First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected approach to evangelism: Baptist leaders who believe giving away guns will help fill the pews.
The Kentucky Baptist Convention wants to "point people to Christ" by giving away guns at Second Amendment Celebrations hosted across the state.
In the words of spokesman Chuck McAlister the strategy is "outreach to rednecks," and 1,000 people are expected to attend the next event. To lure the nonreligious into the fold, the churches are offering a handgun, shotgun, or long gun as door prizes. Winners attend church for a photo-op with their new gun, but they must pass a background check before collecting their prize.
McAlister boasted that "unchurched men" in particular will show up because of the gun giveaways, which will in turn offer evangelism opportunities.
And it's not just in Kentucky. The Rev. John Koletas, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in upstate New York, is raffling off an AR-15 assault rifle at an upcoming service.
"We're honoring gun owners and hunters," Koletas told the New York Daily News. "And we're being a blessing and a help to people who have been attacked, viciously attacked, by socialists and anti-Christian people -- the politicians and the media."
Koletas is perhaps best known to locals as the pastor who's been arrested seven times "on disorderly conduct charges for loud and incessant street-corner preaching." In each instance, the charges were either dropped or dismissed.
During last month's unionization vote at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) intervened to a surprising degree. The senator's strong opposition to unions was hardly a secret, but Corker went further -- during the three-day voting process, the Republican lawmaker said he had secret knowledge that the VW plant would manufacture a new product line, but only if employees rejected a union.
Though it's difficult to know how much of an effect, if any, Corker's comments made on the outcome, the unionization vote was defeated two days later. Last week, the United Auto Workers cried foul, asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order a new election because of the interference from Corker and other GOP officials (some Republicans in the state legislature warned they would oppose future incentives for the plant if workers unionized).
Corker turned to the Wall Street Journal this week to characterize himself as the target of intimidation -- the United Auto Workers union, the senator argued, is trying to stifle his free speech.
Unfortunately, the UAW has chosen to ignore the employees' decision and has filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that elected officials like me should not be allowed to make public comments expressing our opinion and sharing information with our constituents. It is telling that the UAW complaint does not mention President Obama's public statement urging the employees to vote for the union.
If the National Labor Relations Board upholds these objections, it would be an unprecedented assault on free speech. In every similar case where a company has remained neutral in a union-election drive, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have voiced their opinions. The NLRB has ruled repeatedly that public officials have the right to make statements taking sides in a union election, and that those statements do not justify overturning the outcome of that election.
The point Corker seems reluctant to acknowledge is that he did more than just voice his opinion. If the senator and other Republican officials had said, loudly and firmly, that they hoped unionization would lose, the UAW would likely have a much weaker case.
But that's not what happened. Corker waited until voting was underway when he made a specific claim -- which flatly contradicted VW's stated position -- that seemed intended to influence the outcome of the election. Labor-law experts were "shocked" by the senator's brazenness.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) talked at some length with Andrea Mitchell this afternoon about the crisis in Ukraine, and the question of what steps, specifically, the senator would like to see the Obama administration take.
McCain didn't offer much in the way of foreign policy specifics, but he had a more general piece of advice: McCain wants President Obama to see Vladimir Putin the way McCain does.
"One is a fundamental understanding of Vladimir Putin. [Obama administration officials] have been near delusional in thinking the Cold War was over.
"Maybe the president thinks the Cold War is over, but Vladimir Putin doesn't. And that's what this is all about."
Later in the interview, McCain said about the limits of U.S. intervention, "I do not see a military option and it's tragic." (I'm going to hope the senator meant the crisis is a tragedy, not the fact that the U.S. won't intervene in the crisis with military force.)
With the Obama administration already taking many of the same steps congressional Republicans want him to take, it's not too surprising that McCain would many the shift from specific criticism to vague suggestions about perceptions.
But it's this notion of U.S. officials being "near delusional" about the end of the Cold War that's problematic.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is having a very unfortunate week. Worse, nearly all of the trouble relates to one issue -- the one he claims to be his signature issue.
Graham's week started with a Sunday-show appearance in which the senator condemned President Obama's handling of the crisis in Ukraine in a way that just didn't make much sense. It got worse when Graham decided tried to connect Ukraine and Benghazi in a way even conservatives found ridiculous, and then struggled to explain what in the world he was talking about.
Yesterday, Graham made matters worse in his criticisms of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.) bill to address sexual assaults within the U.S. military by shifting prosecutorial responsibilities from commanders to prosecutors.
"If you've got a rape in the barracks, the worst thing that can happen in a unit is for the commander to say, 'This is no longer my problem,'" Graham said.
He added, "This is about liberal people wanting to gut the military justice system. Social engineering run amok."
His characterization of Gillibrand's proposal is hard to take seriously on any substantive level. But let's also not forget that Gillibrand's bill picked up support from 11 Republican senators, including Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and David Vitter (R-La.).
Does Graham really see this group as "liberal people" out to "gut the military justice system"?
After Congress changed food-stamp funding, a couple of Democratic blue-state governors -- Connecticut's Dannel Malloy and New York's Andrew Cuomo -- acted fairly quickly to mitigate the damage. Yesterday, an unexpected third governor joined the club.
As Laura Clawson recently explained, Congress changed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, mostly targeting blue states through a provision called "heat and eat," creating new vulnerabilities for those relying on aid.
Few expected Pennsylvania to follow in Connecticut's and New York's footsteps, but it did.
In a move that surprised even his most cynical critics, Gov. Corbett on Wednesday night forestalled an estimated $3 billion in cuts to food stamps in the state over the next 10 years.
By doing so, Corbett became the first Republican governor in the country to prevent the cuts ordered by Congress, which is looking to slash $8.6 billion over the next decade to the food-stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
The governor's decision will preserve benefits for 400,000 Pennsylvania households slated to lose a monthly average of $60 to $65 each in benefits, amounting to $300 million a year, said Kait Gillis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare.
Some political cynicism is understandable. It's an election year and polls show Corbett struggling. The governor hasn't exactly been a friend to food-stamp beneficiaries -- it wasn't long ago that Corbett connected SNAP eligibility to asset tests -- so his critics can be forgiven for thinking this latest move is more the result of electoral desperation than genuine compassion.
But for beneficiaries, the governor's motivations won't really matter, and for progressive politics in general, it's a good sign when Republicans in trouble feel the need to move unexpectedly to the left in the hopes of becoming more popular.
It wasn't easy, but after some fits and starts, New Hampshire is now on its way to joining the half of the country that embraces Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
After more than two hours of debate and three failed attempts by opponents to amend the bill, the New Hampshire Senate yesterday voted, 18-5, to expand the state Medicaid program.
Seven Republicans, including Senate President Chuck Morse of Salem, joined the entire Democratic Senate caucus in supporting the legislation. [...]
The bill goes next to the House Finance Committee on Monday. The Democratic majority there is supportive of the bill, as is Gov. Maggie Hassan, who would have to sign it before the state can begin submitting necessary paperwork to federal agencies.
The legislative breakthrough comes on the heels of six months of debate, failed votes, and negotiations. Note, the state Senate has a Republican majority, which was not initially pleased with the idea.
The New Hampshire policy comes with a few caveats. For one thing, it relies on the so-called "private option," similar to the one embraced in Arkansas and Iowa, which uses Medicaid money to subsidize private coverage for those just above the poverty line.
Also of particular interest is the fact that the New Hampshire policy isn't necessarily permanent -- the measure approved by the state Senate yesterday would expire in 2016, when the federal government's contribution to Medicaid expansion dips below 100%. At that point, state officials would have to reauthorize the policy and decided whether to cut off coverage for those participating in the program.
Still, in the meantime, this policy is on track to bring coverage to about 58,000 low-income New Hampshirites, at least for the next few years, at which point the state will presumably find it difficult to start kicking struggling families to the curb.
While this is clearly a heartening development for proponents of health care access, there's also a political context to keep in mind.
Even before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) got underway yesterday, it appeared the right had a diversity problem. Of the 25 confirmed speakers scheduled to take the big stage, 22 are men. What's more, 19 are white.
But the underlying issue looked even worse after the event got underway. Brookings' John Hudak published a fascinating report.
Thursday afternoon, CPAC hosted a panel on GOP outreach into minority communities. The panel included Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie and a panel of Republican political strategists: Jason Roe, Elroy Sailor, and Robert Woodson. The panel delivered a remarkably pointed review of GOP voter outreach (largely its failures) and explained, in very straightforward terms, how the party can (and must) do better.
However, the most revealing part of the experience was not what happened on stage, but what happened off stage, and reflects the national electoral struggles Republicans are facing.
He tweeted a photograph of a nearly-empty ballroom, filled with empty chairs. I initially thought Hudak had snapped the picture before the session had begun in earnest, but the shot actually captured the attendance 10 minutes into the discussion.
In other words, CPAC organized a panel on minority outreach -- an ongoing problem for the Republican Party and its base -- and few thought the subject was worth their time.
Hudak added, "If the attendance pictured above reflects the party's future approach to diversity outreach, it is probably safe to say that for some the given future, the White House will be a solid hue of deep blue."
About four years ago in Nevada, Sue Lowden appeared to be well on her way to becoming a U.S. senator. The wealthy Republican ran into a little trouble, though, about a month after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.
Lowden argued that health care reform wasn't altogether necessary because she remembered, as a young person, when families would "barter" and "haggle" with medical professionals. In one especially problematic comment, the Senate hopeful said, "You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor."
Her candidacy collapsed soon after.
I thought of Lowden yesterday after seeing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) at CPAC.
In a mid-day address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal fondly recalled how his own birth was paid for in a pre-Obamacare era.
"My dad shook hands with the doctor," said Jindal. "And he said to that doctor, 'I'm going to pay you in full. I'm going to pay you every month as much as I can' ... And that's exactly what they did." Jindal added, "No contracts. No paperwork. No government program. Just two guys in a hospital in Baton Rouge, shaking hands."
Jindal presumably knows a little something about health care systems -- he was a prominent official in the Bush/Cheney Department of Health and Human Services -- which makes it all the more curious that he sees "healthcare for handshakes" as a viable model.
It's not. If a struggling family has high medical bills, it doesn't have the option of telling a hospital, "I'll pay as much as I can every month and you'll just have to be satisfied with that. Let's shake on it." Medical professionals and facilities have their own bills to pay, and well-meaning handshakes won't keep the doors open. Medical care, tests, equipment, exams, and treatments save lives every day, but they're not free. Sometimes "paperwork" and "programs" are necessary to keep the system functioning for all involved.