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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by Matt Rourke/AP)

Clinton endorses progressive approach to Social Security

02/08/16 09:20AM

At first blush, the idea of a Democratic presidential candidate voicing strong support for Social Security may not seem like a noteworthy development, but Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had an interesting exchange the other day that led to an important substantive point of agreement.

In most of the major debt-reduction plans put forward in recent years -- the Grand Bargain, Simpson-Bowles, et al -- Democrats have been asked to accept some Social Security cuts as part of a broader compromise. For many on the left, such a provision is not only a deal-breaker, it's also backwards, since they believe Social Security should be expanded, not cut.
And with this in mind, many progressive activists are looking for commitments from the presidential candidate: are Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton prepared to rule out Social Security cuts if elected? Sanders wasted no time in making that vow, tweeting on Friday, "I urge Sec. Clinton to join me in saying loudly and clearly that we will never cut Social Security."
As the Huffington Post reported, the senator didn't have to wait too long for Clinton's response.
Hillary Clinton promised on Friday that she would not cut Social Security benefits, winning praise from progressive groups that had pressured her to take such a stance -- but drawing questions from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who challenged her commitment to the issue.
"I won't cut Social Security," Clinton wrote in an initialed tweet that included a link to her campaign website's Social Security page. "As always, I'll defend it, & I'll expand it. Enough false innuendos."
For many Beltway debt hawks, this was no doubt a disappointment, but for progressive activists who pushed the candidates to make exactly this commitment, it was a victory for the left and for Social Security itself.
Republican U.S. presidential candidates businessman Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz pose together before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nev., Dec. 15, 2015. (Photo by David Becker/Reuters)

The GOP's pro-torture posture comes into sharper focus

02/08/16 08:40AM

Going into Saturday night's Republican debate, an alarming number of GOP presidential candidates had already voiced support for returning to torture policies banned by the Obama administration. On the debate stage and after the event, some took the pro-torture posture even further.
The New Republic's Gwyneth Kelly noted:
Finally, a cause to unite a fractured party. Ted Cruz refused to say that he would support torturing terrorism suspects, only because waterboarding, the torture technique he was asked about, isn't torture. Cruz said that waterboarding is merely "vigorous interrogation" that doesn't "meet the generally recognized definition of torture."
He is wrong.
What makes this especially noteworthy is that, as recently as December, Cruz's approach to the issue was far less ridiculous.  "We can defend our nation and be strong and uphold our values," the Texas Republican told the Associated Press just two months ago. "There is a reason the bad guys engage in torture. ISIS engages in torture. Iran engages in torture. America does not need to torture to protect ourselves."
What he neglected to mention is that, in Cruz's book, actual torture policies don't fall under his narrow definition of "torture."
Of course, Cruz wasn't alone. In the same debate, asked about torture, Marco Rubio argued the question itself missed the point. "Here's the bigger problem with all this: we're not interrogating anybody right now," he said. (Add "interrogations" to the list of issues about which Marco Rubio is badly confused.)
But leave it to Donald Trump to effectively endorse a campaign platform based on war crimes.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio pauses while answering a question at Nashua Community College in Nashua, N.H., Jan. 7, 2016. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Rubio faces new risks following debate debacle

02/08/16 08:00AM

Everything appeared to be falling into place. Marco Rubio's standing in the polls was on the upswing. Donors were rushing to the senator's corner, as were some of his former presidential rivals and Capitol Hill colleagues, pushing his endorsement totals to unrivaled heights.
Prediction markets showed Rubio as a prohibitive frontrunner. The senator's staff somehow convinced the media to pretend Rubio won Iowa, despite his third-place finish, and his lock on the GOP nomination was starting to look inevitable.
All the Floridian had to do was turn in another strong debate performance -- pundits, as a matter of course, declare Rubio the winner of every debate, sometimes without regard for merit -- and the Rubio Bandwagon could continue without interference.
It was the debate debacle that launched a thousand memes. The Marcobot Moment. The Marco Malfunction. Rubot. Marcosoft. RubiOS. Marco Roboto.
In the unlikely event you're just learning about this story, Rubio struggled badly in Saturday night's debate in New Hampshire, getting caught panicking and using the same phrase repeatedly:
"[L]et's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing."
Under pressure, Rubio repeated this phrase soon after, almost word for word. Then he said it again. And then again. If you heard it was bad, but haven't seen the video, take a moment to watch it -- because the breakdown was even worse than it sounds.
The larger question now is whether, and how much, it'll matter.
Technicians and scientists check out one of the Webb telescope's first two flight mirrors in the clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

Week in Geek - Mirror mirror edition

02/07/16 05:46PM

This week NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) passed a major milestone - the complete assembly of its primary mirror. No small feat when that mirror is comprised of 18 hexagonal sections which, when put together, measure over 21 feet in diameter. In fact, each segment is about the size of a coffee table and weighs over 80 pounds!

JWST is slated for being launched in October 2018. It is primarily an infrared telescope (as opposed to optical like Hubble) and will study high-redshift (i.e., uber far) galaxies as well as dust disks around newly formed/forming stars where planets may be taking shape. These objects emit the majority of their radiation at infrared wavelengths: high-redshift galaxies because the expansion of the Universe between us and the galaxies stretches the light out, and dust because infrared wavelengths are smaller than dust grains so the light can pass through them and reveal what they may or may not be hiding.

When fully assembled, JWST has a footprint the size of a tennis court. If you're wondering how to launch a tennis court into space, you're not alone. Engineers had to figure out a way to fold-up the telescope, almost origami style, and have it unfold itself once it reaches its orbit. If all goes as planned, this is what should happen...

As insane as it may seem to have all those steps (which must all work perfectly), remember NASA's landed a ballistic projectile on Mars just over three years ago using pyrotechnics and a freaking sky crane.

To stay up to date on the remaining construction of JWST, you can follow along via webcams in the clean room at Goddard Space Flight Center (where JWST is headquartered).

Here's some more geek from the week:

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Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks during the Republican Presidential Candidates Debate, Feb. 6, 2016 at St. Anselm's College Institute of Politics in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

With the pressure on, Robotic Rubio has a breakdown

02/07/16 10:23AM

One of the persistent criticisms of Marco Rubio's presidential candidacy is that he's an overly scripted, unprepared rookie who can't think on his feet and can't say anything beyond the memorized talking points some handler told him to repeat.
With this kind of reputation, the Florida senator is tasked with a simple challenge: prove the detractors are wrong. Last night in New Hampshire, he did the exact opposite.
As this clip from MSNBC's coverage last night shows, Rubio, under pressure, kept saying the same thing, over and over again. For those who can't watch clips online, early on in the debate, the senator said:
"[L]et's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country...."
Soon after, in response to a different question, Rubio said:
"Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country."
Later, in response to another question, Rubio added:
"Here's the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he's doing."
And soon after, mocked by Chris Christie for repeating his talking points, Rubio once again said:
"We are not facing a president that doesn't know what he's doing. He knows what he is doing."
Just to be absolutely clear, this isn't a joke. All of the above quotes are exact, word-for-word excerpts from the debate transcript.
I've watched more debates over the years than I care to admit, but I've never seen anything like this. When it comes to cringe-worthy moments, the only rival that comes to mind is Rick Perry's "oops" moment.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) delivers a speech at the Library of Congress, Dec. 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

This Week in God, 2.6.16

02/06/16 07:55AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a reaction from a leading Republican lawmaker to the "thoughts and prayers are not enough" argument in response to mass shootings.
President Obama has been a leading proponent of the idea that well wishes in the response to gun violence are welcome, but are ultimately inadequate. After one mass shooting last fall, the president argued, "[T]houghts and prayers are not enough.... It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America, next week or a couple of months from now."
Two months later, after even deadlier mass shooting, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) took the sentiment a little further. "Your 'thoughts' should be about steps to take to stop this carnage," the senator said. "Your 'prayers' should be for forgiveness if you do nothing -- again."
This week, Congress' leading Republican offered his response to the argument. The New York Daily News reported:
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday blasted critics who say prayer isn't an adequate response to mass shootings and defended his rifle-loving party's do-nothing approach to gun violence.
"The attitude in some quarters these days is, 'Don't just pray; do something about it,"' Ryan said at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. "The thing is, when you are praying, you are doing something about it. You are revealing the presence of God."
As part of the same set of remarks, but outside of the context of gun violence, the Wisconsin congressman added, "It says a lot about our country that people of both parties -- and all faiths -- will drop everything and pray for their fellow Americans. What it says is, we believe in the dignity of the individual. And that is why prayer should always come first."
As for mass shootings, the GOP leader did not elaborate on what should always come second.
President Obama, as he does every year, delivered his own remarks at the event, including an interesting and compelling exploration of "fear" on a theological level.
"For me, and I know for so many of you, faith is the great cure for fear," he said. "Jesus is a good cure for fear. God gives believers the power, the love, the sound mind required to conquer any fear. And what more important moment for that faith than right now? What better time than these changing, tumultuous times to have Jesus standing beside us, steadying our minds, cleansing our hearts, pointing us towards what matters.... And so like every President, like every leader, like every person, I've known fear. But my faith tells me that I need not fear death; that the acceptance of Christ promises everlasting life and the washing away of sins."
Also from the God Machine this week:

Friday's Mini-Report, 2.5.16

02/05/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* He has a point: "President Obama took a victory lap on Friday after new jobs numbers showed the unemployment rate falling below 5 percent for the first time in eight years." The president said, "The United States of America right now has the strongest, most durable economy in the world. I know that's still inconvenient for Republican stump speeches as their doom and despair tour continues in New Hampshire. I guess you can't please everybody."
* Syria: "A Saudi military spokesman said Thursday the kingdom is ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight ISIS -- an offer welcomed by Defense Secretary Ash Carter."
* Also in Syria: "The Obama administration is preparing for possible airdrops of humanitarian relief over besieged areas of Syria, where hundreds of thousands of people have been cut off for months from food and medicine and are at risk of starvation."
* ISIS: "U.S. intelligence estimates the strength of the Islamic State's force in Iraq and Syria is 20,000 to 25,000 fighters. More than a year ago, there were 19,000 to 31,000 fighters as the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the militants got underway, a senior government official said Tuesday."
* On a related note: "Twitter is providing new detail Friday about its efforts to fight ISIS and violent extremism online. In a tweet from the company's '@Policy' team, the social media company said it has stepped up its fight against violent extremism online. Since the middle of 2015, the company said, it has suspended over 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist attacks -- primarily related to support for ISIS."
* CDC: "Men who have traveled to Zika-affected zones should use a condom if they want to be absolutely sure they don't infect sex partners, federal health officials advised Friday."
* Porter Ranch: "A state official said Thursday that under the most favorable circumstances, the damaged well that has spewed environmentally damaging natural gas from a storage facility near Porter Ranch could be capped as early as the end of next week. But the timeline, he cautioned, was fraught with variables."
* West Virginia: "The West Virginia State House narrowly passed a right-to-work bill on Thursday, setting the state up to become the country's 26th that doesn't require employees to pay dues to their unions -- measure that has hobbled organized labor elsewhere."
This Jan. 21, 2016 photo shows the water tower at the Flint, Mich., water plant. (Photo by Perry Rech/American Red Cross/AP)

Michigan GOP casts Obama admin as Flint villain

02/05/16 03:34PM

Ted Cruz this week reflected on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which the Republican presidential hopeful blamed, at least in part, on the city having been governed "with one-party government control of far-left Democrats for decades."
The fact that the crisis was created by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's (R) administration and his emergency manager in Flint -- local Democratic officials had no decision-making authority -- was a detail the Texas Republican appears to have missed.
But if Cruz exploiting a man-made disaster for partisan gain seemed crude, the Michigan Republican Party has him beat. The Huffington Post reported today:
The Michigan Republican Party would like you to know that Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has been busy trying to heal the city of Flint while the malevolent Obama administration has only stood in the way.
That's the message of an infographic the state party started putting out on social media on Thursday. The light blue water droplets on the left represent actions Snyder has taken since October, when his administration admitted its own mistakes created a crisis in Flint, a city whose 100,000 residents still can't drink the water because of high lead levels. The dark blue droplets supposedly show unhelpful actions taken by the Obama administration, such as the refusal to declare a federal disaster area in the state (it declared an emergency instead).
As of this minute, the image is still available on the Michigan Republican Party's Facebook page. If it's taken down, it appears that the fine folks at Eclectablog, a Michigan-based site, have published the same image.
We know, of course, what state Republicans were thinking when they created this absurd infographic. GOP officials, recognizing the severity of this catastrophe and scandal, are desperate to avoid blame. Taking responsibility for Republicans' mistakes is hard; reflexively lashing out at the White House, even if it doesn't make any sense, is easy.