Fairly early on in last night's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders, responding to a question about the criminal justice system, made a vow that drew hearty applause from the Milwaukee audience.
"Here is a pledge I've made throughout this campaign, and it's really not a very radical pledge," Sanders said. "When we have more people in jail, disproportionately African American and Latino, than China does, a communist authoritarian society four times our size. Here's my promise, at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country."
It's a sentiment that nearly all Democrats (and even many Republicans) would find compelling, but NYU's Mark Kleiman highlighted a problem: it's a promise Sanders wouldn't be able to keep.
If we elide the distinction between prisons (holding people convicted of serious crimes) and jails (holding people convicted of minor crimes and people awaiting trial), it is true and important that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration. That's a disgrace. (I seem to recall having written a book on the topic.) We should do something about that, and there are things to do about it. A President can do some of them.
But of the 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, fewer than 10% are Federal prisoners. The rest are in state prisons and local jails. If the President were to release all of the Federal prisoners, we would still, as a country, have more prisoners than any other country. So Sen. Sanders was very specifically making a promise he has no way of keeping. Either he knows that or he does not.
There's no doubt that Sanders' pledge is well intentioned, but in a case like this, the details get in the way.
All of which reinforces an important difference between Sanders and Hillary Clinton: the former thinks big and bold, without too much concern for realism or practical limits, while the latter is almost preoccupied with not over-promising.
On Wednesday night, Bernie Sanders appeared on MSNBC and noted a persistent political challenge. "There's a huge gap right now between Congress and the American people. What presidential leadership is about closing that gap," he said. Asked if he believed President Obama had closed that gap, Sanders added, "No, I don't. I mean, I think he has made the effort."
For Democrats, this perspective has it largely backwards -- if there's a "huge gap right now between Congress and the American people," Dems argue, it's because Congress is run by radicalized Republicans who won't compromise and who remain indifferent to pressing national needs. Suggesting the White House is somehow to blame is central to the GOP's pitch.
Which, of course, makes it precisely the sort of rhetoric that Hillary Clinton is eager to use against her rival. Indeed, it led to an exchange in last night's debate in Milwaukee that helped capture much of what the Democratic primary is all about. As MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald reported:
"The kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans," Clinton said.
Sanders, clearly agitated, called that a "low blow" and shot back, "one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate."
"Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job," he said, his voice growing louder.
Clinton had a detailed response at the ready. "You know, senator, what I am concerned about, is not disagreement on issues, saying that this is what I would rather do, I don't agree with the president on that, calling the president 'weak,' calling him a 'disappointment,' calling several times that he should have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election in 2012, you know, I think that goes further than saying we have our disagreements."
For the former Secretary of State, President Obama is both sword and shield. When pressed on some of the more controversial aspects of her record, Clinton notes the similarities between her and the president -- effectively daring Sanders to condemn Obama directly. When given the opportunity to go on the offensive, Clinton uses Obama to question the independent senator's loyalty and commitment to a Democratic agenda.
It's a message that played well among Dems in Milwaukee, but just as importantly, it's likely to land on fertile soil in South Carolina, where Democrats give the president a 93% approval rating.
Just as importantly, I got the sense Clinton, after months of campaigning, finally figured out what she wanted to say about the persistent opponent who's turned out to be far stronger than expected. It came, oddly enough, in Clinton's closing statement in the final couple of minutes of the event.
Joel Sawyer, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, talks with Rachel Maddow about the state's history of dirty campaign tricks and the Bush family history of success there. watch
Gravitational waves - woot! But the pic used in every story on it really looks like my dog's nose https://t.co/kT91bIfjgY Very distracting.
* Porter Ranch: "The gas well above Porter Ranch that has been leaking since October has been temporarily capped, Southern California Gas Company said Thursday. Thousands of households have been relocated after residents complained of ailments they believe are linked to the natural gas leak at the utility's Aliso Canyon facility."
* All clear in Oregon: "The four remaining occupiers at an Oregon wildlife refuge surrendered Thursday morning after hours of tense negotiations, bringing an end to the weeks long protest over land rights and personal liberties."
* The final vote was 96 to 0: "The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation that would impose mandatory sanctions on North Korea, in a bid aimed at forcing the international community to retaliate more strongly against the rogue nation after a series of worrisome moves."
* Zika virus: "Pregnant women in South and Latin America who contract Zika, a rapidly spreading mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects and deformities in babies, should not have access to abortion, Republican House leaders said Wednesday."
* Cabinet: "President Obama is slated to nominate John B. King Jr. to officially lead the Department of Education, where he has served as acting secretary since the start of the year, according to several people familiar with the decision."
* Putin's Russia: "A prominent Russian human rights organization was ordered shut Wednesday by a regional court, potentially silencing one more voice in a continued Russian crackdown on independent civil society."
It seems like one of those stories that just can't be true -- a situation that a writer of fiction might come up with to cause a gut reaction from an audience, but not something that would happen in real life.
And yet, as MSNBC's Trymaine Lee reports, this story out of Cleveland is not a joke.
Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy with a pellet gun tucked in his jeans, paid the ultimate price when Cleveland police opened fire on him on a wintry day back in 2014.
Now the city of Cleveland says they want more, $500 more for the ambulance ride that carried his dead body from the scene of the shooting.
You've heard the expression "adding insult to injury"? That doesn't begin to cover a development like this one.
In this case, local police shot a 12-year-old boy, who was rushed to hospital. He did not survive. Cleveland nevertheless now feels justified sending a bill to the child's family -- with payment due next month -- for "emergency medical services rendered as the decedent's last dying expense," including a charge for mileage on the ambulance.
One can only hope the publicity surrounding the bill will prompt local officials to reconsider the wisdom of this move, but for now Cleveland is left looking rather ridiculous.
Exactly nine years to the day after launching his bid for the White House, President Obama returned to Springfield, Ill., yesterday -- the site of his campaign kickoff -- to deliver a speech in the House Chamber of the Illinois State Capitol. And while the remarks touched on a variety of issues, mainly focused on the need for a better kind of politics, Obama's call to "reduce ... barriers to voting" also stood out for me.
"[Bills are pending in the state legislature] that would automatically register every eligible citizen to vote when they apply for a driver's license. That will protect the fundamental right of everybody. Democrats, Republicans, independents, seniors, folks with disabilities, the men and women of our military -- it would make sure that it was easier for them to vote and have their vote counted.
"And as one of your constituents, I think you should pass that legislation right away. I think the Governor should sign it without delay. Let's make the Land of Lincoln a leader in voter participation. That's something we should be proud to do. Let's set the pace -- encourage other states across the country to follow our lead, making automatic voter registration the new norm across America."
It's good to see this get some attention, because automatic voter registration seems like one of those obvious ideas that should be adopted without controversy.
As we've discussed, the burden has traditionally been on the individual -- if you're eligible to vote, it's up to you to take the proactive steps needed to register. Automatic registration flips the model. Those who want to withdraw from the system can do so voluntarily without penalty, but otherwise, Americans would be added to the voters rolls automatically.
About a year ago, Oregon became the first state to adopt this policy, and California followed soon after.
So, for voting-rights advocates, that's two down, 48 to go. Which state is next?
As much of the political world shifts its attention towards the South Carolina primary, MSNBC's Steve Kornacki checked in this morning with Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), the state's former governor. Sanford noted he'd heard from a lot of locals that supporting Donald Trump would help "send a message" to Washington. The Trump candidacy, the congressman added, has "tapped into" Republicans' "frustrations."
KORNACKI: What about your role in all of this? I saw you over the summer when Donald Trump made some comments about Megyn Kelly, you seemed to say at the time that would rule out Donald Trump for you. Is that still true?
SANFORD: I like every other [several painful seconds of unintelligible sounds] what's the word I'm looking for? Well, anyway, I couldn't, uh....
He then changed the subject, shifting to more general thoughts on Trump. When Kornacki pressed further about Sanford's personal perspective, the South Carolinian eventually said he doesn't "think" he'll support Trump, but he's leaving it to "voters to decide."
Sanford's troubles were understandable. There were plenty of Republicans who effectively, if not literally, ruled out Trump as a possibility in 2015, when they still assumed the New York developer's support would collapse. But many of those same GOP officials and lawmakers are now confronted with the real possibility that Trump will be their party's presidential nominee.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* As Rachel noted on the show last night, Bernie Sanders' campaign has been raising money hand over fist since cruising to an easy win in the New Hampshire primary.
* In a bit of a surprise, Donald Trump's campaign has reportedly pulled an attack ad targeting Ted Cruz in South Carolina, replacing it with a positive spot about Trump. The Wall Street Journal reported that the shift came after aides concluded "efforts to be more positive" played well in New Hampshire.
* Rush Limbaugh didn't endorse Ted Cruz yesterday, but he came close. "If conservatism is your bag, if conservatism is the dominating factor in how you vote, there is no other choice for you in this campaign than Ted Cruz, because you are exactly right: This is the closest in our lifetimes we have ever been to Ronald Reagan," the radio host said.
* American Future Fund, a secretive far-right group, is reportedly going to invest $1.5 million in attack ads targeting Cruz, labeling him "weak" on national security because of his support for bipartisan reforms to NSA powers.
* Ben Carson, who claims he's being "pressured" to stay in the GOP race -- by whom, he did not say -- is willing to talk to Trump about possibly being the Republican vice presidential nominee. As a rule, candidates confident about their chances don't say things like this.
* No one seems to have any idea what's going to happen in Nevada's Democratic caucuses, but it's worth remembering that Robby Mook, Clinton's 2016 campaign manager, "first rose to fame in Clintonland after he oversaw Clinton's 2008 Nevada caucus campaign, where she won 51 percent of the popular vote."