First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Maryland, where the state's largest school district has approved a pretty significant, religiously inspired change to its school calendar. The Washington Postreported this week:
Christmas and Easter have been stricken from next year's school calendar in Montgomery County. So have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
Montgomery's Board of Education voted 7 to 1 Tuesday to eliminate references to all religious holidays on the published calendar for 2015-2016, a decision that followed a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.
Note, the county hasn't eliminated religious holidays, and students will still be off for major holidays like Christmas. The schools will still be closed when all other state agencies are closed.
But to avoid references to Muslim holidays, the calendar won't specifically reference any religious holidays associated with those days off.
Libby Nelson noted, "The school board's decision seems to have made everyone mad: Muslim leaders are furious that the board would get rid of religious holidays before acknowledging Muslim ones, while conservative media outlets are accusing the board of 'banning' Jewish and Christian religious holidays in order to appease Muslims."
In fact, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly told his audience this week that this story is -- you guessed it -- the "first salvo this season in the ongoing war on Christmas." He added, "They just wiped out all our traditions because [of] these people."
Aren't the holidays fun?
For more on this story, our friends at msnbc's "Politics Nation" did a great segment earlier this week.
Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, live in Urfa, Turkey, argues that the current U.S. strategy of neither full engagement against ISIS, nor hand-off containment, is a middle ground of dubious effectiveness. watch
General Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and CIA, talks with Richard Engel about the effectiveness of U.S. air attacks on ISIS and how a US anti-ISIS strategy would be more successful with troops on the ground integrated with anti-ISIS fighters. watch
NBC's Keir Simmons talks with Richard Engel about how the powerful ISIS propaganda machine, combined with negative feelings about U.S. policy in Syria, draw Westerners to the ISIS cause and increase the risk of attacks in the West by ISIS sympathizers. watch
Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, traces the roots of ISIS to the insurgents who fought against the U.S. in Iraq, and talks with Lieutenant General Michael Barbero about how readily the Iraqi Army fell apart in the face of ISIS. watch
Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, outlines the features of the fight against ISIS in the closely watched battleground city of Kobani in Syria, where local Kurdish men and women fight the well-supplied watch
* On to the Senate: "The Republican-led House approved the Keystone XL pipeline for the ninth time on Friday, with the Senate poised to vote on the measure next week in an effort to boost Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election chances."
* Important: 'Swedish officials said Friday that a mysterious vessel detected in the waters off Stockholm last month was a foreign submarine that had violated its territorial waters. Although many in Sweden and elsewhere suspected that the submarine was Russian, the Swedish authorities said they were unable to determine the nationality of the intruder. Russia has denied conducting any recent operations in Swedish waters."
* Related news: "Vladimir Putin is underlining his presence at a major summit of world leaders in Australia by stationing warships in waters off the country's northeastern coast, prompting the Australian prime minister to angrily accuse Russia of trying to reclaim the 'lost glories' of the Soviet Union."
* 300 million miles away: "Less than two days after its historic landing, Rosetta's probe may be reaching its final hours, and the scientific team is racing to collect as much data as possible before Philae's batteries run out. It's do or die, and at this point there's very little to lose in terms of its lifespan."
* Open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act begins tomorrow. The website works.
* Policymakers would be wise to take note: "The nation's nuclear forces lack resources, support and effective leadership, a legacy of neglect that could impact America's security, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday."
* Don't panic: "A surgeon working in Sierra Leone has been diagnosed with Ebola and will be flown Saturday to the United States for treatment, officials from Sierra Leone and the United States said."
* Secret Service: "Layer after layer of security measures that were supposed to block an intruder from getting into the White House all failed in stunning succession on the evening of Sept. 19, according to an internal review of a fence jumper's breach."
* Cabinet: "Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said Thursday he believes U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch will get approved by the Senate to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, but that the confirmation process should wait until after the new Senate has taken office in January. 'Looking at it, I have to say, she looks like she will be a good person,' said Hatch on the Steve Malzberg Show."
* In 1983, American health regulators stopped allowing gay men to donate blood. More than three decades later, this ridiculous policy is still in place, though it's finally poised to change.
About a week ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled legislation to make Election Day a national holiday. It's not a bad idea -- plenty of folks might want to vote on the first Tuesday in November, but face scheduling restrictions. Early voting is available in many states, but not all.
Many have suggested moving Election Day to a weekend, but if that's not going to happen, it's not unreasonable to think voter participation would improve if there were a declared "Democracy Day," as Sanders suggests.
"In America, we should be celebrating our democracy and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process," Sanders said in a statement. "Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy."
So what's wrong with this? Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything, though National Review appears to have some concerns.
If Bernie Sanders has his way, "Democracy Day" will be the crowning holiday of America's dystopian future. Imagine: Everyone in slab-gray uni-gender tunics and biodegradable Crocs, all lined up in perfect uniformity to cast a legally mandated vote for the single party that remains. Democracy! Pharrell's "Happy" will play over loudspeakers in the background. On loop.
Low turnout might well indicate a small group of very interested people, and that might be a better indication of the country's desires than truckloads of people completing a ballot because they felt obligated -- or, worse, faced a penalty if they did not.
I'm not sure if this is intended as satire, but National Review seems to be arguing that if a significant number of Americans want to participate in their democracy, and feel a civic duty as a citizen, but they can't vote because of time constraints, that's OK -- because people with more leisure time are better motivated?
It's not uncommon to hear the political media face criticism for a "pack mentality." The point often has merit -- when the political establishment starts to embrace a consensus, and a conventional wisdom takes hold, many are loath to ignore the direction of the prevailing winds.
But after a while, the conventional wisdom gets dull and an entirely different instinct kicks in: rejecting what the pack says and embracing the opposite. (See every piece with some variation on the headline, "Everything you know about _______ is wrong.")
So, the pack says President Obama is flailing and unpopular, smacked down by the electorate in the midterms, lacking capital and prospects, and no longer relevant with the 2016 race already on the horizon? That was last week's narrative; this week Obama is the comeback kid.
President Obama emerged from last week's midterm election rejected by voters, hobbled politically and doomed to a final two years in office suffering from early lame-duck syndrome. That, at least, was the consensus in both parties. No one seems to have told Mr. Obama.
In the 10 days since "we got beat," as he put it, by Republicans who captured the Senate and bolstered control over the House, Mr. Obama has flexed his muscles on immigration, climate change and the Internet, demonstrating that he still aspires to enact sweeping policies that could help define his legacy.
Last week, President Barack Obama's party took a beating in the midterm elections, but this week there's already some swagger returning to his step.
Obama's landmark deal with China to cut greenhouse gas emissions, announced Wednesday, is a move that, the White House feels, shows just how much the president can do without Congress.... As Obama trumpeted the climate deal during a news conference here, he didn't sound much like a president who just got his hat handed to him back home.
There's been no shortage of provocative political rhetoric on immigration policy, but one quote yesterday stood out for me. In context, the comment came from a congressman opposed to President Obama's likely executive actions.
"He will make the issue absolutely toxic for a decade," Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., said Thursday.
Norm Ornstein joked in response, "From the lovefest it's been for the past decade."
It's an important point. I've seen some suggestions in recent years that congressional Republicans refuse to consider immigration reform -- in any form -- because they're reflexively opposed to giving Obama a "win." If GOP lawmakers simply say no to everything, including ideas they support, the president will have fewer accomplishments, the public will grow angrier by Washington dysfunction, and maybe Republicans will benefit.
And while there may be something to this, I don't think the argument fully captures a more basic truth: Republicans really don't like immigration reform.
In recent years, Republican critics of the Affordable Care Act have insisted that "Obamacare" would send premiums soaring. Even after all of the GOP's other talking points were discredited or abandoned, the right hoped higher premiums would be the key failure that helped undermine the U.S. system.
Reality just doesn't seem to be in a cooperative mood. There was some preliminary evidence that the ACA was helping keep premiums in check, and as Margot Sanger-Katz reports, the new data is even more encouraging.
Early evidence suggests that competition in the new Affordable Care Act marketplaces is working. Health insurance premiums in major cities around the country are barely rising.
That's the conclusion of two studies of data about newly public insurance rates. One, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research group, looked at 49 cities and found that prices for a popular type of plan are actually going down, on average. A second, from the actuarial firm Wakely Consulting Group, looked at the largest county in each of the 34 states with marketplaces run by the federal government and found an average rate increase of zero.
Decreases in the price of health insurance are basically unheard-of.
Indeed, before "Obamacare," consumers routinely faced annual premium increases. The question wasn't whether the cost would go up, but rather, how much. But the ACA model is succeeding even more than expected.
In fairness, it's worth noting that we're looking at averages across a vast marketplace, and some consumers will benefit more than others. The Affordable Care Act is having a positive impact, but if you look hard enough, it's possible to find some pockets where premium increases are higher.
But as Sanger-Katz added, "[I]f you take out the outliers on either side ... most of the rates are either single-digit increases or single-digit decreases, moderate changes for health insurance."
That's not only amazing, it's the polar opposite of what Republicans predicted. What's more, it's not the only good news.
To hear Republicans tell it, the outrage about President Obama's likely executive actions on immigration is less about the policy and more about the legal principles. Presidents, the argument goes, simply aren't supposed to shape immigration policy unilaterally -- such actions are unprecedented, unconstitutional, and at odds with the American tradition.
The trouble, of course, is that if Obama does take policy steps on his own, he won't be blazing a new trail; he'll be following a trail that already exists. Mark Noferi had an interesting piece last week on some of this president's recent predecessors.
The story begins on November 6, 1986, when Reagan signed the last comprehensive legalization bill to pass Congress. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) gave up to 3 million unauthorized immigrants a path to legalization if they had been "continuously" present in the U.S. since January 1, 1982. But the new law excluded their spouses and children who didn't qualify. As the Senate Judiciary Committee stated at the time, "the families of legalized aliens ... will be required to 'wait in line'."
Immediately, these split-eligibility families became the most polarizing national immigration issue. U.S. Catholic bishops criticized the government's "separation of families," especially given Reagan's other pro-family stances. In early 1987, members of Congress introduced legislation to legalize family members, but without success.
When Congress failed to act, the Reagan administration decided to change the policy on its own, announcing that federal law enforcement would use its "discretion" and extend protections against deportations. And at that point, congressional Republicans condemned Reagan's outrageous and dangerous abuses, calling for his immediate impeachment.
Wait, actually that never happened. My mistake.
A few years later, the Bush/Quayle administration pursued its own executive actions on immigration -- again, without Congress -- concluding that the law should be enforced "humanely" and without splitting up families.