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Monday's Mini-Report, 7.27.15

07/27/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* The mission against ISIS gets a boost: "Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say."
* Complicating matters: "Turkish jets struck camps belonging to Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, authorities said Saturday, the first strike since a 2013 peace deal as Ankara also bombed ISIS positions in Syria."
* An important message: "The US president, Barack Obama, has launched an unprecedented defense of gay rights in Africa, telling Kenya's president that the state has no right to punish people because of 'who they love.'"
* Trouble ahead: "Congress will fall off a fiscal cliff in four days if it fails to come to a consensus on how to fund the nation's transportation infrastructure.  House Republicans are urging the Senate to take up legislation they passed three weeks ago that would extend the Highway Trust Fund for five months, while the upper chamber continues to push forward with a three-year funding fix."
* Louisiana: "The gunman who opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater should not have been allowed to legally buy the gun he used to kill two people and injure nine because of his mental history, Gov. Bobby Jindal said Sunday."
* Alaska: "The staggering 2015 Alaska wildfire season may soon be the state's worst ever, with almost 5 million acres already burned -- an area larger than Connecticut. The pace of the burn has moderated in the last week, but scientists say the fires are just the latest indicator of a climatic transformation that is remaking this state -- its forests, its coasts, its glaciers, and perhaps most of all, the frozen ground beneath -- more than any other in America."
* Boston: "Boston's bid to host the 2024 Olympics is over. The city and the U.S. Olympic Committee severed ties after a board teleconference Monday, USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky told The Associated Press."
* Senate drama, Part I: "The Senate opened Sunday with a reading by the Senate President Pro Tem Orrin G. Hatch of the Senate's rules of decorum, in an apparent rebuke of Sen. Ted Cruz calling Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on Friday. And things got more personal from there."
Republican presidential candidate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a campaign stop at the South Carolina Military Museum, Monday, June 8, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)

Felony counts against Rick Perry drop from two to one

07/27/15 04:17PM

It wasn't too long ago that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was indicted on two felony counts, but he couldn't quite remember what the charges against him included. In one instance, the Republican said he'd been charged with "bribery," which wasn't one of the pending accusations.
But before Perry could get straight what he's been charged with, his lawyers have apparently succeeded in knocking down one of the counts. The Texas Tribune reported:
A state appeals court on Friday threw out one of two counts in the indictment against former Gov. Rick Perry, handing his lawyers their first major breakthrough in the nearly yearlong case.
The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin specifically found a problem with a count alleging that Perry coerced a public servant when he threatened to veto state funding for a unit of the Travis County district attorney's office. The court left intact the indictment's other count, which accuses Perry of abusing his power.
The funny part of this was Perry's lawyer, Tony Buzbee, telling reporters on Friday, "The remaining count, we believe to be a class C misdemeanor." He added that the remaining charge is similar to a "traffic violation."
I can appreciate why the GOP presidential candidate's legal team may be eager to downplay the allegations, but while Perry's lawyers "believe" the charge to be a misdemeanor, it is not, in reality, a misdemeanor -- as Rachel noted on the show on Friday, "What's pending against him is a felony charge that carries a potential sentence of 5 to 99 years in prison."
The Faith & Freedom Coalition

'I think in debates, truth matters'

07/27/15 02:01PM

At a right-wing rally last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) railed against the international nuclear agreement with Iran in ways that seemed extreme even by Ted Cruz standards. "If this deal goes through, without exaggeration, the Obama administration will become the world's leading state sponsor and financier of radical Islamic terrorism," the Republican presidential candidate said.
But perhaps more interesting than the senator's ridiculous rhetoric was his willingness to engage Code Pink and its co-founder, Medea Benjamin, in debate. As Roll Call reported, that may not have been the senator's best idea.
"[L]et's have some dialogue," Cruz told her. "So one of the things you said is 'if Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons.' Well the nice thing is I believe ... truth matters. You know one entity, one person with whom there is no ambiguity in terms of whether Iran wants a nuclear weapon is the Ayatollah Khamenei. Is President Rouhani. Both of whom explicitly said they are developing nuclear weapons. There is no doubt about it."
Benjamin retorted, "That is absolutely false," prompting jeers from a crowd of Iran deal opponents and a protest from Cruz that he not be interrupted.
The problem in this case is that Cruz's claim is demonstrably wrong. The Texas Republican may believe that Iranian leaders will one day violate the terms of its agreement and develop such a weapon, but in reality, neither Khamenei nor Rouhani have "explicitly said they are developing nuclear weapons."
That just hasn't happened. It's not a matter of opinion. The fact that Cruz made the false claim while stressing that the "truth matters," made this slightly more amusing, but nevertheless wrong.
When Roll Call asked the senator's office to substantiate the claim, his press secretary could not "back up the statement."
A day later, Roll Call again tried to clarify matters, but it reported that Cruz "still hasn't acknowledged he flubbed one on Iran during a debate with CodePink."
Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker greets guests at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)

Jobs-council controversy dogs Wisconsin's Walker

07/27/15 12:45PM

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, Wisconsin's Scott Walker (R) made a public vow that, in retrospect, was unfortunately specific: elect him and he'd create 250,000 jobs in his first term. It could serve, above all else, the Republican said, as a metric for his job performance.
By his own standard, Walker failed spectacularly, and Wisconsin struggled to get halfway to the governor's goal during his first four years, reinforcing suspicions that his entire approach to economic policy is simply wrong. But looking ahead, the more salient problem isn't Walker's inability to deliver on his promise, but rather, the questions surrounding the far-right governor's jobs council, created to help him try to reach his own goal.
Shortly after Walker took office, state policymakers created the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, or WEDC, with Walker personally chairing its board. The idea was to create an entity that could quickly and efficiently, with minimal red tape, extend grants, loans, and tax credits to the private sector, cultivating state job growth.
Obviously, the idea didn't work, though as TPM reported last week, failure is just the tip of the iceberg.
Only one year in, journalists and watchdogs began uncovering evidence of mismanagement in WEDC. After filing open records requests in 2012 to scrutinize the agency's first year of operations, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel learned that WEDC had lost track of much of their initial $56 million loan portfolio. The agency was discovered to have understated, by about a third, the amount of money it had loaned out to companies that had fallen behind on repayments. 
And a pattern began to emerge: two loans totaling some $5 million had gone to two timber companies, Flambeau River Papers and Flambeau River Biofuels, both run by William "Butch" Johnson, a donor to Walker's campaign. [...]
Moreover, the agency's expense account turned out to be full of nuggets: WEDC had bought six season tickets to University of Wisconsin football games for the governor's office. They expensed booze for meetings with WEDC contractors, train tickets in China and meals in India for the agency director's family, and iTunes gift cards for agency staff.
When the Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the inquiry into Walker's campaign-finance scandal, the Republican presidential hopeful very likely assumed his national campaign could move forward, controversy-free. The questions surrounding the WEDC, however, are arguably even more serious -- and they're not going away.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 7.27.15

07/27/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* Hillary Clinton will unveil an ambitious new climate plan today, including a provision to increase solar installations by 700% by 2020. "Those people on the other side, they will answer any question about climate change by saying, 'I'm not a scientist,'" she said yesterday. "I'm not a scientist either -- I'm just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain."
* in the new NBC/Marist polling, Clinton leads Bernie Sanders by 29 points in Iowa, 55% to 26%, but her advantage is much smaller in New Hampshire, where she leads 47% to 34%. The gender gap is enormous: Clinton leads Sanders among Iowa men by 8 points, and among Iowa women by 47 points.
* We talked this morning about Donald Trump's lead in New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary in the new NBC poll. Note, however, that Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has leap-frogged to fourth place in that poll. It's a shift worth keeping an eye on.
* Trump campaigned in Iowa over the weekend, and for the first time, took aim at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). "Wisconsin's doing terribly," Trump said. "It's in turmoil. The roads are a disaster because they don't have any money to rebuild them. They're borrowing money like crazy. They projected a $1 billion surplus, and it turns out to be a deficit of $2.2 billion. The schools are a disaster. The hospitals and education was a disaster. And he was totally in favor of Common Core!"
* As Rachel noted on the show, Rand Paul's super PAC waited until late Friday afternoon to announce it has raised just $3.1 million so far this year, with two-thirds of that total coming from just two individual donors. It's another sign of trouble for the Kentucky Republican.
* The news from Martin O'Malley's super PAC, released around the same time, was even worse: it's raised $289,000.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., a Democratic sponsor of the Keystone XL pipeline bill, makes his plea at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee markup on the controversial project, Jan. 8, 2015, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Iran deal maintains Democratic backing

07/27/15 11:17AM

The Capitol Hill debate over the international nuclear agreement with Iran is effectively proceeding on two tracks. The first is substantive: is the agreement worthwhile? Is it a sound approach to foreign policy and national security? This fight is already off to a rough start, with Republican critics struggling to bring their A game.
The second, however, is based less on policy and more on arithmetic: will opponents of the diplomatic agreement have the votes to kill the deal?
We already have a basic understanding of how the process will proceed. After Congress' August recess, both the House and Senate will take up a measure to derail the international agreement. It's very likely to pass both chambers, at which point, President Obama will veto.
The question then boils down to this: will the right be able to muster bipartisan, two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate?
For now, it seems unlikely. Consider this exchange on CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday between host John Dickerson and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
DICKERSON: You have done a lot of firsthand reporting here. Are you going to support it?
MANCHIN: I'm looking at -- I'm leaning very strongly towards that because of the options that I have. The only other option is go to war.
Manchin is arguably the most conservative Democrat in Congress, so his perspective is often sought out as a guide of intra-party disarray. In other words, if the West Virginian is "very strongly" leaning in support of the diplomatic agreement, it's a reasonably reliable hint that the total of Democratic defections in the Senate will be modest.
Indeed, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), whose job it is to count Senate Dems' votes, told the Washington Post's Greg Sargent late last week that "only a few" of his Democratic colleagues have expressed serious resistance or opposition to the deal. The senator added, "The response has been positive across the board."
And what of the House? Politico had an interesting piece this morning:
The stage is seen inside Air Force One Pavilion before the start of the Ronald Reagan Centennial GOP Presidential Primary Candidates Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Sept. 7, 2011 in Simi Valley, Calif. (Photo by David McNew/Getty)

'It's a great racket'

07/27/15 10:47AM

At this point in a typical election cycle, presidential campaigns would be buying up airtime in Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping to score points with the voters in the first two nominating states. This is not, however, a typical election cycle.
Rick Perry's super PAC, for example, recently announced it's "investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising on the Fox News Channel and other cable channels" in order to raise the former governor's national profile. One of the super PAC's advisers was quite candid about the goal: "We've made the decision to spend some serious money to reach a more national audience to introduce the governor, because we want to see him on that debate stage."
As the New York Times reported Friday, Perry's not alone in prioritizing next week's debate on Fox News. The report noted that one candidate is effectively trying to buy a ticket onto the stage.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, in essence, is trying to do just that. His campaign has purchased $250,000 of advertising time -- on Fox News. The ad buy starts on Friday and goes through Aug. 9. Because Fox will use the candidates' standing in national polls to whittle down a field of 16 Republican candidates, the exposure that comes from a national cable television buy is extremely valuable.
And while Mr. Christie's standing in the top 10 is fairly sturdy -- but not guaranteed -- this ad buy is aimed to help buttress his standing.
The bigger picture seems to be under-appreciated. Fox News is, quite deliberately, challenging the supremacy of Iowa and New Hampshire, scheduling an Ohio debate with participation based on national polling. Critics of the process raise entirely legitimate points: national polling has very little predictive value at this point in the process, especially with candidates spending so much time and energy in the early nominating states.
Complicating matters, Fox has been less than forthcoming when it comes to how, exactly, it plans to determine which are the top 10 candidates who have the necessary national support to compete in the debate.
But it's the practical consequences of the network's approach that's especially striking.
A flag for the Texas Longhorns waves at the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

A Texas test for critics of judicial activism

07/27/15 10:03AM

Last year, Houston's City Council passed one of Texas' most sweeping anti-discrimination measures, extending new protections to the LGBT community in the areas of housing, employment, and city contracts. Almost immediately, conservative activists started collecting petition signatures to force a citywide referendum on the issue.
It didn't turn out well -- though it initially looked as though opponents of the law had collected the necessary number of signatures, the city attorney, a local jury, and a local judge all concluded that many of the petition signatures were fraudulent. Anti-gay activists needed more than 17,000 signatures to get the matter onto the ballot, and after counting the legitimate signatures, it was clear that conservatives fell short.
Oddly enough, as the NBC affiliate in Houston reported late Friday afternoon, the Texas Supreme Court took matters into its own hands.
The Texas Supreme Court has suspended the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, ruling that the ordinance either be repealed or put before voters.
The court states that Houston City Council has 30 days to repeal the ordinance or the issue will be placed on the November ballot.
I realize that Republicans hold all of the seats on the state Supreme Court, but this story is bizarre, even by the standards of the Texas GOP.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the Freedom Summit in Greenville, South Carolina May 9, 2015. (Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters)

Another side of Ted Cruz

07/27/15 09:20AM

Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz talked to the New York Times Magazine the other day, and the conversation turned to, of all things, the Texas senator's interest in science fiction. At one point, the newspaper asked, "Do you think there's a big overlap between sci-fi nerds and people interested in policy?"
Cruz replied, "Well, I do think that readers of science fiction are interested and attracted to the future. And in many ways, politics is a battle for framing our future." As someone with a deep interest in both, I found this pretty compelling.
But from there, the GOP lawmaker noted some of his genre favorites -- as a teenager, he even created "Cruz Enterprises," inspired by "Stark Enterprises" from the Iron Man franchise -- and at the bottom of the Times piece, Cruz listed his top five superheroes:
1. Spider-Man
2. Wolverine
3. Batman
4. Iron Man
5. Rorschach
The first four seem pretty straightforward. In fact, ask 1,000 comics fans for their top five favorite superheroes, and I suspect Spider-Man, Wolverine, Batman, and Iron Man would each be near the top.
But Rorschach is another story. For those unfamiliar with Alan Moore's Watchmen, Rorschach is a mentally unstable killer. The fictional character lives by a moral code, but he's extremely inflexible when applying that moral code, often in a psychotic sort of way. For Rorschach, there are no gray areas. There are no nuances. There's right, there's wrong, and there's severe punishment for the latter.
For a sampling, here's a clip from the movie. Rorschach is the one telling his fellow inmates, "I'm not locked in here with you; you're locked in here with me."
Ted Cruz's superhero preferences are obviously his business, but as we get to know the presidential candidates better, beyond just their positions on the major issues, the fact that the far-right senator considers Rorschach one of his favorites seems ... interesting.
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, announces he will seek the Republican presidential nomination at Hempstead Hall in Hope, Arkansas, U.S., May 5, 2015. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty)

Huckabee reaches new low with ugly Holocaust rhetoric

07/27/15 08:40AM

As the race for the Republican nomination has become more of a circus, many in the party and the media have blamed Donald Trump's over-the-top theatrics and flare for the farcical. Why can't the former reality-show host be more mature and responsible?
Why can't he follow the example set by the other candidates -- like Mike Huckabee?
Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called the Iran deal "idiotic," and likened it to events of the Holocaust, saying that President Obama will ultimately "take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven."
As Anna Brand's msnbc report noted, Huckabee used the inflammatory language during an interview with a right-wing website, Breitbart News.
Note, Huckabee, a former governor and former Fox News host, used to support diplomacy with Iran until talks fell out of favor in far-right circles,
The Arkansas Republican was apparently so pleased with his choice of words that he began pushing the same message through social media, saying on Twitter yesterday, in all capital letters, that the international nuclear agreement with Iran "is marching the Israelis to the door of the oven."
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz called on Huckabee to apologize. "This rhetoric, while commonplace in today's Republican presidential primary, has no place in American politics. Cavalier analogies to the Holocaust are unacceptable," she said in a statement. "Mike Huckabee must apologize to the Jewish community and to the American people for this grossly irresponsible statement."
That apology apparently won't happen. Huckabee, no doubt worried about securing his place in the upcoming debates, appears comfortable exploiting Holocaust rhetoric to further his ambitions -- a development that says far more about Huckabee than the merits of international nuclear diplomacy.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally and picnic on July 25, 2015, in Oskaloosa, Iowa. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP)

New polling: Trump's inevitable collapse hasn't happened

07/27/15 08:00AM

After Donald Trump went after Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) military service at an Iowa forum last weekend, much of the punditocracy came to a conclusion: this guy's toast. There are some basic lines of political decency that cannot be crossed, and Trump crossed one of them with brazen enthusiasm.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Republican candidate's inevitable collapse: the predictions proved to be wrong. NBC News' Mark Murray reported over the weekend on Trump's improved position in the first two nominating states.
Trump leads the Republican presidential field in New Hampshire, getting support from 21% of potential GOP primary voters. He's followed by Jeb Bush at 14%, Scott Walker at 12% and John Kasich at 7%. Chris Christie and Ben Carson are tied at 6% in the Granite State, and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are at 5% each.
In Iowa, Walker and Trump are in the Top 2 -- with Walker at 19% among potential Republican caucus-goers and Trump at 17%. They're followed by Bush at 12%, Carson at 8%, Mike Huckabee at 7% and Rand Paul at 5%.
Because of the significance -- or at least, the perceived significance -- of the Trump/McCain controversy, note that these statewide polls were conducted from July 14 to 21, with the Iowa forum comments coming on July 18. Murray added that Trump's standing in Iowa was actually slightly better after his criticisms of the Arizona senator, though his support faltered a bit in New Hampshire.
A new poll from CNN, meanwhile, conducted since the McCain comments, also shows Trump leading the Republican field nationally with 18% support, followed by Bush's 15%. More than a fifth of GOP voters, at least for now, actually believe Trump will eventually win the GOP nomination. Only Jeb Bush performed better on this question.

Debate scramble and other headlines

07/27/15 07:51AM

Republicans scramble to make the debate stage. (The Hill)

New polls show Donald Trump running strong in Iowa, New Hampshire. (NBC News)

Billionaire brothers give Ted Cruz Super PAC at $15 million contribution. (CNN)

Hillary Clinton stakes out climate change agenda. (Bloomberg Politics)

Republicans alter script on abortion, seeking to shift debate. (New York Times)

Boy Scouts expected to end ban on gay scout leaders. (USA Today)

Turkey and U.S. agree on a plan to clear ISIS from strip of Syria's north. (New York Times)

Turkish troops target Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. (AP)

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NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite returned its first view of the entire sunlit side of Earth from one million miles away (Photo by NASA/AP).

Week in Geek: Blue marble edition

07/26/15 11:44AM

For the first time since 1972, humans have captured the amazing view of our planet as seen from space in a single photograph.

NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite released its first public image of our home this past week. The satellite was able to see the entire Earth at once because it orbits us at a distance of over a million miles, nearly four times as far away as the Moon. This orbital location has a special name, it's called the "L1 Lagrange Point".

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Pope Francis arrives to his Wednesday's General Audience in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, on Dec. 3, 2014. (L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO/EPA)

This Week in God, 7.25.15

07/25/15 08:53AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting shift in Americans attitudes towards Pope Francis in advance of his U.S. visit in September. MSNBC's Eric Levitz reported this week on the latest survey results from Gallup.
Americans are losing faith in Pope Francis, according to a Gallup poll released Thursday.
The Pope's favorability rating in the U.S. has fallen from 76% in early 2014 to 59% today, roughly where it stood at the start of his papacy.
Gallup's report noted that the most striking change dragging down the pope's U.S. support is the changing attitudes of American conservatives. Last year, 72% of conservatives said they had a favorable opinion of Francis, while this year, the number stands at just 45%
To put that in perspective, Gallup also noted this month that among Republicans, 49% have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump -- suggesting that on the right, Trump's message is resonating slightly more effectively than the Vatican's.
The report added, "This decline may be attributable to the pope's denouncing of 'the idolatry of money' and linking climate change partially to human activity, along with his passionate focus on income inequality -- all issues that are at odds with many conservatives' beliefs."
Though Francis' standing dropped with more than one U.S. group, the decline in support among conservatives was the most significant, and it comes on the heels of high-profile criticism of the pope from prominent Republican figures, including Rush Limbaugh and several leading GOP presidential candidates, each of whom have argued the pope is addressing debates they want him to avoid entirely.
Or put another way, after Republican leaders urged Francis to stay on the sidelines of major political/moral disputes, Republican voters soured on the pope.
Also from the God Machine this week:


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