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Monday's Mini-Report, 8.24.15

08/24/15 05:31PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Don't panic: "The stock market whipped between nauseating drops and roaring comebacks on Monday in a historic day of turbulence."
 
* France: "Three Americans who helped thwart an attack by an AK-47-toting gunman on a high-speed train received France's highest honor on Monday."
 
* On a related note: "President Barack Obama paused from his Martha's Vineyard vacation on Saturday to make a round of phone calls following the attack on a train headed to Paris the night before. Mr. Obama called French President Francois Hollande and the three Americans who stopped a gunman aboard the train after he allegedly fired shots."
 
* Korean Peninsula: "North and South Korea reached agreement early on Tuesday to end a standoff involving an exchange of artillery fire that had pushed the divided peninsula into a state of heightened military tension."
 
* Louisiana: "A Louisiana state trooper died Monday after authorities say he was shot in the head and then taunted when he stopped to provide aid to a man whose truck was stuck in a ditch."
 
* The state of Washington: "The massive fire burning in north-central Washington is now the largest in state history. The Okanogan Complex of wildfires has surpassed last year's Carlton Complex blazes, fire spokesman Rick Isaacson said Monday morning."
 
* Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) enthusiastically endorsed the international nuclear agreement with Iran over the weekend, making it that much more difficult for Republicans to kill the U.S.-backed policy.
 
* This morning, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) announced her support, as well, further increasing the odds of success.
 
* According to a former Mossad chief, expecting Iran to cheat on the nuclear deal isn't a reason to oppose the agreement -- it's the exact opposite.
 
* Lawrence Summers has a message for the Federal Reserve: under the circumstances, this is "no time for an interest rate hike." He's absolutely right.
A Planned Parenthood location is seen on Aug. 5, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty)

Planned Parenthood faring far better than its critics

08/24/15 04:39PM

As of a couple of weeks ago, state officials in Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, and South Dakota had investigated local affiliates of Planned Parenthood to ensure that the health care group was operating within the law. The organization passed every test.
 
Officials in Pennsylvania have now completed their own review, and much to the right's disappointment, Planned Parenthood has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the Keystone State as well. In fact, the state reported that fetal-tissue donation is perfectly legal in the state, but Planned Parenthood doesn't even do that.
 
At this point, the group keeps facing investigations, and its critics keep turning up nothing. One of Planned Parenthood's most aggressive foes, however, seems to be the subject of its own controversy.
The anti-abortion-rights group targeting Planned Parenthood is acknowledging that its most recent video used an image of a stillborn baby that was made to look like an aborted fetus.
 
The Center for Medical Progress posted a new link on its video late Thursday, adding that one of the images was actually a baby named Walter Fretz, born prematurely at 19 weeks.
That's a problem. The Center for Medical Progress has been accused repeatedly of relying on deceptive editing. But exploiting stillbirth images seems even more offensive.
 
Eric Ferrero, vice president for communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement, "These anti-abortion extremists apparently violated multiple laws to perpetrate this fraud. They weren't documenting wrongdoing -- they set out to create wrongdoing and catch it on tape, and when they couldn't even do that, they edited videos to try to mislead and deceive the public."
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney listens as his wife Lynne Cheney speaks about her book "James Madison: A Life Reconsidered" May 12, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

If Cheney wants a conversation about Iran...

08/24/15 04:10PM

Even most Republicans will concede that the GOP campaign to derail the international nuclear agreement with Iran is going poorly, and barring any major developments, the diplomatic deal will move forward over the objections of far-right lawmakers.
 
But Politico reports that one die-hard critic still has something to say.
Dick Cheney will speak out against the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran during a speech next month at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. [...]
 
Cheney will speak on Sept. 8 -- just a week ahead of the Sept. 17 deadline for Congress to vote on the deal's authorization.
The White House hasn't officially said anything in response, but I have to assume officials in the West Wing are delighted to see the failed former V.P. take the lead in condemning the agreement. It makes it that much easier to deliver a simple message to congressional Democrats: when it comes to national security in the Middle East, and the prospect of yet another war, do you want to partner with Dick Cheney or with President Obama?
 
But even putting all of the political wrangling aside, what the former vice president just doesn't seem to appreciate is the role he played in creating the mess that the president is cleaning up.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to supporters during a campaign rally in Mobile, Ala. on Aug. 21, 2015. (Photo by Brynn Anderson/AP)

Are the rules of politics being rewritten?

08/24/15 12:45PM

Larry Sabato, a prominent political scientist, recently co-published a piece on Donald Trump's electoral prospects. which helped summarize the basis for widespread skepticism about the Republican's chances.
...If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong.
 
History has shown that presidential nominations tend to follow a certain set of "rules."
This was no throwaway line. The rules are supposed to matter and they tend to be reliable for a reason.
 
For several weeks, a wide variety of political observers have noted Trump's rise to Republican dominance with a combination of laughter, despair, and bemusement, but few actually see the New York developer as a competitive candidate for national office.
 
Sure, the GOP's base can have its summer fling -- the latest in a series of fleeting infatuations -- but as these same observers have said many times, the very idea of a former reality-show host actually becoming a serious contender for a major party's presidential nomination is ridiculous.
 
FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Harry Enten recently made projections on who's likely to prevail in the race for the GOP nomination. Silver gave Trump a 2% chance. His FiveThirtyEight colleague saw that as far too generous -- Eaten put Trump's chances at -10%.
 
I can appreciate why some may see such predictions as absurd. If Trump has big leads in every poll, and his "ideas," for lack of a better word, are suddenly driving the Republican conversation, how can anyone be so dismissive of Trump's chances?
 
The answer has to do with those "rules." Political science, based largely on careful scrutiny of previous elections, tells us quite a bit about what's probable. And in this case, everything we know about the process tells us that competitive, top-tier candidates need considerable support from the party establishment, coupled with a top-notch field operation, all built around a competent, hard-working candidate, who has some modicum of relevant experience, and who enjoys broad, sustainable appeal.
 
In other words, political science suggests the Trump Show will soon end. We're witnessing a fun amusement-park ride -- keep your hands and feet inside the Trump Chopper at all times -- but it will stop long before Americans actually start casting votes and/or participating in caucuses.
 
But what if the rules are wrong? Or more to the point, what if the rules are being rewritten?

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.24.15

08/24/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* There's still nothing concrete to report, but there's increasing chatter about Vice President Biden's interest in the presidential race. Among other things, he had a private meeting with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) over the weekend, for reasons unknown.
 
* Ben Carson was asked yesterday whether he'd consider running as Donald Trump's V.P. nominee. He didn't rule it out, telling CNN, "All things are possible, but it is much too early to begin such conversations."
 
* Chris Christie's new campaign ad suggests President Obama bears responsibility for heroin abuses. The confused governor may not understand this, but in reality, the "heroin epidemic actually began nearly two decades before Obama took office."
 
* On a related note, Christie campaigned at the Iowa State Fair the other day, but his soap-box appearance was interrupted by protesters angered over the governor veto "of a controversial pig crate bill."
 
* A University of Texas survey of GOP voters in the Lone Star State shows Donald Trump in the statewide lead with 24% support. He's followed by Texas' Ted Cruz, who's second with 16%. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is tied for seventh place with just 4%.
 
* With Sen. David Vitter (R) still the frontrunner in Louisiana's 2015 gubernatorial race, the race to replace him is taking shape. Rep. John Fleming (R) has long made clear he's running, and now Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy (D) is gearing up to run as well.
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)

Walker on Black Lives Matter: 'Who knows who that is?'

08/24/15 11:28AM

A few presidential candidates have met with activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton's discussion last week. Any chance Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) might be willing to do the same?
 
As the Capital Times in Madison reported the other day, the GOP presidential candidate seems reluctant, and to bolster his case, Walker compared Black Lives Matter's decentralized structure to the Tea Party.
"I'm going to meet with voters ... Who knows who that is?" Walker said in response to a Daily Mail reporter in New Hampshire who asked whether he would meet with the representatives of the group. "I'm going to talk to American voters, period. It's the same way as saying, you're going to meet with the tea party. Who is the tea party? There's hundreds of thousands of people out there."
 
Asked again whether he would sit down with representatives of the movement if they requested a meeting, Walker said, "That's a ridiculous question. I'm going to talk to voters. That's just a ridiculous question."
To clarify, when Walker said, "Who knows who that is?" he wasn't saying he's unaware of the movement. Rather, the governor is arguing, accurately, that Black Lives Matter has no hierarchical structure. There's no official, or even semi-official, "leader" of the movement, so it's not as if a campaign can simply pick up the phone and arrange a meeting with Black Lives Matter's top representatives.
 
I don't even have a problem with the analogy, per se. The Tea Party "movement," if one wants to call it that, is also loosely organized. Like Occupy and BLM, it has prominent activists associated with a cause, but there's no formality to the leadership structure. There's no executive director or chairperson of the board.
 
But there's a flaw in Walker's defense. The Republican candidate thinks it's "ridiculous" to even ask if he's prepared to sit down with Black Lives Matter activists, because it's decentralized like the Tea Party.
 
If Walker genuinely believed that, however, why has the governor made such an effort to cozy up to the Tea Party?
William Kristol

Kristol floats Justice Alito for 2016 GOP nomination

08/24/15 10:47AM

Before the presidential campaign began in earnest, one of the more common phrases associated with the Republican field was "deep bench." The sports metaphor, repeated ad nauseum, was intended to convey a specific point about GOP politics: the far-right party is stacked with presidential-level talent, cultivated over several years.
 
According to the narrative, the result is the largest and most impressive presidential field in at least a generation, featuring 10 governors and four high-profile U.S. senators.
 
Oddly enough, no one seems to be talking about the party's "deep bench" anymore. At least for now, the dominant Republican candidate is a former reality-show host, who enjoys big leads in the polls. He's followed by an uninspiring and painfully rusty former governor, who happens to be the brother and son of unsuccessful presidents, and a retired neurosurgeon who has a bad habit of comparing the United States to Nazi Germany.
 
It's led to an unexpected dynamic: despite 17 Republicans vying for the Republican nomination, some in the party have begun to ask whether there might be better choices out there. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol published this new column over the weekend:
Shouldn't Republicans be open to doing what Democrats are now considering? That is: Welcoming into the race, even drafting into the race if need be, one or two new and potentially superior candidates? After all, if a new candidate or new candidates didn't take off, the party would be no worse off, and someone from the current field would prevail. If the October surprise candidate caught fire, it would be all the better for the GOP--whether he ultimately prevailed or forced one of the existing candidates to up his game.
 
Who could such a mysterious dark horse be?
Don't worry, Kristol, one of the Beltway's highest-profile media Republicans, has some suggestions.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., prepares to address the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference which featured speeches by conservative politicians at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, June 18, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP)

Kentucky GOP gives Rand Paul a break

08/24/15 10:07AM

If you missed Friday's show, you may not know that Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) presidential campaign very nearly faced an insurmountable obstacle over the weekend -- one which might have brought his national ambitions to a sudden halt.
 
Fortunately for the Republican senator, his state party did him a favor. Unfortunately for the candidate, his troubles are just beginning.
 
A little background is in order. State law in Kentucky, like many other states, prevents candidates from seeking more than one office at the same time in the same cycle. For Paul, that's a problem -- he's running in 2016 for the White House and for re-election to the Senate. The Republican lawmaker asked the state legislature to change the law, so he could pursue both without giving up either, but lawmakers politely refused.
 
All of which led to an important state GOP meeting over the weekend. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported on the results:
It wasn't unanimous, but Kentucky Republicans voted Saturday to hold a presidential preference caucus next year, helping U.S. Sen. Rand Paul get around a state law prohibiting a candidate from appearing on the same ballot twice.
 
But the approval of a caucus is conditional on whether Paul has transferred $250,000 to an account controlled by the Republican Party of Kentucky before Sept. 18. If the money is not there, the party will automatically revert to a primary.
We've all heard about attempts to buy an election. This offers a literal example of the phenomenon. The Republican Party of Kentucky didn't want to foot the bill for a March 2016 caucus, just to satisfy the long-shot ambitions of Rand Paul, so the senator is prepared to write a check to the state GOP to help cover the costs.
 
He added Saturday that Team Paul will transfer the money "when it's ready."
 
In terms of the mechanics, assuming the senator follows through on his financial commitment, Rand Paul has apparently found a way to circumvent state law and run for both offices. Kentucky will still hold a presidential primary, but Paul won't compete in it. Instead, he'll run in a special caucus -- designed and paid for by Rand Paul -- that he's very likely win.
 
He'll probably lose the race for the GOP presidential nomination soon after, at which point the senator will shift his focus back to his re-election bid.
 
So, problem solved?
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, N.H., Aug. 19, 2015. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)

On immigration, 'management' is not an answer

08/24/15 09:20AM

When presidential candidates are asked to explain their positions on key issues with details, but they have no idea what to say, they tend to rely on some go-to nouns. Ask Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) about his foreign policy, for example, and he'll talk a great deal about "strength."
 
What does that mean in practical terms? It means he'll be "strong." Which will translate into what kind of policy, exactly? One based on "strengthiness," obviously.
 
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has a similar habit, but for him the word is "leadership." Every problem, no matter how daunting, can be addressed with a president who is a leading leader who's ready to lead through leadership. How inspiring.
 
But to fully appreciate this dynamic in action, consider what happened on ABC yesterday morning, when George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump how he intends to round up and pay for the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants -- a number the Republican candidate said might be as high as 30 million.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So if there's no idea, how are you going to round them all up? Where are you going to get the money, where are you going to get the forces? Exactly how are you going to do it? What are the specifics here?
 
TRUMP: George, it's called management. And the first thing we have to do is secure the border. But it's called management.
The host pressed further, prompting the GOP candidate to again say, "It's management." The more Stephanopoulos pressed for any kind of policy detail, the more Trump responded, "George, I'm telling you, it's called management."
 
Dismissing his 2016 rivals, the Republican added, "They don't know management."
 
In all, during a fairly brief telephone interview, Trump used the word "management" six times, and in each instance, it was in response to a question  about the lack of substantive details in the candidate's mass-deportation plan.
 
It was like watching a kid trying to convince a teacher he did his homework, despite the fact that he clearly did not.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the American Action Forum, Jan. 30, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)

'Mr. Unintimidated' struggles to keep his story straight

08/24/15 08:40AM

Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker appeared at the Iowa State Fair last week, where he was confronted by protesters. One, in particular, drew the Wisconsin governor's attention. "I am not intimidated by you, sir, or anyone else out there," Walker declared.
 
It's an important part of the candidate's pitch: plenty of Americans may not be comfortable with his far-right vision, but the governor will not back down in the face of pressure. To drive the point home, Walker titled his recent book, "Unintimidated."
 
There's nothing wrong with the message. There may, however, be something wrong with the messenger.
 
Walker's record on immigration can charitably be described as "erratic." He's overhauled his entire approach to the issue more than once, contradicting himself along the way, and the governor's position tends to change based on the audience he's speaking to at the time. Last week, the GOP candidate's troubles became more acute when the debate shifted to birthright citizenship.
 
For example, on Monday, the Wisconsin governor told MSNBC's Kasie Hunt that he opposes the constitutional principle. To my ear, it was unambiguous -- Hunt asked," Do you think that birthright citizenship should be ended?" He replied, "Well, like I said, Harry Reid said it's not right for this country, I think that's something we should, yeah, absolutely going forward." Clarifying further, Hunt asked again, "We should end birthright citizenship?" "Yeah, to me it's about enforcing the laws in this country," he answered.
 
On Friday, Mr. Unintimidated retreated, telling John Harwood that he refuses to take a position on the issue altogether.
 
All of which led to Sunday, when Walker took this third position in six days during an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. It took several attempts, but eventually viewers heard the candidate's answer:
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're not seeking to repeal or alter the Fourteenth Amendment.
 
WALKER: No. My point is any discussion that goes beyond securing the border and enforcing the laws are things that should be a red flag to voters out there....
So, he went from "absolutely" wanting to change birthright citizenship, to refusing to talk about it, to saying he doesn't want to change the policy after all.
Jeb Bush promotional poster. (Screen grab courtesy of NBC)

Jeb Bush's left hand causes quite a stir

08/24/15 08:00AM

When Jeb Bush's super PAC sent out a direct-mail piece to thousands of Iowa Republicans, it was largely ignored at the national level. But In recent days, a question emerged: what's with his left hand?
The Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise sent a mailer to more than 85,000 Iowa voters, but something is a bit off in the photo of the group’s favorite 2016 presidential nominee. [...]
 
Liberal news blog ThinkProgress accused the group of superimposing the GOP nominee’s head onto the body of a black man, while TIME pointed out the background in the picture is actually a stock photo of Cedar Rapids.
It wasn't long before the Republican candidate's rivals started to notice. “Jeb Bush has a Photoshopped photo for an ad which gives him a black left hand and much different looking body," Donald Trump mocked. "Jeb just can’t get it right!”
 
The trouble may be easy to miss, at least at first, but the image from the front of the mailer appears above. Pay particular attention to the former governor's left hand, towards the bottom middle.
 
While something appears off, the allegations don't seem quite right, either. If Team Jeb intended to superimpose the candidate's head onto someone else's body, why change the skin tone of one hand and not the other?
John Oliver (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

This Week in God, 8.22.15

08/22/15 08:53AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a look at the ongoing success of American televangelists, and HBO's John Oliver shining a light on the system that allows TV preachers to create incredibly lucrative enterprises.
 
In a segment on Oliver's "Last Week Tonight," the host reminded his audience that televangelists may not have the notoriety they had a generation ago, but they're still receiving millions from followers. Much of the TV preachers' fundraising operations still rely on a system known as the "prosperity gospel," which as Oliver explained, "argues that wealth is a sign of God's favor, and donations will result in wealth coming back to you."
 
As a result, donors, some of whom are sick and economically vulnerable, are encouraged to part with scarce resources, giving their money to televangelists in the form of "seeds," which people are told they'll be able to "harvest" for greater wealth in the future.
 
And as offensive as that may be to many, what stood out as especially important from a political and policymaking perspective is the existing tax system that makes it easy for televangelists to create such vast, wealthy empires. From Vox's report on the "Last Week Tonight" segment:
"And yet, not only is everything you've seen so far legal, but the money people donate in response to it is tax-free," Oliver said. "If you're registered as a religious nonprofit or especially a church, you are given broad exemptions over taxation and regulation."
 
Not only does the IRS not strictly define churches, but the agency makes no attempt to evaluate the content of any church's doctrine to see if it's religious -- as long as the beliefs are genuine and not illegal -- before giving it tax-exempt status. And that benefit can go to everything these churches own, even their owners' huge mansions.
 
The IRS also rarely holds these churches accountable, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. In fiscal year 2014, they audited one church. In fiscal year 2013, they audited two.
This led Oliver to -- I'm not kidding -- set up his own ministry. "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption" has a website that is every bit as funny as you might expect.
 
The IRS has a 14-point guideline to help determine if an institution is an actual church under the law -- there is no literal definition, which is part of the underlying concern -- but it's "disturbingly easy," as Oliver put it, for institutions to get approval through the guidelines, since churches don't have to pass all 14 points. A tax lawyer advised Oliver that "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption" could meet a worship standard, for example, by having his audience "silently meditate on the nature of fraudulent churches."
 
Oliver's faux ministry, by the way, also registered as a non-profit corporation in Texas -- a state Oliver does not live in, and has never lived in, though for legal purposes, that does not matter.
 
The point, of course, is that any system that is so susceptible to fraud and abuse -- in which there are no consequences -- is in need of reforms. It was a hilarious segment, but there's no reason policymakers should just laugh and move on. Responsible tax laws and proper enforcement can prevent abuses and protect vulnerable Americans from exploitation.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

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