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Image: Total lunar eclipse from Kathmandu

Don't blame eclipses on President Obama

04/10/15 04:25PM

One year ago this week, a far-right website popular with some conservatives called WorldNetDaily published an unexpected piece about a lunar eclipse. A right-wing pastor named Mark Biltz told WND that the recently witnessed blood moon -- in which Earth's shadow completely covers the moon -- is actually a divine warning against President Obama's executive actions.
 
A year later, just in time for another lunar eclipse, WorldNetDaily is back, as is Mark Biltz, and this year, there's a whole new explanation.
Biltz, reliably, tied the [blood moon] to the nuclear deal with Iran, telling WND that the eclipse was a message from God likening President Obama to the biblical figure Haman, who plotted to kill all the Jews in Persia:
The pastor insisted that developments intended to curtail Iran's nuclear programs are "totally tied to these Blood Moons."
 
It's worth emphasizing that this isn't intended as satire. I should also note, once again, that both Blitz and the publishers of WorldNetDaily are welcome to believe whatever they wish about natural, predictable astronomical phenomena. Their interpretations of eclipses are their business, whether those beliefs seem amusing or not.
 
But there is a broader political significance to stuff like this.
A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.

Medicaid expansion moves forward in Montana

04/10/15 03:46PM

At this point a year ago, Medicaid expansion in Montana looked like a lost cause, but in early May 2014, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) started arranging some "non-publicized" meetings on the issue. The Democratic governor saw a possible opportunity to advance the policy, so he started quiet negotiations with state Republicans and private-sector stakeholders.
 
"I think there are a lot of folks trying to come up with a solution," state Sen. Ed Buttrey (R) said at the time.
 
A year later, that solution appears to be within reach. The Missoulian reported yesterday on striking progress among state lawmakers (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).
One day after a lengthy floor battle to free a Medicaid expansion bill from committee, the Montana House on Thursday endorsed the measure, voting 54-46 to accept millions of federal dollars to extend subsidized health coverage to thousands of low-income Montanans.
 
"I think this is the right thing to do, it's the right time to do it," said Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, who carried Senate Bill 405 on the floor. "Let's pass this bill."
Note, the Montana state House is run by a Republican majority, but on this issue, it was 41 members of the Democratic minority, joined by 13 GOP lawmakers, who prevailed.
 
The local report added, "If the state Senate accepts the one amendment attached Thursday by the House -- a likely prospect -- the bill goes to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature."
 
And there is no real doubt the Montana Democrat would sign the bill into law.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (L) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wait to speak at an event on Sept. 10, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Lots of candidates, fewer accomplishments

04/10/15 12:40PM

CNBC's John Harwood sat down with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) this week for an informative interview, which included an interesting exchange about the senator's limited record.
Harwood: When I asked a couple of other campaigns, "What would you ask him if you were me?" they said, "Ask him to name his biggest accomplishment." And the reason they said that was, "He doesn't have any." What is your yardstick for when you're succeeding, as opposed to tilting at windmills, getting publicity, all that?
 
Cruz: What I have endeavored to do in my time in the Senate is to stand up and lead on the great issues of the day.
The Texas Republican went on to talk about his ongoing effort to destroy the Affordable Care Act, which he has not done, but which he believes he's "built the foundation" to do.
 
Whether or not one takes the argument seriously, this probably won't be the last time Cruz is asked about his record. John Podhoretz, a prominent voice in conservative media, recently ran a piece with an unflattering headline: "Ted Cruz's challenge: The other guys have done things."
 
Shortly after the GOP senator launched his presidential candidacy, The Hill published an "infographic" on Cruz's legislative history, which concluded that the Texas Republican has successfully passed just one bill into law.
 
The piece didn't specify the metrics -- it's unclear, for example, whether this includes amendments and/or resolutions -- but it does help explain why Cruz, when asked about his accomplishments, emphasizes "standing up and leading on the great issues of the day."
 
It's an effective euphemism for, "Judge me for my position on the issues, not what I've actually done to advance my agenda."
 
The challenge is not limited to Cruz, of course. Take Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for example.

Friday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.10.15

04/10/15 12:03PM

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:
 
* Hillary Clinton will reportedly kick off her presidential campaign over the weekend. In preparation for the announcement, Clinton's chief of staff, John Podesta, hosted a dinner last night for a whole bunch of political reporters who'll be covering the candidate.
 
* In one of those polls that seems hard to believe, Quinnipiac shows Clinton effectively tied with the top Republican presidential candidates in Colorado and Iowa, including narrow deficits against Rand Paul. The same poll showed Clinton with more comfortable advantage in Virginia.
 
* Sen. Rand Paul (R-S.C.) was in South Carolina yesterday, but as Rachel noted on the show last night, he was not at all eager to talk about the police shooting that killed Walter Scott.
 
* One of Rand Paul's lawyers has contacted television stations that have run an attack ad against the Kentucky Republican, launched by a dark-money group called the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America. Team Paul wants the ad off the air, calling it "false and misleading."
 
* Though several 2016 presidential candidates are now formally launching their national bids, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) this week officially launched an exploratory committee for his likely campaign.
 
* Though former Rep. Joe Sestak (D) clearly wants a rematch in Pennsylvania next year against incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R), Democratic leaders seem skeptical about his chances and have begun reaching out to possible primary rivals.
Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback arrives at a campaign event on Nov. 1, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.

In-demand GOP economist says Kansas 'is doing fine'

04/10/15 11:22AM

The first big hint that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) was pursuing a dangerous economic course was when he hired economist Arthur Laffer to help shape the plan. Laffer, of course, rose to GOP prominence in the 1980s pushing the celebrated-but-wrong idea that tax cuts can pay for themselves.
 
The Washington Post profiles the conservative economist today and notes that his influence has not waned, despite the real-world effects of his policies. In fact, Laffer is evidently a go-to source for many of this year's Republican presidential candidates.
No one has influenced Republican candidates' thinking on the economy for the past four decades as much as Laffer, who is now 75. Laffer says he believes that limiting government and cutting tax rates, especially the rate levied on top earners, will unleash faster economic growth. Since he sold then-candidate Ronald Reagan on that prescription, every Republican presidential nominee has run on a Laffer-inspired economic platform.
 
As the 2016 GOP primary season takes off, Laffer is more in demand than ever before, with Republican candidates embracing tax-cut-for-the-rich policies even as they bemoan economic inequality. Candidates have been meeting with him in recent weeks, and on Friday in Nashville, he says, his schedule includes Rick Perry at 10 a.m., Ben Carson at noon, Jeb Bush at 1:15 p.m. and Bobby Jindal at 5. Dinner is scheduled with Ted Cruz. He has already met at least once with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
And this does not include the meeting Laffer has already had with Rand Paul, who asked him to look over a tax-cut plan the Kentucky Republican likes.
 
The conversation turned to Brownback's radical experiment, and the Post's article added this gem: "'Kansas,' Laffer declared over a five-hour lunch interview in Washington, 'is doing fine.'"
 
"Fine," I suppose, is a relative term. For those of us who care about the details, the economic plan Laffer created for Kansas has resulted in debt downgrades, weak growth, and state finances in shambles. It's reached the point in which two Kansas public school districts are wrapping up the school year early because they don't have the money needed to finish a full school year.
 
"Fine" probably isn't the first word that comes to mind.
The National Debt Clock, a billboard-size digital display showing the increasing US debt, on Sixth Avenue August 1, 2011 in New York.

Congressional Republicans forget to care about the deficit

04/10/15 10:45AM

Shortly before leaving for Congress' spring break, Republicans in both the House and Senate pushed a proposal to scrap the estate tax entirely, hoping to deliver another windfall for the wealthiest of the wealthy. This week, the CBO published a score on the fiscal consequences of the regressive idea.
Republican legislation in the House to repeal the federal estate tax would add nearly $270 billion to federal deficits, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
 
The office projects the legislation offered by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) would result in revenue losses starting in 2016. The CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation produced the score.
Adding nearly $270 billion to the deficit in order to give the top 0.2% of Americans a massive tax break seems like a tough sell, even for GOP lawmakers.
 
But let's not overlook the fact that so many of the top priorities pushed by congressional Republicans this year have one thing in common: they raise the deficit that the GOP sometimes pretends to care about.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering at a town hall meeting, March 17, 2015, in Freehold, NJ. (Photo by Mel Evans/AP)

Christie tries to recapture discarded persona

04/10/15 10:13AM

It's not yet clear when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will launch his presidential campaign, but we're getting a good sense of the kind of message he'll push once he officially kicks off his race for national office.
 
Yesterday, the Republican governor published a series of social-media messages boasting about how great his no-nonsense persona really is. "What you see is what you get," Christie said at one point, adding, "[B]eing 'vanilla' just isn't me."
 
This comes on the heels of a town-hall meeting this week in which one of the New Jersey governor's constituents suggested he maybe "tone it down a little bit if you want to become president of the United States." NJ.com reported that Christie said he appreciated the suggestion, but he has no interest in adopting a more presidential temperament.
"There are some people who just believe that if you're a public figure that they're allowed to be rude, that they can say and do anything to you and that because you're a public figure you have to respond nicely," Christie said. "I don't see it that way."
 
People deserve politicians who are willing to be straight with their constituents, Christie argued.
 
"When I think that I've said something that's over the line, I'll apologize," he said. "But the one thing people never have to wonder about me is what I'm thinking."
It's a curious pitch. Christie, who earned a reputation for bullying after a wide variety of unpleasant confrontations with voters who annoyed him, seems to think he can reach the White House in part through sheer, brash force. In the modern era, this has rarely been a model for electoral success.
 
But just as important is the fact that Christie leaves people wondering "what he's thinking" all the time.
William Kristol

The GOP's 'journey to the hawk side'

04/10/15 09:36AM

After the Bush/Cheney era ended, and Tea Partiers became ascendant in Republican politics, the party was presented with a rare opportunity for self-definition. Specifically on foreign policy, what kind of party would the GOP be?
 
There were even some competing factions making their case. One contingent, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his allies, envisioned a more isolationist approach with a modest dose of civil libertarianism applied to the national security state. Another contingent, led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) insisted Republicans stick to the neoconservative model, it's catastrophic failures during the Bush/Cheney era notwithstanding.
 
Dan Drezner, a center-right foreign-policy expert, argued persuasively yesterday that the debate, such as it was, is over. The GOP's "journey to the hawk side," he said, "is now complete." Specifically, Drezner was considering the question of whether Bill Kristol still matters in contemporary politics.
[E]ven though Republican voters are genuinely split about the Iran negotiations, the 2016 GOP field and the folks who are funding them are not split at all. There continues to be hawkish outbidding on Iran in particular and foreign policy in general in order to appease key financial backers -- all of whom share Kristol's basic worldview. The lone exception, Rand Paul, has been on the defensive since his announcement earlier this week.
 
To be clear, I'm really not saying that any of this is [Bill] Kristol's doing. I'm saying that, on the GOP side of the ledger, it doesn't matter whether Kristol matters. In 2016, it's still Kristol's world -- or, rather, his worldview.
The evidence that emerged just this week is hard to overlook. Not only are GOP presidential hopefuls tripping over each other to condemn -- and vow to destroy -- international nuclear diplomacy with Iran, but Jeb Bush was reportedly poised to hire a new member of his national security team, only to back off when the aide was deemed insufficiently friendly to the neocon cause.
 
This, of course, follows Bush backing away from former Secretary of State James Baker -- perhaps the most respected member of his father's national security team -- who dared to publicly criticize Benjamin Netanyahu's disrespectful antics towards the United States.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham speaking at a press conference on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. (Karen Bleier/Getty Images)

Tsarnaev conviction undermines argument from McCain, Graham

04/10/15 08:47AM

A jury this week convicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the Boston Marathon, nearly two years to the day after he and his brother set off a bomb that killed three people and injured 260 more. Tsarnaev faced 30 criminal counts and was found guilty on each of them.
 
But in the interest of accountability, it's worth reflecting on the political leaders who pushed for a very different legal process.
 
As regular readers may recall, after Tsarnaev was captured, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) urged the Obama administration to treat the suspect as an "enemy combatant." Rachel noted on the show this week that their plan was to deny him Miranda warnings and prevent the appointment of defense counsel.
 
The case involved an American citizen, captured on American soil, accused of committing a crime in America. The Republican senators, however, said these were irrelevant details. They were joined soon after by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).
 
Michael Tomasky explained yesterday how very wrong they were.
Their argument was that holding Tsarnaev as a combatant for a certain period of time would allow the government to ascertain things like whether he had any al Qaeda connections. Graham said at the time that being able to question Tsarnaev without a defense lawyer present was his whole point. That might sound reasonable, if it weren't for, you know, the Constitution.
Republicans said an "enemy combatant" designation was necessary for intelligence purposes and to ensure justice. The Obama administration ignored the GOP demands. Two years later, it's the president's approach that's vindicated.
Handguns are displayed in the Remington booth during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits on May 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)

As NRA event begins, who's in and who's out?

04/10/15 08:00AM

The National Rifle Association's annual conference kicks off today in Nashville, with an estimated 70,000 gun enthusiasts expected to attend. Given that this is the NRA's last major national gathering before the 2016 presidential race gets underway in earnest, attendees can expect a heavy dose of partisan GOP politics at the gathering.
 
Indeed, the guest list features a lengthy list of announced and unannounced Republican candidates: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, and Scott Walker.
 
Mike Pence was expected to address the gathering, but he canceled yesterday after the death of a friend. Sarah Palin was also scheduled to appear, but withdrew without explanation.
 
In theory, these cancellations could make room for some of the other GOP candidates who were not initially included, but that apparently isn't going to happen. Chris Christie, for example, has moved quickly to the right on guns recently, but the National Rifle Association still does not see him as a reliable enough ally to the cause.
 
And what about Rand Paul? As Benjy Sarlin reported late yesterday, there's some behind-the-scenes drama between the group and the Republican senator.
Almost every Republican presidential hopeful will pay tribute to gun rights at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting on Friday, but one of the few missing candidates is taking shots at the organization instead.
 
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), fresh off his presidential announcement on Monday, is complaining that he was left off the speakers' list despite boasting an "A" rating from the group.
As Paul sees it, he's been friendly with the National Association for Gun Rights -- a hyper-conservative rival to the NRA -- which he believes hurt the NRA's feelings and led to this intentional snub. Paul's campaign is so invested in the idea that it spent yesterday complaining about the snub, and sharing his theory, to news organizations over and over and over and over again.
Obama receives warm welcome in Jamaica

Obama receives warm welcome in Jamaica

04/09/15 09:38PM

Rachel Maddow talks to NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell about President Obama’s trip to Jamaica and his upcoming visit to Panama where he will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro. watch

Thursday's Mini-Report, 4.9.15

04/09/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Deals like these are never easy: "Iran's supreme leader on Thursday challenged two of the United States' bedrock principles in the nuclear negotiations, declaring that all economic sanctions would have to be lifted on the day any final agreement is signed and that military sites would be strictly off limits to foreign inspectors."
 
* Yemen: "Houthi insurgents in Yemen defied Saudi airstrikes and enlarged their territory Thursday, Al Jazeera reported, seizing an important eastern provincial capital in the increasingly unstable country."
 
* ISIS: "Canada conducted its first airstrike in Syria on Wednesday, after its government voted last week to expand its mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and extend it for another year."
 
* Iraq: "Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. offered an upbeat assessment of the battle against Islamic extremists in Iraq on Thursday, saying the government in that country was making 'significant and growing' progress with help from the United States and its allies in the region."
 
* South Carolina: "In the five days since North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager allegedly fatally shot Walter Scott in South Carolina, information provided by civilians and authorities has clarified some questions about the incident. But there are still several unknown facts."
 
* Cuba: "A review of the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring countries that puts Cuba in company with Iran, Syria and Sudan is completed, President Barack Obama said hours before he was to head to Panama for a gathering of Western Hemisphere countries."
 
* Secret Service: "The U.S. Secret Service suffered another embarrassing blow on Wednesday, when it was revealed that Xavier Morales, a senior supervisor in the agency, has been placed on leave and suspended amid allegations of sexual misconduct."
The White House seen from the South Lawn in Washington. (Photo by Susan Walsh/AP)

'We the People' gets results on so-called 'conversion therapy'

04/09/15 05:01PM

One of the Obama White House's more successful online innovations is the "We The People" petition process, which has long struck me as a good idea. It works like this: regular people can submit questions and/or ideas online; the public can vote on its favorites; and if enough people endorse the petition, the administration will offer an official response -- and quite possibly take official action.
 
Last year, the White House raised the threshold for minimum number of votes -- to get a response, an idea needs 100,000 endorsements -- in order to help weed out more trivial questions.
This was not a trivial question. On the contrary, it's another step forward on an important issue.
In yet another bold move in support of LGBT rights, the Obama administration announced late on Wednesday that it would support efforts to end so-called "conversion therapy" for gay and transgender youth. The decision comes in the wake of the tragic death of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, who referenced attempts by religious therapists to make her identify as a boy in her suicide note.
 
The White House released a lengthy statement on its website, penned by longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, calling for a ban on therapy which claims to "repair" LGBT youth. The statement supports a petition that has received over 120,000 signatures in the last few months.
"The overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that conversion therapy, especially when it is practiced on young people, is neither medically nor ethically appropriate and can cause substantial harm," Jarrett said. "As part of our dedication to protecting America's youth, this Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors."

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