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Monday's Mini-Report, 10.26.15

10/26/15 05:30PM

Today’s edition of quick hits:
* Deadly earthquake: "A magnitude-7.5 earthquake hit northeastern Afghanistan on Monday, killing more than 150 people there and in neighboring Pakistan and flattening at least 1,400 buildings."
* More on this tomorrow: "Congressional leaders and the Obama administration are close to a crucial budget deal that would modestly increase domestic spending over the next two years and raise the federal borrowing limit."
* Keep an eye on this one: "Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications, raising concerns among some American military and intelligence officials that the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict."
* Dear Fed, don't raise rates: "Quarterly profits and revenue at big American companies are poised to decline for the first time since the recession, as some industrial firms warn of a pullback in spending."
* Testing: "President Barack Obama called for limiting the amount of time students are taking standardized tests and unveiled new guidelines that his administration would use to help schools across to administer more meaningful exams on Saturday."
* Important research: "An examination of traffic stops and arrests in Greensboro, N.C., uncovered wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct."
* Speaking of law enforcement, I wonder if Comey can substantiate this: "The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said on Friday that the additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive."
* The right-wing House Freedom Caucus members are under fire from the even-further-right members of the GOP base for supporting Paul Ryan's ascension to Speaker.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop at the Burlington Memorial Auditorium, Oct. 21, 2015, in Burlington, Ia. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Dear Mr. Trump, $1 million from Dad is not a 'small loan'

10/26/15 04:24PM

One of the quintessential moments of the 2012 presidential campaign came at a Mitt Romney event in Elk Grove, Illinois, where the candidate was praising “the entrepreneurial spirit.” The Republican specifically talked about Jim Liautaud, who struggled in school, but who borrowed some money from his father, created a sandwich business, and ended up with 1,200 Jimmy John restaurants across this country.
For Romney, this was clear proof that Americans "don't need the government" to get ahead. Individuals, the Republican said, simply need to "look to themselves and say, ‘What can I do to make myself better?’”
The part of the story that Romney conveniently overlooked is the fact that the hero of the tale succeeded because he had a father with money to invest. Others may also have "the entrepreneurial spirit," but if they come from a struggling family, living paycheck to paycheck, it doesn't much matter if they "look to themselves and say, ‘What can I do to make myself better?’” They won't have the seed money to start their own enterprises and pursue their own ventures.
It was a tone-deaf moment for the GOP presidential candidate, which, three years later, another Republican candidate has taken to an even more absurd level.
During a town hall on NBC’s “TODAY” on Monday, a woman asked the Republican presidential front-runner if he had ever been told “no.” Trump responded at the event in Atkinson, N.H., “Oh many times,” adding, “My whole life, really, has been a ‘no.’”
“It has not been easy for me. I started off in Brooklyn. My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars,” explained the billionaire real estate mogul. “I came to Manhattan and I had to pay him back. I had to pay him back with interest. But I came into Manhattan and I started buying properties and I did great.”
It fell to Matt Lauer to remind the frontrunner for the Republican nomination that a seven-figure loan may be out of reach for most of Americans. Trump replied, “You’re right. But a million dollars isn’t very much compared to what I’ve built.”
And while that's true, it badly misses the point.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits on April 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Rubio struggles in Senate, but wants a promotion

10/26/15 01:06PM

It's not exactly a secret that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) doesn't show up for work much anymore. Even among sitting senators running for president, the far-right Floridian just doesn't make an effort to keep up appearances on Capitol Hill.
Part of this, of course, is the result of his campaign schedule, but part of it also relates to the fact that Rubio appears to dislike his job quite a bit. The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold has a terrific piece on this today.
Five years ago, Rubio arrived with a potential that thrilled Republicans. He was young, ambitious, charismatic, fluent in English and Spanish, and beloved by the establishment and the tea party.
But Rubio had arrived at one of the least ambitious moments in Senate history and saw many of his ideas fizzle. Democrats killed his debt-cutting plans. Republicans killed his immigration reform. The two parties actually came together to kill his AGREE Act, a small-bore, hands-across-the-aisle bill that Rubio had designed just to get a win on something.
Now, he’s done. “He hates it,” a longtime friend from Florida said, speaking anonymously to say what Rubio would not.
It's entirely possible, of course, that Republican primary voters won't care. If much of the GOP base is enthralled by a blowhard New York land developer and an unhinged retired neurosurgeon, there's no reason to think they'd balk at a senator who's had an unsuccessful, five-year tenure.
But for a mainstream audience, the fact that Rubio effectively wasted his Capitol Hill career, achieving practically nothing despite all the promise and hype, isn't much of a selling point.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 10.26.15

10/26/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* Hillary Clinton has picked up an endorsement from AFSCME, the nation's largest public-sector union. Two-thirds of AFSCME's executive board voted to back Clinton over her rivals.
* The hour after last week's Benghazi hearing ended was the best hour for Clinton campaign fundraising all year. (Democratic officials really ought to send congressional Republicans a thank-you note.)
* Though Bernie Sanders has generally sworn off criticisms of his rivals, the Vermont senator delivered pointed remarks to Iowa Democrats over the weekend. Though the Independent didn't call out Clinton by name, Sanders made not-so-subtle jabs at the frontrunner on a variety of issues.
* As hard as this may be to believe, a national Associated Press-GfK poll found that 70% of Republican voters consider Donald Trump the party's best candidate for the general election.
* Ben Carson wants protection from the Secret Service because, according to him, "I’m in great danger because I challenge the secular progressive movement to the very core."
* Speaking of the retired right-wing neurosurgeon, Carson also hopes to buck the bipartisan trend and, if elected, would "intensify" the so-called "war on drugs."
* For months, Trump has been touting his lead in national surveys, but confronted with new polls showing him falling to second place in Iowa, Trump said over the weekend, “I honestly think those polls are wrong."
* In a bit of a surprise, it turns out Marco Rubio's presidential campaign has not yet opened an office in South Carolina, a decision that's "perplexing" some local observers.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on April 16, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty)

GOP creates a mess it doesn't know how to clean up

10/26/15 11:21AM

According to the Treasury Department's most recent written warning to Congress, the nation's debt ceiling needs to be raised by Nov. 3, which is just one week from tomorrow. Republican leaders know they'll have to do the right thing fairly soon -- sometime over the next eight days -- but they have no idea how.
House Republicans thought they had a plan. The strategy called for passing a right-wing plan, called the “Terms of Credit Act,” on Friday, tying the debt-limit increase to a series of conservative goodies that GOP lawmakers couldn't get through actual legislating.
That plan, however, was scrapped late last week when House Republicans decided it wasn't good enough. Some GOP members wanted it to go further; some didn't like the fact that the bill was bypassing the committee process; while others didn't see the point in wasting time on a bill that would die in the Senate soon after.
With Republican leaders once again discovering that their own members don't like their own party's bill, House Speaker John Boehner and his team have no choice but to move to their backup plan. Except, at this point, no one knows what that looks like. Politico reported, "Congress has a debt-ceiling problem again. A big one."
Boehner, McCarthy and other GOP leaders are refusing at this point to move ahead with a "clean" debt ceiling bill insisted on by President Barack Obama. Senior leadership aides said they couldn't find the 30 Republican votes needed to join with all 188 Democrats to pass that proposal -- a bleak indication of the current state of play.
This is roughly the point where some anxiety starts to kick in.
Democrats won't negotiate with those who threaten to hurt the nation on purpose. Indeed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters last week, "Let me be clear, the full faith and credit of the United States of America is not negotiable." President Obama has been equally clear.
This means, of course, that Congress will have to do what it's been doing: pass a clean debt-ceiling bill with no strings attached by either party, except GOP leaders insist they don't have the votes do complete this basic task.
The question is whether or not anyone should actually believe them.
Image: Sam Brownback

Obama tops Brownback in ruby-red Kansas

10/26/15 10:40AM

Soon after getting elected in 2010, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) said he intended to launch an economic "experiment" built on massive tax breaks his state obviously couldn’t afford. The experiment failed miserably, and among Brownback's disastrous results include debt downgrades, weak growth, and state finances in shambles.
The Kansas City Star reported over the weekend that the state's voters appear to have noticed.
Lots of numbers in a new statewide survey of Kansas from Fort Hays State University, but here’s the stunner: Only 18 percent of state residents said they were “very” or “somewhat satisfied” with GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. Kansas, in case there’s any misunderstanding, is a heavily Republican state.
President Barack Obama, long a punching bag for Republicans, rated higher. Some 28 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with the Democratic chief executive.
You read that right: President Obama is woefully unpopular in one of the nation's most heavily Republican states, but Kansas' GOP governor is in even worse shape. (This is reminiscent of a Louisiana poll over the summer that found Obama more popular in the Pelican State than Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.)
The Topeka Capital-Journal quoted Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, describing Brownback's weak public support as "epic," adding that Brownback may very well be the least popular governor in Kansas history.
At a certain level, this is fairly easy to understand -- the scope of Brownback's failures are simply breathtaking. Then again, the governor's first term was a complete fiasco, too, and he nevertheless won re-election last year, despite running against a Democrat who enjoyed considerable GOP backing.
But there's also a larger, national context to this.
In this April 13, 2014 file photo, the Internal Revenue Service Headquarters (IRS) building is seen in Washington, D.C. (Photo by J. David Ake/AP)

The IRS 'scandal' is a scandal no more

10/26/15 10:00AM

By any fair measure, the IRS "scandal" evaporated quite a while ago. Right around the time we learned that the tax agency targeted groups on the left, right, and center over their tax-exempt status and political activities, the "controversy" that fascinated the political world for about a week in 2013 was rendered meaningless.
But with Republicans and reporters crying foul -- loudly -- the Justice Department launched a lengthy and thorough investigation. As the Washington Post reported, that probe is now over.
No criminal charges will be filed in the two-year investigation into whether any Internal Revenue Service officials, including Lois Lerner, committed crimes in connection with the handling of tax-exemption applications by conservative groups, the Justice Department announced Friday. [...]
[Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Peter J. Kadzik] said that the Justice Department’s criminal and civil rights divisions, working with the FBI and the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, conducted an “exhaustive probe,” interviewing more than 100 people, collecting more than 1 million pages of IRS documents, analyzing nearly 500 tax-exemption applications and examining the role and potential culpability of “scores of IRS employees.”
In a letter (pdf) to the House Judiciary Committee's leadership, the DOJ official explained, “Our investigation uncovered substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment and institutional inertia, leading to the belief by many tax-exempt applicants that the IRS targeted them based on their political viewpoints. But poor management is not a crime, We found no evidence that any IRS official acted on political, discriminatory, corrupt, or other inappropriate motives that would support a criminal prosecution.”
The same letter added, “We also found no evidence that any official involved in the handling of tax-exempt applications or IRS leadership attempted to obstruct justice."
The investigation, which turned up nothing, cost American taxpayers roughly $20 million, leads to two broader questions.
Senator David Vitter leaves the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 7, 2015. (Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Louisiana's gubernatorial race takes an unexpected turn

10/26/15 09:20AM

When Sen. David Vitter (R) kicked off his gubernatorial campaign in Louisiana, he was labeled the frontrunner by nearly everyone. The far-right senator has already won statewide races; he's an effective fundraiser; and he has near-universal name recognition in his home state.
But Vitter's road to Baton Rouge isn't as smooth as he'd hoped.
Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter survived challenges Saturday from two GOP rivals who called his years-old prostitution scandal a stain on Louisiana, reaching a runoff against Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards in the governor’s race. [...]
While Edwards always seemed assured of a runoff spot, Vitter bested two other major Republicans to secure his position on the November ballot, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
For those unfamiliar with Louisiana's unique election system, it relies on what's called a "jungle primary." Every candidate runs on the same ballot at the same time -- separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans do not exist -- which generally means multiple contenders from both parties. If no one wins 50% of the vote, the top two candidates advance to a one-on-one runoff.
In this case, John Bel Edwards (D), a state legislative leader, attorney, and retired Army Ranger, earned about 40% of the vote and finished first. Vitter was the top Republican, though he only managed to win 23% of the vote.
In fairness, Vitter faced more competitive intra-party rivals, but when the race got underway months ago, the idea of Vitter getting a mere 23% and struggling to make the Nov. 21 runoff seemed far-fetched. And yet, here we are.
While the results are interesting enough, let's also not forget that as the state's gubernatorial race -- one of only three gubernatorial races held in 2015 -- moves into its final phase, it keeps getting weirder.
Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson speaks to the crowd at the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum Sept. 18, 2015 in Greenville, S.C. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty)

Carson sketches out plan for monitoring on-campus speech

10/26/15 08:40AM

Choosing the single nuttiest part of Ben Carson's Republican presidential platform is incredibly challenging -- there are just so many options to choose from. Just over the weekend, the competitive GOP candidate talked about scrapping Medicare, compared abortion to slavery, and tried to defend his frequent Nazi references.
But if we're ranking the most ridiculous recommendations, Carson's plans to "monitor" political speech on college campuses has to be near the top.
To briefly recap, the retired right-wing neurosurgeon argued last week that he doesn't want to shut down the federal Department of Education; he'd prefer to turn it into an investigatory body in which it would "monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias." If a Carson administration decided it disapproved of the "extreme" political speech on a university campus, the school would lose its federal funding.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Chuck Todd tried to pin Carson down on this bizarre plan. The GOP candidate -- currently, a top tier contender -- insisted, "This is not just spouting off; I’ve thought about this." What a relief.
CARSON: The way that works is you invite students at the universities to send in their complaints, and then you investigate. For instance, there was a university -- I'm sure you've heard of the situation -- where, you know, the professor told everybody, "Take out a piece of paper and write the name 'Jesus' on it. Put in on the floor and stomp on it." And one student refused to do that and was disciplined severely. You know, he subsequently was able to be reinstated--
TODD: We're not violating the First Amendment? How is what you're advocating not a violation of the First Amendment?
CARSON: It's not a violation of the First Amendment, because all I'm saying is taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. It shouldn't be.
Reminded that Carson's definition of "propaganda" might look like "free speech" to others, the Republican replied, in a bit of a non-sequitur, "Well, that's why I said we're going to have the students send in. And we will investigate."
In other words, Ben Carson envisions a system in which students report professors to government authorities, who will launch investigations to determine whether the scholars' lesson plans meet with a Republican administration's speech standards. Schools that fall short will face punishment.
No, this doesn't sound like an authoritarian approach to higher-education at all. Why do you ask?
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush listens to a question during an interview at Nonie's Restaurant in Peterborough, NH., Oct. 13, 2015. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Jeb Bush takes his campaign to 'Blah blah blah' territory

10/26/15 08:03AM

It's not exactly a secret that Jeb Bush's path to the Republicans' presidential nomination has run into unexpected obstacles. Facing underwhelming fundraising totals, lackluster standing in polls, and increasingly public hand-wringing from the GOP establishment, the former governor's standing recently reached new lows.
Addressing his many troubles at a campaign event in New Hampshire over the weekend, Jeb Bush said, “Blah blah blah blah, that’s my answer, blah blah blah.”
Note, that's not my rude interpretation of a more substantive answer. That's literally what Bush said, as my colleague Will Femia reported.
But that's not all he said.
“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done,” Mr. Bush said, then “I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to be elected president to sit around and see gridlock just become so dominant that people literally are in decline in their lives. That is not my motivation.”
He added, “I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”
At different times in recent months, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have suggested they don't much care for the process of running for president. It's grueling, tiresome, and draining.
But no one seems quite as miserable as Jeb Bush.

Trump v. Carson and other headlines

10/26/15 08:02AM

Trump questions Carson's Seventh-Day Adventist faith. (Washington Post)

Despite what Trump tweeted, Ford still building a massive plant in Mexico. (Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton accused of revising history on DOMA. (Bloomberg Politics)

Joe Biden explains why he didn't run. (New York Magazine)

GOP tries to head of Sharron Angle senate bid. (Politico)

Strong earthquake in Afghanistan shakes region. (AP)

Lenin statue in Ukraine turned into Darth Vader. (New York Times)

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Yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus)

Week in Geek: Avian vampires edition

10/25/15 01:43PM

Your choice of vampire Halloween costumes just got more interesting: vampire birds are a thing and they sound kind of terrifying.

With the exception of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," I can really think of any other instances where smaller, everyday birds are painted as the terrifying predator. But now that I've learned about vampire finches and oxpeckers, I might never look at my backyard the same.

Let's start with the vampire finches first. They are flying bloodsuckers with razor sharp beaks which they use to stab the necks of their victims so they can quench their evil thirsts. Vampire finches actually feed mostly on OTHER BIRDS that for some reason let them. Luckily they can only be found in the Galapagos Islands (for now), but they don't sound like anything I'd want migrating towards the mainland anytime soon.

And now the oxpeckers. These equally smallish birds inhabit deserts and seem just as nefarious as their island brethren. Scientists used to think oxpeckers had more of a mutual relationship with other species; namely they would hang around herds of savannah mammals and eat their ticks and parasites. However, it turns out they don't always stop pecking after consuming the external pest, but they continue to peck away at the host itself.

To learn more about these terrifying species and watch a video of oxpeckers going to town on a giraffe, check out this piece by Jason Bittel.

Here are some more geek from the week:

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Florida Senator Marco Rubio, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Donald Trump on the stage  in the Republican presidential primary debate, Aug. 6, 2015. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

This Week in God, 10.24.15

10/24/15 08:29AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an alarming quote from the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, who thinks it may be possible for the United States government to close houses of worship, the First Amendment notwithstanding.
Mother Jones reported this week on Donald Trump exploring the limits of his anti-ISIS strategy, when he raised the possibility of unprecedented action.
In an interview on Fox Business, host Stuart Varney asked Trump whether, if elected president, he would follow the anti-ISIS lead of the British government, which has revoked the passports of people who traveled to fight alongside extremists, and has planned to close mosques that are "used to host extremist meetings or speakers."
"I would do that, absolutely, I think it's great," Trump responded. Varney pressed Trump on whether he even could close a mosque, citing religious freedom as a possible roadblock.
Trump conceded he wasn't sure, but he was open to the possibility. "It depends, if the mosque is, you know, loaded for bear, I don't know," the GOP candidate said during the on-air interview. "You're going to have to certainly look at it."
An official for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a written statement, explaining, "Donald Trump's apparent willingness to close down American mosques that he deems 'extreme' is totally incompatible with the Constitution and our nation's cherished principles of religious freedom."
CAIR's statement has the benefit of accuracy, though Trump was not without supporters. American Family Radio’s Bryan Fischer told his audience this week that the First Amendment only protects Christians -- a constitutional interpretation with no foundation in reality -- which in Fischer's mind means a Trump administration "can constitutionally close down mosques in the United States of America.”
First, reality and constitutional law appear to point in a very different direction. Second, when this election cycle eventually ends, and we take stock of the degree to which some candidates relied on anti-Islam messages to advance their ambitions, keep this incident in mind.
Also from the God Machine this week:


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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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