First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected reaction to one of the week's more memorable political quotes.
Former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) raised a few eyebrows this week when he told an audience that he considers Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz "Lucifer in the flesh." The Texas senator didn't care for the comment, and neither did Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
But perhaps no one was less pleased with the comment than, of all people, Satanists. The Huffington Postreported:
Is there, indeed, something satanic to the senator? Do Republicans in Congress see the dark threads of Luciferianism in their colleague from Texas?
To get to the bottom of this, HuffPost called up Lucien Greaves, a spokesperson for the Satanic Temple. His response was that Boehner was basically full of it, trying to absolve the worst of Christianity by calling him a product of Satanism.
"It is past time we stop blaming the activities of the upholders of the Christian faith on a Satanic philosophy," Greaves told the Huffington Post. "Boehner is trying to convey that if it is bad and he disagrees with it, it is of Satan and Lucifer, and if it is of good, it is of Christ. That is what is problematic with the Christian ideology."
The Hill added a day later, "A leading Satanist group is trying to distance itself from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) after the presidential candidate was compared to Lucifer."
"Cruz's failures of reason, compassion, decency and humanity are products of his Christian pandering, if not an actual Christian faith," Lucien Greaves said on Thursday, according to The Friendly Atheist.
Boehner probably had no idea this kind of reaction was coming, but all things considered, Satanists were probably more bothered by the "Lucifer" line than Cruz was.
Rachel Maddow and MSNBC Political Analyst Elise Jordan discuss the embarrassing trend of Republican officials saying they will vote for a particular Republican presidential candidate, but stopping short of endorsing him. watch
* This escalation is cause for alarm: "A Russian Su-27 jet flew dangerously close to a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft over the Baltic Sea on Friday, military officials said. The Russian plane flew within 25 feet of the RC-135's fuselage, conducting a barrel roll over the U.S. plane."
* The U.S. Supreme Court "is declining to block enforcement of the recently enacted Texas voter identification law. Passed in 2011 and subject to court challenges ever since, the law requires a photo ID to vote but limits the permissible forms of identification. College ID's, for example, are not accepted, but gun licenses are."
* More on this story on tonight's show: "Protesters are clashing with police outside a state GOP convention in Burlingame, California, where Donald Trump was expected to speak Friday. Several hundred protesters gathered outside a hotel near San Francisco while awaiting the Republican presidential front-runner."
* Gun debate: "President Obama will use the power of his office to push for adoption of so-called smart gun technology that could eventually limit the use of a firearm to its owner, the White House announced Friday morning."
* North Korea: "An American who has been held in North Korea since October was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on Friday for spying and other offenses, Chinese and Japanese news agencies reported from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital."
* A campaign worth watching: "With time ticking on what White House aides see as their last, slim chance to get Merrick Garland confirmed before the November election -- the unlikely scenario he'll get a hearing and a vote before the Senate breaks for the summer -- allies will launch new operations and ads starting Saturday to pressure GOP senators during next week's recess.... They're calling it the 9-9-9 campaign: nine states, over nine days, to push for a court with nine justices."
* Ban the box: "The White House on Friday will move to bar federal agencies from asking applicants for tens of thousands of government jobs about their criminal histories until the very end of the process."
It's one thing for a Republican to say he or she is part of the #NeverTrump effort. It's something altogether different when a Republican takes proactive steps to find a third-party candidate to run against the GOP nominee.
Take the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, a prominent figure in Republican politics for many years, for example. The GOP pundit has spent months suggesting he'd like to participate in some kind of independent operation, "probably for 2016 only," in which Donald Trump's Republican opponents rally behind their own alternative. A month ago, meetings were held, memos were circulated, and names were floated (Tom Coburn and Rick Perry were reportedly eyed as possibilities).
Recently, attention shifted to retired Gen. James Mattis, who this afternoon gently broke Kristol's heart.
James N. Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general who was wooed by conservative leaders for a possible independent presidential candidacy, has ruled out a bid for the White House in 2016.
Two allies of Mr. Mattis sent emails to associates on Friday notifying them that the retired general had closed the door on a campaign. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, said Mr. Mattis had decided "after much consideration" not to proceed.
The New York Times'report noted that Mattis, a widely respected figure in military circles, didn't encourage presidential speculation, but he was "receptive to political overtures." The retired Marine reportedly even visited DC last week and "met with a small group of strategists supportive of his entry into the race and discussed the election."
Evidently, the meeting did not persuade Mattis to take the leap.
Last night, the Senate finally confirmed Roberta Jacobson to be the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, prompting Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) to pat the chamber on the back. "The United States' relationship with Mexico is essential to our country's economy and security, and our Ambassador serves as a critical nexus for this partnership," Cornyn said after the vote. "Today is a key step towards filling what is a crucial diplomatic post not just to Texas, but for the nation as a whole."
What Cornyn neglected to mention is that Jacobson, a State Department veteran, was nominated nearly 11 months ago. Despite impeccable credentials and no real critics, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) blocked her nomination because he doesn't like President Obama's policy towards Cuba.
If this is a "crucial diplomatic post" for the entire United States, why did it take 11 months for the Republican Senate to unanimously confirm an uncontroversial nominee?
The answer is this Senate just doesn't seem to function well. Remember the agreement on funding the federal Zika response that was supposed to be wrapped up today? Senators decided to punt on the issue for a while. Even far-right members are getting frustrated.
"I hope that there is real urgency about dealing with this," Rubio said. "I understand this is not a political issue. There is no such thing as a Republican position on Zika or Democrat position on Zika because these mosquitoes bite everyone. And they're not going to ask you what your party registration is or who you plan to vote for in November." [...]
"My advice to my colleagues is we're going to deal with this, and I hope we deal with it at the front end, because not only is it better for our people, it's better for you," he added. "You're going to have to explain to people why it is that we sat around for weeks and did nothing on something of this magnitude."
Democrats said senators should stay in session until an agreement comes together. Republicans refused -- and then left town for a 10-day break. This comes on the heels of a two-week break in March, and it comes in advance of a seven-week break that starts in mid-July.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* Any minute now, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) will reportedly endorse Ted Cruz's presidential campaign.
* At an event in Oregon yesterday, Bernie Sanders started talking up some of the changes he'd like to see in the electoral process, including open primaries in every state and automatic voter registration. Though some of these fall outside the Democratic National Committee's purview, expect a related push in the debate over the party's platform.
* This keeps happening: "Ted Cruz got crushed in Virginia on primary day, but even Donald Trump's forces believe he's about to stuff the state's national convention delegation full of supporters anyway."
* Though Sanders still hopes to prevail in Indiana next week, his campaign is scaling back its ad budget. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has stopped advertising in upcoming primaries altogether.
* The latest primary poll in Oregon shows Donald Trump leading the GOP pack with 43%, followed by Ted Cruz at 26% and John Kasich at 17%. Note, the "deal" announced this week between the Cruz and Kasich camps was based in part on the assumption that Kasich was positioned to do well in Oregon.
* On a related note, Cruz yesterday downplayed the existence of a deal with Kasich.
* By the end of March, the Sanders campaign had spent "nearly $166 million," which the Washington Postreported created "a financial windfall for his team of Washington consultants."
* It took a surprisingly long time, but Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) yesterday finally agreed to forgo a donation from disgraced former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The Missouri Republican gave the contribution he received from Hastert to a local charity.
The House Republicans' Benghazi Committee not only still exists -- today is its 722nd day -- it also continues to make demands of the Pentagon. As of yesterday, I'm starting to get the sense that the Defense Department is getting a little tired of the GOP's panel's requests.
Committee Democrats issued a document this morning that's worth paying attention to.
Today, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Ranking Member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Rep. Adam Smith, the Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Adam Schiff, the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, released a letter from the Assistant Secretary of Defense to Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy exposing the latest abuses by Select Committee Republicans.
The three-page letter, which is available in its entirety online (pdf), is from Assistant Secretary of Defense Stephen C. Hedger, and was sent to Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) yesterday. In it, Hedger goes into quite a bit of detail noting the extent to which the Pentagon has already cooperated with the panel's request for materials and information, but the letter also suggests Gowdy and his Republican colleagues are ... what's the phrase I'm looking for ... pushing their luck.
The first sign of trouble came late last year. Donald Trump, during an MSNBC interview, was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin's habit of launching invasions and targeting critics. "He's running his country, and at least he's a leader," Trump replied, "unlike what we have in this country."
Reminded that Putin is accused of ordering the murder of journalists, Trump effectively said he doesn't actually believe the accusations and ultimately doesn't much care. "Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also," the Republican frontrunner said in December.
John Kasich's campaign soon after launched a Trump-Putin 2016 website, complete with the tagline, "Make Tyranny Great Again."
This week, New York's Jon Chait noticed that Trump's widely derided foreign-policy speech included an under-appreciated message about a possible friendly shift in Putin's direction.
The universal headline summary of Donald Trump's prepared foreign-policy speech yesterday was that it lacked details. Trump's campaign encouraged this conclusion by leaking in advance that it would contain few specifics, and media correctly primed to think of Trump as an ignorant blowhard covered it as such. But the speech, in fact, contained an important and somewhat-curious idea: The United States should form a closer relationship, even an alliance, with Russia.
If you missed the speech, the transcript bolsters the point. Trump believes, if elected, he will be able to ease "tensions" between Russia and the United States, "improve relations," and end "this horrible cycle of hostility." While the GOP candidate talked about all of the things he expects countries like China and Mexico to do to make a Trump administration happy, he made no comparable demands of Russia or its leaders.
Indeed, even while talking about "tensions" and "hostility" between Russia and the United States, Trump made no effort to even hint at who's ultimately responsible for the diplomatic strains.
The number of Republicans who are accidentally telling the truth about voter-ID laws continues to grow. Right Wing Watch reported yesterday:
Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator and Tea Party firebrand who is now the president of the Heritage Foundation, became the latest in a string of conservatives to admit that restrictive voting laws such as voter ID requirements are an attempt to help Republicans win elections, telling a St. Louis radio host yesterday that voter ID laws help elect "more conservative candidates."
At first, I thought DeMint might have been making a more general statement about the unintended effects of the policy, but a closer read points to intent.
The Republican senator-turned-activist initially complained during the radio interview about Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) restoring the voting rights of former felons, before insisting that Democrats are trying to have "illegals" vote for them.
But DeMint then turned to voter-ID laws. "[I]t's something we're working on all over the country because in the states where they do have voter ID laws you've seen, actually, elections begin to change towards more conservative candidates," he said.
In case anyone, including DeMint, needs a refresher, the line Republicans and proponents of voter-suppression tactics are supposed to take is that voter-ID policies have nothing to do with partisanship or affecting the outcome of elections, and everything to do with the integrity of the voting process. "We're not trying to disenfranchise Democrats," GOP officials say, "that's just the accidental byproduct of our policies."
The argument is obviously untrue, but at least in public, Republicans generally try to pretend that the talking points have merit.
Except that's not at all what DeMint said. Rather, the Heritage Foundation chief argued that the right is working on voter-ID policies across the country "because" these laws help elect conservatives.
It's one of those classic cases of someone making a mistake by accidentally telling the truth.
It's been about five months since the Obama administration took the historic step of opening all combat jobs to women. As Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at the time, "We cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half the country's talents and skills."
But as regular readers know, it wasn't long before the next logical question came up: if there are no gender-related restrictions on combat service, why is the selective-service system limited to young men? The top uniformed leaders from the Army and Marine Corps have already made the case that it's time for a change, too: there's no reason, they said, young women should be treated differently when it comes registering for a draft.
The ensuing debate has cut across lines in unexpected ways, with some prominent Republicans, including John McCain and Jeb Bush, endorsing equal treatment, while others, including Ted Cruz, have insisted the system must treat women differently.
All of this reached a new level on Capitol Hill this week, with an unexpected development in the House. NBC News reported:
Women would be required to register for the military draft under a House committee bill that comes just months after the Defense Department lifted all gender-based restrictions on front-line combat units.
A divided Armed Services Committee backed the provision in a sweeping defense policy bill that the full House will consider next month, touching off a provocative debate about the role of women in the military.
The funny part about all of this? The Republican author of the measure to require women to register for the draft opposes his own policy -- he brought it up to make a point, assuming his colleagues would vote against it, only to watch the whole scheme go sideways.
The Obama administration has already reduced the Guantanamo Bay prison population to 80 individuals, but the White House isn't done trying to reduce that total to zero. Under a recently released blueprint, the administration still intends to transfer some of the remaining detainees to U.S. facilities, including possibly the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
The state's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, was on Capitol Hill yesterday to make her case against any possible transfers, though her arguments were surprisingly weak. The Huffington Postreported:
It's "the city we call the holy city," "the number one vacation spot in the country," "the friendliest state in the union," "the most patriotic state in the Union," Haley told members of the House Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee. "Why would anyone want to put terrorists in Charleston?"
The South Carolina governor then switched to a more somber note. "We looked hate in the eye last year," she said, referring to the shooting by a white gunman, who killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston. "Our state is still recovering from that."
The governor may not have fully thought this one through. Haley was referring, of course, to the brutal mass shooting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston last year, which she and others characterized as an act of domestic terrorism. And yet, the shooter was arrested and locked up -- in a Charleston prison.
The terrorist's imprisonment hasn't affected the community's tourism, its patriotism, or its friendliness.
Indeed, one of the strangest things about Haley's argument is the extent to which it seems to be a case against having corrections facilities altogether. It's "the city we call the holy city," "the number one vacation spot in the country," "the friendliest state in the union," and "the most patriotic state in the Union." So why would anyone want to put murderers, rapists, and child molesters in Charleston?
But the governor stuck to her unpersuasive arguments anyway, insisting that "tourism and economic development would suffer" if even some prisoners were transferred to South Carolina facilities. The problem, of course, is that this argument has already been proven false.
Republican officials aren't at all pleased with the prevailing political winds, or the likelihood of Donald Trump becoming the party's presidential nominee. But they have at least one thing going for them: they have time to put together a plan to mitigate their losses.
With that in mind, the New York Timesreports today that GOP incumbents and candidates are shifting their focus to "ticket-splitting voters" who have no qualms about dividing up their election ballot, supporting Democratic and Republican candidates at the same time. The thinking, obviously, is predicated on the notion that at least some of the electorate might reject Trump at the top of the ballot, while also supporting GOP hopefuls down-ballot.
And while Republicans may not have any other choice but to pursue such a strategy, their challenge is exacerbated by the GOP plunging support. As Rachel noted on the show last night, the Pew Research Center published a striking new report yesterday:
The Republican Party's image, already quite negative, has slipped since last fall. Currently 33% of the public has a favorable impression of the Republican Party, while 62% have an unfavorable view. Unfavorable opinions of the GOP are now as high as at any point since 1992.
In October, 37% viewed the Republican Party favorably and 58% viewed it unfavorably. The decline in favorability since then has largely come among Republicans themselves: In the current survey, 68% of Republicans view their party positively, down from 79% last fall.
To add some perspective, note that in early 2009, Republicans were in deep trouble, with their unfavorable rating 15 points higher than their favorable rating. As bad as that seemed, now that gap has nearly doubled.
To be sure, Democrats aren't winning any popularity contests. Pew found Dems have 45% favorability rating, while 50% of respondents said they have an unfavorable opinion of the party. That's not great, but (a) it's significantly better than their GOP counterparts; and (b) it's at least been pretty stable in recent years. The Democratic numbers are roughly in line with where they were last year and the year before.
Republicans, on the other hand, have seen their support deteriorate in recent years, reaching their lowest point in nearly a quarter-century. Making matters worse, the GOP is underwater with women and men; whites, blacks, and Latinos; Americans of every age group; and voters of every level of education.
Adding insult to injury, much of the recent downward shift for the Republican Party is the result of GOP voters themselves saying they're not satisfied with the state of their own party.
With roughly six months remaining before Election Day, there's time for improvement, but no major party ever wants to find itself facing these conditions.