinton is planning to name Gary Gensler, a former top federal financial regulator and strong advocate for strict Wall Street rules, as the chief financial officer of her campaign."
* Gov. Scott Walker (R) often touts an electability message when promoting his presidential campaign, but the latest Marquette University Law School poll shows the governor's in-state approval rating dropping to 41%. In a hypothetical match-up against Clinton, the Democrat has a 12-point advantage in Wisconsin over the governor, 52% to 40%.
* On a related note, the same poll shows Sen. Ron Johnson (R) trailing former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) by a wide margin, 54% to 38%.
* Sen. Marco Rubio (R) appears to have gotten a bump in his home state of Florida this week, with a new Mason-Dixon poll showing him with a narrow lead in the state's 2016 Republican primary. The survey showed him with a one-point advantage over former Gov. Jeb Bush, 31% to 30%.
* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) appears to be inching closer to a presidential campaign, launching a national political action committee.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), looking for a way to break through in the Republican presidential race, announced his support for major "reforms" to social-insurance programs this week, including a call to raise the retirement age to 69.
In the larger political context, the question was whether -- and when -- the more competitive GOP candidates would follow suit. Now we know.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said Friday that the national retirement age needs to be raised "in relatively short order."
"I think we need to raise the retirement age, not for the people that already nearing -- receiving Social Security that are already on it [sic], but raise it gradually over a long period of time for people that are just entering the system," Bush said Friday during a speech in New Hampshire.
The Florida Republican didn't say, exactly, what the new retirement age would be under this vision, only that he'd like to see it happen soon.
All of this unfolded on video, which means that voters are likely to be reminded of this quote many times in the coming months, especially if Jeb Bush wins his party's nomination.
As Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign gets underway in earnest, there's been a fair amount of attention this week focused on his background in government. The far-right lawmaker rejects the "inexperienced" label, and he has a point.
Before joining the U.S. Senate four years ago, the Florida Republican served nearly a decade in the state legislature, including two years as Florida's state House Speaker. Combined, that gives Rubio roughly 13 years in elected office -- more than recent Republican presidential nominees like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush combined.
The better question is what Rubio did while in office. At the federal level, the Florida Republican has no real legislative accomplishments to his name, but Politicoreported this morning highlighted one of Rubio's most notable legislative feats during his tenure in Tallahassee.
In 2008, while Democrats were declaring that the time was right for national health care reform, Marco Rubio, the speaker of the Florida House, had a ready response: Florida should build a market-based system that would help contain the cost of insurance and make it more available.
Rubio pushed his no-mandate health insurance exchange, dubbed Florida Health Choices, through the state Legislature that year. "It's about competition, it's about choice, and it's about the marketplace," he told The Palm Beach Post at the time.
Florida Health Choices, which finally opened last year, now covers 80 people.
In case this isn't clear, "80 people" is literal. The figure doesn't represent some percentage of the state population; we're talking about 80 individual Floridians in a state with a population of nearly 20 million.
It's worth appreciating why the policy Rubio championed is such a dud.
A couple of weeks ago, state lawmakers in Arizona moved closer to blocking funding for implementing the Affordable Care Act. The whole idea seemed too bizarre to be taken seriously, and the effort barely caused a ripple in national coverage on health care policy.
That's a shame, because as Sarah Kliff noted yesterday, the ridiculous proposal actually passed this week.
Arizona has passed a bizarre new law in which the state effectively promises that if the Supreme Court destroys its health exchange, it won't build a new one, no matter how badly Arizonans are hurting.
Even for Republicans, this is an odd one. I've heard plenty about states claiming to hate "Obamacare," but it's unusual to see a state declare its intention to punish itself, on purpose, for no reason.
The latest Bloomberg Politics poll shows President Obama with an overall approval rating of 47%, which is roughly in line with other national polling, but it wasn't the result that stood out most.
Americans are becoming more optimistic about the country's economic prospects by several different measures. President Barack Obama's handling of the economy is being seen more positively than negatively for the first time in more than five years, 49 percent to 46 percent -- his best number in this poll since September 2009. [...]
"The uptick extends not just to Obama but to the mood of the country and to things getting better," says J. Ann Selzer, president of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. "This will be an interesting potential transition, if it's a movement that signals the country is more cognizant about things turning better and that, in an indirect way, they're feeling better about Obama."
As Aaron Blake noted this morning, it's not the only poll showing Americans feeling better about economic conditions.
For more than six years now, President Obama's record has been bogged down, to varying degrees, by the economy.... But things have taken a turn. New Gallup polling shows, for the first time during the Obama presidency and since the recession in which it began, a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- say their personal financial situation is getting better.
The economic results themselves aren't new -- the unemployment rate, for example, has been dropping quickly for years -- but the public's beliefs are starting to come into line with the data. In other words, the economy has improved considerably since President Obama helped end the Great Recession, but we're now reaching the point at which most Americans feel that improvement and experience it in their own lives.
The political implications are likely to be dramatic.
Nearly five years ago, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate named Sharron Angle used a phrase that was as memorable as it was alarming: her political vision included "Second Amendment remedies." At the time, Angle's point was that if conservatives disapproved of policies adopted by elected officials, Americans might want to consider armed violence against their own country.
We learned last year that Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), before her election, endorsed a similar perspective. The right-wing Iowan said at an NRA event that she carries a firearm "virtually everywhere," in case she needs to defend herself "from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important."
This year, it's Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who's dipping his toes in the same waters. Sahil Kapur reported yesterday that the far-right presidential candidate is taking the "uncommon" view that the Second Amendment "includes a right to revolt against government tyranny."
"The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn't for just protecting hunting rights, and it's not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny -- for the protection of liberty," Cruz wrote to supporters in a fundraising email on Thursday, under the subject line "2nd Amendment against tyranny."
This "insurrectionist" argument, as Second Amendment expert and UCLA law professor Adam Winkler calls it, is popular among passionate gun owners and members of the National Rifle Association. But major party candidates for president don't often venture there.
Winkler told TPM, "It's pretty rare for a presidential candidate to support the right of the people to revolt against the government."
At least it used to be. In the American mainstream, when the people are dissatisfied with the government's direction, we don't need to take up arms or threaten violence -- we have elections. Your right to vote exists; your right to armed conflict against Americans does not.
Cruz's radicalism was enough to draw a rebuke from a fellow Republican and likely White House rival.
As marriage equality takes root as the legal norm in much of the country, opponents of equal-marriage rights have adopted a new set of tactics. Whereas it was common a decade ago to see Republicans pushing anti-gay constitutional amendments -- at the state and federal level -- right-to-discriminate measures have clearly become the new weapon of choice.
Arizona generated national attention last year with its foray into this area, but a gubernatorial veto quickly ended the fight. This year, Indiana created a firestorm with its discrimination statute, which policymakers were soon after willing to "fix." Arkansas scaled back its far-right drive in this area soon after.
But msnbc's Jane C. Timm reported yesterday that Louisiana Republicans are plowing ahead with a related bill of their own.
HB 707 -- the "Marriage and Conscience Act" -- says the state can't take "adverse action" against someone for opposing same-sex marriage for religious reasons; sponsor Rep. Mike Johnson told msnbc he's hoping the bill will come up for a vote in the next few weeks. If passed, this law would likely ensure, for example, that the state couldn't punish a state worker who refuses to process paperwork on a name change following a gay marriage in another state, or a police officer who didn't want to police a same-sex wedding ceremony.
"This Louisiana bill really does what people accused the Indiana law of doing," leading religious freedom expert and University of Virginia law professor Doug Laycock told msnbc. While Indiana's law offered up individuals accused of discrimination a legal defense that a judge could then weigh, Laycock explained, this law gives religious individuals absolute protection from state action, without balancing interests of – for instance – whether a gay individual's right to services outweighs the religious individual's freedoms.
Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), not surprisingly, told msnbc the proposal is "not about discriminating against anyone," so much as it's about "religious freedom."