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 Newsreported:
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."
Rachel Maddow talks with New Hampshire voters at a John Kasich town hall and notes that Kasich's particular style of personal engagement is likely the reason he is polling so well in the first-in-the-nation state. watch
* 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."
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 Postreported 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.
The New Hampshire primary is just four days away, and the results of this contest appear likely to have a powerful impact on the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
And while polls only offer hints about the state of the race, the latest survey results offer some important insights. Here, for example, is new NBC/WSJ/Marist poll of Granite State Republicans, conducted entirely after the Iowa caucuses.
1. Donald Trump: 30% (down from 31% before two weeks ago)
2. Marco Rubio: 17% (up from 11%)
3. Ted Cruz: 15% (up from 12%)
4. John Kasich: 10% (down from 11%)
5. Jeb Bush: 9% (up from 8%)
6. Chris Christie: 4% (down from 7%)
A new Suffolk University/Boston Globepoll, also conducted after Iowa, has the race shaping up this way:
1. Donald Trump: 29%
2. Marco Rubio: 19%
3. John Kasich: 13%
4. Jeb Bush: 10%
5. Ted Cruz: 7%
6. Chris Christie: 5%
And then there's the CNN/WMUR poll, also conducted after Iowa.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* When the remaining Republican presidential candidates take the stage for their debate tomorrow night, only seven of the nine will be participating. ABC announced last night that Carly Fiorina and Jim Gilmore didn't make the cut, and there will be no kids-table debate.
* Though most national polling shows Hillary Clinton with relatively comfortable leads over Bernie Sanders, the new Quinnipiac poll shows Clinton's advantage shrinking to just two points.
* Hillary Clinton's campaign announced yesterday it raised $15 million in January, which would be an extremely impressive haul were it not for the fact that Bernie Sanders' campaign raised $20 million over the same period.
* Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) threw his support to Chris Christie today. Only five sitting GOP governors have made endorsements this cycle, and three of them are backing Christie.
* When Marco Rubio taught a class at Florida International University in Miami, he reportedly "worked less than 10 hours a week and missed three-in-10 classes during his first semester of teaching -- all while making more than most part-time visiting professors."
* Former President George W. Bush is reportedly the star of a new campaign commercial crafted by Jeb Bush's super PAC. The 30-second spot is set to begin airing in South Carolina today.
* Ted Cruz told voters in New Hampshire yesterday that "in the media newsrooms and in the Washington establishment circles," Marco Rubio is "the chosen one." Reflecting on the Iowa caucus results, Cruz added, "In the media's telling, bronze is the new gold."
When Ted Cruz reflected this week on the crisis in Flint -- which he inexplicably blamed on local Democratic officials who had no decision-making authority -- he wrapped up his thoughts by reflecting on the road ahead for struggling cities like Flint. The solution, Cruz added, is to "go with the policies that work" -- such as giving taxpayer money to private schools.
It was a bit jarring. A discussion about poisonous water led the Republican presidential hopeful to think about privatizing education -- as if, on some unidentified level, the two unrelated topics were pieces of the same puzzle.
Yesterday, we saw something eerily similar happened at an event in New Hampshire. The Wall Street Journalreported:
Ted Cruz spent 18 minutes telling an emotional, gripping story of his family's history of drug and alcohol abuse. His older half-sister and later his father, he told an addiction policy forum, got hooked and became addicted. His sister died, his father survived only after becoming religious, Mr. Cruz said in a Baptist church here.
So it was jarring to hear Mr. Cruz then pivot to his policy solution: building a wall along the nation's southern border to stop illegal immigration and halt the flow of drugs from Mexico.
"If we want to turn around the drug crisis we have got to finally and permanently secure the border," Mr. Cruz said. "We need to solve this problem; we need to build this wall."
At a certain level, my expectations have fallen to such a low point, I'm inclined to give Cruz at least some credit for acknowledging an actual, real-world problem. There's a drug epidemic; it's destroying lives and families; and policymakers at every level desperately need to take it seriously. While some Republicans have dismissed the addiction crisis as meaningless, it seems like a small step in the right direction for Cruz to recognize, even briefly, that the problem exists.
If only his proposed solution were serious, we might be getting somewhere.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for a variety of conservative states to impose new restrictions, putting more hurdles between voters and their elections process. The justices, in a 5-4 ruling, effectively told Congress it'd be up to legislators to revise the landmark law.
To that end, President Obama and congressional Democrats are championing a fix called the "Voting Rights Advancement Act," introduced last June. In the House, the bill has picked up 157 co-sponsors, all 157 of whom are members of the Democratic minority. In the Senate, it has 41 co-sponsors, 40 of whom are in the Democratic minority. (Alaska's Lisa Murkowski is the exception.)
In other words, if there's going to be any progress on this issue, supporters of voting rights are going to need some Republican allies. The good news is, the top GOP lawmaker in Washington is sympathetic to the Democrats' push. The bad news, reported yesterday by The Hill, is that this lawmaker doesn't intend to do anything about it.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told black lawmakers Wednesday that he supports new voting rights protections they've championed, but said he won't bypass a committee chairman to move legislation, according to a Democrat who attended the gathering.
"He said it right in front of everybody -- he said he supports the [Jim] Sensenbrenner bill," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said after Ryan met with the group on Capitol Hill.
"So somebody was saying, 'Well, why don't you go tell your committee chair to do it?' " Cleaver added. "And he said, ... 'Look, I can't do that.' "
When the first open-enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act began in October 2013, it failed miserably thanks largely to a website that simply didn't work. After a month, an underwhelming total of 106,185 consumers signed up for insurance through an exchange.
And Republicans thought this was hilarious. The GOP's "Obamacare" critics, not at all shy about rooting for failure, openly mocked the system, pointing to sports venues with more than 106,185 seats. For the right, low enrollment totals stood as undeniable proof that the Affordable Care Act was "hurtling toward failure," and conservatives could hardly contain their glee.
A little more than two years later, the right's laughter has disappeared -- right along with the low enrollment totals.
About 12.7 million Americans signed up for 2016 health insurance coverage through the government insurance exchanges, surpassing its expectations, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said on Thursday.
That means Republicans running in this year's elections may find it harder to deliver on their promise of repeal, while Democrats may yet be able to tap the newly insured as a voting constituency.
"Open enrollment for 2016 is over and we are happy to report it was a success," Burwell told reporters. "It's clear that marketplace coverage is a product that people do want and need."
Going into the open-enrollment period, the Obama administration projected totals between 11 million and 14 million, and yesterday's announcement put the actual figure almost exactly between those two points.
So far, I haven't seen any congressional Republicans pointing to stadiums that can hold 12.7 million people. Maybe they're still looking.