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Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee delivers remarks during the 41st Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md. on March 7, 2014. (Photo by Shawn Thew/EPA)

This Week in God, 1.31.15

01/31/15 08:52AM

First up from the God Machine this week is former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a near-certain Republican presidential candidate, offering his unique explanation for gun violence in schools.
During a speech earlier this month at televangelist Morris Cerullo's annual conference, Mike Huckabee said that school shootings wouldn't take place if public schools organized daily prayers, religious assemblies, Bible readings and "chapel services."
 
"Because we were bringing Bibles to school, people weren't bringing guns to school, except for the deer hunters who left them in their trucks," Huckabee said.
"The Gideons would give us Bibles," he added, referencing some bygone era, "and nobody got arrested, nobody got sued -- and by the way, nobody got hurt, either."
 
If this seems vaguely familiar, Huckabee, literally the same day as the Sandy Hook massacre two years ago, used his Fox News platform to immediately blame the slayings on court rulings upholding church-state separation.
 
The obvious problem with rhetoric like this is that Huckabee supports a big-government solution -- having the state force religion on public-school children -- which flagrantly ignores the First Amendment.
 
But there are some less obvious problems, too. For example, whether Huckabee knows this or not, gun violence in schools pre-dates Supreme Court rulings on school neutrality towards religion. For that matter, under existing law, Bibles aren't prohibited in public schools at all -- literally every student in America is free to bring religious texts to school if he or she chooses.
 
Taking a step further, Huckabee seems to believe the mere presence of religious materials will prevent wrongdoing. By this reasoning, there's no sinning going on in hotel rooms because there are Bibles in the nightstand. And no one steals money anymore because Congress added "In God We Trust" to U.S. currency in the 1950s.
 
To be sure, addressing gun violence is a complex issue that won't be solved easily, but if pastor/politician Mike Huckabee sees government-backed religion as a credible solution, he doesn't understand the issue nearly as well as he thinks he does.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

Friday's Mini-Report, 1.30.15

01/30/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* ISIS: "Exploiting a foggy night as cover, Islamic State militants launched a surprise attack on Iraqi Kurdish positions on the outskirts of Kirkuk early Friday, killing a senior Kurdish commander and at least five of his men, security officials in the city said."
 
* Middle East: "The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah said on Friday his group did not want war with Israel but was ready for one, and reserved the right to respond to Israeli attacks any time, anywhere."
 
* Afghanistan: "The Taliban claimed responsibility on Friday for the deadly shooting of three American private contractors at an airport in the Afghan capital. U.S. officials said Thursday that the three contractors and one Afghan national were killed by an Afghan soldier on the military side of Kabul's international airport."
 
* Good advice: "Parents should listen to public health officials who encourage vaccination, the White House said Friday amid reports that hundreds of people in Arizona may have been exposed to the measles virus. 'Being guided by the science in matters like this is typically the right approach,' White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, adding that research 'certainly' indicates parents should vaccinate their children."
 
* Pennsylvania: "State Treasurer Rob McCord said Thursday that he was stepping down after six years in office, as signs emerged that he is under scrutiny by federal authorities. Investigators have been asking about McCord's campaign fund-raising in recent months, according to several sources close to the examination."
 
* Awful news out of Mississippi: "Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who has been absent from Capitol Hill for the majority of the past year after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in the spring, was moved to home hospice care in Tupelo on Jan. 26, according to a source with knowledge of the Mississippi Republican's condition."
Florida Coast Line At Greatest Risk Of Rising Sea Level

Obama admin takes aim at rising sea levels

01/30/15 04:40PM

As the climate crisis has intensified, researchers have warned repeatedly in recent years about the consequences of rising sea levels. Those warnings took a turn earlier this month when scholars, relying on new measurement methods, pointed to evidence that sea levels have risen "dramatically faster over the last two decades than anyone had known."
 
Today, Juliet Eilperin reports that the Obama administration is taking new steps to incorporate rising sea levels into all federal projects.
President Obama will issue an executive order Friday directing federal agencies -- as well as state and local governments drawing on federal funds -- to adopt stricter building and siting standards to reflect scientific projections that future flooding will be more frequent and intense due to climate change.
 
The order, described by senior administration officials, represents a major shift for the federal government: while the Federal Emergency Management Administration published a memo three years ago saying it would take global warming into account when preparing for more severe storms, most agencies continue to rely on historic data rather than future projections for building projects.
Historic data, of course, is of far less value because it wouldn't reflect the growing warming crisis.
 
The Washington Post's report added that the administration's new approach "gives agencies three options for establishing the flood elevation and hazard area they use in siting, design and construction of federal projects. They can use data and methods 'informed by best-available, actionable climate science'; build two feet above the 100-year flood elevation for standard projects and three feet above for critical buildings such as hospitals and evacuation centers; or build to the 500-year flood elevation."
 
The executive order comes a month after a U.S. Geological Survey report highlighted the alarming fact that sea levels "are rising three-to-four times faster along parts of the U.S. east coast than they are globally."
 
As for the right, it seems likely Republicans will be unhappy with today's policy announcement. Indeed, conservative hostility towards sea-level evidence has grown more belligerent in recent years.
Republican Senator Rand Paul speaks during an event in Washington, D.C. on June 20, 2014. (Photo by Drew Angerer/EPA)

Rand Paul on Disabilities, Take Two

01/30/15 04:01PM

A couple of weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) raised a few eyebrows by complaining about Americans receiving disability benefits. "Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club," the senator said at a New Hampshire event. "Who doesn't get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts? Everybody over 40 has a little back pain."
 
Since I took note of Paul's comments, it's only fair to also mention that the senator's office has since elaborated on the same point. Whether or not he's made things better or worse is a matter of perspective.
Paul spokesman Brian Darling pointed to two data points -- 27.7 percent of disabled beneficiaries are diagnosed as having ailments related to "Musculoskeletal system and connective tissue" and that 14 percent have "mood disorders." That adds up to 42 percent, he noted. (There's also nearly 4 percent who cite injuries, which presumably could cover back injuries.)
Obviously, quibbling over the difference between "over half" and "42 percent" seems unnecessary. Indeed, if the only problem with Paul's comment was arithmetic, this would hardly be worth highlighting.
 
But there's a far more substantive concern here. At his campaign stop, Paul referenced anxiety as effectively meaningless -- practically everyone, he said, gets "a little anxious for work every day." His office, however, pointed to "mood disorders," which as Glenn Kessler's report explained, refers to the part of the population that suffers from "conditions like bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder)."
 
The senator seemed to think this was some kind of punchline, as if those with bipolar disorder just get "a little anxious" before leaving for work.
 
Or more to the point, Paul seems to believe that those dealing with severe mental health issues are necessarily undeserving of disability benefits -- or as he put it at the time, "gaming the system."
A general view of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, Dec. 30, 2014. (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)

With the high court's help, GOP welcomes healthcare chaos

01/30/15 12:44PM

Occasionally, congressional Republicans have said American families need not panic about the outcome of the King v. Burwell case at the Supreme Court. Even if the ridiculous far-right argument prevails, GOP officials have said, policymakers will make sure everything works out all right.
 
The message, for the most part, seemed directed at the Supreme Court justices themselves. "Go ahead and gut the Affordable Care Act," Republicans signaled to the court. "Well make sure the consequences aren't too severe."
 
The posture was a lie. We're reminded this morning that if GOP justices on the high court are worried about societal effects and the real-world impact of the King v. Burwell case, they should know that Republicans in Congress will welcome chaos, sit back, and watch the American health care system burn.
Congressional Republicans say they won't move to preserve consumers' health insurance tax credits if the Supreme Court strikes them down, raising the stakes in the latest legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act. [...]
 
Leaders in the GOP-controlled House and Senate see the court challenge as their best hope for tearing apart a law they have long opposed. If the court strikes down the subsidies, Democrats are expected to clamor for lawmakers to pass a measure correcting the language in the law to revive them. Congressional Republicans say there is no possibility they would allow that.
Remember, as far as the public is concerned, a clear majority of Americans would expect the Republican Congress to protect consumers from hardship. Indeed, Greg Sargent this week flagged the latest report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that nearly two-thirds of Americans would expect lawmakers to keep existing subsidies in place if the Supreme Court ruling goes the wrong way. Only a fourth of the country would expect Congress to do nothing.
 
The same report found that even most Republicans support states setting up exchange marketplaces so that families can continue to receive subsidized access to medical care. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what GOP policymakers have in mind.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 1.30.15

01/30/15 12:00PM

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:
 
* Jeb Bush's burgeoning presidential operation picked up David Kochel yesterday, who ran Mitt Romney's Iowa operations in 2008 and 2012. It suggests the former Florida governor is expected to make a real effort in the Hawkeye State, despite low expectations.
 
* Two Texas Republicans are likely to run for the White House this year -- former Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz -- but the chairman of the Texas Republican Party has joined Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) team. Steve Munisteri is perhaps best known for his role in creating a ridiculously right-wing Texas GOP platform.
 
* Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) hasn't officially announced his 2016 plans, but there doesn't appear to be much doubt about his likely presidential plans. The far-right Floridian skipped the Senate's vote on the Keystone pipeline yesterday in order to travel to California for a PAC fundraiser. Rubio was the only Republican to miss the vote on the top GOP priority.
 
* Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), a probable presidential candidate, pulled the plug yesterday on the "Just IN" state-run media operation.
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the Republican National Committee winter meetings in San Diego, Calif. on Jan. 16, 2015.   (Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)

Third time won't be the charm for Romney

01/30/15 11:30AM

Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) hasn't been shy about his intentions. The two-time failed presidential candidate has spent several weeks acting like a 2016 aspirant, talking like a 2016 aspirant, and telling supporters he'll soon become a 2016 aspirant. Sources close to Romney told reporters it was a matter of "when," not "if."
 
And yet, many of us kept asking ourselves the same question: "Romney's not actually going to do this again, is he?" Those lingering doubts, we learned this morning, were correct.
Romney has spoken to supporters on a conference call, reading a statement explaining his decision. "It is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee," he said. "I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee. In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case."
Today's announcement brings the Republican full circle. Remember, Romney swore up and down he would not join the 2016 field, saying as recently as September, "[M]y time has come and gone. I had that opportunity. I ran, I didn't win. Now it's time for someone else to pick up the baton."
 
At one point last year, asked about a third attempt, Romney's exact words were, "Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no. People are always gracious and say, 'Oh, you should run again.' I'm not running again."
 
More recently, he apparently changed his mind, moving closer to the race, only to change it once more, closing the door this morning.
 
Let's unpack this morning's big news with a little Q&A.
The sun begins to rise behind the dome of the US Capitol that is covered in scafollding for repairs, on Nov. 4, 2014 in Washington, DC.

GOP struggles with phony deficit pretense

01/30/15 10:08AM

The perception of the Republican Party as the anti-deficit party used to be 100% true. A couple of generations ago, the GOP actually saw the deficit as a legitimate concern, and shaped their policy agenda accordingly. During the Eisenhower era, Republicans kept very high tax rates in place, first approved to pay for WWII, in the name of fiscal conservativism. Many Republicans balked at JFK's tax breaks out of fear of higher deficits.
 
Obviously, those eras are long gone. The GOP's shift began in earnest under Reagan, but became almost ridiculous under George W. Bush -- an era in which Republicans put the cost of two wars, a Wall Street bailout, massive tax cuts, and Medicare expansion on the national charge card for some future generation to worry about.
 
But once the Obama era began, GOP leaders decided they cared about the deficit again. It was impossible to take seriously -- we're talking about literally the same people who ignored the deficit in the previous decade -- but Republicans actively pretended they had both credibility and genuine concerns about budget shortfalls.
 
It's hard not to notice, however, that much of the new congressional Republican agenda has a common thread. See if you notice what these measures have in common. On health care:
A Republican bill to change how Obamacare defines a full work-week would raise the deficit by $53.2 billion over the next decade.
The official budget scorekeeper of Congress says the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks, would increase Medicaid costs by as much as $400 million.... CBO officially estimates that the bill increases federal deficits by $75 million between 2014 and 2018, and $225 million between 2014 and 2023.
Senate Democrats threatened Thursday to block action on legislation funding the Homeland Security Department until Republicans jettison House-passed provisions that reverse President Barack Obama's key immigration policies.... The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the measure would increase the federal deficit by $7.5 billion over a decade.
How would Republicans prevent these proposals from increasing the deficit? With offsetting cuts? Higher taxes? Neither, actually -- GOP lawmakers are content to approve their priorities regardless of the impact on the budget shortfall.
Texas State Capital

Texas protests mark disheartening week for pluralism

01/30/15 09:15AM

When it comes to respecting diversity in a pluralistic society, this was an unusually discouraging week on many fronts, but one story in particular stood out in a disheartening way.
 
This was a week in which we saw a white county official in Virginia refer to a black newspaper reporter as "boy." It was a week in which a Republican on the Nebraska Board of Education refused to resign after calling President Obama a "half-breed" and railing against "queers and perverts." It was a week in which South Dakota police identified one of the men accused of pouring beer on and shouting racial slurs at Native American children at a hockey game.
 
And it was a week in which we saw this story out of Texas.
A Republican representative of the Lone Star State had a very specific message for Muslims visiting her office on Texas Muslim Capitol Day: Declare allegiance to the United States and "renounce Islamic terrorist groups."
 
In recess with the House until Monday, State Rep. Molly White wrote on her Facebook page that she left instructions with her employees on how to greet Muslim visitors. "I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws. We will see how long they stay in my office," White wrote on Thursday morning.
The local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations specifically organized the Texas Muslim Capitol Day event in Austin yesterday, which brought roughly 100 participants to the Capitol, and which apparently prompted state Rep. Molly White  (R) to be about as insulting as possible to the participating Texans.
 
Elsewhere on the Capitol grounds, Texas Muslims faced more belligerence.

Economic growth moderates in fourth quarter

01/30/15 08:46AM

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 little disappointing, but it's not the final word on the subject.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus speaks at the annual RNC winter meeting January 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.

RNC has a decision to make about Israel trip

01/30/15 08:00AM

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.
Obama whets veto pen on Keystone passage

Obama whets veto pen on Keystone passage

01/29/15 09:55PM

Rachel Maddow reports on the passage in the Senate of a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a bill President Obama has promised to veto. Completion of the Keystone vote allows the Senate to take up the Clay Hunt Act, previously blocked by Tom Coburn. watch

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