First up from the God Machine this week is an aggressive push from likely Republican presidential candidates to characterize social conservatives as a "victims" of a secular American government.
If this seems like a cyclical problem, it's not your imagination. Four years ago, Newt Gingrich delivered one of my favorite quotes of all time, warning that if conservatives "do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America," his grandchildren might one day live "in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists." The contradiction was apparently lost on him.
Four years later, it's Rick Santorum reading from a similar script. Right Wing Watch reported this week:
Santorum told [the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins] that, for the first time ever in U.S. history, religious liberty is under assault from a new secular theocratic system:
"For the first time in the history of our country, the government is attacking people, prosecuting people, calling for people to be rehabilitated.... We have the state establishing a new religion, a secular state religion.... We have now the secular church that is being imposed on this country and anybody that defects is subject to persecution and prosecution."
For the record, I haven't seen any evidence of any government agency "calling for people to be rehabilitated." The notion of "secular churches" and a "secular religion" also seem misplaced, if not oxymoronic.
Around the same time, a likely Santorum rival for the Republican nomination, Mike Huckabee, also told the Family Research Council that the United States is moving toward "criminalization of Christianity" -- which by any sensible standard, is completely bonkers.
This coincided with Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) arguing in a New York Times op-ed that Christians face "discrimination" unless they're allowed to discriminate.
We're dealing with the confluence of a few related storylines: the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on marriage equality on Tuesday; fights over right-to-discriminate laws have dominated national headlines; and the presidential race is beginning in earnest, with leading candidates eagerly embracing the sense of victimization that's common in social conservatism, pandering to the party's religious right base.
The result, evidently, is some over-the-top nonsense about secular churches and making Christianity illegal.
Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, talks with Steve Kornacki about how the accidental killing of an American hostage in a drone strike on an al Qaeda target exposes the risks and imprecision of drone operations. watch
Steve Kornacki shares highlights of past presidential performances at the White House Correspondents dinner, and talks with Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian, about the pressure on a president to take the in good humor. watch
For Hillary Clinton, the symptoms of a political system bombarded with "oppo" research manifested this week in news reports suggesting (though not actually proving) a connection between donations to The Clinton Foundation and the Russian acquisition of a Canadian company with a uranium mine. The charged atmosphere that has followed those stories might be seen as a different kind of...
* Drones: "President Obama pledged Friday that his administration would seek to learn from the mistakes that led to the inadvertent killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of two Western hostages, including an American, in a drone strike against al Qaida earlier this year."
* A rhetorical escalation on trade: "The already bitter fight between the White House and the progressive base over trade policy has turned ugly after President Obama said his critics on the left 'don't know what they're talking about' and compared their arguments to conspiracy theories about 'death panels.'"
* Sometimes, paying hostage takers doesn't work: "The captors of U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein received $250,000 in 2012 on what turned out to be a false promise that he would be freed, according to a Pakistani intermediary who negotiated directly with al Qaeda for his release."
* One hundred years later: "The century-old wounds over the mass slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were on full display Friday as Europe took another step toward describing the killings as a genocide and Turkey offered groundbreaking outreach even as it rejected any links to the "sin" of ethnic purges."
* I think they're bluffing: "House lawmakers are threatening to slash Defense Department funding by about $500 million next year if Pentagon officials don't hand over documents related to their probe into a controversial prisoner swap that freed five Taliban detainees in exchange for a captive U.S. soldier."
* The happiest man in Washington today: "Attorney General Eric Holder bid a final farewell to what he predicts will be recognized in the next half-century as a new 'Golden Age' at the Department of Justice, leaving behind a historic six-year tenure as the first African-American man to serve as the nation's top attorney."
* All kinds of odd folks filed anti-gay briefs with the Supreme Court in advance of next week's arguments on marriage equality. Irin Carmon, to her enormous credit, read them all and reported on her findings.
Mitt Romney has invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources into trolling President Obama for the last several years, to the point that the two-time failed presidential candidate has become one of his party's highest-profile attack dogs. But as the next presidential election takes shape, the former governor is picking up a new hobby: trolling Hillary Clinton.
Commenting yesterday on the New York Timesarticle on the Clinton Foundation's international donors, Romney said, "I was stunned by it. I mean, it looks like bribery." The Republican added there is "every appearance" that the former Secretary of State "was bribed."
That's obviously a very serious allegation. And like so many of Mitt Romney's other allegations, it also appears to be completely untrue. (Given Romney's previous praise of the Clinton Foundation's foreign partnerships, it's also a little ironic.)
By now, you've probably heard the gist of the New York Timesstory.
At the heart of the tale are several men, leaders of the Canadian mining industry, who have been major donors to the charitable endeavors of former President Bill Clinton and his family. Members of that group built, financed and eventually sold off to the Russians a company that would become known as Uranium One.
It's a little convoluted, but the piece, based in part on conservative writer Peter Schweizer's new book, tries to connect several dots to create an unflattering picture: the State Department approved a deal during Clinton's tenure allowing a Canadian mining company to sell its uranium business to Russia. That same company had donated heavily to the Clinton Foundation. Complicating matters, after Russia announced plans to buy the uranium business, Bill Clinton was paid handsomely to deliver a speech at a Russian investment bank.
The allegation, then, is that the donations influenced the process -- the Clinton Foundation received money from the company, the Clinton-run State Department approved a deal that benefited the company and its buyers. It's why Romney's suddenly comfortable throwing around words like "bribery."
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is one of the more vulnerable Republican incumbents in the Senate next year, and some recent polling shows him trailing former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), whom he beat in 2010. One of the questions Johnson would prefer not to hear from hundreds of thousands of his constituents for the next year and a half is, "Why did you take my family's health security away?"
The Supreme Court probably won't rule on King v. Burwell until June, and Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act, at least on the surface, desperately hope they prevail in order to gut much of the nation's health care system. But the hopes come with fear -- if GOP policymakers successfully take coverage from millions, some of those folks might be a little annoyed come Election Day 2016.
It's not complicated: a big win for Republicans at the high court is a big loss for millions of consumers who would quickly lose ACA subsidies they need to afford insurance. This week, however, Ron Johnson and a whole bunch of his friends unveiled an interesting bill.
The legislation, offered by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), one of the most politically vulnerable Senate incumbents in 2016, would maintain the federal HealthCare.gov tax credits at stake in King v. Burwell through the end of August 2017.
The bill was unveiled this week with 29 other cosponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his four top deputies, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), John Thune (R-SD), John Barrasso (R-WY) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). Another cosponsor is Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the chairman of the conference's electoral arm.
Though the details are a little more complicated than they might appear at first blush, the idea is to effectively lock in the status quo for a couple of years. If Republicans on the Supreme Court agree to take away subsidies for millions, Republicans in Congress now have a message for the affected consumers: everything will stay as-is until August 2017.
As Kaili Joy Gray joked, Senate Republicans have effectively introduced a bill to "protect Obamacare from Senate Republicans."
But whether this is a credible resolution to a self-imposed crisis is something else entirely.
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:
* For the second time this week, Marco Rubio leads the Republicans' presidential field in a national poll. The new Fox News survey shows the Florida senator in front with 13%, followed by Scott Walker at 12% and Rand Paul at 10%. Jeb Bush is close behind at 9%.
* The same poll found Hillary Clinton with modest leads over each of the leading GOP contenders. Among Democrats, there's suddenly little appetite for a competitive primary: 71% of Dems say they're "satisfied with the field of Democratic candidates."
* Before Republican presidential hopefuls compete for voters' support, they must first compete for billionaires' support. Rubio has reportedly taken the lead in winning over casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
* On a related note, Rubio participated in a conference call yesterday with the Koch brothers' AFP, which is trying to rally opposition to the Export-Import Bank.
* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has not yet launched a presidential campaign, but he's already making jabs at potential rivals, saying yesterday that Jeb Bush will raise a lot of money, but "we'll see if he can buy a lot of love."
* Mike Huckabee is also making an issue of Jeb's fundraising. "Will I have the same amount that somebody like Bush would have? Probably not. I do not have the family rolodex," the former Arkansas governor said this week.
In late-January, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), one of Congress' less-conservative Republican members, could hardly contain his frustrations with the prevailing political winds on Capitol Hill.
"Week one, we had a Speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked," Dent told reporters. "Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn't want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors... I just can't wait for week four."
A few months later, however, Congress has managed to put one foot after another, and everyone involved is suddenly patting themselves on the back. The Washington Postnoted this week:
There's a lot of self-congratulating going around Capitol Hill these days -- members of Congress are, in not-so-insignificant ways, doing their jobs.
And while we realize that for most working Americans that wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, for the Congress we've come to know in the last several years, actual legislating is cause for great celebration.
Colby Itkowitz flagged a series of headlines from news outlets, impressed with congressional activity. "Glimmers of Hope on the Hill," one read. "Bipartisanship breaks out on Capitol Hill -- at least for now," said another.
Assorted partisans are getting in on the new Beltway fun. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), boasted this week, "I've actually been somewhat surprised and more optimistic than I have been in a long time about how the Senate is beginning to work again."
Karl Rove added yesterday, "Congress is finally back on track."
There are a couple of reasons to explain this suddenly popular thesis -- and several more reasons to be deeply skeptical of it.
When the Affordable Care Act's Republican critics were making all kinds of dire predictions about the inevitable "failures" of "Obamacare," one of the charges was that American consumers will end up hating the coverage they receive through the reform law.
And for those ACA detractors looking for something, anything, to bolster their contempt for the law, I'm afraid I have more bad news: Americans who received coverage through Obamacare tend to be quite pleased with the results.
Obamacare customers nationally also tended to be more satisfied with their plans bought in 2014 than people who primarily have traditional job-based health coverage -- the majority of those with insurance -- the study by the J.D. Power market research company found.
And those customers from last year were as happy with their coverage as other people who had multiple choices when it came to buying plans outside Obamacare markets from insurers or brokers, according to the J.D. Power report, which was released Thursday.
The full market-research report is available online here.
This is obviously just one study, and other analyses may draw other conclusions, but let's not forget that this isn't the first evidence we've seen pointing to high customer-satisfaction rates for those who buy coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
Several weeks ago, some Republicans in the Oklahoma state legislature embraced a new resolution to the debate over marriage equality. Instead of denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a proposed bill would deny marriage licenses to all couples.
"The point of my legislation is to take the state out of the process and leave marriage in the hands of the clergy," state Rep. Todd Russ (R) said last month.
That bill actually passed the Oklahoma state House, 67 to 24, and the underlying idea now appears to be spreading. Consider this local report out of Alabama.
An Alabama state senator believes he has the solution to the state's debate about who probate judges can and cannot issue marriage licenses to: Do away with the state-sanctioned license.
Senate Bill 377 from Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, would end the requirement that couples obtain marriage licenses from probate judges. Instead, marriages would be a legal contract, witnessed by a clergy member, attorney or notary public, and filed with the state through the probate office.
"My goal is to remove the state out of the lives of people," Albritton told the Decatur Daily. "No. 2 is to prevent the state from getting involved in long-term lawsuits that do no good."
Recent events have made clear that Alabama has struggled to comply with court orders involving marriage equality, so it's not surprising that conservative policymakers would begin looking for a creative way to deny same-sex couples equal-marriage rights.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) attended an event in Manhattan this week, though the venue was a little surprising: the reception for the Texas Republican was held at the apartment of "two prominent gay hoteliers."
At the gathering, Cruz reportedly said he would love his children regardless of their sexual orientation, and according to the event's moderator, the far-right senator "told the group that marriage should be left up to the states." As best as I can tell, there was no recording of the event, at least not one that's available to the public, so it's hard to know exactly what he said.
But before there's speculation about whether Cruz's conservative backers will revolt over the senator's tone, consider the Texas lawmaker's latest legislative push. Bloomberg Politics reported late yesterday:
Days before the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on same-sex marriage, Senator Ted Cruz has filed two bills to protect states that bar gay couples from marrying.
Cruz's legislation would establish a constitutional amendment shielding states that define marriage as between one woman and one man from legal action, according to bill language obtained by Bloomberg News. A second bill would bar federal courts from further weighing in on the marriage issue until such an amendment is adopted.
To be sure, this doesn't come as too big a surprise. Cruz has been threatening to pursue an anti-gay constitutional amendment for quite a while, and he started telegraphing his "court-stripping" effort soon after launching his presidential campaign.
For that matter, it's also not too surprising that Cruz would use his Senate office to push doomed proposals intended to boost his national candidacy.