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The dome of the US Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C., September 20, 2008.

Iran debate shows GOP 'utterly unprepared to govern'

08/03/15 04:58PM

The debate over the international nuclear agreement with Iran wasn't exactly a pop quiz -- everyone involved in the argument has had plenty of time to prepare. So when three congressional committees, over the course of six days, held hearings on the diplomatic deal, this was the public's first real opportunity to see the Republicans' A game.
After all, these congressional committees ostensibly feature some of the most knowledgeable GOP officials -- including three notable presidential candidates -- when it comes to international affairs. Republicans had time to study the issue; they had time to prepare their best arguments; and the party put forward their top members to lead the debate.
And it was a disaster. Slate's William Saletan attended all three hearings, intending to write about Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, but he apparently came away flabbergasted by how ridiculous congressional Republicans have become.
Over the past several days, congressional hearings on the deal have become a spectacle of dishonesty, incomprehension, and inability to cope with the challenges of a multilateral world. [...]
In challenging Kerry and Moniz, Republican senators and representatives offered no serious alternative. They misrepresented testimony, dismissed contrary evidence, and substituted vitriol for analysis. They seemed baffled by the idea of having to work and negotiate with other countries. I came away from the hearings dismayed by what the GOP has become in the Obama era. It seems utterly unprepared to govern.
The full report is worth your time -- the Slate piece points to Republican lawmakers whose understanding of these issues can charitably be described as child-like -- but note that Saletan, hardly a knee-jerk partisan, came away from the hearing fearful of what the GOP has become.
"This used to be a party that saw America's leadership of the free world as its highest responsibility," he concludes. "What happened? And why should any of us entrust it with the presidency again?"
This was the best GOP lawmakers had to offer. These hearings put their strongest and most substantive arguments on display. This is an issue the party claims to take very seriously, and which they've invested considerable time and energy into trying to understand.
But after watching the hearings, it's hard to escape an uncomfortable question: what if GOP policymakers simply don't have an A game? What if their best is simply inadequate for a credible policy debate over an important issue?
Emissions from a coal-fired power plant drift skyward in Ghent, Ky.

Obama's 'all out push' on climate change

08/03/15 04:06PM

President Obama is well aware of the fact that a Republican Congress will never consider legislation to combat the climate crisis. In fact, most GOP lawmakers continue to argue, at least publicly, that climate science is not to be trusted or acted upon.
But the White House's "all out push" on global warming doesn't necessarily need Congress. MSNBC's Tony Dokoupil and Eric Levitz reported this afternoon:
President Barack Obama announced on Monday that the U.S. will take a giant stride in the race to prevent catastrophic climate change, limiting -- for the first time ever -- the amount of carbon power plants can pump into the atmosphere.
If the proposed Clean Power Plan survives legal and legislative challenges, it would shutter hundreds of existing coal-fired power plants, prevent construction of new ones and boost renewable energy to heights not previously seen.
At a White House event this afternoon, Obama unveiled what he called the "Clean Power Plan," which, if fully implemented, will ensure that by the year 2030, "carbon emission from our power plants will be 32% lower than they were a decade ago." The specific wording matters -- existing policies and developments have already reduced plant emissions as compared to a decade ago, so the administration's new plan is intended to build on existing progress, not start from scratch.
I've seen some arguments that the new plant mandates aren't as tough as they could be. I've also seen some arguments that the president imposing mandates on plants at all is an important step in a progressive, potentially life-saving direction.
Who's right? Well, I suppose both are. The question I'm struggling with is whether the policy will still exist in two years.

I'll see your chainsaw and raise you a semi-automatic

08/03/15 02:39PM

Two weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) presidential campaign, eager to generate some interest in its message, released an unfortunate video. The 51-second clip showed Paul, looking and sounding a bit like a used-car salesman, setting fire to large stacks of paper, putting the paper through a wood-chipper, and literally using the chainsaw.
It was supposed to have something to do with federal tax policy.
That, of course, set a fairly high bar for presidential candidates doing silly things to generate attention for themselves. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), do you have a rebuttal?
"There are few things I enjoy more than on weekends cooking breakfast with the family," Cruz opens the video. Raw bacon and aluminum foil are then wrapped around the barrel of a machine gun at a firing range.
"Of course in Texas, we cook bacon a little differently than most folks," Cruz says.
The far-right senator appears to have partnered with IJReivew, a conservative site, for the video called, "Making Machine-Gun Bacon with Ted Cruz." The minute-long clip in online here.
The video proceeds roughly as one might expect: the raw bacon "cooks" as Cruz fires the gun. When he's done with target practice, the senator removes the foil, takes a bite with a fork, and laughs. "Mmm, machine-gun bacon," he says.
For the record, I'm not entirely sure if this actually is a "machine gun." More knowledgeable sources can (and should) check me on this, but I was under the impression that machine guns are fully automatic, firing bullets quickly. The far-right senator appears to be firing one bullet with each pull of the trigger. It seems like a relevant detail -- if Cruz doesn't know what a machine gun is, this video may prove to be more embarrassing than intended.
Regardless, whether or not this video is better than Cruz's tryout for "The Simpsons" is a matter of taste.
Voting booths await voters in Red Oak, Iowa, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, ahead of the Iowa primary elections.

GOP leaders throw cold water on voting-rights compromise

08/03/15 12:40PM

The original plan on Capitol Hill was for members to spend the month of July working on spending bills to prevent a government shutdown. Confederate flags, of all things, derailed the process, and now even a Democratic proposed compromise is going nowhere.
To briefly recap, Democrats introduced a measure curtailing the display of Confederate flags on graves in federal cemeteries and the sale of Confederate flags in national park gift stores. Southern Republicans balked and the mess has brought the entire federal appropriations process to a halt.
A few weeks ago, Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, unveiled a compromise solution: Dems will drop their efforts on Confederate flags if Republicans agree to take up the restoration of the Voting Rights Act. Given the bipartisan support the VRA has traditionally enjoyed, it seemed like a decent offer.
The Hill reports that GOP leaders aren't interested in the deal.
House Republican leaders are slamming the brakes on voting rights legislation, insisting that any movement on the issue go through a key Republican committee chairman who opposes the proposal. [...]
"Speaker Boehner has said that he believes that the Voting Rights Act has been an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy. That's why we reauthorized the law for 25 years in 2006," a Boehner spokesperson said Friday in an email. "He also believes that if members want to change the law, those discussions will have to begin at the Judiciary Committee."
This argument is a mess. Note, Democrats don't want to "change" the Voting Rights Act; they want to restore it after the Supreme Court gutted the law and encouraged Congress to revisit its key provisions.
Clyburn's proposed solution doesn't even require passage of the revised VRA; he's just asking for an up-or-down floor vote -- a remedy that the Speaker's office has now rejected.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.3.15

08/03/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Donald Trump leading the Republican presidential race nationally with 19% support, followed by Scott Walker with 15% and Jeb Bush at 14%. Ben Carson is the only other candidate to reach double digits in the poll with 10%, though Ted Cruz is close with 9%, good enough for fifth place.
* And speaking of national polls, a new Monmouth poll also shows Trump leading the national pack, this time with 26%, followed by Bush at 12% and Walker with 11%. Everyone else is at 6% or below. Note, this poll shows Trump's support higher than Bush's and Walker's support combined.
* Starting tonight at 7 p.m. eastern, New Hampshire's Union Leader will host a forum for the GOP presidential field, featuring 14 of the 17 candidates. The only three who won't participate are Trump, Mike Huckabee, and Jim Gilmore, though it's worth emphasizing that Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio will appear via satellite, because of Senate votes later today.
* The Marist Institute for Public Opinion has decided to "temporarily suspend" national polling of Republican presidential candidates, citing "concern that public polls are being misused to decide who will be in and who will be excluded" from upcoming debates.
* Hillary Clinton's campaign is making its first ad buy of the year, investing $2 million in Iowa and New Hampshire - $1 million in each state -- in support of two biographical ads, titled "Dorothy" and "Family Strong."
* Sam Nunberg, a political adviser to the Trump campaign, was fired late last week after racist comments on social media attributed to Nunberg came to public light.
Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (

Jeb Bush targets lawmakers who 'skip work'

08/03/15 11:20AM

Jeb Bush recently added a new line to his stump speech, scolding members of Congress with poor attendance records. "The reality is that Congress is in session for typically three days a week when they are up there, so it's not asking too much that every member be there and work on those days," the Republican presidential hopeful said.
Bush first made the comment in Florida, which led me to think it was just a little passive-aggressive shot at Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who keeps skipping votes, private hearings, and important policy briefings. But this is actually becoming a key feature of Bush's national platform, as evidenced by this fairly new video from Team Jeb. For those who can't watch videos online, the 15-second clip shows the following text:
"Jeb has a simple message to Congress:
"If Congress skips votes or hearings, Jeb will dock their pay. It's the responsible thing to do."
Even by the standards of the 2016 Republican presidential race, this is a little weird.
Smoke raises behind an Islamic State flag after Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants, Nov. 24, 2014. (Photo by Stringer/Reuters)

The mission against ISIS, one year later

08/03/15 10:40AM

One year ago this week, President Obama launched a military offensive against ISIS targets in the Middle East, and announced the U.S. role in leading a coalition against Islamic State militants. A year later, how's the mission going?
Well, that's not exactly an easy question to answer. Vox's Zack Beauchamp, arguably more than most, has emphasized key evidence of progress, most notably the fact that ISIS "has lost almost 10 percent of its territory so far in 2015." The Obama administration's special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, delivered public remarks two weeks ago, arguing that "ISIS is losing" in Iraq and Syria.
On the other hand, the Associated Press reported Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies have apparently reached a very difficult conclusion, at least at this point in the campaign.
...U.S. intelligence agencies see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan. [...]
"We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," a defense official said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group's total strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August, when the airstrikes began.
Of particular interest, however, is the part of the mission in which U.S. officials train moderate Syrian forces to combat ISIS on the ground -- because if the reported "stalemate" isn't discouraging enough,  this related aspect is much worse.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/Getty).

'Who deserves a punch in the face?' Christie knows

08/03/15 10:00AM

Shortly before launching his presidential bid, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivered a speech in which he struck an inclusive tone. The Republican said his experiences have taught him "that if we change the way that we hear each other, if you treat each other with respect, even when we disagree, we can bring people together."
It's an important part of the broader Christie message. He not only routinely blasts President Obama for being "divisive," Christie also pushes the narrative that his unique political skills can have a uniting effect. It's intended to send a subtle reminder to the GOP base: Christie sees himself as a strong general-election contender, with appeals beyond the far-right.
But we're occasionally reminded that Christie's rhetoric about "respect" and "bringing people together" comes with a few questions about the governor's sincerity. Politico reported yesterday:
Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie said Sunday the national teachers union deserved a punch in the face.
Repeating a line of attack that he has frequently used in New Jersey, the governor told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" that the national teachers union -- presumably, the American Federation of Teachers -- wasn't interested in teaching America's children.
The context, as always, matters. The CNN host said to Christie, "During your first term as governor, you were fond of saying that you can treat bullies in one of two ways -- quote -- 'You can either sidle up to them or you can punch them in the face.' You said, 'I like to punch them in the face.' At the national level, who deserves a punch in the face?"
"The national teachers union," the Republican replied.
So, when Christie tells voters, "We can bring people together," it would appear he's prepared to leave school teachers out of the group hug.
Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a roundtable discussion at the Advanced Manufacturing Center at Community College of Denver on July 21, 2015. (Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP)

Biden 2016?

08/03/15 09:20AM

Maureen Dowd caused a bit of a stir over the weekend, noting in her New York Times column that Beau Biden encouraged his father, Vice President Biden, to run for president in 2016, before Beau's recent passing. It's not altogether clear why the piece got so much attention -- the anecdote first came to public light nearly six weeks ago.
What is new, however, is chatter about whether the vice president intends to take his son's advice. NBC News' Perry Bacon Jr. reported over the weekend:
Vice President Biden has not closed the door on a presidential run, according to NBC News sources -- but it is far from clear whether he will enter the 2016 campaign, with much of the Democratic Party already behind Hillary Clinton.
These sources confirmed a New York Times report published Saturday that suggested Biden could still enter the presidential race, and that Biden allies have talked to party activists about the viability of a campaign.
The seriousness of the story varied based on which news organization readers turned to first. The New York Times, for example, said Biden and his associates have "begun to actively explore" a national race, including outreach to Democratic "leaders and donors," who've held conversations "through hushed phone calls and quiet lunches."
The Washington Post, meanwhile, was far more circumspect. Biden is "considering" the presidential race, and he and his team have spoken to encouraging voices, "but there is no indication that he has taken any serious steps toward launching what would be a challenging campaign to deny Hillary Rodham Clinton the Democratic nomination."
Those are two very different reports. Which one better reflects where things stand?
Key Speakers At the Citizens United South Carolina Freedom Summit (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty).

Scott Walker still unsure about president's faith

08/03/15 08:40AM

If it takes a brave person to acknowledge what he or she does not know, Scott Walker has courage in abundance.
The Republican governor and presidential candidate was recently asked, for example, whether sexual orientation is a choice. "To me, that's, I don't know," Walker replied. "I don't know the answer to that question." Similarly, the far-right Wisconsinite isn't sure if President Obama loves the United States -- he told the AP in February, "I don't know" -- or even whether he believes modern biology.
In February, Walker was asked whether he believes President Obama is a Christian. "I don't know," the GOP governor replied. Over the weekend, he was asked again, and as the Washington Post reported, Walker is still uncertain.
Fielding questions at the Koch network's donor summit here Saturday night, the Republican presidential candidate reiterated the controversial position of uncertainty that he staked out in February.
"You're not going to get a different answer than I said before," the Wisconsin governor said. "I don't know. I presume he is.... But I've never asked him about that. As someone who is a believer myself, I don't presume to know someone's beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not unless I've actually talked with them."
Walker did add that the president claims to be a Christian, and the governor is willing to "take him at his word."  How gracious of him.
By Walker's reasoning, every presidential candidate's faith should be suspect, no matter how sincere, unless and until the Republican candidate has "actually talked with them" about matters of religion. As best as I can tell, Walker hasn't been asked about Jeb Bush's or Donald Trump's faith, but if he's consistent, he doesn't know whether to believe their professed Christianity, either.
Of course, if we take this a step further, should American voters be equally skeptical about Walker's faith? What's to stop Christian voters from hearing the governor claim to be a Christian, only to react by saying, "I presume he's a Christian, but I've never asked him about that. As someone who is a believer myself, I don't presume to know someone's beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not unless I've actually talked with them"?

Super PAC money dominates in 2016 race

08/03/15 08:00AM

When we last looked at the 2016 presidential campaign and the candidates' coffers, the White House hopefuls had just reported their official fundraising tallies. Friday night, however, was the deadline for the affiliated super PACs to submit their reports to the Federal Election Commission, giving a more complete picture of where the race stands, at least financially.
And at this point, one thing is abundantly clear: my oh my are most of the candidates dependent on super PACs and other outside, ostensibly "independent" entities. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
The Republican presidential candidates are almost uniformly relying on these groups, which can tap unlimited corporate and individual contributions, to amass the financial firepower they need to break through a crowded field. This is a stark departure from past campaigns, and has made most of the candidates deeply reliant on a handful of ultra-wealthy donors.
So far this year, for every dollar raised by a presidential candidate, more than four dollars has gone to a super PAC.
To help drive the point home, I've updated last month's chart to show how the most competitive candidates are doing, omitting candidates who've raised less than $5 million.
Note, the lighter colors -- red for Republicans, blue for Democrats -- show how much money the candidates have raised through their actual campaigns, while the darker colors show how much has been raised by the candidates' allied entities.

Biden campaign? and other headlines

08/03/15 07:48AM

Clinton campaign weighs implications of potential Joe Biden challenge. (New York Times)

Hillary Clinton is set to air first campaign tv ads. (Wall Street Journal)

Charles Koch invokes fight for civil rights as model for political activism. (Washington Post)

Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush shine at Koch brothers event. (Bloomberg Politics)

Ted Cruz says climate-change fears falsified by scientists and politicians. (Time)

14 Republican candidates to take questions from voters tonight. (New Hampshire Union Leader)

Nearly 60 donors give one-third of all 2016 campaign cash. (AP)

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Sure, they look good, but how do they sound?

Week in Geek: Snap, crackle, pop edition

08/02/15 11:36AM

When you drink your morning coffee or sit down to dinner, are you ever aware of the sounds around you? Not just the sounds of your environment, but the sounds of your actual food? You should be.

It turns out that sound can affect our perception of flavor and alter our eating experiences more than you might think. Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley of the Gastropod podcast looked into this in one of their recent episodes. They explore the effects of the crunch of your potato chip and the splash of water in a glass.

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This Week in God, 8.1.15

08/01/15 08:40AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected story out of Illinois, where a notable evangelical college was faced with a fairly simple choice regarding health care, but where school officials nevertheless made an inexplicable decision.
The Chicago Tribune reported this week:
Taking a firm stand against Obamacare's controversial contraception mandate, Wheaton College on Friday will stop providing any health insurance for students.
The decision, announced to students July 10, will halt health care coverage for about a quarter of the college's 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students, forcing them to shop for other plans just weeks before their coverage ends.
Now, it's easy to get the basics of this story wrong. This is not, for example, a controversy in which Wheaton College had to choose between offering health benefits and providing contraception, or perhaps being forced to offer coverage that includes access to birth control, which the religious institution didn't want to subsidize. Stories like these have come up, but that dynamic doesn't apply here.
Wheaton faced a very different kind of choice. Under the Affordable Care Act, the evangelical college could claim a religious exemption to the contraception policy, at which point a private insurer would create a separate policy to cover contraception, directly for the consumer. Wheaton wouldn't have to subsidize this separate plan at all.
The college said this accommodation isn't good enough -- even claiming a religious exemption, it said, is a burden. It's preferable, Wheaton administrators concluded, to simply impose a last-minute change that scraps student health plans altogether.
Paul Chelsen, Wheaton's vice president of student development, said the move to cut off students' health security "breaks my heart," but he's doing it anyway. The controversy, he said, is "bigger than student health insurance." Chelsen added, "I acknowledge that students have been hurt by this decision and I regret that."
Wheaton is currently litigating the issue in federal courts. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently denied the school's request for a preliminary injunction against the ACA policy while its case proceeds. Doing some simple, two-page paperwork to claim a religious exemption, the court concluded, "is hardly a burdensome requirement."
One student told the Chicago Tribune, "I fear the administration is putting petty politics above caring for students."
Also from the God Machine this week: