First up from the God Machine this week is an update to a story we've been following involving the U.S. Air Force and a religious oath as a precondition to military service.
To briefly recap for those new to the story, the Pentagon requires servicemen and women sign an oath for re-enlistment, which concludes, "So help me God." In the Army and Navy, Americans have the discretion to omit those final four words without penalty, but the Air Force has made it mandatory.
An airman was recently told he would be excluded from military service, regardless of his qualifications, unless he does as the Air Force requires and swears an oath to God. Faced with a likely lawsuit, the Air Force backed down this week and made the oath optional.
Televangelist Pat Robertson says it's "crazy" that the U.S. Air Force will now allow servicemen and women to omit the words "so help me God" from official oaths.
"What is wrong with the Air Force?" he beseeched viewers on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club" on Thursday.
The TV preacher seemed especially incensed by Military Religious Freedom Foundation President Mikey Weinstein for pushing the issue.
"There's a left-wing radical named Mikey Weinstein who has got a group about people against religion or whatever he calls it, and he has just terrorized the armed forces," Robertson said. "You think you're supposed to be tough, you're supposed to defend us, and you got one little Jewish radical who is scaring the pants off of you."
The televangelist added, "You want these guys flying the airplanes to defend us when you got one little guy terrorizing them? That's what it amounts to.… How can [the Air Force] fly the bombers to defend us if they cave to one little guy?"
For what it's worth, the Air Force didn't "cave" to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation; it instead chose to stick to the U.S. Constitution, which mandates "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
Rachel Maddow reports breaking news that Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, having lost his Kansas Supreme Court case to force Democrat Chat Taylor onto the ballot, will instead add a disclaimer to federal overseas ballots for Kansas voters abroad. watch
Anne Gearan, Washington Post diplomatic correspondent, talks with Rachel Maddow about how the U.S. war on ISIS will progress absent Congress for six weeks, and what to expect when they return, given the apparent lack of concern for foreign affairs. watch
* ISIS: "French warplanes conducted their first airstrikes against targets in northern Iraq just hours after the U.S. Senate approved arming and training Syrian rebels to enter the fight against Islamic State militants. Rafale fighters struck a logistics depot, which French President Francois Hollande declared 'entirely destroyed.'"
* It looks like Kobach has pulled the plug on a prolonged fight: "Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has directed county election officials to start mailing ballots to voters overseas Saturday without having a Democratic nominee listed for the U.S. Senate."
* Following the Scottish vote against independence from the U.K., First Minister Alex Salmond, the head of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, announced he's stepping down.
* "It's On Us": "A new White House campaign aims to enlist communities -- and men in particular -- to reduce sexual violence on college campuses. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both spoke Friday at the launch of 'It's On Us,' a campaign aimed to encourage bystander intervention and to give young men and women tools to help survivors of sexual assault."
* Will Europe take the CIA at its word? "The CIA has curbed spying on friendly governments in Western Europe in response to the furor over a German caught selling secrets to the United States.... Under the stand-down order, case officers in Europe largely have been forbidden from undertaking 'unilateral operations' such as meeting with sources they have recruited within allied governments."
* The search for Eric Frein continues: "On the seventh day of a manhunt for a survivalist suspected of killing a state police trooper, scores of police were trying to flush him out of the dense, swampy northeastern Pennsylvania woodland."
* In case you missed last night's 72-22 Senate vote: "After some last-minute drama on immigration, the Senate took care of Congress' last must-pass piece of business before the November elections -- keeping the government funded and providing authority for arming and training Syrian rebels in the fight against the terror group known as ISIS."
* More tragic gun violence: "A grandfather shot and killed his daughter and her six young children before killing himself at his home in north-central Florida on Thursday, the authorities said."
* Sanctions matter: "ExxonMobil has halted drilling on its platform in the Kara Sea and begun shutting down its $700-million joint venture with Russia's Rosneft energy giant to comply with U.S. sanctions that take effect next week, energy industry sources reported Friday."
Given all of our previous discussions about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) bridge scandal, it's only fair to note, as Rachel did last night, new reporting that prosecutors have not yet tied the governor directly to the infamous misdeeds.
The U.S. Justice Department investigation into Gov. Chris Christie's role in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal has thus far uncovered no evidence indicating that he either knew in advance or directed the closure of traffic lanes on the span, federal officials tell NBC 4 New York.
The September 2013 closures -- where several entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee were shut down, causing a traffic nightmare for commuters -- has been the subject of several federal and state investigations.
Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made, but say that authorities haven't uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes.
We don't yet know the source of this leak or its veracity, but it may very well be entire true that prosecutors haven't directly tied Christie personally to the bridge closings. Indeed, as of late yesterday, the governor seemed to be feeling pretty good about his standing, as if this WNBC report exonerated him.
But even if we assume the report is accurate, and we also assume that federal prosecutors never close in on Christie personally in the investigation into this scandal, the governor and his allies may still not fully appreciate the broader circumstances.
The race in North Carolina's congressional district isn't likely to be competitive. It's one of the reddest districts in a red state, and a conservative candidate named Mark Walker (R) is well on his way to becoming a freshman congressman next year.
And so it's of interest that Mr. Walker held an event in the district earlier this summer, where he fielded a question from a voter who asked about the possible use of military force "to secure our southern border." The congressional candidate replied:
"Well, my first answer for that is we need to utilize the National Guard as much as we can. But I will tell you, if you have foreigners who are sneaking in with drug cartels, to me that is a national threat.
"And if we've got to go laser or blitz somebody with a couple of fighter jets for a little while to make our point, I don't have a problem with that, either."
This actually drew considerable applause from attendees.
In fact, when the applause died down, someone in the audience added, "I hope you wouldn't have any qualms about starting up a little war with Mexico." Walker responded, "Well, we did it before, if we need to do it again, I don't have a qualm about it."
I realize that an anti-immigrant posture has become the norm in Republican politics, with many candidates fighting for position to be more extreme than the next, but North Carolina's Mark Walker, a Baptist minister by trade, may be the only GOP candidate in the nation who's open to literally starting a war with Mexico -- complete with lasers.
Michele Bachmann will be out of Congress at the end of the year, but the radical torch will be passed to a new generation of extremists soon enough.
We've probably all heard the saying, "A good craftsman never blames his tools." But with that in mind, I have a new maxim to remember: "A good political figure never blames the Bureau of Labor Statistics."
Back in 2012, when the U.S. unemployment rate dropped quickly, President Obama's critics came up with an explanation: administration officials had orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy. The right took this nonsense seriously for a while, though one AEI scholar eventually told conservatives such talk "should be confined to crazytown."
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, says something fishy is going on with his state's unemployment numbers -- and he thinks federal bureaucrats may have something to do with it.
The state saw its unemployment rate tick upward in August despite what his administration describes as robust job growth that month.
At a public event Thursday, Deal described an inexplicable "influence" on the unemployment rate in Republican-led states.
The Republican governor, who's in the midst of a tough re-election fight, told reporters yesterday, "It's ironic that in a year in which Republican governors are leading some of the states that are making the most progress, that they almost, without exception, are classified as having a bump in their unemployment rates, whereas states that are under Democrat governors' control, they are all showing that their unemployment rate has dropped. And I don't know how you account for that. Maybe there is some influence here that we don't know about."
The Democratic Governors Association and Deal's rivals in Jason Carter's (D) campaign were eager to distribute a clip of the governor's comments.
Let's unpack this a bit because this is an important issue and the public should understand that Georgia's Republican chief executive is, at a minimum, being wildly irresponsible in trying to defend his record.
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:
* Another plagiarism controversy trips up a candidate: this time it's Wisconsin gubernatorial hopeful Mary Burke (D), whose economic plan includes text lifted from other candidates. Burke's office blamed a consultant who has since been fired.
* Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), one of Congress' most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, picked up a welcome endorsement yesterday from the National Rifle Association. Democrats rarely get NRA endorsements.
* In Alaska's closely watched U.S. Senate race, the latest statewide poll shows incumbent Sen. Mark Begich (D) up by five over Dan Sullivan (R), 39% to 34%.
* On a related note, Republicans have now begun criticizing Begich in Alaska for only "pretending" to ride snowmobiles.
* Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is apparently taking a renewed interest in the 2014 elections, donating $10 million to Karl Rove's attack operation, Crossroads GPS. Adelson also reportedly "promised a similar amount" to a conservative group called the American Action Network.
* There aren't too many vulnerable House Republicans this cycle, but Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek is one of them, and the National Republican Congressional Committee invested $1 million in air time to help bolster the incumbent.
In April, President Obama stunned much of the political world with a striking announcement: 8 million Americans had enrolled through an exchange marketplace for health care coverage, well ahead of earlier projections. After a couple of months in which the Affordable Care Act didn't work, the enrollment figures were powerful evidence of a remarkable success story.
Republicans, slightly stunned, scrambled to come up with a new complaint. The White House, they argued, "cooked the books." The 8 million may sound impressive, GOP officials argued, but no one should take it seriously because we don't know how many consumers will pay their premiums. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus said as many as a third of these Americans don't really count towards the overall tally.
In May, congressional Republicans were so invested in this talking point, they even released a painfully ridiculous "report" that was thoroughly discredited soon after its publication -- the GOP lawmakers were exposed as having publishing fraudulent claims.
The conservative talking points look even worse now.
The Obama administration said Thursday that 7.3 million people who bought private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act had paid their premiums and were still enrolled.
Marilyn B. Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, disclosed the latest count at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
In other words, a little over 91% of the 8 million consumers who enrolled through an ACA exchange marketplace ended up getting insurance and paying for it. Everything Republicans claimed and predicted about this figure turned out to be wrong -- which is a sentence I feel like I've typed quite a few times when it comes to Republicans and "Obamacare."
Of course, 7.3 million isn't exactly 8 million, and 91% isn't 100%. Is this cause for concern for those hoping to see the American system succeed?