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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks on climate change in Kotzebue, Alaska September 2, 2015. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Obama turns the 'lame duck' narrative on its head

09/04/15 01:22PM

Saudi Arabia's King Salman will meet with President Obama today, and as Politico put it, the Saudi king will meet with a U.S. leader "with a swagger in his step."
Nearly four months after he skipped President Barack Obama's high-profile Camp David summit, Saudi Arabia's King Salman will arrive at the White House to find a strengthened Obama and less leeway to influence U.S. policy toward Iran.
 
The elderly Arab monarch's White House visit Friday comes just days after Obama secured the Senate votes he needs for the Iran nuclear deal to survive Congress.
Senate support for the diplomatic solution is still growing -- in addition to the three new endorsements yesterday, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) announced his backing for the policy this morning. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) announced his opposition around the same time, but as a practical matter, his siding with the far-right on the issue won't change the outcome.
 
Under the circumstances, it's tough to blame the president for having "a swagger in his step," not just because he's overcome the Saudis' skepticism about the international agreement, but also because Obama has had quite a bit of success lately.
 
Barring any unexpected developments, the successful implementation of the new U.S. policy in Iran is among the most consequential diplomatic success stories in a generation.
 
But Roll Call's Steven Dennis noted this week that it's not the only issue that's gone President Obama's way lately. Looking back over just the last three months, we see related victories and breakthroughs on Cuba, marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, fast-track trade-promotion authority, and overtime pay, among other things.
 
It's part of an increasingly successful 2015 for the Obama White House, which also includes a climate deal with China, new environmental safeguards, and net neutrality. If we include late last year -- the period after the midterm elections -- we can add a breakthrough immigration policy and the freeing of some American prisoners in North Korea. 
 
Not too shabby for a "lame duck" president.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.4.15

09/04/15 11:46AM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* Jeb Bush told ABC yesterday that he will support the Republican Party's presidential nominee, even if it's Donald Trump.
 
* Vice President Biden conceded yesterday he's unsure "whether my family and I have the emotional energy" for another presidential campaign. "The honest-to-God answer is I just don't know," he said last night.
 
* At a New Hampshire event yesterday, an attendee to a Jeb Bush event literally fell asleep. Soon after, the Florida Republican tweeted a picture of himself and the voter, saying she'd woken up early yesterday for a 12-hour shift.
 
* Gallup published new results this morning, showing favorability ratings for the Republican presidential candidates among GOP voters. The news isn't good for Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, once seen as the party's top-tier contenders.
 
* With Scott Walker's presidential campaign moving in the wrong direction, his allied super PAC is preparing an $8 million investment in South Carolina, home to the third 2016 nominating contest.
 
* The Iowa Democratic Party is expanding its use of "satellite caucuses," allowing voters to participate in the 2016 nominating process in places such as "factory sites and senior citizen residential facilities." The Iowa Republican Party said it has no similar plans.
 
* Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) announced yesterday that he'll retire next year after 14 years in Congress. The Minnesota Republican represents a competitive swing district, which President Obama carried twice, and which the DCCC is confident it can pick up in 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the National Sheriffs' Association presidential forum on June 30, 2015, in Baltimore, Md. (Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP)

GOP's Ben Carson eyes end to Veterans Administration

09/04/15 10:41AM

Republican presidential candidates often like to talk about the cabinet agencies they're eager to destroy. Just this week, for example, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) dismissed the federal Department of Education as unnecessary. In the last presidential election, then-Gov. Rick Perry (R) said he intended to scrap three cabinet agencies, though he famously forgot the third.
 
But when GOP candidates go after these agencies, they usually stick to departments like Commerce, Education, and occasionally Energy. Ben Carson, a leading 2016 contender, actually has a very different idea in mind. The Military Times reported:
Presidential hopeful Ben Carson's comments suggesting the Veterans Affairs Department should be eliminated drew quick condemnation from multiple veterans groups, who called the idea short-sighted and ill-informed.
 
On a national radio show [on Aug. 27], Carson said that the country need to re-examine how it cares for veterans but also how to cut back on government bureaucracy.
The retired neurosurgeon said, "We don't need a Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs should be folded in under the Department of Defense."
 
As regular readers probably know, plenty of Republican presidential candidates support incorporating a voucher system into the VA, effectively privatizing parts of veterans' care, but Carson is the first national candidate, at least in recent memory, to suggest eliminating the cabinet agency altogether.
 
John Biedrzyck, head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, isn't impressed. "To suggest that disabled veterans could be sent out into the economy with a health savings account card overlooks the fact that civilian health care has waiting lists of their own ... and presupposes that civilian doctors have the same skill sets as VA doctors, who see veterans of every age and malady every day," Biedrzyck said in a statement.
 
As the Military Times' report added, Paralyzed Veterans of America Deputy Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr. called Carson's recommendation "a misguided notion born from ignorance of what each department does."
 
In the event Carson somehow becomes the president, how realistic is the threat that he'll actually scrap the entire agency?
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests gathered for a campaign event at the Grand River Center on August 25, 2015 in Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

When Trump gets thrown off his game

09/04/15 09:48AM

No matter what someone may think about Donald Trump, it's hard to deny his limitless self-confidence. Put aside what the Republican presidential candidate is saying, focusing on how he's saying it, and we see a White House hopeful who exudes self-assuredness.
 
If you're turned off by bluster, it's obnoxious. If you find bluster reassuring, it's infectious. Right about now, nearly a third of national Republican primary voters find themselves in the latter camp.
 
But in very rare occasions, Trump's veneer fades. The Washington Post reported overnight:
Donald Trump, leading in the polls and riding a wave of momentum in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, just hit a speed bump named Hugh Hewitt.
 
The conservative radio host peppered Trump with a host of foreign policy questions in a Thursday interview that produced some uncomfortable moments for the real estate mogul, who appeared upset at the line of questioning.
Hewitt, a prominent figure in conservative media and one of the moderators of an upcoming GOP debate, posted the transcript and it's not a pretty sight. Trump, eager to sound like he knew what he was talking about, tried to fake his way through parts of the interview, but that only seemed to make matters worse.
 
Note, for example, when the host asked about the Quds Forces, and Trump responded by talking about the Kurds. The candidate added that he'll know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas "when it's appropriate," suggesting it's not appropriate to know the difference now.
 
At one point, Trump insisted, "I mean, you know, when you're asking me about who's running this, this this, that's not, that is not, I will be so good at the military, your head will spin." (He often seems preoccupied with spinning heads. It's a little alarming.)
 
Towards the end of the interview, the GOP frontrunner called the line of questioning "ridiculous" -- four times -- and this morning, Trump told MSNBC that Hewitt is a "third-rate radio announcer."
 
The broader question is whether an embarrassing moment like this represents an important setback for the candidate. Recent history offers some guidance.

Unemployment rate falls to lowest point since April 2008

09/04/15 08:43AM

The new report from Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the U.S. economy added 173,000 jobs in August, a little below expectations. The overall unemployment rate ticked lower to 5.1%, which is the lowest point since April 2008, more than seven years ago.
 
This is one of those job reports that looks a little discouraging at first blush, but the details paints a more encouraging picture. The revisions, for example, also point in a fairly encouraging direction: June's job totals were revised up, from 231,000 to 245,000, while July's numbers were also revised up, from 215,000 to 245,000. Combined, that's an additional 44,000 previously unreported jobs. The same report also showed a decent increase in wages.

Even the drop in the jobless rate is for the right reasons. As the New York Times' Neil Irwin noted, the latest drop is the result of fewer unemployed Americans, more employed Americans, a slightly higher employment-to population rate.

Overall, the U.S. has added 2.92 million jobs over the last 12 months, which is excellent. August was the 59th consecutive month of positive job growth -- the best stretch since 1939 -- and the 66th consecutive month in which we've seen private-sector job growth, which is the longest on record.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at the Americans for Prosperity Road to Reform event on Aug. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by John Locher/AP)

Ted Cruz indifferent to rule of law in Kim Davis case

09/04/15 08:01AM

When Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) condemns President Obama -- a frequent occurrence -- the far-right national candidate often emphasizes the rule of law. Cruz doesn't just think the president is wrong; he thinks Obama is a tyrannical dictator who flouts legal norms.
 
"The pattern we've seen under President Obama, disregarding the law, is really one of the most troubling aspects of this presidency," Cruz said last year. "When he disagrees with the law ... he simply refuses to comply with it." The Republican senator added that the president is "lawless."
 
But that was in 2014. In 2015, Cruz sees Kentucky clerk Kim Davis ignoring court orders, ignoring Supreme Court rulings, and ignoring her oath of office -- and the GOP presidential candidate sees her as some kind of hero. In a written statement released late yesterday:
"Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith. This is wrong. This is not America.
 
"I stand with Kim Davis. Unequivocally. I stand with every American that the Obama Administration is trying to force to choose between honoring his or her faith or complying with a lawless court opinion."
Cruz's statement went on to argue, "Those who are persecuting Kim Davis believe that Christians should not serve in public office. That is the consequence of their position. Or, if Christians do serve in public office, they must disregard their religious faith–or be sent to jail."
 
He added that Davis should face no consequences for brazenly defying federal court orders she doesn't like.
 
I'm not sure what's worse: the possibility that Cruz actually believes this nonsense or the fact that Cruz expects Americans to take his arguments seriously.
Trump screwed up: Maddow on his RNC pledge

Maddow on Donald Trump's Republican Party pledge: 'Yoooge screw up'

09/03/15 10:51PM

Rachel Maddow tries to understand why Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, with so much of his identity based on his outsiderness, and so much support independent of the Republican Party, and so much leverage over the party given that support and his money, would see any advantage in signing the party allegiance pledge that was plainly designed... watch

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar takes on Donald Trump

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar takes on Donald Trump

09/03/15 09:50PM

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, celebrated basketball player and author of the forthcoming novel, Mycroft Holmes, talks with Rachel Maddow about his feud with Donald Trump, why he thinks Trump's campaign is doomed to failure, and whether there is not enough substance in modern politics. watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 9.3.15

09/03/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Migrant crisis: "Desperate migrants poured into the Keleti train station in Budapest on Thursday morning but were prevented from traveling to Germany as Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, said that the migration crisis was a 'German problem' and that Europe had a moral duty to tell migrants not to come."
 
* Related news: "The toddler whose lifeless body on a Mediterranean beach sent shock waves around the world has a name: Aylan Kurdi. Images were published Wednesday of a drowned child -- soaked red shirt, blue bottoms and tiny velcro-strap shoes -- whose body washed up on the beach in the Turkish resort of Bodrum.
 
* Guatemala: "Just hours after tendering his resignation as president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina entered a packed courtroom on Thursday to hear accusations of corruption against him, in a dramatic validation of months of street demonstrations over a fraud scandal that has rocked the country."
 
* Charleston massacre: "A South Carolina prosecutor says she will seek the death penalty for a white man charged with killing nine black churchgoers. Prosecutors filed court papers Thursday saying they would pursue the death penalty against 21-year-old Dylann Roof. The documents cited factors including the fact that more than two people were killed, and that others' lives were put at risk."
 
* Virginia: "A Portsmouth, Virginia, police officer was indicted on a first-degree murder charge Thursday in the shooting death of an 18-year-old man during a struggle at a Walmart store in April."
 
* Not helpful: "South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley joined the growing chorus of Republicans critical of the 'Black Lives Matter' movement on Wednesday. The rising Republican star said 'black lives do matter,' during an address on race at the National Press Club in Washington, but said the popular protest movement detracts from the push for racial equality, because activists within it 'yell and scream' too much."
 
* Here's hoping policy results matter to policymakers: "Lifting a ban on spending city money on needle exchanges for intravenous drug users prevented 120 new cases of HIV in two years in Washington, according to a new study that researchers hope can help other communities deal with a surge in addicts shooting up."
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) delivers opening remarks during a subcommittee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 30, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Senate support for Iran deal reaches new heights

09/03/15 04:26PM

It was just two weeks ago that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) made a fairly specific prediction about the international nuclear agreement with Iran: "We're going to kill this deal."
 
Actually, senator, you're not.
New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker said he would support the Iran nuclear accord on Thursday, splitting with his state's senior senator over the contentious deal. [...]
 
Also on Thursday, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota backed the Iran agreement, bringing support for the deal up to 37 senators.
Arguably no member of Congress in either chamber faced as much pressure as Booker, with many of his key backers pushing him -- aggressively -- to oppose the U.S. policy. The fact that he bucked the pressure is worthy of real praise; it couldn't have been easy for him to do the right thing.
 
As for the larger context, remember, the magic number was 34 -- with 34 votes in the Senate, the White House is assured that the policy will advance because Congress won't have the votes to override a presidential veto.
 
Now proponents of the diplomatic agreement have a new threshold in mind: 41.
Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk of Courts, closes the door to her office after denying a marriage license at the County Clerks Office on September 2, 2015 in Morehead, Kentucky. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty)

Kentucky's Kim Davis jailed, held in contempt

09/03/15 03:00PM

Federal judges really don't like it when people ignore court orders and claim the law doesn't apply to them.
A federal judge has ordered a Kentucky clerk to jail after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
 
Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, was found in contempt of court on Thursday morning.... Davis, in tears, said on the stand that she could not comply with the judge's order. U.S. Marshals later took her into custody.
As she was being led out of the courtroom, the clerk said, "Thank you, judge."
 
Davis, if you're just joining us, is paid by taxpayers to issue marriage licenses, but she refuses to provide licenses to couples she finds morally objectionable, citing "God's authority." Davis and her lawyers have filed several appeals, all of which lost.
 
She could, of course, find some other job -- one that doesn't pit her professional responsibilities against her spiritual beliefs -- but she refuses to do so. As we talked about yesterday, Davis feels entitled to keep her job and refuse to do her job at the same time.
 
U.S. District Judge David Bunning, appointed to the bench by George W. Bush, apparently didn't find this persuasive.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reaches out to hug a supporter after he spoke at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies on Aug. 29, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP)

GOP finds the one issue on which Trump is willing to back down

09/03/15 12:56PM

Republican Party insiders do not want Donald Trump to win their party's presidential nomination, but they can imagine an even worse scenario: Trump coming up short in the GOP primaries and then running on a third-party ticket.
 
For a few months, the New York developer has made no secret of his willingness to consider a third-party campaign, even toying with the idea at the recent GOP debate on Fox News. The chatter has led to quite a bit of consternation among party officials, some of whom have even begun exploring possible constraints to force Trump's hand.
 
As of this morning, however, the need for Republican handwringing appears to be over. Politico reported:
A close associate tells POLITICO that Donald Trump plans to sign a loyalty pledge Thursday that would bind him to endorse the Republican nominee, and would preclude a third-party run. Trump made the stunning decision, which he has long resisted, to avoid complications in getting listed on primary ballots, and to take away an attack line in the next debate, the associate said.
I should note that Trump's decision has not yet been confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, though multiple news organizations, including the Washington Post and Bloomberg Politics, are reporting the same thing.
 
It's an unexpected development. Trump has gone out of his way to position himself as the candidate who isn't, and can never be, pushed around, but this appears to be an important exception. Republican officials have taken every step they can think of to corral Trump into committing to the party's nominating process, and by this reasoning, the frontrunner appears to have cried, "Uncle."
 
Indeed, it's a move that comes with a series of risks.

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