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President Barack Obama speaks at El Gran Teatro de Havana, March 22, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Obama on ISIS: 'They're not an existential threat to us'

03/24/16 11:20AM

As part of his trip to Argentina, President Obama co-hosted a press conference yesterday with President Mauricio Macri, and a reporter asked about the "optics" of Obama continuing with his schedule in the wake of the terrorist attack in Brussels. The American leader's response raised some eyebrows.
"Groups like ISIL can't destroy us, they can't defeat us. They don't produce anything. They're not an existential threat to us. They are vicious killers and murderers who perverted one of the world's great religions.
 
"And their primary power, in addition to killing innocent lives, is to strike fear in our societies, to disrupt our societies, so that the effect cascades from an explosion or an attack by a semi-automatic rifle."
The president went on to explain that he believes in reminding terrorists about the weakness by rejecting their efforts to change how we live.
 
But for some on the right, there was an important problem. What does Obama mean ISIS isn't "an existential threat"? How could he possibly say that?
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder speaks to the media regarding the status of the Flint water crisis on Jan. 27, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Mich. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty)

Panel pins blame for Flint crisis on Gov. Snyder's administration

03/24/16 10:50AM

Last fall, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) started to recognize the severity of the catastrophe in Flint, he appointed members to a task force to determine what went wrong. There were concerns that the panel might hesitate before pointing the finger at the same governor who tasked them with uncovering the truth.
 
It was all the more striking, then, when the panel issued a report yesterday that said it's the Snyder administration that's "fundamentally accountable" for the Flint crisis, because it was the governor's environmental regulators and state-appointed emergency managers who created the mess. The state Associated Press reported:
The panel ... said what happened in Flint is "a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice." It also cited "intransigence and belligerence that has no place in government."
 
"Flint water customers were needlessly and tragically exposed to toxic levels of lead and other hazards through the mismanagement of their drinking water supply," investigators said.
 
Moreover, the 116-page report described as "inappropriate" a frequent claim of Snyder and his representatives that the Flint water crisis represents a failure of the local, state and federal governments. That suggests "that blame is attributable equally to all three levels of government," the report said.
The document, available online in its entirety, concluded, "The state is fundamentally accountable for what happened in Flint.
 
And what about the effort on the part of Republicans and both-sides-are-always-to-blame pundits to hold the federal EPA responsible for Flint?
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory

North Carolina cracks down on local anti-discrimination policies

03/24/16 10:00AM

North Carolina's state legislature wasn't supposed to be in session this week, but the Republican-led chambers rushed back to work for a special, taxpayer-financed session, focused solely on one key issue.
 
The issue, oddly enough, related to the use of public bathrooms.
North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules. Gov. Pat McCrory later signed the legislation, which dealt a blow to the LGBT movement after success with protections in cities across the country.
 
The Republican-controlled General Assembly took action after Charlotte city leaders last month approved a broad anti-discrimination measure. Critics focused on language in the ordinance that allowed transgender people to use the restroom aligned with their gender identity.
If steps like these seem to be happening with increasing frequency, it's not your imagination. A variety of cities have approved higher minimum wages, only to have states pass laws to block municipalities from acting on their own. Some cities have tried to pass paid sick-leave for workers in their area, only to have states change the law to prohibit such steps.
 
And a month ago, the city of Charlotte banned discrimination against LGBT citizens, only to learn a month later that the state had not only scrapped the local measure, but also changed state law to prevent any city from expanding protections against discrimination.
 
As we discussed earlier this week, contemporary conservatism is generally committed to the idea that the government that's closest to the people -- literally, geographically -- is best able to respond to the public's needs. As much as possible, officials should try to shift power and resources away to local authorities.
 
Except, that is, when communities consider progressive measures Republicans don't like, at which point those principles are quickly thrown out the window.
 
So, let this be a lesson to everyone: when officials in Washington tell states what to do, it's an outrageous abuse and clear evidence of government overreach. When states tell cities what to do, it's protecting conservative principles.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) pauses while speaking to the media after closed-door meeting with House Republicans, on Capitol Hill, March 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

Why Paul Ryan's political diagnosis falls far short

03/24/16 09:30AM

It's understandable if House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is feeling frustrated. His party appears likely to nominate a political amateur and former reality-show host as its presidential candidate. The House chamber the Speaker leads does very little meaningful work. The sitting president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't seem to care for any of Ryan's far-right ideas.
 
And so the GOP leader decided it was time to deliver a speech, not on any one area of public policy, but about the state of politics itself. NBC News reported:
House Speaker Paul Ryan laid out his vision for a more respectful discourse in American politics on Wednesday against the backdrop of an increasingly divisive Republican presidential primary.
 
"Our political discourse -- both the kind we see on TV and the kind we experience among each other -- it did not use to be this bad and it does not have to be this way," the Wisconsin Republican told a group of bipartisan congressional interns. "Now, a little skepticism that is really healthy. But when people distrust politics, they come to distrust institutions. They lose faith in government; they lose faith in our future. We can acknowledge this. But we don't have to accept this. And we can't enable it either."
On the surface, few would object to a sentiment like this. Indeed, if I'd told you that the above quote had come from a Democratic leader who disagrees with Paul Ryan about everything, you'd likely believe it. There's just nothing objectionable about wanting a better political discourse and taking steps to bolster Americans' confidence in public institutions.
 
Indeed, Beltway pundits very likely swooned when Ryan acknowledged his own shortcomings.
 
"There was a time when I would talk about a difference between 'makers' and 'takers' in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits," the Speaker said. "But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. 'Takers' wasn't how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn't castigate a large group of Americans to make a point."
 
But before anyone gives Ryan too much credit for at least saying the right things, it's worth understanding the fundamental flaws in his latest pitch.
The U.S. Supreme Court stands in Washington, D.C., June 10, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Conservative justices struggle to understand ACA basics

03/24/16 08:40AM

Four years ago this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court first took up the issue of the Affordable Care Act's constitutionality, then-Justice Antonin Scalia raised an argument that made clear that he literally didn't know what he was talking about.
 
Scalia argued at the time that the "Cornhusker Kickback," added to the ACA to earn then-Sen. Ben Nelson's (D-Neb.) support, was legally dubious and central to passage of the legislation. The problem, of course, is that the controversial provision wasn't in the law at all -- Scalia had heard about this in conservative media, rather than the legal briefs, but he didn't realize the measure was removed from the bill before passage.
 
During the same oral argument, Justice Samuel Alito asked a question that was "painfully detached from an understanding" of the underlying issue, or even "how insurance works."
 
Yesterday, as TPM's Tierney Sneed reported, something similar happened during oral arguments in the case related to contraception coverage.
"What type a burden does that impose? Is it because these exchanges are so unworkable, even with the help of a navigator, that a woman who wants to get free contraceptive coverage simply has to sign up for that on one of the exchanges?" Justice Samuel Alito asked, snarkily, about the Obamacare health insurance exchanges used by those without employer-based health care plans.
 
[Solicitor General Donald Verrilli] pointed out that those sort of contraceptive-only policies don't even exist on the exchanges.
Later, Chief Justice John Roberts insisted that women could simply purchase contraceptive coverage through exchange marketplaces. It fell to Justice Sonia Sotomayor to explain, "They're not on the exchanges. That's a falsehood."
 
It's tempting to think justices do their homework, read submitted legal briefs, and familiarize themselves with basic substantive details ahead of the oral arguments. But we're occasionally reminded that some justices form beliefs borne of confusion, and don't brush up on the facts ahead of time.
Robert Bentley

Alabama's 'family values' governor mired in sex scandal

03/24/16 08:00AM

While running for governor in 2010, Alabama's Robert Bentley emphasized his "family values" credentials. The Republican candidate not only ran ads featuring his wife and family, but Bentley also said he believes so strongly in the sanctity of traditional marriage that as far as he's concerned, when same-sex couples wed, their marriages should be dismissed as "social experiments."
 
Given what we learned yesterday, the GOP governor probably shouldn't have made his family such a centerpiece of his platform.
Alabama's Sunday school-teaching governor was accused by his former top cop on Wednesday of breaking the Seventh Commandment -- thou shalt not commit adultery.
 
Spencer Collier claims he was fired from his post as head of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency on Tuesday because he refused to cover up Gov. Robert Bentley's alleged affair with top political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
If you missed Rachel's coverage of this story last night, the clip is worth watching, because while we're seen plenty of politicians get caught in sex scandals, this one's a doozy.
 
Last fall, when the governor and his wife split after 50 years of marriage, there were widespread rumors about Bentley having had an affair, but yesterday the chatter became a legitimate story after Collier, up until recently Alabama's top cop, held a press conference to say he'd been fired for failing to go along with a scheme to hide the governor's personal misdeeds.
 
Bentley held a strange press conference soon after to apologize -- though it was unclear to whom he was apologizing and for what. The governor acknowledged his role in inappropriate communications with his aide, but the conservative Republican insisted he's never had a "physical relationship" with his top aide.
 
That dubious claim prompted the Birmingham News to release an audio recording of Bentley having a private conversation with Rebekah Caldwell Mason in which he seems to describe quite a bit of their romantic, physical interactions.

Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.23.16

03/23/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Manhunt: "European authorities are searching frantically for terrorism suspect Najim Laachraoui amid fears he has escaped authorities' clutches -- again."
 
* More details emerge from Brussels: "Two brothers were identified Wednesday as the suicide bombers behind the Brussels terror attacks as the search for at least one on-the-run suspect intensified."
 
* Yemen: "An American airstrike on Tuesday killed dozens of fighters at a mountainous training camp used by the Yemeni affiliate of Al Qaeda, Pentagon officials said, the latest sign that the military is hastening its strikes against militants in the Middle East and Africa."
 
* Michigan: "An independent panel investigating the Flint water crisis laid blame directly on Gov. Rick Snyder's office, concluding that inept state employees in charge of supervising water quality and state-appointed emergency managers ignored mounting problems with the city water supply and stubbornly disregarded signs of widespread contamination."
 
* Interesting story out of Florida: "The mother of a 4-year-old boy who shot her as they were riding in a pickup truck should face a misdemeanor charge, authorities said Tuesday as they released details of the shooting for the first time."
 
* Striking findings: "In some ways ... discrimination against people of color is more complicated and fundamental than economic inequality. A stark new finding epitomizes that reality: In recent decades, rich black kids have been more likely to go to prison than poor white kids."
U.S. President Barack Obama attends a news conference at the Casa Rosada government house in Buenos Aires on March 23, 2016. (Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Obama issues strong rebuke of Cruz's 'patrol and secure' plan

03/23/16 04:13PM

Of all the domestic political reactions to yesterday's deadly terrorism in Brussels, Ted Cruz's rhetoric stood out as uniquely misguided. The Republican presidential hopeful said he would, among other things, respond to the attacks by empowering law enforcement to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" in the United States.
 
The intention of the discriminatory policies, Cruz said, would to be prevent radicalization, though the effect would likely be the opposite.
 
President Obama has apparently heard about the Texas senator's intentions. At a press conference in Argentina this morning, the U.S. leader said Cruz's strategy "makes no sense."
"We have an extraordinarily successful, patriotic, integrated Muslim-American community," Obama said. "They do not feel ghettoized, they do not feel isolated."
 
"Any approach that would target them for discrimination is not only wrong and un-American, but counter-productive," he said.
The president, referencing the historic visit to Cuba that he wrapped up yesterday, added, "As far as the notion of having surveillance of neighborhoods where Muslims are present, I just left a country that engages in that kind of neighborhood surveillance -- which, by the way, the father of Sen. Cruz escaped for America, the land of the free. The notion that we would start down that slippery slope makes absolutely no sense. It's contrary to who we are."

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Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.

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