It's been about a week since Jeb Bush told Fox News that he would have launched the war in Iraq, even if he knew then what he knows now, touching off a renewed debate about the calamitous conflict and the degree to which Republicans understand the scope of the failed invasion. Not surprisingly, the question Bush struggled to answer became the new GOP litmus test.
And in some ways, that's a good thing. Over the course of a presidential campaign, there's real value in having White House hopefuls -- in both parties -- talk about the biggest foreign policy and national security fiasco in a generation. Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) cringe-worthy incoherence on the subject yesterday, for example, told voters something important -- about his preparedness, about his depth of understanding, and about his flawed judgment.
But more valuable still would be better answers to better questions.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) talked to the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin late last week, and when asked the "if you knew then..." question, the Republican governor offered a striking response:
"Any president would have likely taken the same action [President George W.] Bush did with the information he had, even Hillary Clinton voted for it, but knowing what we know now, we should not have gone into Iraq."
Walker quickly pivoted to blaming President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for not stabilizing Iraq enough to satisfy Republicans after the failed Bush/Cheney war destabilized the entire Middle East.
But the notion that any president, given the information Bush had, would have "taken the same action," is demonstrably ridiculous. Indeed, the absurdity of Walker's line is a reminder of how flawed last week's debate really was -- as if the argument can be narrowed to those who believe Iraq had WMD and those who didn't.
Reality paints a very different picture. Indeed, as informative as it's been to see leading GOP candidates struggle mightily with the obvious question, the problem is the question itself lets Republicans off the hook in ways it shouldn't.
Cruz said that the fights over "religious freedom" laws in Indiana and Arkansas were "heartbreaking" examples of how the Democratic Party has "gotten so extreme and so radical in its devotion to mandatory gay marriage that they've decided there's no room for the religious liberty protected under the First Amendment."
It remains a deeply odd perspective. For one thing, there's nothing "extreme" or "radical" about support for marriage equality -- it's already legal in most of the country and a clear majority of Americans already support the idea. If anyone's taking the "extreme" view in the debate, such as it is, it's Cruz.
For that matter, the notion that proponents of equal-marriage rights will scrap religious freedom altogether is very hard to take seriously. The right-wing senator is probably referring to his concerns about business owners being able to discriminate against gay customers, but as Cruz probably knows, that's really not what "freedom of religion" is all about.
But then there's that other phrase the Texas Republican keeps using.
When violence erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, it was a multi-faceted crisis, but one of the details many Americans found surprising was the militarization of local law enforcement. As the unrest grew more serious, we saw images of police officers relying on weapons of war when confronting civilians.
And for a brief while, it seemed like action on the issue was at least possible. As we talked about at the time, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) chaired a Senate hearing in September on police militarization, and even some Republicans endorsed reforms to the Pentagon's "1033" program. In the House, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) drafted legislation.
But as is often the case, Congress' attention span was limited; the Ebola virus began to dominate the political world's attention; and police groups lobbied lawmakers to back off. The debate effectively vanished.
The White House, however, did not forget about the issue, and as msnbc's Trymaine Lee reports, President Obama will unveil today "a ban on the transfer of some types of military weapons to local police departments."
The ban is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to ease tensions between police and communities of color across the country, including Ferguson and Baltimore, theaters of unrest following the deaths of unarmed black men killed by police. [...]
The new restrictions are being rolled out as a policing task force. A 116-page report will urge the country's police agencies to "embrace a guardian -- rather than a warrior-- mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public."
According to White House materials released this morning, the banned items include armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and .50-caliber ammunition. As NBC News' report added that if local police departments "want other, less-imposing military equipment, local law enforcement agencies will have to submit to stringent federal oversight and restrictions."
Late last year, much of the political press was unimpressed with a series of book events Hillary Clinton hosted, prompting chatter that in the years since her last campaign, the Democrats may have lost many of her political skills. Campaign analyst Charlie Cook, comparing her to a baseball pitcher past his or her prime, said Clinton may have "lost her fastball."
Around the same time, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said of Clinton, "She's not really good at politics."
Six months later, we're hearing very similar rhetoric, but it's not directed at the former Secretary of State. Rather, it's Jeb Bush whose ineptitude has raised questions about his competence as a national candidate. BuzzFeed reported on Friday, "In interviews with more than half a dozen Republican foreign policy hands and veterans of the George W. Bush administration, the reaction to Jeb's dithering on Iraq ranged from disappointment to disbelief."
Politicoadded that "many" Bush supporters "are getting jittery because he appeared ill-equipped to appreciate and manage the demands of the modern-day, 24-hour news cycle."
There's some evidence, however, that the former Florida governor believes he can get back on track by shifting his focus to the culture war. Drew Katchen reported for msnbc over the weekend on Bush suddenly stressing his opposition to marriage equality.
Speaking during an interview with The Brody File on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Bush, whom BuzzFeed dubbed "2016's Gay-Friendly Republican,' called traditional marriage 'a sacrament.'
"To imagine how we are going to succeed in our country unless we have committed family life, a child-centered family system is hard to imagine," he told David Brody. "So, irrespective of the Supreme Court ruling ... because they are going to decide whatever they decide, I don't know what they are going to do, we need to be stalwart supporters of traditional marriage."
For context, the Christian Broadcasting Network was created by right-wing TV preacher Pat Robertson, whose "700 Club" program still airs on the channel.
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:
* Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) confirmed this morning that he'll officially announce his presidential plans on June 1.
* At a campaign event over the weekend, Graham told a group of Iowa Republicans, "If I'm president of the United States and you're thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL, I'm not gonna call a judge. I'm gonna call a drone and we will kill you."
* Though there were reports last week that Jeb Bush might skip the Iowa caucuses altogether and focus his resources elsewhere, the former Florida governor made clear over the weekend that he intends to compete in the nation's first GOP presidential caucus.
* Rep. Loretta Sanchez's (D) Senate campaign in California is off to a very rough start. Early last week, there were contradictory messages about her campaign's launch, and late last week, Sanchez used a racially charged gesture while referencing Native American Indians. It took a couple of days, but the congresswoman apologized yesterday.
* Republican insiders are reportedly "dismayed" by Hillary Clinton's "durability" as a national candidate. The Washington Postreported that "months of relentless, negative press coverage" hasn't affected the Democrat's ratings much, which in turn is giving GOP insiders "a serious scare."
* In Kentucky's Republican gubernatorial primary, Hal Heiner had largely ignored allegations that rival James Comer abused his college girlfriend, but Heiner changed his mind late last week, launching a new attack ad about the controversy. The primary is tomorrow.
At his official presidential campaign kickoff two weeks ago, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said Americans face "threats of an electromagnetic pulse from an exploded device that could fry the entire electrical grid and take this country back to the Stone Age in a matter of minutes."
On the campaign trail over the weekend, Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson said largely the same thing.
"The other thing that worries me significantly is EMP -- electro-magnetic pulse.... [T]here have been mentions by North Korea, China, and Russia about using such techniques, so it's not out of the question. And what could happen? Particularly with an electric grid that is outdated?"
The retired right-wing neurosurgeon did not, for the record, endorse President Obama's call for infrastructure investments in improved, smart-grid technology. Maybe that'll come later.
It's often difficult to know which issues will be deemed important by Republican presidential candidates, but this EMP talk is a little unexpected. As we talked about after Huckabee's reference, fears of weapons with electromagnetic pulses are often a very big deal in right-wing circles. WorldNetDaily, the fringe conspiracy-theory website, has published "dozens of articles over the years warning its readers of an impending attack on the U.S. – possibly by Iran, North Korea, or Cuba – with an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon that could leave '9 out of 10 Americans dead.'"
One of the more interesting things about Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) is his unusual electoral history. In 2010, the New Hampshire Republican faced off against then-Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) and won, but the two faced off again in 2012 and this time Guinta came up short. They had a re-rematch in 2014, which Guinta won. He'll probably face Shea-Porter for the fourth consecutive cycle next year.
That is, if he's still in Congress. The Boston Globereported the other day on the GOP congressman getting caught up in a campaign-finance scandal, which has suddenly left him without many friends.
After five years of denying wrongdoing, Guinta was found by the Federal Election Commission to have accepted $355,000 in illegal contributions from his parents. He has said the money he used for his first congressional campaign was also his, but now Guinta must refund the full sum to his parents and pay a $15,000 fine.
But it gets worse. On Friday, the conservative publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader ran a six-word editorial with his picture: "Frank Guinta is a damned liar." The state's highest-ranking Republican, US Senator Kelly Ayotte, described the incident as "serious and troubling." Former US Representative Jeb Bradley, a Republican who once employed Guinta on his staff, said Guinta "is on a pretty lonely island" these days.
As a rule, "damned liar" is one of those phrases politicians try to avoid.
The underlying campaign-finance controversy isn't especially complicated. In 2010, looking to boost his campaign, Guinta loaned himself $355,000, which wouldn't have been particularly controversial, except for the fact that his disclosure forms suggested he didn't have $355,000. He said at the time it was from a previously unreported bank account and amended his financial disclosure forms.
When pressed on whether he received the money from his parents, Guinta repeatedly denied the allegation. The FEC, which only seems able to act on the most brazen irregularities, found that the Republican lawmaker did, in fact, receive the money from his parents, which Guinta now justifies by saying he'd put his own money over the years into his parents' account -- so he considered it his money.
Yesterday, the Union Leader, arguably the most conservative newspaper in New England, called on Guinta to resign.
Back in February, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) insisted the United States must "aggressively ... take the fight to ISIS" and demonstrate that "we're willing to take appropriate action" against terrorist targets. It led ABC's Martha Raddatz to ask Walker, "You don't think 2,000 air strikes is taking it to ISIS in Syria and Iraq?" The governor didn't answer.
It was part of a familiar, months-long pattern: the more President Obama launched military offenses against ISIS targets in the Middle East, the more Republicans pretended those strikes weren't happening.
This is, oddly enough, still happening. Over the weekend, Walker told a Republican audience in Iowa that Americans "need a commander-in-chief" who'll "act" on the terrorist threat. At the same event, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) questioned why the president isn't doing more to target terrorist leaders. The governor challenged Obama to "do his job" and "hunt down and kill these terrorists."
It seemed as if Walker and Jindal had absolutely no idea what had transpired less than 24 hours earlier. NBC News reported over the weekend:
U.S. Special Operations Forces killed a senior leader of ISIS overnight Friday during a rare and risky ground raid in Syria and freed a young woman who was enslaved in his compound, the White House announced Saturday.
American Delta Force commandos took off from northern Iraq in Blackhawk helicopters and Osprey aircraft, going deep into ISIS-controlled territory with no allies on the ground. Their target, SIS leader Abu Sayyaf, did not go down quietly. [...] Twelve enemy fighters were killed in the operation, while no American forces were hurt, U.S. officials said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the strike "picture perfect."
That said, the news was far less encouraging yesterday. NBC News reported overnight:
The fact that far-right groups are going after Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign is the most predictable thing in the world. What's less predictable, however, is how conservatives are deliberately going after the Democratic frontrunner from the left. The New York Times had an interesting report on this over the weekend:
For months now, [a conservative group called America Rising PAC] has sent out a steady stream of posts on social media attacking Mrs. Clinton, some of them specifically designed to be spotted, and shared, by liberals.... As they are read and shared, an anti-Clinton narrative is reinforced.
America Rising is not the only conservative group attacking Mrs. Clinton from the left. Another is American Crossroads, the group started by Karl Rove, which has been sending out its own digital content, including one ad using a speech Ms. Warren gave at the New Populism Conference in Washington last May.
Obviously, the Crossroads operation does not agree with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) -- about economic populism or anything else -- but Republicans believe they can use unsuspecting liberals to advance the right's broader goals.
Groups like America Rising and American Crossroads believe, with good reason, that Hillary Clinton has plenty of critics and skeptics among liberal activists. For the right, the goal at this stage of the race is to exploit those divisions, drive a wedge into the progressive cause, and prevent the left from coalescing around the likely Democratic nominee.
To be sure, in most instances, no matter how hostile liberal constituencies may be towards Clinton, these same activists are far more opposed to right-wing organizations, and the left has no interest in being used as pawns by conservative groups.
For much of the year to date, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) stumbled so badly on foreign policy, it rattled confidence in his presidential candidacy.
When he said union-busting and the Boy Scouts helped prepare him to lead on national security, it seemed as if Walker may not be up to the job. When he said Reagan firing air-traffic controllers was "the most significant foreign policy decision" of his lifetime, it seemed Walker didn't even understand what "foreign policy" means as an issue.
Last month, President Obama called the Wisconsin governor out by name, telling NPR that Walker's views might be more sensible "after he's taken some time to bone up on foreign policy." Even Walker's allies struggled to defend him -- the best Bill Kristol could come up with was dismissing the governor's missteps as rookie errors committed during "spring training."
To his credit, Walker recognized the degree to which he had a problem, and did something about it -- in March, the GOP governor started receiving a "crash course" in international affairs. Soon after, the unannounced candidate was eager to show off some of the basics he'd learned.
But yesterday, there was a reminder that Walker's tutorials aren't necessarily going well. On "Face the Nation," CBS's Bob Schieffer whether he still thinks Reagan firing air-traffic controllers is "the most significant foreign policy statement of your lifetime." Walker stuck to the same ridiculous line.
"I came of age during the Reagan administration. I was I think I believe just turned 13 two days before his election in 1980. And for me, looking at that kind of leadership, he set the tone, not just domestically with that action; he sent a message around the world as -- as you just read off, I think not only to our allies, this is -- was someone who was serious that that could be trusted. But in combination with our adversaries, they sent a clear message, not to mess with him."
Walker first embraced this line in February, before repeating it in March. It still doesn't make any sense.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) dominated much of the 2016 discussion last week, and for good reason. His inability to speak coherently about his brother's disastrous war in Iraq -- the Florida Republican offered four different answers over the course of four days, none of which was especially compelling -- left the ostensible frontrunner looking confused, unprepared, and incompetent.
All of this was excellent news, of course, for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), not just because Bush is a prominent rival for the GOP presidential nomination, but also because Bush's high-profile stumbles largely overshadowed Rubio's own ineptitude on the same issue.
But as msnbc's Anna Brand reported yesterday, Rubio's clumsiness on his signature issue is starting to catch up with him.
The same Iraq question that Jeb Bush struggled to answer on four different occasions was posed to GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio on Sunday -- and it wasn't any easier for the senator.
Through a tangled interview, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked the "question of the week," as he put it to Rubio: "Given what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq in 2003?"
We'll talk more later about the propriety of the question itself, but for now, the line of inquiry is especially significant to Rubio because he, like Jeb Bush, has offered contradictory responses.
As Chris Wallace noted on the air, Rubio said in March that the Iraq war was worth fighting, but then said last week that he wouldn't have launched the war if he'd known so much of the intelligence was wrong. It left the impression that the far-right senator believes this was a good, worthwhile war, which he wouldn't have fought with the benefit of hindsight.
Rubio also said last week that George W. Bush wouldn't have launched the invasion if he'd known Iraq didn't have WMD, a claim contradicted by Bush himself.
Confronted with the contradictions yesterday, Rubio seemed lost. The video of the whole exchange is online, but this stood out for me as the key part:
Next time you feel there are too many clouds hanging over you, you may be right. A new composite image of Earth taken by NASA's Aqua Satellite indicates that, on average, 67 percent of our planet is covered with clouds.
Aqua is part of NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS), which consists of multiple satellites observing long-term global changes of land, atmosphere and oceans. Aqua's mission focuses on our planet's water cycle: evaporation, precipitation, ice and snow cover, etc. Aqua has a Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument aboard that collected the data the latest cloud map. That data was averaged over 10 years of cloud observations from July 2002 to April 2015.
It's fascinating how easily you can see where clouds gather and where they don't. Look at the striking lack of clouds in Australia, the Sahara, the Middle East and central Antarctica versus the cloud belts along the Equator and the mid-latitudes. This new data shows that on average, only 10 percent of the ocean and 30 percent of the land are cloudless at any given time. For more details on how the effects of circulation patterns in our oceans and atmospheres are illuminated by this beautiful image, check out Phil Plait's take.
Here's some geek from the week to brighten all those cloudy days:
First up from the God Machine this week is a striking study on a new trend in American religiosity. As NBC News' Erin McClam reported this week, the percentage of the population that does not identity with any religion has grown dramatically in recent years, as the Christian population in the U.S. shrinks.
The Pew Research Center found that 22.8% of Americans were religiously unaffiliated last year -- up from 16.1% in 2007. That group includes atheists, agnostics and those who chose "nothing in particular."
Evangelical Protestants made up 25.4% of the adult population, down slightly from 26.3% in 2007. Catholics declined to 20.8% from 23.9%, and mainline Protestants to 14.7% from 18.1%.
In all, roughly seven in 10 Americans identified with some branch of Christianity, down from almost eight in 10 in 2007. The share of Americans who identify with a non-Christian faith grew to 5.9%, with pronounced growth among Muslims and Hindus.
The full report from the Pew Research Center is available online here. Note, in the chart I put together, "Non-Christian Faiths," refers to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others, which combined now represent nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population.
For those discouraged by the overall drop in American Christians -- the population has shrunk by roughly 5 million adults, just since 2007 -- the results are probably even more alarming when age breakdowns are considered. The Pew data found that while there was a drop in Christian affiliation among Americans of all ages, it is "particularly pronounced among young adults."
For Americans born in the 1980s, a third of the population is religiously unaffiliated. For those born in the first half of the 1990s, that number rises to 36%, narrowly behind Protestants at 38%.
Not surprisingly, the publication of the report has sparked considerable conversation, including in the political world, where Rush Limbaugh blamed President Obama for the recent shifts -- as if the results were necessarily discouraging and in need of a culprit bearing responsibility -- while Bill O'Reilly pointed the finger at "pernicious" entertainment he doesn't like. (I tend to think the politicization of religion is itself, ironically, a key factor in the recent trends.)
But whatever the cause of the shifting religious landscape, the political and cultural impact is likely to be significant. The New York Times' Nate Cohn explained, "Conservatives and Republicans, for example, have traditionally relied on big margins among white Christians to compensate for substantial deficits among nonwhite and secular voters."
We tend to think of the GOP's demographic problems as related to race: Republicans tend to rely heavily on white voters, which is a long-term problem in a country with increasing racial and ethnic diversity. But the religious demographics matter just as much: Christian conservatives are a key pillar of the GOP coalition. As the share of American Christian population falls, the pillars weaken.
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