After unexpectedly strong economic growth in the third quarter of 2014 (July through September), optimism about the recovery became more widespread. No one expected the figures to be quite as robust in the fourth quarter, leaving us to wonder just how much of a moderating effect we'd see.
The U.S. economy grew by a 2.6% annual pace in the fourth quarter, slowing from a 5.0% pace in the third quarter, according to a preliminary government estimate released by the Commerce Department Friday. Economists polled by MarketWatch predicted GDP would grow by a seasonally adjusted 3.2%.
Consumer spending, which is a main source of economic activity, rose 4.3% following a 3.2% rise in the third quarter. This is the biggest gain since the first quarter of 2006. But growth slowed because of slower business and government spending and higher imports.
When expecting GDP growth above 3%, it's obviously disappointing to see a quarterly tally at 2.6%. Under normal circumstances, 2.6% is relatively "meh," but it stings a little more, not just because of higher expectations, but also because of the quarter that preceded it.
That said, it's worth emphasizing that this is a preliminary tally, which will be revised twice over the next two months. Indeed, let's not forget that the preliminary assessment for the third quarter was 3.9% before it was ultimately revised up to 5%.
In other words, today's report is a litle disappointing, but it's not the final word on the subject.
This week's drama involving the American Family Association and Bryan Fischer was not, surprisingly enough, the result of some outrageous comment from the right-wing activist, at least not directly. Instead, the story began with an announced trip to Israel.
The AFA announced that the organization was taking Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and dozens of RNC members on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. The nine-day excursion is scheduled to begin tomorrow, and at first blush, it may not seem especially controversial. After all, Americans travel to Israel all the time.
The problem, as noted by Israeli and American media alike, is the Republican National Committee's willingness to associate itself with the American Family Association and its notorious, hateful spokesperson, Bryan Fischer. Especially in light of Fischer's record -- he's characterized all non-Christian faiths as "false religions"; he's said minority faiths do not have the right to exercise their religious beliefs in the United States; he's said all immigrants to America should expect to convert to Christianity -- shouldn't the RNC keep its distance?
It was questions like these that led the American Family Association to announce this week that Fischer is no longer the group's official spokesperson. Indeed, the Republican National Committee, after days of silence on its controversial partnership with AFA, told "The Rachel Maddow Show" yesterday:
"We don't agree with Bryan Fischer's comments and are glad the AFA has severed ties with him."
That's the whole statement in its entirety. The problem, of course, is that we also learned yesterday that the Republican National Committee's statement isn't true.
Senator Claire McCaskill talks with Rachel Maddow about a new U.S. policy to classify information about how, and how much money is spent in support of the Afghan security force, and what questions she has for the new nominee for Secretary of Defense. watch
Rachel Maddow poses the question, if the presumed Democratic nominee for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton, decides not to run, who would make the next most electable candidate for Democrats to put forward. Rachel has someone in mind. watch
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, talks with Rachel Maddow about the American Family Association's record of religious bigotry and intolerance that calls to question the RNC's judgment in accepting a trip to Israel with them. watch
* Afghanistan: "Three contractors working with the international coalition in Afghanistan and an Afghan national were killed Thursday in a shootout on the military side of a Kabul airport, a spokesman with the International Security Assistance Force said."
* Change I can believe in: "President Barack Obama doubled down on his State of the Union vision for a new 'middle class economics' on Thursday with an op-ed in The Huffington Post vowing to completely reverse government spending cuts made in 2013. 'My Budget will fully reverse the sequestration cuts for domestic priorities in 2016,' he writes."
* Middle East: "Israel's defense minister said on Thursday that his country had received messages through United Nations channels that Hezbollah did not plan any further action after its missile strike the previous day that killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded seven."
* ISIS: "The wife of the Japanese journalist being held hostage by ISIS made an impassioned plea for his release Thursday as an apparent deadline passed for a prisoner swap. Rinko Goto, wife of Kenji Goto, said in a statement: 'I fear that this is the last chance for my husband.'"
* Egypt: "Militants struck more than a dozen army and police targets in the restive Sinai Peninsula with simultaneous attacks involving a car bomb and mortar rounds on Thursday, killing at least 25 people, including civilians, officials said."
* Good thinking: "The North Dakota Industrial Commission called Wednesday for better monitoring of pipelines and higher standards for those that cross major bodies of water as crews continue cleaning up two major pipeline spills that affected the state's waterways."
* Dubious secrecy: "[A]s the Obama administration is seeking to declare the long war in Afghanistan officially over, at least from an American standpoint, the move to classify data about the Afghan forces removes one of the most crucial measures for assessing the accomplishments of the international coalition there. And it raises stark questions about the state of the fight against the Taliban, coming after a year in which the Afghan forces took record-high casualties as they battled heavy militant offensives."
We don't yet know what the Supreme Court will do in the King v. Burwell case, but we have a fairly good sense what will happen if the Supreme Court sides with Republicans. In effect, there will be chaos that could do considerable harm to insurers, families, state budgets, the federal budget, hospitals, and low-income children.
It sounds melodramatic, but the fact remains that if the GOP prevails, more Americans will literally go bankrupt and/or die as a result of this ruling.
With this in mind, I couldn't help but find some sardonic humor in the House Republicans' request for information from the Obama administration yesterday.
Senior House Republicans are demanding that the Obama administration reveal its contingency plans in the event that the Supreme Court scraps Obamacare subsidies in three dozen states. [...]
"Specifically, we are examining the extent to which the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and other relevant agencies of the federal government, are preparing for the possible consequences of the Supreme Court's decision in the case of King v. Burwell," wrote the lawmakers.
The fact that the GOP lawmakers didn't appreciate the irony was itself unfortunate, but the simple truth is that the underlying question -- what happens if the Supreme Court takes this stupid case seriously and guts the American health care system? -- is one Republicans should be answering, not asking.
Three weeks ago, the Republican-led House easily approved legislation to move forward with construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This afternoon, the Republican-led Senate did the same.
The Senate voted Thursdayto build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, despite a long-standing veto threat from the White House.
Nine Democrats joined a unanimous Republican caucus to support the bill.
The final outcome, which was never in doubt, was 62 to 36.
Charles Gaba joked that the total number of senators who voted for the project easily surpasses the total number of jobs created by the project. That's funny, and it has the added benefit of being true -- a State Department review concluded that the Keystone project, once completed, would create roughly 35 permanent, full-time in the United States, largely in refinery employment.
It's not common for 62 senators to invest quite so much energy in the creation of 35 jobs, but here we are anyway. Indeed, the real economic benefits will probably be felt in Alberta, leading Josh Green to joke that it's "kind of nuts" that congressional Republicans decided to start 2015 by "fighting for the Canadian economy."
Regardless, with the proposal now having passed both chambers, the bill now heads to the White House, where it will receive President Obama's veto. The president will first have to blow the dust off the box holding the veto pen -- he hasn't used it since 2010, and it will be only the third veto of his presidency. Among two-termers, Obama has made fewer vetoes than any president since Abraham Lincoln, though this may not remain true much longer in light of GOP dominance on Capitol Hill.
Towards the end of 2014, there were some concerns among environmentalists that Senate support for Keystone might be strong enough to muster a veto-proof majority. That's evidently not the case -- proponents would need 67 votes to override Obama on this, and as of today, those votes just aren't there.
For those familiar with Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, he's probably best known as the "Ten Commandments judge." But looking back over Moore's career, the way in which he became a right-wing cause celebre matters.
Back in the 1990s, Moore was just a local judge in Alabama, who insisted on promoting Christianity in his public courtroom. When First Amendment proponents challenged his practice of using his bench to advance his religion, Moore said he had the legal right to ignore federal court rulings.
This quickly made him a star in far-right circles, and he parlayed his notoriety into becoming the chief justice of state Supreme Court. In 2003, however, Moore was ultimately kicked off the bench for -- you guessed it -- ignoring federal court rulings he didn't like and insisting that the First Amendment doesn't apply to Alabama's state government. (Voters didn't care, and in 2012, following a couple of failed campaigns, Moore was re-elected as chief justice.)
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has released a letter to Gov. Robert Bentley saying that he intends to continue to recognize the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and urging the governor to do so. [...]
Moore said the ruling by U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. "Ginny" Granade "raised serious, legitimate concerns about the propriety of federal court jurisdiction" over the Alabama amendment.
Moore's letter, which is available in its entirety here (pdf), may be predictable, but it's also wildly wrong and a little dangerous. The Republican judge's argument is that a federal court may consider Alabama's ban on marriage equality unconstitutional, but Alabama doesn't have to care.
Moore not only intends to ignore the ruling, he desperately wants Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) to believe states are not bound by federal court rulings.
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:
* Hillary Clinton was reportedly planning to launch her presidential campaign in April, but will instead kick things off in July. Because the former Secretary of State isn't especially concerned with primary challengers, Clinton has what Republican aspirants don't: the luxury of taking her time.
* Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said yesterday he won't let a little thing like a felony indictment stand in the way of his bid for national office. "No, we're going to continue on," he said in reference to the pending criminal allegations.
* Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) delivered a speech to students at Mississippi State University yesterday, where he "sounded out themes for a potential third presidential run."
* Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), facing questions about a possible state-run media entity, seemed eager to abandon the idea altogether yesterday. In a radio interview, the Republican governor said he'd never heard of the project before this week's media coverage, adding, "As governor I can assure you that (the plan) did not meet my expectations and if this website doesn't meet my expectations of respecting the role of a free and independent press, I will reject it."
* The Republican Party in New Hampshire is reportedly planning to host the "First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit" in mid-April. The idea, according to the Washington Post, is to organize "a two-day festival of political speechmaking in April designed to formally kick off the 2016 presidential campaign in the early primary state."
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has used his mailing list as a lucrative tool for many years, and it's a habit he's apparently reluctant to break. Even after the Arkansas Republican gave up his Fox News program, apparently to pursue another White House campaign, Huckabee continued to send out emails with "really questionable ads."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) isn't running for anything, but as discovered last week, he's also using his list to send out spam-like messages that appear to be scams.
It's against this backdrop that Kenneth P. Vogel had a great piece this week on the rise of "scam PACs" that target conservative donors.
Since the tea party burst onto the political landscape in 2009, the conservative movement has been plagued by an explosion of PACs that critics say exist mostly to pad the pockets of the consultants who run them. Combining sophisticated targeting techniques with fundraising appeals that resonate deeply among grass-roots activists, they collect large piles of small checks that, taken together, add up to enough money to potentially sway a Senate race. But the PACs plow most of their cash back into payments to consulting firms for additional fundraising efforts.
A POLITICO analysis of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission covering the 2014 cycle found that 33 PACs that court small donors with tea party-oriented email and direct-mail appeals raised $43 million -- 74 percent of which came from small donors. The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs.
I'm reminded of a line Chris Hayes used a couple of years ago, which continues to ring true: "[M]uch of movement conservatism is a con and the base are the marks."
Just last week, Americans celebrated a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., but in parts of the Deep South, the day coincided with a very different kind of holiday. In Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, however, on the exact same day, it was also a statewide holiday honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday.
The combination of the two, largely opposite historical figures seemed hard to reconcile, and in Arkansas, some suggested it's time for the state to end the Lee commemoration. Yesterday, Arkansas' Republican-led legislature rejected the recommendations, citing the importance of "Southern heritage."
The proposal called for designating Nov. 30 as "Patrick Cleburne - Robert E. Lee Southern Heritage Day," a state memorial day but not a legal holiday. Cleburne was a Confederate general who lived in east Arkansas. The legislation also would have repealed a state law declaring June 3 as a state memorial day in honor of former Confederacy President Jefferson Davis' birthday.
"This bill is not a bill meant to disregard heritage or to downplay history. It is not a bill to cause division of conflict," said Rep. Charles Blake, D- Little Rock, who presented the measure to the panel. "The spirit of this bill is to allow Arkansans to honor our heritage and honor our progress without them being in conflict with each other."
But opponents of the measure packed the committee hearing room, with several saying the Legislature was insulting their heritage.
The Associated Press piece noted local attorney John Crain, who told lawmakers that removing the Lee holiday would effectively tell him "my ancestry and my heritage is not worth honoring."
As hard as this may be to believe, Crain went on to argue, "I think Martin Luther King, if he were here today standing beside me, would tell you, 'Why can't we celebrate a birthday of two men, one of color and a white man?'"
I'm going to hope it's not necessary to point out why speaking for Dr. King this way is problematic.