First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected story involving the U.S. Air Force and the way it's treating one of their own airmen -- who happens to be an atheist (thanks to reader D.R. for the heads-up).
An atheist member of the U.S. Air Force has been told he must swear "so help me God" as part of his military oath or else he will be forced to leave the service, the Air Force Times reports. The airman, who has not been identified by name, is currently serving in the Air Force at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada until the end of his current term of service in November, but was denied reenlistment last month when he refused to sign a sworn oath that included the religious phrase.
Under Department Guidelines, there's a re-enlistment form with a specific written oath. It requires American servicemen and women to, among other things, "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic"; "bear true faith and allegiance to the same"; and "obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me." It concludes, "So help me God."
In the Army and Navy, Americans have the discretion to omit those final four words. The Air Force, however, has a different "interpretation" of Pentagon regulations, and has told the unnamed airman that he will be excluded from military service, regardless of his qualifications, unless he swears an oath to God.
It's worth noting that the U.S. Constitution -- the one the military supports and defends, and which trumps Defense Department regulations and forms -- says quite explicitly that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." To date, the Air Force has found this unpersuasive.
Some notable conservative voices have rushed into the debate to endorse the Air Force's policy. The American Family Association's Bryan Fischer said, "There is no place in the United States military for those who do not believe in the Creator." He added, "A man who doesn't believe in the Creator ... most certainly should not wear the uniform."
One wonders what Fischer might have said to Pat Tillman.
Rachel Maddow reports that the White House, Pentagon, and State Department are all using the word "war" to describe military operations against ISIS, despite insisting just a day ago that they are merely counterterrorism operations. watch
Rachel Maddow report on the contentious case of a Kansas Democratic candidate who was told by state officials that he could drop off the ballot only to have Secretary of State Kris Kobach reverse that decision and force him to stay. watch
Esquire magazine turns classic "Falling Man" article into scholarship fundraiser, honoring James Foley http://t.co/9Kv7cY9kfO
* Sometimes, word choice matters: "The United States is 'at war' with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), White House and Pentagon officials said Friday, marking a significant departure from the more cautious rhetoric President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry used earlier this week."
* Tepid: "Many Arab governments grumbled quietly in 2011 as the United States left Iraq, fearful it might fall deeper into chaos or Iranian influence. Now, the United States is back and getting a less than enthusiastic welcome, with leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all finding ways on Thursday to avoid specific commitments to President Obama's expanded military campaign against Sunni extremists."
* The important fate of Estonia's Eston Kohver: "His bosses say Kohver was investigating a suspected smuggling ring with top-level Russian links. Russia claims he crossed into Moscow's territory on Sept. 5 in an alleged covert operation. Kohver is now behind bars in Moscow's high-security Lefortovo prison with possible espionage charges awaiting, the Associated Press reports."
* Sanctions: "The United States and the European Union moved on Friday to shut down Western aid to Russian deepwater, Arctic offshore and shale oil exploration, broadening and deepening the range of sanctions imposed on Moscow in retaliation for its intervention in Ukraine despite the potential cost to Western firms like Exxon Mobil and BP."
* ISIS causes scramble: "The rapid surge of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its ability to draw fighters from across the globe, has set off alarm bells in capitals worldwide. Countries that rarely see eye to eye are now trying to blunt its recruitment drive, passing a raft of new rules that they hope will stop their citizens from joining extremist groups abroad."
* Gut-wrenching: "At least 5,186 people have died in Central African Republic since fighting between Muslims and Christians started in December, according to an Associated Press tally gleaned from more than 50 of the hardest-hit communities and the capital, Bangui. That's well more than double the death toll of about 2,000 cited by the United Nations back in April, when it approved a peacekeeping mission. The deaths have mounted steadily since, with no official record."
* This won't go away: "Sources close to Ray Rice told NBC News on Friday that Rice specifically detailed in a June interview with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he had hit his fiancée in a casino elevator, contradicting Goodell's account of the meeting."
* Ebola: "President Barack Obama will travel to Florida and Georgia next week to receive updates on two global crises: the outbreak of Ebola and the rise of the militant group Islamic State. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama will be updated by officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on the response to the Ebola outbreak, as well as a new respiratory illness reported in several states."
* Drama in Toronto: "The Rob Ford era ended Friday as dramatically as it unfolded: Ford, the mayor whose scandals roiled city hall and captured global attention, withdrew from the race because of a tumour -- and blessed the new candidacy of his brother and former campaign manager, Councillor Doug Ford."
Two weeks ago, Pennsylvania became the 27th state to accept Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, it looks like Utah is poised to become the 28th.
The Obama administration has agreed in concept to Utah's novel alternative to expanding Medicaid, including the notion that able-bodied people who get insurance subsidies should accept the state's help with finding work, Gov. Gary Herbert said late Tuesday.
The governor said after a meeting with Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, that a final agreement is two or three weeks away.
Note, HHS didn't accept each of the provisions in Utah's proposal, and as Joan McCarter noted, Health Department director was cautious about saying this is a done deal. That said, that same state official called the recent progress a "breakthrough," and the governor said the Obama administration agreed with enough of the Utah plan to call this "a win, win, win all the way around."
Barring an unexpected hiccup, the policy will move forward, bring Medicaid coverage to as many as 111,000 low-income Utahns. This would also make Gary Herbert the 11th Republican governor to accept Medicaid expansion through "Obamacare."
He won't be the last. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has said he expects to follow suit in the coming weeks, and ruby-red Wyoming generally resists any voluntary federal program, but it, too, is starting to come around on Medicaid expansion.
And depending on some key gubernatorial races this year, the number of Medicaid-expansion states may jump even higher very soon -- depending on how many competitive Democrats prevail.
It was just two weeks ago when Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, argued that it would be "wise for Congress to come together and draft a grant of some authority" for President Obama to use force against ISIS targets. He just didn't think it's possible – not "in a million years."
"There is simply no way on earth that members of Congress are going to come together and agree on what the language for an authorization for the use of force in Syria is -- it's just not going to happen," Smith told the New York Times.
At the time, that seemed like a safe bet, and I shared Smith's assumptions. But just over the last couple of days, the prevailing winds seem to have shifted. While the week started with congressional leaders taking a pass on the issue, a new consensus started to come together: Congress can't just do nothing.
[I]nternally, senior aides to Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise recognize that there's a significant enough outcry from lawmakers to have an up-or-down vote on Obama's plan. The issue came up at a closed House briefing Thursday, and White House officials reiterated that it's their strong preference to have the language included in the government-funding bill, in order to orchestrate a quick passage.
The Republican leadership is considering a few options.
There's a pending measure to fund the government through mid-December -- the "continuing resolution," or "CR" -- that Congress must pass to avoid a shutdown. As far as the White House is concerned, that creates an opportunity: add the anti-ISIS provisions to the spending measure and lawmakers can tackle two important tasks at once.
But for many lawmakers, in both parties, it's not that simple. Some want to keep the government's lights on, but have real concerns about the counter-terrorism strategy. Others aren't comfortable with combining these two important-but-unrelated measures on principle. Others want to take more time, beyond the end of the fiscal year that ends in 19 days.
For those of us who believe Congress has a constitutional obligation to weigh in, the fact that lawmakers are debating how, and not whether, to move forward is itself a sign of unexpected progress. But that doesn't mean the road ahead will be easy.
Read enough polls and it becomes clear that public attitudes don't always fall neatly along rational lines.
On the deficit, for example, Reagan ran some of the larger budget shortfalls in history, after promising to do the opposite, and George W. Bush inherited a massive surplus and bequeathed a $1.2 trillion deficit. Clinton, meanwhile, created the first balanced budget in a generation, while Obama has overseen the fastest U.S. deficit reduction since the end of World War II.
And if you ask Americans which party they believe will do more to reduce the deficit, most will point to Republicans. The reasons for this have a lot to do with branding -- the GOP has a reputation on the issue, which much of the country accepts, despite the fact that decades of reality should lead the country in another direction.
The Republican Party has expanded its historical edge over the Democratic Party in Americans' minds as being better able to protect the U.S. from international terrorism and military threats. At this point, 55% of Americans choose the GOP on this dimension, while 32% choose the Democratic Party. This is the widest Republican advantage in Gallup's history of asking this question since 2002.
The specific wording of the question was, "Looking ahead for the next few years, which political party do you think will do a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats, the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?"
As Gallup's chart shows, the Republican advantage briefly disappeared towards the end of the Bush/Cheney era, but that obviously didn't last.
But like deficit polls, the perceptions appear to be driven almost entirely by branding, without much regard for actual events.
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:
* In Michigan's U.S. Senate race, a new Suffolk University/USA Today poll shows Rep. Gary Peters (D) adding to his lead over Terri Lynn Land (R) and he now has a nine-point advantage, 46% to 37%.
* But while the U.S. Senate race appears to be less competitive, the same poll showed the opposite about Michigan's gubernatorial race. The Suffolk University/USA Today survey now has Rep. Mark Schauer (D) inching past incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder (R), 45% to 43%.
* In Colorado's U.S. Senate race, the latest Denver Post poll shows incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D) with a four-point advantage over Rep. Cory Gardner (R), 46% to 42%.
* The same poll shows Colorado's gubernatorial race even closer, with incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) leading former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) by just two, 45% to 43%.
* Incumbent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) thought he was cruising to an easy re-election, but this week, he received an underwhelming 60% of the vote in a Democratic primary. He said yesterday he's "fine" with the total, but few seem to believe him.
* If the latest Akron Buckeye Poll is correct, the gubernatorial race in Ohio is just about over -- it shows Gov. John Kasich (R) leading Ed Fitzgerald (D) by 19 points.
* In Louisiana, U.S. Senate hopeful Bill Cassidy (R) said this week that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "runs the Senate like a plantation." Reid, who asked for an apology, told reporters, "Has he been taking lessons from Donald Sterling? Where did he get this?"
Back in April, I suggested that if there were a competition to see which Republican-led state legislature can govern in the least responsible way possible, Missouri would have to be considered a credible contender.
Many of these efforts have fallen short, thanks in part to Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon. But as we were reminded this week, when the governor vetoes some extreme measures, the GOP-led legislature can occasionally override his opposition. Niraj Chokshi reported:
Missouri lawmakers on Wednesday tripled the time a woman must wait to get an abortion, making its new 72-hour waiting period the nation's second-strictest.
Only South Dakota and Utah have equally long waits. South Dakota's is the strictest, as it excludes weekends and holidays from the wait and contains no exceptions for rape or incest. Missouri's law, which will go into effect 30 days from Wednesday's vote, according to the Associated Press, also contains no exception for rape or incest.
When the Missouri legislature approved the bill, Nixon vetoed it. This week, state lawmakers overrode that veto.
The governor characterized the policy as "extreme and disrespectful" towards women, and "serves no demonstrable purpose other than to create emotional financial hardships for women." Nixon added that the measure "presupposes that women are unable to make up their own minds without further government intervention."
There are also practical considerations to consider.
The debate over U.S. counter-terrorism policy is obviously complex, and in the wake of President Obama's speech this week, there are no easy answers. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), perhaps inadvertently, helped prove just how difficult the current challenge is.
As Amanda Terkel noted, the Florida Republican has been urging President Obama to be even more aggressive in confronting the Islamic State -- beyond the 150+ airstrikes the president has already ordered -- but in an NPR interview, Rubio seemed to stumble onto the broader problem.
"Absolutely it's a realistic goal. It's been achieved in the past," said the senator when asked by "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep whether "defeat" was truly possible. "This very same insurgency was defeated during the Awakening in Iraq. This is the same group that was driven out by Sunnis, who then reconstituted itself in Syria when that became an unstable and ungoverned space. ... But no matter how long it takes, we need to do it."
As Simon Maloy explained in response, "There you have it. According to Rubio, we can absolutely defeat a terrorist insurgency because we have already defeated the same insurgency that we now have to defeat. Again."
The point wasn't lost on NPR's Inskeep. "There are connections between this group and earlier extremist groups in Iraq," the host told the senator. "They were battled for years and pushed back, but here they are years later. This could just be something that goes on and on, couldn't it?"
Rubio replied, "It could, but that's not -- I mean, that's just reality."