By most measures, last week featured the start of two of the biggest, most important political debates of the year: (1) whether religious liberty includes the right to discriminate against LGBT consumers; and (2) an international agreement on Iran's nuclear program.
Both developments quickly became litmus-test issues for the Republicans running for the White House, and one by one, each weighed in on the subjects. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an unannounced presidential hopeful, was the only one to say literally nothing.
Asked for comment, Paul's spokesperson would only say, "The Senator is out of pocket with family this week and has not weighed in at this time."
At a certain level, it's hard to blame the guy. The Kentucky Republican is formally launching his national bid tomorrow, so it's hardly outrageous that he wanted a week of downtime before the start of a grueling process that, whether he's successful or not, will take a minimum of a year. Paul could have had aides write up brief statements, taking a side on the major issues of the day, but the senator and his team took a pass, remaining silent and rejecting opportunities to comment.
Despite the Paul camp's avowal of reticence in the week leading up to his announcement, in a story published in Politico on Wednesday afternoon, an anonymous Paul aide was quoted affirming the senator's support for a bill backed by the ethanol industry -- an influential lobbying bloc in Iowa.
The basic framework for an international agreement on Iran's nuclear program is in place. Looking ahead, the principal challenge seems daunting enough: over the next three months of negotiations, the United States, our allies, and our negotiating partners will try to finalize a detailed package, effectively adding meat to the bones.
And to be sure, this phase will include its own difficulties, which may derail the entire effort. But far from the negotiating table, it's important to never underestimate the capacity of the United States Congress to turn a good situation into a bad one.
For most independent experts, assessments of the preliminary framework tend to range from good to surprisingly good to astonishingly good. Among congressional Republicans, those parameters vary from bad to "Neville Chamberlain" to oh-God-oh-God-we're-all-going-to-die levels of opposition.
The question, however, is not what GOP lawmakers intend to do; the now infamous "Iran letter" from 47 Senate Republicans already makes clear just how far the congressional majority will go to sabotage American foreign policy. Rather, the pressing matter at hand is whether Democrats will help the Republicans' sabotage campaign. Politicoreported late Friday:
Despite the White House's strong push to rally its congressional allies behind an Iran deal, Senate Republicans think they're close to having enough Democratic support to move forward with a bill that would give lawmakers the final say over any nuclear agreement with Tehran, according to interviews with key members of Congress.
But that Democratic support likely comes with a cost, members said. Many Democrats are demanding that the measure be amended so it doesn't kill the deal before it can be finalized by a June 30 deadline.
Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, seemed to sum up the views of many on Capitol Hill when Politico asked if he still supports the pending bill. "'Yes, but...' is my answer," he said.
It's worth understanding exactly what this bill is all about.
First up from the God Machine this week is an idea out of Arizona that's so foreign to the American tradition, it's tempting to think it's satirical -- but it's not.
The Arizona Republic's EJ Montini highlighted remarks from state Sen. Sylvia Allen (R), who apparently grew frustrated during a debate on a concealed-weapons measure.
Allen said, "Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth," adding "that would never be allowed."
She hinted that guns in public buildings might be necessary until there is a moral rebirth. "I believe what's happening to our country is that there's a moral erosion of the soul of America," she said.
Allen later told the Arizona Capitol Times that she wished things were more like they were in the 1950s.
The GOP lawmaker, reflecting on the bygone era, added, "People prayed, people went to church. I remember on Sundays the stores were closed. The biggest thing is religion was kicked out of our public places, out of our schools."
As Right Wing Watch noted for context, Allen is a longtime activist in the religious right movement who once "defended uranium mining in her state by insisting that the earth is a mere 6,000-years-old."
Allen did concede that the idea state-mandated church attendance would "never happen," but it's worth emphasizing that it could never happen under our system of government. As Simon Brown explained this week, "The First Amendment clearly prohibits any sort of required church attendance, and Allen's idea is exactly the sort of thing the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent when they drafted the Constitution."
Locally, Allen has a reputation as a Tea Partier who supports limited government. The irony, given her recent rhetoric, is rich.
Steve Kornacki reports on how a group of monks in Iraq are preserving ancient and historic manuscripts at an undisclosed location to keep precious pieces of history out of the destructive path of ISIS. watch
Steve Kornacki talks to Washington editor-at-large at the Atlantic Steve Clemons about the reception to the nuclear agreement reached with Iran, and how the Obama administration is pushing to get Congress on board before they work to undo the deal. watch
Steve Kornacki talks to New York Times political reporter Nick Confessore about how republican presidential candidates have voiced support for the religious freedom bill in Indiana, and whether it will help or hinder their bid for the White House. watch
* The day after in Kenya: "Rescuers removed bodies of students from college dormitories in this town in eastern Kenya on Friday and airlifted injured survivors to the capital, one day after al-Shabab Islamist militants stormed the dorms and killed at least 147 people, most of them sleeping college students."
* Iran: "As word made its way around the globe that an understanding had been reached with the United States and other powers to limit Iran's nuclear program, Iranians themselves greeted the news with optimism and skepticism on Friday. While the political climate remained uncertain, the government was allowed to promote the deal at Friday Prayer, a sign that the plan was broadly supported by Iran's establishment."
* This may not be a constructive demand right now: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that Iranian recognition of Israel's right to exist be written into an emerging nuclear deal, as he convened top officials for talks on Friday."
* President Obama today launched "a new initiative to expand the nation's solar industry workforce during a visit to Utah's Hill Air Force Base.... The Energy Department will seek to train 75,000 people -- including veterans -- to enter the solar workforce by 2020, increasing the goal it set in May 2014 by 25,000."
* Ferguson: "City officials in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday evening released the full, unredacted content of racially charged and religiously insensitive e-mails sent by the city's former court clerk as well as two former supervisors in the police department."
* Arizona's step backwards: "While other places have turned to bans and fees to discourage the use of plastic bags, Arizona is headed in a different direction. On Thursday, the State Legislature here sent a bill to the governor that would ban the bans."
* Quite a scene in Maine: "Gov. Paul LePage's town hall-style forum came to a chaotic end Thursday night when a former Democratic state lawmaker was hauled away by state police after she angrily confronted the governor, shouting that his budget proposals were harming low-income Mainers."
For the most part, commentary and analysis of the preliminary nuclear deal with Iran falls along predictable lines. On the one hand, we see President Obama's policy backed by the American mainstream, many congressional Democrats, a variety of foreign policy experts, and most of our allies.
On the other hand, we see congressional Republicans, their media allies, and prominent neoconservative voices.
But to assume that every conservative is outraged by the framework that blocks Iran's nuclear-weapons program isn't quite right. Just minutes after the president wrapped up his remarks, for example, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly offered tacit support for the administration's approach. "You don't want a war with Iran," the Fox host said, adding, "[I]f you can get something that's decent, you give it a shot. I think that's a legitimate point."
Gen. Michael Hayden, President George W. Bush's director of the NSA and CIA, told Fox News on Friday morning that he was "heartened" by the tentative deal the Obama administration and its international partners have reached with Iran in an effort to contain its nuclear program.
"In terms of what it is we think we know, I have not yet found anything in the contract, so to speak, that I find disqualifying," Hayden said. "It's more than I thought we would demand, so in that sense I'm heartened."
In fairness, Hayden did not explicitly endorse the framework, and he acknowledged the details that still need to be worked out, but the former NSA and CIA director also said "there are no good alternatives" to the White House's diplomatic approach. "I'm willing to give this thing some time," Hayden concluded.
Haaretz, a major, left-leaning Israeli newspaper, ran a piece this morning that said even Benjamin Netanyahu and his administration "will have a hard time fighting this agreement, or portraying it as bad."
We're still a year and a half from the next Election Day, but there's already quite a bit of chatter of "legacies" in the air. Politico, for example, yesterday said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) "came to power envisioning shrinking government and slashing budgets, but foreign policy has emerged as a central element of his legacy."
A day later, I'm still not sure what Politico was talking about. Boehner has never shown particular interest in, or demonstrated any knowledge of, international affairs, and after more than four years with the Speaker's gavel, the Ohio Republican has not contributed to American foreign policy in any constructive way. If this is a "central element" of Boehner's legacy, the Speaker's in big trouble.
Of course, after a preliminary international agreement was reached over Iran's nuclear program, interest quickly shifted to the White House. The New York Timesquoted Cliff Kupchan, described as an Iran specialist at a consulting firm, saying this about President Obama: "Right now, he has no foreign policy legacy. He's got a list of foreign policy failures. A deal with Iran and the ensuing transformation of politics in the Middle East would provide one of the more robust foreign policy legacies of any recent presidencies."
The second half of the sentiment is more compelling than the first. A sweeping international nuclear agreement with Iran would, to be sure, represent one of the more transformative foreign policy victories in a generation. But the notion that President Obama "has no foreign policy legacy" is highly dubious. Ryan Grim noted some of the notable recent breakthroughs:
The deal with Iran comes two months after Obama announced a warming of relations with Cuba, another longtime U.S. foe. [...]
In November, Obama, during a trip to China, surprised observers with a bilateral climate change deal that puts China on a path to reduced emissions. American opponents of acting to stave off climate change have long used China as a reason not to act, arguing that whatever the U.S. does will be overshadowed by the coal-heavy nation.
Breakthroughs on U.S. policy towards Iran and Cuba are themselves future entries in history books, and the progress on climate talks with China have the potential to be literally life-saving.
But as Obama's foreign policy legacy takes shape, the list of successes continues.
As observers around the world digest the details of the preliminary nuclear agreement with Iran, one of the striking aspects of the reactions is how pleasantly surprised some proponents are. There's a large contingent of experts saying this morning, "I was ready to live with an unsatisfying deal, but this is a bigger win for America than I could have imagined.
Fred Kaplan, for example, said the framework "turns out to be far more detailed, quantitative, and restrictive than anyone had expected." Max Fisher called the blueprint "astonishingly good," adding that it's "almost astoundingly favorable to the United States" and "far better than expected."
It's against this background that congressional Republicans screamed bloody murder. "Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in a statement.
Obviously, these are not the comments of someone who wants to be taken seriously by adults. Indeed, I can't help but wonder how many GOP critics already had their furious press releases -pre-written, waiting for an agreement to be announced, so they could start whining before reading it.
[T]he conservative case against the Iran deal is hard to take seriously because the right has made the same case against every major negotiation with an American adversary since World War II.
The right opposed every nonproliferation treaty with the Soviets. The right opposed Nixon going to China. The right condemned the SALT treaty and the START treaty.
As Peter Beinart explained a while back, Reagan and Clinton were both confronted with ugly Munich comparisons from far-right ideologues -- many of whom are literally the same people furious with Obama for curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions now.
This is no small detail. In fact, it's one of the more important aspects of the entire debate.
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:
* At least one likely presidential candidate had something positive to say about the international nuclear framework with Iran: Hillary Clinton called it an "important step," adding that while "the devil is always in the details" in such negotiations, "diplomacy deserves a chance to succeed."
* Ted Cruz isn't just the first White House hopeful to formally announce; he's also the first to hit the airwaves. The far-right senator has "reserved time during 'Killing Jesus,' a documentary-style adaptation of Bill O'Reilly's book that will run four times this weekend on Fox News." Team Cruz has also purchased airtime in all of the early primary and caucus states for Sunday -- during NBC's "A.D.: The Bible Continues."
* Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who's up for re-election next year, became the second Democratic senator to distance himself from Sen. Robert Menendez's (D-N.J.) financial support. Bennet said yesterday he'll donate to charities in Colorado the money he's received from Menendez's political action committee.
* Though Jeb Bush is arguably the GOP frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race, the new Quinnipiac poll shows the former governor with lukewarm support in his home state of Florida, and struggling even more in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
In recent years, Republicans have been preoccupied with a curious criticism of President Obama: under his leadership, the United States isn't as respected as it once was.
As a quantifiable matter, we know the argument is demonstrably wrong. As a political matter, I often wonder whether Republicans remember what it was like at the end of the Bush/Cheney era, when America's reputation had taken an actual, severe hit.
For quite a while, we were associated with torture and launching disastrous wars based on brazen lies. Our credibility and respect was suffering abroad in ways unseen in many years. It was not uncommon for Americans in the Bush/Cheney era to look for Canadian flags to sow onto backpacks for fear of having to defend Bush's failures and what he'd done to America's name. It was President Obama, fortunately, who helped turn the nation's reputation around.
But GOP presidential candidates continue to say the opposite. Jeb Bush, for example, routinely complains that America has "lost the trust and confidence of our friends." Scott Walker and Donald Trump recently commiserated over "how poorly" the United States is "perceived throughout the world."
It's against this backdrop that many of these same presidential candidates seem desperate to infuriate America's allies and ignore our international commitments. Greg Sargent yesterday flagged a radio interview with Scott Walker, in which he was asked about the preliminary nuclear agreement with Iran.
HOST: You have said that you would cancel any Iranian deal the Obama administration makes. Now would you cancel that even if our trading partners did not want to re-impose the sanctions?
Last year, the climate crisis left congressional Republicans in an awkward position. If GOP lawmakers accepted the science, they'd have to do something to deal with the catastrophe, and they simply didn't want to. If GOP lawmakers denied the science, they'd look like fools.
So they eagerly embraced a poll-tested dodge: "I'm not a scientist." It was a convenient way to avoid any responsibility at all. It was also a cowardly and ridiculous posture that exacerbates a crisis that continues to intensify.
Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Republicans can't seem to stick to their own position on willful ignorance. Consider, for example, the GOP senators who this week began pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to justify its climate models in more detail.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote the letter after a March hearing at which he challenged EPA head Gina McCarthy to answer specific questions about whether the models her agency uses have correctly predicted various climate events.
"Although questions regarding the impacts of climate change were clear and straightforward, none of the questions received direct answers, and many responses contained caveats and conditions," Sessions wrote in the Wednesday letter, which was also signed by Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), all members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which hosted the hearing.
I understand the basic point of the letter. The four far-right senators want to compare previous EPA projections against actual climate results. If there are inconsistencies -- for example, if global warming proved to be even worse than previously believed -- the Republican lawmakers will conclude that the EPA models are unreliable and a poor basis for future policymaking.
But all of this is predicated on a bizarre assumption the senators themselves don't believe: they're willing to consider legitimate evidence and shape public policy accordingly.
Or put another way, why would Sessions, Inhofe, Wicker, and Barrasso even ask the question to the EPA when the EPA's answer won't make any difference with them?
Exactly one week after signing a controversial discrimination measure into law, and touching off a week of national controversy, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a new bill yesterday intended to bring some clarity to the debate.
Indiana's Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a proposed fix to the week-old Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) on Thursday amid uncertainty as to whether the move would ease intense criticism plaguing the Hoosier State.
"There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, 'What is best for Indiana?'" Pence said in a statement.
The announcement in Indiana coincided with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signing a scaled-back version of a related right-to-discriminate proposal.
There tends to be a trajectory to stories like these. There's an action, followed by a backlash, followed by a weak defense, followed by a resolution. Pence signed a bad bill into law, which quickly turned into a fiasco. The governor said he wouldn't change the law, then he changed his mind, and it's likely the political world will now start to move on, satisfied that a wrong has been corrected.
But in this case, that's arguably a shame, not because there's value in belaboring the point, but because the "fix" in Indiana is not a genuine resolution.
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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